Dad and son out to revive banger for race

Robert Benn and son Nicol with The Puddle
Robert Benn and son Nicol with The Puddle
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IT has 79,000 miles on the clock, its tyres are torn and it has spent 18 years gathering dust in a barn.

But “The Puddle” – as the 1968 Fiat 500 is nicknamed – is Robert Benn’s dream car, and this summer he plans to take it to Le Mans for the seventh time.

Mr Benn, from Tranent, first made the trip to the 24-hour motor race in 1988 with friends, amazing other visitors with the stamina of the tiny two-cylinder vehicle and the gang of burly Scotsmen squeezed into it.

He made the front page of the Evening News in 1991 as he made preparations for his third trip along with two pals driving their own Fiats.

It was originally dubbed the “puddle jumper”, he said, “because I’d have to give advance warning, ‘puddle ahead’, because it would come in all the doors”.

He said of the trip to Le Mans: “I don’t race, it’s just a standard little car, and cars there are specially built for racing, so we only travel to watch the racing.

“But, as so many people travel down in unusual cars, it’s an excuse to get there. Everyone meets up, it’s like one big car meet.”

The driver/handyman for Windy Mains Timber estimates that the car has racked up around 1600 miles on each Le Mans trip with only minor mechanical problems – quite an achievement for the vehicle, which its owner describes as “kind of like a big motorbike”.

But since 1994 The Puddle has been mothballed, until last month when Mr Benn, 57, decided to get it back on the road and head back to Le Mans with his 19-year-old son, Nicol.

He said: “Every year I think, ‘Next year I’ll do this, I’ll get this fixed’. And every now and again I’d have a look and go ‘oh no’, and there were bits falling off and rotting.

“But my son’s mad on cars and he’s seen it and heard stories about the car, but he’s never been in it. I said, ‘It should really take a year to work on the car but I know, once I put a hand on it, I’ll want it done as quickly as possible. If you really help me, son, we’ll go to France in June’.”

After scouring for parts online, he has won the support of Weenie Fiats in Swindon, which has pledged to help him with some form of sponsorship or cut-price parts, and is determined to make it to Le Mans once more.

There may be an impressive bond between man and car, but it wasn’t always that way.

Mr Benn bought The Puddle almost by accident in 1979 for his wife, Marjorie, to learn to drive in. He had bumped into a friend who was trying to sell the car but needed the money – a princely £80 – by that night.

He said: “I didn’t go out of my way to buy it, it just happened. It was fate, I suppose.”

Before its trips to Le Mans, The Puddle had already taken the Benns on trips around Europe and North Africa, reaching the Sahara desert.

This year’s trip might not be quite as far, but it will be just as important to Mr Benn, who said: “To go in that car with my son would be just a dream come true.

“I’ve had offers to sell the car – in good condition they sell for £10,000 – but I would never part with it. I’ve had so many memories.”