As my colleague Mr Gates has so eloquently posited, breaking up with a former love can be a tough yet unavoidable part of one’s life. And, whilst time is, as they say, a great healer, the pangs of loss and regret can remain surprisingly deep rooted in the heart long after the painful act of separation has been completed.
My own personal tale of automotive love lost begins almost twenty years ago.
I had been conducting an affair so to speak with a string of Italians since the early 90s – the most recent of which was a rare and much-admired Fiat Tipo Sedicivalvole. Regarded by the Cognoscenti as something of a catch, the hotted-up family Hatch was a logical step up from the trio of Uno Turbos to which my heart had previously belonged and was a car I truly loved to be at the (Momo) wheel of.
Three years of almost daily use had exposed a number of flaws in the old girl – some to be expected given her Italian genes: electrical maladies were, somewhat predictably, becoming legion for example, but some were a little more troubling – the rear quarterlight window detaching and taking flight on the M23 near Gatwick being a particularly eyebrow, and indeed hair-raising incident and one which went a good way towards making me question whether the grass might well be a rather nicer shade of green were I to start looking around for a replacement.
Now – back then in early 1999 I was still very much under the spell of the Italians and the thought of looking elsewhere than the stables of Fiat or Alfa for a new set of wheels didn’t really enter my mind. So, what to choose? What would continue to scratch the Italian car itch?
For many years I’d gazed lovingly at Alfa’s achingly-pretty classic Spider, the most recent incarnation of which had been refreshed a few years back to give it rounder looks and to try and bring what was ultimately a 1960s design kicking and screaming into the 90s yet a trawl through Auto Trader and the back pages of the likes of Autocar revealed that despite – or perhaps because of – the aged design, Alfa Spiders were still commanding strong money and therefore out of my budget. However, during the aforementioned research exercise another good-looking little Italian drophead sportster kept cropping up in group tests and features – and this one, as well as being more affordable was much more modern into the bargain..
Launched only 4 years before, the general consensus was that the Fiat Barchetta was a pretty, delicately-proportioned sports car boasting a peppy little 1800 twin cam pushing out a respectable 130 horses, more than enough to make the most of the relatively lightweight, Punto-based front wheel drive chassis. And whilst it was sold officially by Fiat in the UK, there weren’t going to be anywhere near as many on the road as its far more ubiquitous competitors the Mazda MX5 or MGF for the very good reason that the Barchetta was only ever going to be sold – from the factory at least – with the steering wheel on the left side of the cockpit.
And it was this fact in particular that really set me on a course to replace the Tipo with my very own “Little Boat”. I’ve always liked to have cars that aren’t run of the mill. Not for me the Escort XR3i or Golf GTi, I had to be different and choose the path less trodden – for good or ill (I refer the reader to the Tipo window ‘unpleasantness’) – and the Barchetta ticked that box with a great big fat marker pen.
The more I read, the more I realised that I was becoming smitten. I’d never seriously seen myself in a convertible before but this was different – an affordable, mildly-exotic looking sportster with reassuringly everyday underpinnings that shouldn’t bankrupt me every time the car was due an appointment with my local Fiat service department.
Looking around for second-hand examples, I quickly discovered that as well as the more obvious officially-supplied Fiat UK cars, there were far more parallel/personal/grey imports from the Continent which were generally a fair bit cheaper due to their specification differing from that of their official counterparts. I also learned that there were a couple of specialist importers who were in the business of bringing in new and used grey market cars from mainland Europe and who would also make the necessary adjustments to lights and speedo to help them conform to UK regs.
Interestingly enough, one of the more respected dealers was located only 30 minutes’ drive away from my home and an appointment to view was quickly arranged..
A few days later and I found myself in the heart of the Surrey countryside surrounded by a wide selection of Fiat’s finest, chatting with the proprietor and all-round evangelist on all things Barchetta who introduced me to the Little Boat in the metal.
After showing me some of the fun design features and explaining in detail how the imported cars differed from those brought in by Fiat UK we headed out for a test drive on the leafy lanes around Lingfield and, top down, the sensations of being so close to my surroundings were almost intoxicating, especially as I was conducting business from the ‘wrong’ side of the cockpit.
Once I’d become accustomed to changing gear with my right hand for the first time since the previous years’ holiday to the Canary Islands though, I was able to relax and enjoy the sensations of driving a nimble, fizzy little Italian roadster in the open air.
Needless to say, I was hooked and whilst the dealer didn’t currently have an example in stock that matched my budget, he promised to give me a ring if and when something suitable came up.
I didn’t have to wait long before the phone was ringing and before I knew it, I was the proud owner of a 3 year old Midnight Blue metallic Barchetta.
Imported from Germany, it lacked the ABS and front fog lights of the UK item but did come with dual airbags, leather steering wheel and gear knob, electric aerial and – almost uniquely in the UK – factory fitted air-conditioning.
And I can honestly say, hand on heart that from the moment I climbed behind the left-hand-oriented wheel to the day the Little Boat sailed for adventures anew back in Mainland Europe four & a bit years later (it went to the South of France as a second home runabout for a well-heeled expat don’t you know..) I never once regretted buying it.
Yes, there were times when I had to grit my teeth and cite ‘character’ as an endearing trait when the alternator belt snapped, or the electric aerial developed a mind of its own, or the four month wait for the replacement aircon components to be located in Italy when Fiat UK’s database denied all knowledge of an A/C system ever having existed for the Barchetta, but they were more than made up for by the times I headed out on the first sunny spring morning with the top down, soaking up undiluted Vitamin D and breathing in the smells of the countryside, or driving around France, sat on the correct side of the car for once and being able to make the most of every overtaking opportunity without having to keep repeating “is it clear?” prior to crossing fingers and belting around yet another convoy of dawdling Dutch caravan enthusiasts on the Route Nationale.
All the times I had to stretch across the cockpit to extract a parking ticket from a car park machine were countered by being able to smugly toss Euros into a péage basket on the Autoroute or being able to park in the local High Street and get out straight onto the pavement.
I lost count of the number of people who did a double take when we drove past and it’s the only car I’ve ever had which has generated positive comments from fellow petrol pump users.
On the rare occasions when I encountered another one coming the other way I could be pretty much guaranteed an enthusiastic wave, a flash of the lights or indeed both from my fellow pilot and I would of course return the greeting with gusto.
Yes, the Barchetta had its faults – it was a handmade Italian sports car after all – but it evoked genuine affection in pretty much everybody who saw it, and especially in those who got to drive it or travel as a passenger. The purists might have sneered that being a Punto in a posh frock it wasn’t the most dynamic of things and yes, they probably have a point, but I would counter that with the view that for those of us who are willing to sacrifice the need for the fabled “dab of oppo” for a bit of security and practicality whilst still enjoying a fun and good-looking drive, the Barchetta fitted the bill perfectly.
When the time came for me to set The Boat off to foreign shores for the last time the hood was leaking, as was the A/C system. Its paintwork was far from flawless (mostly due to the ignorant and selfish actions of car park cretins it should be said) the steel wheels were starting to rust and the electric aerial was becoming increasingly anarchic and unpredictable by the day..
Yet I was truly sad to see it sail off. Its odometer had accumulated a not inconsiderable number of kilometres in the almost 5 years in my ownership, it had transported my partner – who became my wife while we owned it – and I on numerous holidays and trips away, packing away a surprisingly large amount of luggage into the bargain. It had sipped unleaded and kept me mobile during the dark days of the fuel blockades in the Autumn of 2000 and it seemed to make every journey an event, whether it was a drive through the suburbs to work or a jaunt around the Continent.
The Barchetta was never a huge seller in this country, primarily due to the location of its steering wheel and I think that is a real shame, but conversely this was for me I believe the main attraction. It was different and stood out in a sea of Mazdas and MGs. When I sold mine, circumstances dictated that we needed something a touch more practical and it was replaced with a 156 Sportwagon. For a number of reasons I have very mixed feelings about that Alfa – not least the fact that half of it had already fallen off before the transmission imploded at only 70k miles, but despite this it is was a truly rewarding car to own. I never warmed to it in the way I did to the Fiat which preceded it and for that reason, the Barchetta is, for me, The One That Got Away.
Now, as you will have read, Michael is in the fortunate position of being able to get back with his old flame in the form of another Cooper S and I know that he is going to be like a child on Christmas morning when he finally gets the keys in his sweaty palm.
For my part, I have to confess to firing up Ebay and Autotrader on occasion (having first made sure that the credit card is safely out of arms’ reach) and looking at prices of Barchettas. Prices don’t yet seem to have started climbing dramatically but I predict that within a couple of years, well preserved examples will start to fetch good money. The specialist to whom I used to take mine for regular servicing was already starting to buy up nice ones with a view to fully recommissioning them a decade ago and I reckon that was a pretty shrewd move on their part.
For me, having a family and therefore not realistically being in the position where I can outlay £5k on what would ultimately be a toy rather precludes me from indulging again – well, for now at least – but hopefully my prediction that the little Fiat is set for great things might prove to be unfounded and I might still be able to bag one in a few years time.