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.
I must 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 mist-draped 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.’ Helaughed 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.