THE 2.0-LITRE TYPE 1 7 5 F I AT COUPÉ WAS A STYLING SENSATION TWO DECADES AGO, BUT, AS DONN ANDERSON REMEMBERS , IT WAS MORE THAN THAT …
To stir the senses and secure a memorable place in the automotive world, a car needs to look good and exhibit admirable driving qualities, as well as involve a fair measure of good engineering. It also helps to be a little different, although all these factors may not be necessary to capture your imagination.
So, here’s a car that is somehow able to package all these attributes. The Type 175 Fiat Coupé is a rare thing on New Zealand roads and is something of a forgotten ’90s hero car. More’s the pity, for this three-door four-seater manages to incorporate a whole host of positives — it’s fun to drive, has incisive steering, good handling, a distinctive body, and is blessed with great interior styled by Pininfarina.
In most admired turbo form, the coupé was one of the fastest front-driven cars of its time, and owners included Michael Schumacher, whose chosen colour was, not surprisingly, red. Schumacher’s 1998 Limited Edition version boasted Brembo front calipers, Recaro leather seats, a button start, and a six-speed manual gearbox.
Initially, Fiat rejected the Pininfarina body design and handed the task to in-house designer Chris Bangle, who penned the unique body before his move to BMW. Bangle created an angular design with scalloped side panels, square wheel arches, discontinuous swage lines and slashes, and bulges that work rather well, ensuring that this car can be confused with no other metal of the day. But crouch low, gaze at the nose section, and you could almost be looking at a Fiat Dino, a model that captured the audience at the Turin Auto Show 51 years ago.
When road testing the then-new Fiat Coupé on Auckland roads in 1996, I found the car amazing. The computer-designed sameness
that is so prevalent today had just arrived and most new cars then, as now, scarcely caused a ripple in people’s minds, yet the Fiat Coupé stopped traffic, turned heads, and generated huge comment. Interest was so high, the front-drive coupé was almost a health hazard, and my bold story was appropriately titled Head-turner.
Fiat (short for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) made its first car in 1899 — the 3½hp with face-to-face seats. It had a 679cc twin-cylinder engine mounted transversely at the rear, which gave the car a top speed of 35kph. Just 20 were made, and three still exist in motor museums.
We have Fiat to thank for several motoring milestones, not the least of which includes the 500, 124, 127, and 131 Abarth. Several Fiat models were once assembled here — witness the ’60s 500 and 1500, and the 125 and 128 sedans. The 128 Bello built at the Motor Industries plant in Waitara boasted local wool upholstery and sports wheels.
Through the enthusiasm of the New Zealand Fiat concessionaire, Torino Motors, I enjoyed reviewing many Fiats for Motorman magazine during the ’60s, including a rare Abarth 1000 in 1963. Based on the rear-engined Fiat 600, the car that defined the smaller 500, the sporty Abarth had a 987cc engine producing 45kw (60bhp). This might seem modest but was almost twice as powerful as the standard 600 with a 767cc power train, and the performance was remarkable, with a top speed of more than 160kph.
Best known for bread-and-butter saloons, Fiat has, of course, produced a host of coupés, including the 1500S, the Ghia 2300 in 1961, the 850 coupé that was assembled briefly in New Zealand, the good-looking twin-cam 124 1600 coupé, and the 1971 128 Sport two-door. The large handsome 130 coupé was powered by a 3.2-litre V6, while the Ferrari-engined Dino almost instantly became a classic in 1966. To achieve the 500 minimum production for Formula 2 homologation, Fiat manufactured the 2.0-litre four-overhead-cam V6, which powered the Pininfarina-styled Fiat Dino convertible and coupé.
In the last 40 years, Fiat has won the European Car of the Year title no fewer than 12 times — more than any other car maker. The brilliant Dante Giacosa, who was chief designer at Fiat for many of the 42 years he worked with the Italian company, was the father of the original 500 Topolino (‘little mouse’) launched in 1936.
Giacosa defended his newer rear-engined Fiat 500 in 1957, a classic baby that would account for more than four million sales, by saying, “However small it might be, an automobile will always be more comfortable than a motor scooter.” He was initially reserved about the benefits of front-wheel drive, but Giacosa’s skills unlocked the keys to the transversely mounted engine and gearbox arrangement that became the template for virtually all front-driven cars after being trialled on the low-volume Autobianchi Primula. A gearbox mounted
on the end of an engine was too wide for a small car, as evidenced by the original Mini, with its transmission in the sump. Fiat’s technically simple solution of a more compact clutch, offset final drive, and unequal driveshafts provided the answer, and was applied to the 1970 Fiat 128 and then the 127, cars that required only four gears to transmit power to the front wheels via a two-shaft gearbox. By contrast, the Mini and BMW 1100 had nine gears in indirect ratios.
Giacosa retired in 1970, long before the arrival of the Fiat Coupé, but there is little doubt he would have approved of the car and of the Italian decision to throw caution to the wind. Rarely will there be universal approval for the body lines of any car, but when the Fiat Coupé broke cover in 1993, it was a styling sensation, despite a suggestion of slight awkwardness in some of the proportions. Detailing was pure Italian, with Formula 1–style mini door mirrors, high-mounted door handles adjacent to the B-pillars, round headlights with bubbled Plexiglas covers, retro circular Ferrari-like tail lights, styling slashes across the wheel arches, and a prominent aluminium fuel-filler cap.
The example I drove was finished in dark metallic grey, but the dazzling looks are best highlighted by bright yellow and red colours. This car shouts difference, and works even better when the paintwork is outlandish. The Fiat did not have the crowded coupé market to itself, with competition from the Alfa Romeo GTV coupé sold by the same distributor, plus the VW Corrado, BMW Compact, Toyota Celica, Holden Calibra, Ford Probe V6, Nissan 200SX, Rover 200 coupé turbo, and Mazda MX-6, while the Honda Prelude was $15K cheaper than the $60K for a new 2.0-litre 16-valve Fiat Coupé or $65K for the turbo model. The last of the five-cylinder Turbos retailed here for $69K and few were imported. In spite of the competition, the Fiat was clearly the most distinctive.
During the car’s seven-year production life that ended in 2000, Fiat offered six different engines, and 72,762 coupés were built, at the rate of 80 a day, in the Pininfarina plant. Half of the cars went to the Italian market. Five years into production, Fiat said it would make only 300 of the uprated Limited Edition, which has a strut brace for extra rigidity, but annoyed owners by making more of them.
My 1996 review car had the 2.0-litre, DOHC engine producing 102kw, but, three years later, the variable inlet system boosted power to 113kw. November 1996 saw introduction of the 2.0-litre five-cylinder in normally aspirated or turbo modes. A left-hooker-only 1.8-litre model near the end of model life in 2000 had a modest 96kw, and the 2.0-litre 16-valve turbo with the 149kw engine from the Lancia Delta Integrale made
The dazzling looks are best highlighted by bright yellow and red colours
a real difference. Finally, further development of the Garrett T3 turbo power plant gave a fire-cracking 162kw that made the coupé seriously quick. It reached 100kph from a standstill in 6.3 seconds, had a top speed of 250kph, and could still manage 8l/100km (35mpg). This is Fiat’s fastest production coupé, eclipsing even the treasured Dino.
There would always be questions about build quality and reliability, and my near-new test example was not adverse to leaving the odd drop or two of oil on the garage floor. There was an annoying squeak around the rear, and the doors needed a hefty slam. Later in life, owners complained of fragile front wishbones and rear springs, leaking exhaust manifolds, burst oil-cooler pipes, problematic gearboxes and rear brake calipers seizing, and degrading interior plastics, not to mention expensive cam-belt changes recommended at 60,000km for the four-cylinder models and 80,000km or five years for five-cylinder coupés. All, as they say, character building, but at least there is some interchangeability of mechanical parts with other Fiats, such as the Bravo and Tipo.
On the road
So how does the car drive? Based on the Fiat Tipo platform, the 1325kg, 4250-millimetre-long coupé feels well balanced in non-turbo form, with smooth power delivery over a wide rev range, even if performance is not shattering. More powerful the Lampredi turbo engine examples may be, but their peaky power makes smooth progress more difficult, and turbo lag is an issue. Either way, the Fiat has a good gearbox with ideal gearing for New Zealand conditions, even if engine noise at open-road speeds is a shade high. The modular designed five-cylinder versions are quieter and more civilized.
All-independent suspension comprises lower wishbones and coils up front and rear trailing arms and coils, with anti-roll bars front and rear. Although 65 per cent of the car’s weight is over the front end, the coupé feels poised, fluent, and controllable over difficult roads, with the beautifully weighted power steering offering excellent communication.
Ride quality is another plus. While ride is slightly firm around town, most of the time, the coupé feels just right, providing a level of comfort that is in keeping with the rest of the car. Superb body control allows the Fiat to cope with all sorts of road surfaces. The four-cylinder models had steering geared
to 2.9 turns lock to lock, later sharpened to 2.2 turns, but the turning circle is poor. There are four-wheel discs, ventilated at the front, and 15-inch, four-stud alloy wheels.
An internal release or key allows entry to the lined boot, but there is nowhere to grip the lid as you open or close it. A large, wrapover rear-hinged bonnet lifts on gas struts to offer great access to the transverse engine.
Once inside, you cannot but admire the nice batch of instruments, even if the flat instrument glass creates rather too many reflections. The signature body colour– painted band running right around the cabin adds a retro look of the ’50s. There is, however, no shortage of mid ’90s technology, with standard features including twin airbags, ABS braking, a single CD sixspeaker Pioneer audio, heated and electrically operated door mirrors, electric windows, air conditioning, a leather steering wheel and leather-bound gear lever knob, remote door locking, a rear window wiper, and front driving lights. The front seats are supportive, while the rear seats are useable, even if the view to the back is claustrophobic.
Be aware that the coupé is costly to restore and run, while some parts are difficult to procure, yet it is a certain future classic that remains cheap to acquire today. Seven years ago, New Zealand Classic Car was predicting the Fiat Coupé was heading for classic status, and today there is no reason to think otherwise. Ignore the fact that values have scarcely moved since then, and ponder the real reasons the coupé holds a unique charm.
In what seemed a good buy, a tidy 1995 example showing 144,000km was recently on offer for the equivalent of NZ$7K in Southland. UK prices range from less than the equivalent of $2K for a definite do-up to $24K for a mint 1997 turbo with a mere 33,000 miles (53,108km) on the clock. The most expensive in Britain, with an asking price of around $30K, was a yellow, unregistered 1994 turbo that had covered just 825 miles (1328km).
If you are lucky enough to find one, check the keys closely. There are three of them — blue for service/valet; silver for normal; and a red key, which is the master. Experts say that it is essential to have the red key, since it holds the vital engine-control-unit (ECU) coding for the vehicle, as well as monitoring the standard alarm system.
Quirky the two-decades-old Fiat Coupé may be, yet here is a budget Ferrari with an ability to lead a talented coupé class. You might need to drive for a year before seeing one, but this is not what makes the car special — it’s the fact that it combines so many virtues, including a courageous if slightly controversial design. While some youngsters may disagree, Fiat, with tongue in cheek, captioned early Italian-market advertising for the car, “No one grows up wanting to be a train driver.”
Seven years ago, New Zealand Classic Car was predicting the Fiat Coupé was heading for classic status, and today there is no reason to think otherwise
The 2.0 - litre, DOHC motor is definitely a snug fit in the engine bay
In Donn Anderson’s Motorman article last month, Sunbeam Alpine and Tiger — Forgotten ’60s Gems, we stated that there is only one genuine Tiger in New Zealand. The president of the Sunbeam Car Club of New Zealand has since advised us that club records indicate there are 21 genuine Sunbeam Tigers with matching chassis numbers currently in the country.