Agnelli's one-off Fiat 130 station wagon

Italian mogul Gianni Agnelli kept this one-off Fiat 130 Villa d'Este at his St Moritz ski resort. Now it's owned by collector Corrado Lopresto

Agnelli's one-off Fiat 130 station wagon

I can't believe I am actually looking at this car. Its provenance and life are shrouded in the kind of mystery so typical of Italy, where nothing is really quite true. It seems slightly weird to us in this digital age that there may be aspects of a car's history that even club discussion forums and websites do not agree on. I have seen grown men lose their temper when discussing the number of these cars actually built, but perhaps it is really irrelevant in the same manner as the accusation that Luciano Pavarotti could not read music: if so, so what?

It is an unseasonably warm day in Milan. The sky maintains that peculiar Italian haze which acts in the same way on the buildings and cars in the city as a Kino Flo lamp does on the wrinkly facial features of an ageing actress. There is a pastel smoothness to all objects, a defocused beauty impossible to reproduce outside of Italy. I am standing on a dirty sidewalk in the middle of Milan with my two collaborators, Blazej and Michal. We are waiting for Italy's most famous car collector to come and pick us up.

When the angular contraption with its flat wickerwork basket emerges from the backlit haze, I gasp. It is the elusive Fiat 130 Villa d'Este, the Fiat 130-based station wagon built for Gianni Agnelli, the leader of the Fiat empire, in 1971. Now owned by Corrado Lopresto, it stands in front of me in the flesh, quietly ticking over, and the man himself disembarks to greet us. Over the course of the day we used the rare Fiat as a simple means of transport, threading our way through Milan streets and alleys to various locations where Corrado's cars were stored or worked on. In the afternoon I was permitted to drive it, and it felt good to be where Agnelli, known as 'L'Avvocato' (The Lawyer), used to sit while transiting from his house in St Moritz to the ski lift.

There was quite a variety of special bodies and special versions built of the top-of-the-range Fiat. The Fiat 130 Opera was a four-door coupé built by Pininfarina in 1974. The Maremma was a shooting brake, built on the coupé basis, a very pretty thing. Three were handbuilt at Pininfarina, and two are believed to survive while the third seems to have disappeared. Perhaps it will emerge one day as a barn find. Then there is the 130 Pavesi, an indeterminate number of coupés produced by the tiny Carrozzeria Pavesi, all of them with the roof covered in vinyl, very much like the XJ-C.

Then there are the cars based on the more numerous sedan. Some people maintain that there were a number of ambulances built by Carrozzeria Grazia of Bologna, but how many, remains uncertain. They probably led a very hard life, and were later unceremoniously abandoned on some scrap heap. Several bodywork workshops produced hearses, and one convertible was built for the Vatican vehicle fleet. After the brutal murder of Aldo Moro by terrorists (who had a standard 130 3200 Berlina), a number of armoured units were built for members of the Italian Cabinet. They were equipped with Pirelli self-sealing tyres and 4-litre V8 engines to compensate for the weight of the armour and the bulletproof glass. One is reputed to exist in a private collection in Sardinia, and one was allegedly built for Romania's bloody dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. Someone even had a camper conversion built which now is resident in Holland.

And here we come to the station wagon or estate version. In line with the aura of mystery surrounding all those cars, I have been told that four were built. However, most sources agree we only know the whereabouts of three. They were all designed by Fiat Centro Stile, and were built at a small company on Lake Como, Officina Introzzi of Lipomo. Introzzi was just a family workshop that specialised in building wagon conversions of standard cars and it also built hearses, which are always in demand, whatever the dominant aesthetics of the period.

At the time the Fiat 130-based wagons built at Introzzi were all called 'Familiare'. The first one, which I can finally behold, is silver with fake wood panels on the sides and a roof rack. This one was Agnelli's personal car, kept at his house in the Swiss resort of St Moritz. and used sparingly, usually in winter. The wicker basket carried skis. The second car was built for Agnelli's brother, Dr Umberto Agnelli, and was less visually striking: cream body with a bronze roof. The third car had a green metallic roof, and hopefully will be found at some point to the joy of an auction house which will then sell it on. The fourth car, with a red metallic roof, was given by L'Avvocato as a gift to Guido Nicola of Aramengo, a fantastic art restorer who had done a lot of work for the Agnelli family (Agnelli left his collection of paintings to the city of Turin one year prior to his death from prostate cancer, in 2002).

Prior to today I only saw pictures of the car, and I may have doubted its very existence: some people in the classic car business can fantasize on par with the best hunters and anglers. Lopresto invites me behind the wheel and watches me like a hawk. No wonder. Like most cars in his collection, this one is unique. Unrepeatable.

I touch the controls and, instead of attempting to visualise myself as Agnelli, probably the most stylish playboy of all time, I try to imagine the artisans at Introzzi welding, grinding, bending steel to achieve a perfect finish for the most powerful man in Italy. I can almost hear them quietly complaining to each other over a bowl of pasta, or sharing a cigarette during a rare break. The car was built in 1971, but it is a beautiful manifestation of late 1960s styling, has the aerodynamics of a cupboard and the smoothness of the silk that Agnelli, 'The Rake of the Riviera', liked so much. Remember, this is a guy who bedded Anita Ekberg, Rita Hayworth, Jackie Kennedy and the famous socialite Pamela Harriman. This car is as understated as his suits.

The Lawyer had a serious car accident in 1953, when, running away from Harriman who discovered him with another woman (while Marella, his future wife, was already pregnant) he drove his Ferrari into the back of a truck. He was used to getting his way, as he ran Fiat with an iron fist from 1966 and at one point was said to control one fourth of all companies on the Milan stock exchange. Because he experienced some discomfort following that accident, for everyday use he preferred two-pedal cars. This 130 has the 3.2-litre V6 engine mated to a three-speed Borg Warner automatic gearbox.

The seats are wide, comfortable; I can envision myself driving this thing from Portugal to Berlin without getting tired. The engine starts with a cultured purr, like a quartet of cellos maintaining a sort of basso continuo in the background. The dashboard hold no surprises for anyone familiar with Fiats of the period. Don't forget that Agnelli's favourite car was a humble 125 which he kept for most of his life, so squarish controls similar to those in the 125 fit the shape of the body perfectly. At some point during the day Corrado takes my car and drives his dog home, leaving me with the 130. Having explored the body and experimented with opening the exceedingly heavy tailgate I want to go around corners.

The suspension is supple, cosseting, free of rattles and other noises. Yes, the car rolls, but in a most progressive manner, and the steering loads up in a similar manner, all very natural and instinctive. This is a car with no bad temper and no hidden vices. It does exactly what it was built for: transports people in non-ostentatious luxury. The 165bhp Lampredi-designed engine is a marvel of smoothness and tractability, and being combined with a hydraulic torque converter gearbox makes it seem like a gas turbine, so cultured is its power delivery. All the electrics work in the car, I only forget to test the vintage, add-on air conditioning unit which, at the outset of the 70s in Europe, must have been the ultimate in one-upmanship.

I surrender the keys to Corrado reluctantly. Driving around Milan, we didn't even get that wonderful engine breathing properly. I would really love to drive the 130 Villa d'Este back to St. Moritz, in the midst of winter, to see how it looked when Agnelli used it there, at the peak of his playboy prowess. Maybe someday.

Photography by Blazej Zulawski