‘You have to be a bit nuts:’ Italian enthusiasts rebuild a WWI tank

Italy engineered the Fiat 2000 tank to help it in World War I, but the war ended before the weapon could be put to use. Though it never got much of a chance as a war machine, engineering enthusiasts have recreated one to highlight “the best Italian technology on offer” from a bygone era.

The last time anyone saw a Fiat 2000, a pioneering World War I-era Italian tank, Mussolini was busy invading Abyssinia and Hitler was hosting the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics.

More than 80 years on, a group of Italian enthusiasts has set out to rebuild the tank from scratch, to pay tribute to what they call a marvel of engineering.

“You have to be a bit nuts do it, but the passion for mechanics leads you to this and more,” Giancarlo Marin, an entrepreneur based in the north-eastern Veneto region, and who sponsored the project, told dpa.

“I was born a mechanic and I will die a mechanic. I don’t have blood, but oil running in my veins,” the 80-year-old said. “When they presented the idea to me, my adrenaline jumped to 100.”

Marin’s day job is running SVECOM, an industrial equipment company that produces expanding shafts and other machinery used for the winding and unwinding of reels.

He also established the Armed Forces Museum 1914-1945 in his hometown of Montecchio Maggiore, east of Venice. That is how he joined the Fiat 2000 project.

Tanks were the biggest innovation in World War I. The British were the first to use them in battle, followed by the French and Germans.

Italy joined the war in 1915 to fight alongside Britain and France against Austria. The Fiat 2000 was developed too late for it to be used in action.

Nonetheless, the tank was impressive, weighing around 40 tons, with a tougher armour than its rivals and equipped with seven machine guns and a 65-millimetre cannon firing from a swivelling turret.

“At the time, it was the best Italian technology on offer,” Marin said.

Only two prototypes were made. One was used after World War I in Libya, then an Italian colony, and was abandoned there. The other was last photographed in an army barracks in Bologna in 1936.

Amateur historian Andrea Cionci retold the Fiat 2000 story three years ago in La Stampa newspaper.

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The Italian National Tankers Association (ANCI) and SPA Militare, a group of vintage military vehicles’ enthusiasts, decided to rebuild the tank.

They managed to raise 35,000 euros (39,000 dollars), partly through an online campaign. They gained an idea of the shape and dimensions of the tank after sourcing old blueprints, a scale model and period photographs.

But given the price of all the steel needed, the project remained confined to the drawing board until Marin joined in late 2018, with money and a workshop where the replica could be built.

Marin refuses to say how much the enterprise has cost him. He just jokes about the “sacrifice” he and others made by dedicating their free time to the tank rather than their wives.

“For the past two years, we haven’t been with our women very much, if you know what I mean,” he said, with a wink that came through even by telephone.

The Fiat 2000 is now nearly complete. It works, although it is still missing some track coverings. And obviously, it is not armed.

The fans’ plan is to put it on display in the Armed Forces Museum 1914-1945, in hopes of boosting visitor numbers.

For now, Marin and the others play with the tank on weekends.

“We even had a little accident … it’s pretty big and you can’t see very well from the driving position, so we bumped again a boiler [that was in the workshop]: it’s all part of the fun,” he said.

But Marin stressed that his interest in tanks and other armoured vehicles stems from a passion for mechanical engineering, rather than warmongering.

“To me, it is important that the Fiat 2000 did not do any damage [in World War I],” he said. “I just see it as a wonderful project by Fiat.”


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