The re­turn of the Ital­ian job

Dis­missed as a ‘poor man’s Fer­rari’, the new Fiat 124 Spi­der is as good-look­ing as Is­abella Ros­sellini and as pow­er­ful as Rocky Mar­ciano, says a smit­ten Charles Ran­ge­ley-wil­son

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

A smit­ten Charles Ran­ge­ley­wil­son drives the Fiat 124 Spi­der

IMUST have been the last mo­tor­ing writer in the coun­try to re­alise that the new sports car I drove in 2017 was the same car I’d been the first mo­tor­ing writer in the UK to drive in 1989. Too much home­work ruins first im­pres­sions—well, that’s what I like to tell my­self. In this case, I’d done none. Why would I need to? The achingly pretty, two-seater Ital­ian road­ster had caught my eye a few months ear­lier. It was a 50-years-later re­launch of the achingly pret­tier two-seater Ital­ian road­ster of 1966, a car I spent my ado­les­cent years lust­ing after.

Back then, the Fiat 124 was some­thing of a poor man’s Fer­rari styled by the man who penned the Fer­rari 330—a car so pretty you could park one in the Vatican His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum— and pow­ered by a fizzy, twin over­head cam en­gine adorned with We­ber car­bu­ret­tors and four in­take trum­pets.

A pumped-up ver­sion, all spot­lights and swollen wheel arches, won the Euro­pean Rally Cham­pi­onship in 1972. Then Abarth —Fiat’s sting-in-the-tail tun­ing house—pro­duced a ver­sion for the road, the Fiat Abarth 124 Rally.

Fast for­ward to the 2017 re­launch, when I knew I had to drive one. It was the Abarth rein­car­na­tion that I re­ally wanted to re­view. Fe­bru­ary in north Nor­folk sug­gests ral­ly­ing more than it does the Astrud Gil­berto sound­track that started in my head when I saw the lit­tle red ma­chine in the drive­way.

I thought about nip­ping to the Amalfi coast, a cli­mate more be­fit­ting an open-top two-seater. But I dropped the de­liv­ery man back at Hunstanton bus sta­tion in­stead, a route that en­tailed a clifftop with a ma­rine back­drop, al­beit more brown and mist­draped than azure and sun baked.

‘What do you think of it?’ he en­quired, as I dropped down two gears and flick-flacked Eric’s fish-and-chips chi­cane. ‘It’s great. Fizzy. Kind of like a Mazda MX5 in a retro Ital­ian suit.’ He laughed as if I’d cracked a know­ing joke and on we drove.by the time I was halfway home, the car’s puppy dog dip-and-growl road man­ners had won me over and pro­pelled me back in time. Not to the 1970s, but to 1989, on a late Fri­day evening at Mo­tor Sport mag­a­zine when an­other de­liv­ery driver had dropped off the keys to ‘a Mazda’.

As an of­fice ju­nior, I was used to pick­ing up the less ex­otic re­views, but, that night, luck was on my side, be­cause in­stead of a dull hatch­back, there was a shiny, red two-seater in the car park. It drove beau­ti­fully, too, like the car the MGB al­ways should have been, but wasn’t; like the car the new Lo­tus Elan should have been, but wasn’t; like the car I’d al­ways imag­ined the Fiat 124 Spi­der prob­a­bly was. I took home the brand new, never-seen-be­fore Mazda MX5 and, over a long week­end of find­ing ex­cuses to drive it, I fell in love with it.

I don’t sup­pose the rave re­view I gave it had much to do with that car’s suc­cess. Mazda had nailed it first time out. This Fiat seemed just the same. A per­fectly bal­anced, ac­ces­si­ble sports car in which you can feel like Jim Clark with­out break­ing the speed limit.

Was it a let­down to dis­cover that it re­ally was a Mazda MX5 in a retro Ital­ian suit? No. Canny move, I’d say. Fiat has pulled off its 50th-birth­day re­launch by buy­ing in the most per­fect retro road­ster of all time and giv­ing it a touch of The Ital­ian Job— Fiat styling, Fiat en­gine, Is­abella Ros­sellini looks and Rocky Mar­ciano mus­cle.

This seems to of­fer the best of both worlds: Ja­panese en­gi­neer­ing and Ital­ian élan. So lit­tle was wrong with the Mazda and most of the good has been trans­lated—the dash, the seat­ing, the bal­ance.

The Fiat’s 1.4 turbo might be more of a rough es­presso than the cool Fras­cati twin cam of the orig­i­nal, but the smiles per pound are just the same.

The achingly pretty Ital­ian road­ster had caught my eye

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