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Fiat Barchetta

Published: 28th Apr 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Fiat BarchettaBoat like looks are part of the Fiat’s charm. And are very good value right now
Punto-based chassis ensures decent sporting handling; steering is a little ‘dead’ Punto-based chassis ensures decent sporting handling; steering is a little ‘dead’
Left-hand drive only but the cockpit is well thought out. Check for deterioration Left-hand drive only but the cockpit is well thought out. Check for deterioration
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What is a Fiat Barchetta?

Classy, sleek and achingly pretty, the Fiat Barchetta open top sports car was always one of those great future classics which you might pass up for various reasons. In the Barchetta’s case it’s the seating plan. Closer examination reveals that a steering wheel, pedals and driver’s console sprouting from what should be, in a standard car, a relatively empty passenger side. That’s right, the Barchetta is a left-hand drive only car, or - as the trade neatly calls it- a ‘left hooker’ (not in that context you understand – ed). Joking aside, but however you view this modern Fiat, it’s a good, cheekier alternative to an MGF or MX-5 and oozes the sort of character only an Italian rag top can. So in that case there’s classic status promised already and the best thing of all are the prices these fab Fiats currently sell for.

History

Both the Fiat Barchetta and the Fiat Coupe were launched at more or less the same time, back in 1995, but only the Fiat Coupe got the huge poster, press and (in Italy) television advertising campaign. The Barchetta’s cheeky lines smirked from a couple of posters, true enough, but it quickly resigned itself to playing second fiddle to its bigger sister. The reason was partly because of the ‘grown-up’ nature of the Fiat Coupe’s engine and performance (in its Turbo guise it was, and still is, the fastest Fiat), whilst the Barchetta had to make do with the Punto floorpan and a 130bhp 1.8 engine; and partly because, as the company put it, “the cost impli-cations of producing a right-handdrive Barchetta would far outweigh the benefits of selling it in huge numbers to the UK market”.

There are, of course, companies who will undertake right-hand conversions and as it’s basically a prettier Punto, this shouldn’t pose too much difficulty, but the costs of the operation are huge (around £3500 or over) and the results are usually pretty poor, we’ve been told. And don’t even think about it adding to the Fiat’s resale value because the car becomes more acceptable to most enthusiasts; in the real world it just won’t happen. The absolute absence of a marketing campaign and even more drastic lack of visibility approaching roundabouts and trying to overtake did no harm to the UK market’s love for the Barchetta. An iconoclastic car entering the rarefied arena of small, nippy sportcars, the little Italian lured enthusiasts away from the Mazda MX-5 and MGF with much nonchalance. Fiat had one of those unusual business inspirations, and realised that there was potential for a funloving, no-frills, open-top sports car not only in ‘Sole Mio’, sunglasses and ice cream country, but also in rain-sodden, mud-caked United Kingdom, where people seem very happy to burn the top of their heads for twenty days a year, and lock the car in the garage for the rest of the time.

The new model was, appropriately enough, called ‘Barchetta’, or ‘little boat’ - maybe because of its shape, or because its rubber and plastic interior would make the driver feel like they would float in case of a rainstorm, or even because of the historical meaning of the word itself, originally used by Ferrari to refer to one of its first roadsters. Whatever the reason, in short, it’s a car with no roof! The Barchetta was penned by Andreas Zapatinas at Fiat Centro Stile, and launched to an adoring public at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1995. In fact, whilst the coveted Cabrio of the Year title has gone to the new Alfa Romeo Spider in 2006, it was indeed the Fiat Barchetta which earned it first back in 1995.

When it came to the UK later that year, the Marketing Director and the Fiat Product Manager laid a bet that it would not sell the forecast 200 units in its first year of life. It did. And kept selling. In fact, it didn’t stop selling until its demise in 2005 - bar a couple of years when the original factory making Barchettas, Maggiora, went bust and Fiat had to organise manufacture on its own premises, in Mirafiori (Turin) incidentally. Not that the production line would have had to be over-complicated, mind you. The Barchetta only came in one engine specification, the happy-revving fourcylinder 16-valve 1.8, with variable valve timing kicking out130bhp, making the little Fiat faster than the contemporary Mazda MX-5 (0-62mph in 8.7sec) and only a VVC MGF could match it. Only one trim spec was offered too although in 1998 a LE limited edition was introduced, boasting special alloy road wheels, titanium coloured air vents and instrument surrounds, leather trim and steel grey metallic paintwork. It cost £17,545 when new and may hold some special status in years to come.

Driving

Ah, driving a Fiat Barchetta in town! Good consumption (33mpg), power steering for getting out of those tight spots without sweat, and the extra advantage of being able to get in and out of the car from the kerbside. And, of course, those looks. The Barchetta is over ten years old now, but the original retro look, all the way down to the classy, white-faced round dials and those fabulous if scratch prone chrome lever door handles, has meant that here, on your hands, you have a real Dorian Grey: immortal beauty of an old car. Old, but not rotting quite yet. The chassis is rigid enough to avoid the scuttle shake which plagued the Alfa Romeo Spider of the same generation, and there never was an awful lot wrong with the Punto’s underpinnings anyway. Once one leaves the town and tries to forget the crazy insurance group 16 (it’s a high maintenance left-hooker, after all!), the Italian’s front-wheel drive should not really lose out to the likes of MX-5s and, worse, BMW Z3s.

The engine is zippy, with a discreet Latin note which never intrudes in the cabin, even with the top down. Feeling feedback from the steering wheel is a touch mean though, and the gearchange can be as challenging as those push-up door handles are to a lady’s manicure. The body paint has always been an appropriate match to the zingy-ness of a roadster, which never pretends to be anything else but good, harmless fun. And that’s what the Barchetta is: with a short, stout body, low on the ground and positioning each wheel at the extreme corner of the chassis, the handling is precise and sharp, aided by a quick 2.4 lock-to-lock steering rack. The seating position is great for virtually all body shapes and sizes, managing to avoid even Autocar’s severe criticism of the well-known ‘Italian ape position’.

Prices

As Fiat’s marketing strategy with regard to the Barchetta was non-existent, its pricing policy was less baffling: the model was launched competitively priced, cutting its two or three potential rivals by at least £1000. It is true that having the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car was the main reason for keeping prices down; one could also, if they wanted to, buy cheaper in Italy and bring the car over without too much difference in specifications. However, as the years went by, Barchetta’s prices never went up; in fact, from around £14,000 in 1995 the model consequently became cheaper in the showrooms, thus widening the gap between itself and, say, the MX-5 by a hefty £3000. It is possible to buy a 1995 Barchetta for around £2000 but, unless it was a cheap import, it will not be anything special. It’s far better to spend around £4000 for a better example – and when you compare these prices against say a rival MX-5 or MR2 (or even a restored MG Midget) then you can see where the Fiat’s appeal lies – plus it is more characterful and individual. Indeed you see late ‘52’ reg examples in the likes of Top Marques for just over eight grand and that friends is a bargain!

What To Look For

  • As the body is galvanised, rust should not be a problem. Any rot will be due to abuse or poor damage repairs by the owner, perhaps the LHD configuration catching some drivers out?
  • So check for damage on the UK driver’s side and don’t be afraid to delve deeper to look for suspension and steering replacements where a traffic island kerb may have been swiped.
  • Cars coming from abroad should be carefully checked out, German examples especially so because they are often beaten-up ex-hire vehicles, and the Italian ones because they are usually dented and badly cared for. In fact, it is worth spending that little bit more for a car in better condition than buy a cheap basket case
  • .
  • The hood, like most drop-top cars, will last a reasonable amount of time, five years or so, if well kept and waxed. The plastic rear screen has been known to split if folded when the weather is bitterly cold but new hoods only cost £300 from a main dealer.
  • A hard top, either the manufacturer’s own or a specialist’s, will certainly add value, to the tune of about £800, but it must be properly fitted or it will leak unashamedly (and many do).
  • One potentially huge problem is the valve timing variator: on early models the variator tended to seize as it couldn’t cope with a build-up of carbon; changing the variator but leaving the original cambelt is tantamount to asking for trouble, as a broken cambelt will bend the valves and the repair bill will be astronomical.
  • Unfortunately for Fiat, the variator problem, which just affected Barchettas built before 1999, became well known very quickly. There was no recall campaign, but the manufacturer started changing the variators for free, on an individual basis. Nowadays, it can cost around £600/700 to have the work done, but later models are not affected by the problem.
  • Check those lovely door handles for deterioration and action as they can fail. Another Fiat foible, the electrics, aren’t a problem but check your Barchetta comes with both keys. Any Fiat or Alfa missing the ‘Red’ master key must be viewed with suspicion (have a HPI computer check to see that hasn’t been written off or stolen recovered but the owner hasn’t surrendered both keys). Even if the car is ‘clean’, you can’t just order a new key… and without that master key you can’t restart the car if - say- the battery is changed without replacing the ECU to accept new transmitting codes - an expensive oversight!

Verdict

Don’t look at the Barchetta as a sexier Punto cabriolet - it’s an entirely different animal. Look at it instead as a smaller, cuter, cut price Alfa Spider that is far less common into the bargain. As a daily driver, the Fiat fits the bill well - although it’s not as everyday friendly as an MX-5. But as a second, fun car with an eye to mothballing the Fiat is worth considering. Prices are more than reasonable and for the price of a decidedly average Midget or MGB, Triumph Spitfire or TR7 you can’t do much better than bagging a Barchetta.



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