I got my first Leatherman tool in 1996 when I graduated as a Cub Scout. A few years later, I kind of convinced my mom that I needed another one. I still have both, my original Super Tool and the newer Wave variant, along with a mini Maglite flashlight in a combo case. Both live in a backpack that comes with me every MotorTrend road trip and event, plus other essentials, just in case. I didn’t know this when I got the tools, and I didn’t know it when I started to MotorTrend, but I had a rusty old Fiat to thank for these handy tools.
“Our nickname for this Fiat was the little monster,” said company founder and CEO Tim Leatherman in an interview with MotorTrend.
Yes, there really is a Mr. Leatherman. It’s not just a smart name for an outdoor tool.
The story begins just before the Fiat enters the scene. Leatherman and his wife, Chau, had graduated from college and decided to see the world.
“It was a low budget trip,” Leatherman said. “It was sort of like ‘What are we going to do with the rest of our lives?’ trip. We wanted to see different cultures. See how life was under different cultures and different political systems. “
The original plan was to backpack and hitchhike Europe, but that didn’t last long.
“When we got to England my wife had a friend there who loaned us a car,” he said. “We were able to borrow his car across the UK. It was quite nice. We decided that having a car would be nicer than using buses and trains and so on.
“During these low-budget trips to Europe, young people seem to network,” he continued. “Somehow we found Amsterdam to be the easiest and best place for foreigners to buy a car.”
After a few days of sightseeing in the Dutch capital, the Leathermans began to seriously search for a car they could afford.
“We were actively looking for a car,” Leatherman said. “We checked the used car lots. We checked the newspaper ads. One night we kind of gave up on our search for the day. We were walking down the street and saw a car parked there with a “for sale” sign in the window. It was this Fiat 600D.
The Fiat 600 is often confused with the more famous 500, released two years later. The slightly larger 600 was also rear-engined, but with a water-cooled design. The 600D model was introduced in 1964, nine years after the 600 first went on sale, and featured refinements such as front hinged doors and a 4 horsepower bump up to 28 horsepower.
“I have quite a bit of documentation on this,” said Leatherman, a die-hard note keeper. “It was a 1969 Fiat 600D. We bought it in 1975. We believe we bought it from the original owner. At that time, they used guilders in Holland. He wanted 875 florins. having the exchange rate for that period was $ 302. “
Adjusted for inflation, it’s just over $ 1,500 today. Priced at around $ 7,300 in new condition, this 6-year-old car had seen better days.
“It was not in perfect condition,” he said. “We kept a diary during the trip. The diary entry states that shortly after purchasing it, I had to fix the brake lights and do other work on the car. But the base car itself, it worked.
“I remember a few repairs: electrical problems, radiator hoses, work with the heater, loose screws and nuts, adjustments to the carburetor. Probably the biggest problem on our trip was that we were in Eastern Europe crossing .. I think we were in Bulgaria, at that time there were no services. [It was] very difficult to find services of any kind. I looked to my right and noticed my wife was getting smaller. We did a little investigation, it turned out that the car’s undercarriage had rusted and its seat was sinking into the car, down to the sidewalk.
“We couldn’t find anyone to weld the car, so we just moved my wife to the backseat. But then when we crossed the border into Turkey, there was a child with a fuel tank. oxyacetylene in almost every street corner, so we pulled over and had one of the kids weld the seat. My wife was able to move forward. “
While the hand tools could not have fixed rust, the ones Leatherman had on hand were also not perfect for repairing the car, nor ideal for fixing bad plumbing in the cheap hostels and guesthouses where they were. were staying.
“I had a few basic tools in the car, and during the trip I carried a scout type knife, which is good for what he did,” he said. “But there were often times when I wished I had a pair of pliers. Like I said, it was a ‘What are we going to do with the rest of our lives?’ In fact, I took notes of ideas as I imagined them. When I returned from this trip, this is the project that I decided to undertake. “
What Leatherman thought it would take a month to develop into a working prototype took three years. Chau supported them financially while he worked in his brother’s garage to perfect the first multi-tool, which he called “Mr. Crunch”. Armed with a patent and a prototype, Leatherman tried to sell his invention, only to then spend the next three and a half years opening rejection letters.
Seriously dismayed at his failure to sell his rebranded “Pocket Survival Tool,” Leatherman was ready to throw in the towel before his college friend Steve Berliner stepped in to lend him a hand. (Berliner is the co-founder of the Leatherman Tool Group and is currently secretary and treasurer of the board of directors.) In late May 1983, the Leatherman Tool Company received an unannounced order from outdoor retailer Cabela’s for 500 pocket survival. From this order of $ 12,000, a business was born. He then introduced more than 30 models sold in around 80 countries around the world.
Always a handyman, Leatherman himself used his own creations to repair the cars that succeeded the Fiat.
“I’m a bit of a legend, I guess, in my company to want to keep my cars as long as possible,” he said. “The car I had before the one I have now was a 1988 Nissan Stanza Wagon. I bought it used in 1990. It had 20,000 miles. I managed to keep driving it for 20 years before she died. [at] 120,000 miles.
“[I fixed] the usual types of things: loose screws, loose nuts. I remember once the handle came out of the gear lever. I used a Leatherman tool to screw it back on and tighten it so I could keep driving the car.
“I remember once my wife and I went to Washington [from our home in Portland]He continued. One of the chains broke. It was a cable chain, and it had wrapped around the tire. It was really bad conditions. What I was able to do to get us out of the situation was grab the Leatherman tool, get down on the ground, go under the car, and use the wire cutters to try and cut the cable. I have succeeded. This was one of the few times that I overused the tools to do this, so the tool suffered a bit. But we were able to cut the chain and we were able to continue our journey home. “
He is far from the only one who repairs a car with a Leatherman tool. The company maintains an archive of letters it calls “Tool Tales”, testimonials from owners. Among them are stories like the man on safari in Africa who repaired the dispenser on the guide’s van while the lions watched, or the traveler visiting the Philippines who effectively redesigned his car’s electrical system from junky rental. There are also many stories of people whose cars ended up sinking in icy water, from a road into a river, or falling into a frozen lake, who used their Leatherman tools to cut seat belts, smash windows and as makeshift ice picks to pull themselves and their spouses out of the water.
And what about the old Fiat? Sadly, it didn’t have a happy ending like those Leatherman owners did.
“We drove it 20,000 kilometers [more than 12,400 miles] over a seven month period, ”Leatherman said. “We drove him to Tehran, Iran, and back. We were coming back from Iran. Had crossed Turkey again. Had passed through Yugoslavia. I took the ferry to Italy. We were driving around Italy, busy with our own business. We noticed a car coming towards us from our left. The car put on a red light, crashed into us, and ended up totaling the car. We were quite shaken up. I was in great pain the next day and had headaches. But other than that, we did well.
“We actually had insurance on the car. After the accident, we filed a claim and the insurance company settled with us 265,000 lire. I have the exchange rate at the time, it was $ 300 and a few cents. So we were able to drive seven months in Europe, over 20,000 kilometers, for $ 2. “