Sometimes in business — as in life — the old flame returns and the affair reignites. Danny O'Donnell's longstanding heartthrob is Fiat, the Italian automaker, which is returning to the U.S. as part of its alliance with Detroit-based Chrysler.
Fiat pulled out of the U.S. market in 1982. Its exodus left thousands of car owners scouring the country for parts for their Mirafioris, Spiders and X1/9s.
Since then, O'Donnell, owner of Fun Imported Auto and Toys (FIAT), is among a handful of parts dealers nationwide that have filled the void, selling new and used Fiat parts.
In the late 1970s, while working for someone else, O'Donnell began selling Fiat parts through the classifieds. Three decades later, his business occupies a warehouse the size of a supermarket. Under its 14-foot ceilings, stacked to the hilt are Fiat, Lancia and other Italian auto parts, many still in their original boxes. Above a single auto bay that holds four tiny, 1960s-era Fiats, tailpipes and mufflers snake along a trellis of two-by-fours.
"I know where everything is," O'Donnell said.
Instantly he can recall hundreds of Fiat's original seven- and eight-digit part numbers by heart — in fact, he doesn't even use a computer to run the business.
When someone needs a new, still-in-the box hood hinge for a 1977 Fiat 124, (part number 1903002) — they call O'Donnell. When a customer in the midst of restoring a 1958 Fiat 600 Multipla — a prototype for the minivan — needs a new transmission, they call O'Donnell.
"Danny has more Fiat parts than I've ever seen," said Mark Vaughn of Hamden, a customer and the former owner of a 1977 Fiat Spider.
What he can't find stateside, O'Donnell imports. "I get containers four times a year full of Fiat parts, and regular shipments every other week," he said. Occasionally, he picks up a few non-Italian items as well, including a 1988 GVL Yugo owner's manual still in its original plastic sleeve.
Ask about revenue and O'Donnell will only say that his privately owned business keeps him in cars and work clothes, and the Pepsis he sips all day.
Before Fiat's 1982 departure, the Italian beauty had a temperamental reputation. For disgruntled American owners, the brand name came to be an acronym for "Fix It Again, Tony."
"Like every other car company in the 1970s, it had its growing pains," O'Donnell said in the carmaker's defense. "Fiat is a leader in diesel engine technology. It's a leader in assembly line technology. It's going to bring that technology to Chrysler."
O'Donnell has his eye on one of the new models. "I'm already saving up. I want a Fiat 500 diesel," he said.
About the size of the Mini-Cooper, the 500 is renowned for its fuel economy, he said. The gasoline version gets 55 miles per gallon, and the diesel model gets 70 mpg or more.
"Chrysler doesn't have any sub-compact cars. ... If Fiat brings the 500 in, it's going to be a big hit."
And O'Donnell said he isn't the least bit worried that the new generation of Fiat dealers will cut into his business.
"What's going to happen is that people looking for parts for their 1980 Spider are going to be calling the new Chrysler-Fiat dealers for parts, and they're going to be told that's old Fiat. And I'm old Fiat."