8 March 2011

Family Pet

Ken Becker’s seven kids helped him restore this 1948 Fiat Topolino, the “little mouse.”

Ken Becker grew up in the family auto repair and body shop business in Detroit. Following military service, in the mid-195 she landed a contract repairing Triumphs damaged in shipping. In the process, Ea tern Sports Cars became a foreign car repair center. One car that came in for bodywork in 1957 was a 1948 Fiat 500 Topolino (“little mouse” in Italian). When the owner left town, he slipped the title under the door.

Becker retrieved the interior from another shop and pushed the old Topolino — sans engine and transmission — into a corner as he tended a growing business and a growing family. Along the way, he also became a Fiat dealer and the father of seven.

About the time he began selling Fiats, Becker’s oldest son, Kent, joined the business. At various times, all four of his sons worked in the main shop, body shop and parts department, and his three daughters helped in the office.

Years later, prompted by a worsening neighborhood and Fiat’s withdrawal from the U.S., Ken Becker closed his doors and went to work for Autometric body shops, a chain based in the Detroit area.

Then he finally had time to revisit the tiny Fiat.

One of Becker’s first steps was to redeem the engine from “mechanical wizard” Paul Lazaros, who had rebuilt it for the former owner in the 1950s. Although the partially disassembled car didn’t look bad, Becker recalls that “the foot wells were rotted and the sills were very thin.” Master metal man Paul Ritter fabricated new panels, which Becker and second son, Jack, installed. He also sandblasted and painted the chassis before reassembling it with original hardware. Becker was able to borrow parts to duplicate those that were missing, though in the case of the transmission, he was lucky to find one in New York.

The car slowly took shape over the course
of the nine-year restoration. Kent helped with the mechanics, Jack assisted with metalwork, youngest son Barry helped with minor mechanical work and assembly, and third son Dan did the finish bodywork and paint. Meanwhile, middle daughter Suzie chased parts, youngest daughter Mary Kay — a seamstress — crafted the interior, and oldest daughter Karen made the pattern for the Mickey Mouse graphics, which her husband, Marshall, hand-painted.

Not only did Becker benefit from having lots of help, “It felt great to put my entire family to work,” he says. And, in a way, it’s only fitting that all seven kids tended to the Fiat, considering that Fiat sales and service provided for the Becker family for so many years.

Becker and his wife, Ruth Ann, drive the 16.5-horsepower Fiat to collector shows, where the bright red Topolino looks terrific and is an incredible crowd pleaser.

Becker admits he finds it “a little scary” to drive the car in traffic, but he loves it just the same.

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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Spring 2011 issue of Hagerty magazine

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