Back in black: car fan finds lost British star of La Dolce Vita

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Triumph TR3 used in Federico Fellini’s 1960 film was found and repainted in Italy and is due to go on display in Rome

Back in black: car fan finds lost British star of La Dolce Vita
Marcello Mastroianni and co-stars in the Triumph TR3 in La Dolce Vita. Photograph: Blue Box Toys/EPA

In one of Italian cinema’s most famous moments, a daring Anita Ekberg wades into Rome’s Trevi fountain with actor Marcello Mastroianni in her wake. The couple, the stars of La Dolce Vita, arrive at the scene after driving through the city in a British sports car – the Triumph TR3.

More than half a century later, that Triumph has been rediscovered in Italy by a former senator with a passion for vintage cars, and is now set to return to Rome.

“For about a year I searched for a Triumph TR3. Because it’s a fascinating car – an English car,” said Filippo Berselli, surrounded by the paper trail that helped him discover the vehicle’s past.

The black number plate was the first hint of something special, he added. “Out of every 100 Triumphs in Italy, 98 arrive from the US and have a white number plate. One or a maximum of two were kept in Italy.”

Berselli traced the Triumph’s ownership back through the decades and found it was once owned by Riama Film, a Rome-based production company. A certificate from the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust shows it was built on 6 February 1958 as a pearl white model, with red trim and a black hood, and shipped to Italy.

Back in black: car fan finds lost British star of La Dolce Vita
The Triumph TR3 used in La Dolce Vita. Its colour has been changed back to black from white. Photograph: Filippo Berselli

By the time it appeared on the set of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which won the 1962 Oscar for costume design and the Palme d’Or at Cannes two years earlier, the car had been painted black.

“It was the most important and beautiful of Fellini’s films, and the most well-known Italian film in the world,” said Berselli, who regards Mastroianni as the best-loved Italian actor.

Berselli found the Triumph in Pesaro, central Italy, where he bought it for €30,000 (£24,700). After its film stint it had been sold in 1963 to a buyer in nearby Viterbo, before being bought in central Forli six years later, only to be sold on in Pesaro in 1970.

Now Fabrizio Pompilio, the owner of Racing Color mechanics near Rimini, has been charged with restoring the TR3.

Its colour has been changed back to black from white, a task that involved removing three layers of paintwork. “I stripped away everything I could to bring her back – perfect, beautiful, marvellous – to how she was in the years the legendary maestro Fellini used her,” said Pompilio.

After about a month of work the car body is now gleaming but was still in pieces on the garage floor when the Guardian visited this week. New electrics have been installed and red upholstery has been ordered from the UK in keeping with the 1950s original.

Back in black: car fan finds lost British star of La Dolce Vita
Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in the Trevi fountain in Rome. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features

Pompilio said: “I’ve done all the work in the old-fashioned way … The new way is excellent, it works well, it’s just that she – the Triumph TR3 from La Dolce Vita – is something else. She’s from another planet.”

The Italian mechanic, who has spent 35 years in the trade and also has a 1930s Balilla and two Fiat 500s waiting to be restored, added: “It’s in my DNA, to bring old cars back to how they were when they were born.”

He is working on the Triumph for free with separate experts brought in for the tyres and electrics. Pompilio has until 14 July to complete the work before the car is taken to Rome and put on display until the end of the month.

This time, the Triumph will not be driven along Italian roads by an actor posing as a hedonistic journalist, as Fellini had it. Instead, rather more prosaically, it will be placed in a truck.

Pompilio says the risk of an accident is too high to allow the TR3 on the road, adding: “It’s as if we’re bringing something that doesn’t have a price; a piece of history that no one can touch.”

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