Sophie's got lots of va-va-vroom

With her fleet of six cute Fiat 500s, Essex girl Sophie Bye has beaten all the trials, tribulations and Italian red tape to open up her own business running car tours of Florence.

Victoria Hawkins

With her fleet of six cute Fiat 500s, Essex girl Sophie Bye has beaten all the trials, tribulations and Italian red tape to open up her own business running car tours of Florence.

Gleaming - and the line up comes in bright red, blues, cream and not a little chrome - Sophie Bye's fleet of immaculate six (and a half) iconic vintage Fiat 500s are garaged in a vaulted, Renaissance, former stable building up a tiny medieval side street in Florence, just behind the Uffizi Gallery. Sophie herself has just painted a blackboard and chalked up the legend “You ride, 25 euros; you drive, 35 euros,” to draw in passing trade.

Because, finally up and running after about a year of to-ing and fro-ing from London to Italy, buying and restoring the cars and jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops, the 500 Touring Club - Firenze is open for business. Its aim is to provide unique self-drive, follow-my-leader tours around the city landmarks and beyond, with Sophie taking the role of Mother Duck, relaying her commentary in Italian or English, via two-way radio to her motorised ducklings following along behind.

It's a wonderful, brave and maybe even slightly dotty scheme that she dreamed up after reading a feature in an-flight magazine on a plane coming back from a wedding in Italy 18 months ago. If they could do Trabant tours of Berlin, Sophie reckoned, then she could do a similar version with Fiat 500s in Florence.

Though she's getting married in August, and kind of wants to settle down and have a family, she's also got a touch of the wanderlust about her and a fiercely independent spirit. The thought of tying the knot made her determined to set up a business which could be hers in the future, even though it was in another country.

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“I suddenly realised that I didn't have a career to speak of and I also felt a little bit like, if we are going to get married and have children, then what am I going to do? I will go stir crazy and if I go back to work, I will have to start at the bottom of the ladder - again.”

And while most fiancés would probably baulk at the idea of their future wife decamping abroad and setting up a new venture weeks before their big day, Alex Hooker, a London solicitor, seems to have embraced the idea wholeheartedly. He's not only helped back her financially and become co-director but also now makes a regular 750 mile commute by air to join her in her little flat in Florence.

But then, Sophie has amassed a CV which makes most other people's look totally banal. She doesn't do safe. And she doesn't do boring.

She was born in Germany (her father was serving in the forces at the time) but was brought up and educated in Colchester, where her mum was a teacher at Stanway County Primary School. After leaving Colchester Sixth Form, Sophie went on to read architecture at Queen's College in Cambridge, where she got an MA and became captain of the ladies' rowing team.

However she decided not to pursue architecture further and instead headed off to Italy where she first became admissions tutor for a private language school and then working on a market stall selling cheap souvenirs. “One day the guy who owned the stall was telling us for about the 15th time how exactly to fold and T-shirt and I though, oh, I think you need to go back to London and get on with something. So I went back to UK and worked for an interior architect.”

After several other jobs, she ended up in London working for a lifestyle management company. “They wanted a project manager. Have you heard of concierge.com? You get all these cash rich people who ring up and say 'I need a plumber' or 'I want a present for Aunty Margaret.' Well, I ran the home team, managing anything from a broken tap to a new-build house in the country. That was quite a big job.

“For a while I was also temping, so one day I'd be on a reception desk in some snotty solicitors' office and the next you find you are a tea lady in Brixton. I loved the tea lady bit but you have to make ends meet and I had to pay the rent - it's not easy to have a creative career!

“I also worked for a number of architects and designers selling their services to clients and then I got a job in Italy for a fashion trend prediction service called Worth Global Style Network, who are leading fashion trend spotters based in London. So I travelled all round Italy, meeting designers and selling them trend prediction forecasting. I lived in a gorgeous little fishing village called San Vincenzo on the Tuscan coast.”

Itchy feet struck yet again and Sophie decided to come back to London. This time TV beckoned.

“The BBC kindly took me on for a month, I think I worked for nothing doing an internship on an architecture programme, and then they took me on so I had a number of jobs with them and other production companies until I ended up working on The World's Most Extreme Homes.

“That took me round the world filming bonkers, wacky houses all over the place from Costa Rica, Peru and Mexico to France, Italy, Austria and Brazil. That was really great and fun in as much as I had the dogsbody role so you end up doing everything... and being blamed for everything.

“Then I did a documentary on bears and travel for the Discovery Channel, called Into Alaska With Jeff Corwin, who is this American zoologist guy, and that was probably the most amazing experience of my life. I had a phenomenal time and some very close encounters with bears and salmon, of course.

“I was 'in charge' of the south west corner of Alaska bit, where there is this tail of little volcanic islands which push out towards Russia, called the Aleutian Islands chain. It's like the end of the earth, the far western corner of US, where the dateline kind of kinks round. There were these deserted, horrible, windswept islands in the middle of the ocean. It was the grimmest place and I was out there for a month filming in August 2006. It was brilliant.

“But it was all getting quite serious with Alex.”

Sophie met him while she was living in a shared house in Shepherds Bush not far from the BBC. “I met Alex one afternoon in the pub because one of the guys I lived with was a triathlete and he was one too.”

Alex is a freelance contract lawyer, working for mainly small companies who can't afford to employ a large solicitors firm, which is perfect because though he is based in London, the internet and a laptop means he can commute and do some of his work in Italy too.

This particular week he'd left for London at six in the morning on the Tuesday and was back at his desk by 10am. “And he'll be back here midnight on Thursday.

“He was living in a flat with his sister but she decided to sell last Christmas and I was living in this funny flat in digs with all these people, so he's had to move in with his parents in Marlow. At the moment you could say we are cobbling together an existence. It's not easy when you start a business but we are making the most of it.”

Just to complicate things further, Sophie and Alex are getting married in London on August 29, so she's also trying to organise her wedding long distance. When she comes back over next time - for a nephew's naming ceremony in Poole - she'll be squeezing in time to try on four wedding dresses she's found on the internet.

“It would be nice to have lots of money and have everything you want on a plate but it has never been like that really, maybe I make my life that way. I seem to have this slightly eclectic rolling stone sort of background, I just love doing these things and I didn't want to lose myself in the sense of losing my slightly independent roving streak.

“I am living full-time in Florence, renting a little apartment because I am trying to get the thing going. I don't know if I am going to stop living here, Alex likes it almost more than I do, but we haven't planned that bit yet. We are going to get married and if the business is a success it would be easier for me to get a manager in. If it is going to take longer to really boost the thing then I will stay longer and work for a pittance - or nothing - to get it going.

“It is very exciting here and we are having a great time. We have both joined the rowing club. When I was at Cambridge I was captain of the college's rowing club and Alex used to row for Great Britain [in fact Alex is a national champion and rowed for the British team in the World Junior Championships, World Student Games and won a Bronze at the Word under-23 championships two years running!]

“I had my first day off for two months last Monday, so we took the mountain bikes out and did a 40km ride round the Tuscan hills. We're always exploring new restaurants and out of the way little villages and stuff. And though for the last month the weather has been horrible the sun has come out today, so I am hoping that next month will be good.”

Having piled all her own savings into her business, she said both her mother and Alex put in a chunk of money and she also took out a bank loan. “But we're okay and happy, very happy, and we've nearly paid the loan off.

“If it doesn't work, I suppose we would have to sell up and move back but there is no reason why it shouldn't. It works in Paris, Berlin and I think maybe in Rome as well.

“Running guided tours in 1950's Italian cars around Florence and Tuscany wasn't mentioned by my careers advisor at Colchester Sixth Form College,” said Sophie. “But then neither was tea lady, TV producer, vicar's assistant, lifestyle manager, or in fact, any of the other paths I have 'careered' down. Quite how this budding business came about is certainly not through years of careful planning and structured experience.”

500 GOOD REASONS:

SOPHIE Bye was on a plane reading the in-flight magazine about 18 months ago when she saw an article about a company in Berlin that does city tours in Trabant cars. “I thought, oh, I could do that in Italy because I bought my first car ever, a Fiat 500, at the age of 29, in Italy in 2003. It's a design classic, a 'Cappuccino' 1967 Fiat 500F, and whilst I've never wanted any other car, I could never have imagined that four years later I'd have six more and a new adventure.

“It was the first car I'd ever owned and I still have that car, which is in London now. It's 40 years old and cost me 1,500 euros, which is unbelievable because now they cost about 6,000 euros!”

For the 500 Touring Club she has now collected six (and a half) more vintage Fiat 500s.

All of her cars have names. The half car, for instance, is called Ferdinando after the retired guy who made him. “Then I have Adriana, Giacomo, Paolo, Sergio, Roberto and Anna - all named after people who helped us set up the business, including the lady in the permit office, to the bodywork guy, to a family on the coast who always have me to stay when I go down there.”

Aged between 36 and an almost geriatric 48 years old, her cars are quite a bunch. All she needs now is lots and lots of customers.

“We are getting some people already but nowhere near enough. I mean we are not breaking even yet by any stretch of the imagination, but I am getting passing trade. However, we are up this absolutely tiny little back street, so I need to build up the internet business and get in the guides and things. It might take a year or so but at the moment I am getting pocket money from it but no way would it pay all the bills!”

What you get for your euro is an hour and a half tour, driving round the sights and stopping at some sunny spots with great views where everyone gets out and takes pictures.

“I always accompany the tour and take the lead car. I think it is more fun because then people don't have to read a map and I have got all the cars linked up by two-way radio.

“Everyone else follows behind and doesn't have to worry about where to go because it's quite complicated driving in Florence.

“We offer visitors an authentic adventure, one that delivers the city's vibrancy and history right into their hands. The idea is a beautifully simple one. You choose your own classic 1950's or 60's Fiat from our fleet of “cinquecentos”, spend a few moments familiarising yourself with this cult symbol of Italian pride and style, and then join our convoy as it rolls out on to the medieval streets. Our vintage 500s are your passport to nostalgic fun, and generate a warm welcome wherever they go!”

With a choice of routes and itineraries from 25 euros per person, Sophie's Fiat 500s are also available for private hire, with or without a chauffeur.

For more information ring Sophie on +39 055 286 886/+44 20 8123 8966 or +39 334 996 5836 or email info@500touring club.com or just drop in and see her if you are passing, she's just round the corner from the Uffizi Gallery at Via Vinegia 23 R.