In 1970, a group of young adventurers departed on board three Fiat 124 Specials to make an unprecedented trip from Cape Town to North Cape, organised by Fiat in collaboration with Italian motoring magazine Quattroruote. Our former colleague Riccardo Presotto, one of the protagonists, tells the story.
The highlight? There were lots of them. The most dangerous moment? At the Kariba Dam, during a break at the lakeside, when two members of the group, having recovered a makeshift boat, risked sinking in an area with hippopotamuses lurking nearby. The toughest moment? When we got the news that Uberto Bossi Pucci had passed away. The most exciting? Definitely when we arrived at our destination.
But first things first.
The man before us is Riccardo Presotto, a distinguished gentleman from Turin, resident in the Cuneo area for many years, and “born in Fiat”: an employee with more than a few stories to tell. He studied at the Edoardo Agnelli school in Turin, an institute strongly linked to the Turin manufacturer, which prepared the technicians of the future there. Riccardo was an outstanding student, one of the most brilliant, and he had the opportunity to cut his teeth in the world of automotive assistance. He began with the Fiat vehicles in the rallies, then joined the entourage of the Giro d’Italia and also worked in the so-called “holiday services”, spending 4 months patrolling a section of the Catania-Siracusa state road for technical support interventions.
One day, he was offered an opportunity that he couldn’t afford to miss: Amedeo of Savoy, Duke of Aosta, had decided to organise an ambitious motoring raid, from the far end of Africa to the northernmost point of Europe, and he was looking for a technician to assist the trio of vehicles involved in the feat, which would be provided by Fiat. Presotto had enough experience to jump at the chance! He had just turned 24 years old. The average age of the other young adventurers in the group put together by the Duke to tackle the long intercontinental journey was only slightly higher.
No sooner had he accepted, Riccardo immediately set to work preparing the cars, three Fiat 124 Specials.
Presotto believes that they had the right car for the job. Sturdy, simple and reliable. One of the last Fiat models with rear-wheel drive, it had a large boot - a must for holding spare parts and equipment - and low maintenance costs: characteristics that made it perfect for a route of 40,000 km.
Presotto and other specialised Fiat technicians modified the suspension, equipped the cars with an oil-bath air filter, and added a pair of extra headlights, underbody guards and rollbars for the cabin.
Once the vehicles were ready, it was time for Riccardo to meet the rest of the team. He confesses that he felt a little awkward. He, Riccardo, son of a working class family, now found himself in Fiesole, in the home of Duchess Irene of Greece and Denmark, preparing to meet her and, above all, her son, Amedeo, Duke of Aosta. In particular, he remembers the duchess with affection, who wrote a letter to his parents, complimenting them on their son’s good manners, and expressing her happiness that he would be the one to look after her beloved Amedeo during that tough journey.
In addition to the Duke of Aosta, who would lead the expedition, the team would include a group of the adventurous aristocrat’s friends: Tuscan-born Uberto Bossi Pucci and Roberto Vivarelli Colonna, official photographer of the expedition Costantino Ruspoli and journalist Vincenzo Bartone.
Organised by Fiat, the “Raid of the Two Capes” was sponsored by another two Italian companies, Fondiaria Assicurazioni and Cinzano, and followed by the motoring magazine Quattroruote, with journalists Clelia D’Onofrio and Giovanna Mazzocchi assigned to report on the grand adventure.
That year, 1970, Quattroruote dedicated two detailed articles to the ambitious raid: one shortly before the departure and one at the end. Between these, an unprecedented adventure unfolded.
The three Fiat 124 Specials left from Mirafiori, having been photographed with their respective teams on the famous testing track of the Turin plant. Once they got to Rome, the six participants embarked for Cape Town. From the harbour pier in Cape Town, the small Fiat convoy moved to Cape Point, the southernmost point of Africa, the place were the journey would really begin.
The date was 24 June 1970.
The pace was fast from day one: according to the roadmap, they would be travelling about 1000 km per day, stopping mostly in the main African capitals, where the teams could stay in hotels. If it was impossible to reach a city by nightfall, they would sleep in the cars, or in tents. Each car could rely on 120 litres of extra fuel in separate cans. And, from time to time, on the support of a Fiat Campagnola and a local mechanic.
The six travellers arrived in Zambia from Zimbabwe and stopped in a small village. By a strange twist of fate, in that village, lost in the middle of nowhere, Presotto bumped into a former Agnelli school friend. He too, after completing his studies, had begun his career in Fiat and a complex series of coincidences had led him to work right there.
Following this unexpected reunion, the convoy set off again towards Kenya. The section from Nairobi to Addis Ababa proved the trickiest, with the vehicles facing many obstacles: the desert crossing, in some cases on tracks not even marked on the maps, the scorching temperatures, a number of crossings that had collapsed and were therefore not accessible, unstable bridges with disconnected axes…
The teams also had their fair share of encounters with the local fauna, including a lion that crossed the road without warning, one of the vehicles running over a cheetah at night, and another one having its windscreen smashed by a low-flying eagle.
When they finally reached the Ethiopian border, having overcome a variety of problems, the travellers were blocked by the border police because they didn’t have entry visas. They couldn’t go back but they couldn’t go on either! They had no way of communicating with Italy, there were no hotels nearby, and, most of all, they didn’t have much food. They camped out in a small village where, by chance, they learned of a telegraph located several kilometres away. They struggled to get there, but once they did, they were soon back in touch with their homeland. After a forced stopover of five days, the problems with their paperwork were finally resolved and they set off again.
But crossing Ethiopia was not exactly a smooth ride either; the Moyale – Neghelle stage turned out to be the shortest but also the longest of the entire raid: travelling just 76 kilometres took an excruciating 18 hours, thanks to no less than eight flat tyres. But the group’s efforts were all worthwhile when they were invited to a magnificent reception in the imperial court: there the six young Italians were welcomed by Negus Hailè Selassié, who recalled the actions of Amedeo of Aosta – the expedition leader’s uncle, whose name he shared – nicknamed the “hero of Amba Alagi”.
Amba Alagi, a mountain about 3,000 metres high, had been the venue of a bloodbath during the Second World War: the Italian army involved in the 1941 battle had been led by Duke Amedeo of Aosta. A valid reason to climb the mountain, and pay tribute to the fallen soldiers of the Italo-Ethiopian War.
In Eritrea, the convoy had finished crossing Africa, and it was time to enter Asia. There, since they couldn’t cross Saudi Arabia by road for political reasons, the teams and the cars were loaded onto planes. Having flown over the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula, the trio of Fiat 124s took up the trail again in Iran, with a stop in Tehran.
After crossing the border with Turkey, the first - and fortunately only - serious mechanical problem of the whole trip cropped up. On the dirt road that connects Trabzon to Ankara, the hub of a front wheel broke on one of the cars. In those same hours, Amedeo of Aosta felt ill, and they needed to find a doctor. The group split up: one half set off to find treatment for the man, and the other half set about finding treatment for the car. In a short time, both the Duke and the damaged Fiat 124 were back on top form, and the group set off again, more determined than ever to reach North Cape.
From Istanbul they reached Thessaloniki in Greece and then proceeded towards Yugoslavia. To make up for lost time, the team crossed the two countries in one day.
Eventually they reached Trieste, the only Italian stop on the raid. Here Uberto Bossi Pucci decided to leave the expedition. After a night of celebrations and goodbyes, the remaining five participants set off again.
Although they were busy, the reliable European motorways felt like a dream compared to the African donkey trails. The teams crossed Germany quickly but on arriving in Hamburg, they were met with sad news: a few days after leaving the group, Uberto had planned one of his beloved scuba dives. Unfortunately, for reasons still unknown today, it would be his last. At that point, the teams considered abandoning the raid, feeling that it would be disrespectful to carry on. But maybe it would be even more disrespectful if they were to give up, and not write this new page in the great history book of motoring, so denying Uberto the mention he had earned. The five young men therefore decided to get back in their cars and set off again, but not before applying a sticker with the name of their late friend on the side of each vehicle.
The Scandinavian countries were a piece of cake: the trio of Fiat cars travelled the roads of Denmark, Sweden,Finland and Norway with ease, finally reaching their coveted destination: North Cape.
There, the fantastic sight of the midnight sun welcomed the three 124s, its red glow lighting up the wilderness of the island of Magerøya. The date was 14 August, 1970.
A month and a half on the road, three continents crossed, and over 40,000 km travelled for a feat that was, and still remains, memorable today half a century later. Two of the participants decided to return to Italy by air. So Presotto, Bartone and the unstoppable Duke Amedeo returned to Italy in the cars, driving one each.
They went from North Cape to Florence and then from Florence to Turin, where celebrations were held for the group and for the 124s, which had proved perfectly capable of getting the job done.
One of the three vehicles that took part in the raid belongs to the FCA Heritage collection and it is proudly displayed in the Heritage HUB, among the protagonists of the Epic Journeys themed area.