New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents -

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.

Mo­tor­ing mile­stones

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.

Daz­zling looks

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...

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