Fiat Strada Abarth
Why this pocket exotic deserves to be remembered…
Words Nigel Boothman & Theo Ford-Sagers Photography Laurens Parsons
‘If you want a good one – a genuinely good one – the only way is to do it yourself,’ says Doug Blair. He’d been looking for a Strada Abarth for a while, keen to relive his fond memories of owning one when they were new. After examining the few he could find for sale, he realised that corrosion and deterioration were unavoidable.
So in 2010 he bought the best he could find. It was black, it came with an MoT, it was outwardly smart and okay to drive. Doug brought it to Emblem Sports Cars in Poole, Dorset. They’re used to restoring classic Ferraris, Maseratis and other exotica, and had worked with Doug before. He and Emblem’s boss Martin Chatfield came up with a plan. That plan sounds simple, but it’s remarkable for what it implies: have the car stripped, have the car repaired and painted, have the car rebuilt and trimmed. And not by just anyone – each job would be performed by a trusted specialist more used to working with Emblem’s usual upmarket stock-in-trade.
Andy Bowley and David Summers of Red Motori in Blandford Forum are best known for their work on classic Alfas. They began the stripdown in February 2011.
‘It was a good “on the road” car,’ says Andy. ‘But when we started lifting the carpets and removing the parcel shelf to get at the rear suspension turrets, we started to find holes.’
They also realised the extent of replacement parts that would be needed. All Strada trim, instruments, interior parts and switchgear is scarce; Strada Abarth 130TC stuff is like a decent joke at Prime Minister’s question time – rare to the point of extinction. Doug bought a basket-case 130TC, but it rendered fewer useable parts than he hoped, although someone bought the stripped remains, intending to restore it. Perhaps it, too, will return to the road one day.
Meanwhile, the black car’s denuded shell went from Red Motori to Mitchell Motors in Salisbury, a high-end bodyshop run by Andrew Mitchell. ‘It was rusty in all the places you could possibly imagine a Fiat being rusty in,’ says Andrew. ‘We blasted it with superfine glass powder at only 28psi; it was the most gentle method we could use that still had enough bite to remove the rust.’
Having created an ultra-light Abarth shell with enough holes to strain a giant pot of pasta, Mitchell Motors had to stitch it back together. ‘I think Doug found us a wing and a rear panel, but the rest was all made from scratch. That’s what happens here… if you bring it to me, beware, because it will be done properly. That means a whole heap of hours.’ Something in excess of 700 hours later, the perfect new steel and freshly stripped old metal was protected by much etch primer, a 3M two-pack polymer rubber coating on the underside, then lots of primer and rub-downs for the upper surface. Clear lacquer over that jet-black base coat was finished with 2000-grit wet sanding and then a burnish from some polishing compound.
Poor old Red Motori then had to work carefully around the most beautifully-painted Strada shell on the planet as they re-installed the engine and painstakingly built up the finished car. Doug likes the hunt for rare spares, so Andy Bowley would email him a list and parts would start to appear. Some, for safety’s sake, were new – brakes, seatbelts – but others like suspension components received a powder coat and went back on the car.
One fascinating challenge was created by those chunky Abarth sport seats. Doug, with great foresight, had bought a roll of peculiar black and red Fiat seat cloth in the 1990s. More than ten years later, he’d finally bought the car to go with it, and its front seats were tatty. Emblem sent them to ace trimmer Kevin Baggs, based in the same yard in Poole.
‘The centre panels of the seats were easily replaced with this fabric, but the plain black side-sections on the bolsters were harder,’ says Kevin. ‘In the end, I worked out that we could dodge between the pattern repeats on the cloth, even removing the red embroidered pattern if necessary, and trim all of both seats with this one roll.’
This is typical of the care taken over the whole car. What Doug ended up with is exactly what he wanted – not just a decent restored example or a nice second-hand survivor, but a perfect new one. And ever since it was finished, he’s been busy enjoying it. ‘It took me back to the 1980s,’ he says. ‘I could have upgraded it or changed it, but I wanted it to drive like they did back then. So it might not have modern brakes but it’s still quick, still a real handful. It makes you aware of what a breakthrough it was.’
Now it’s our turn. Doug hops in for the ride, big grin on his face, and we buckle up for a B-road brawl. ‘Just bear in mind there’s no rev limiter,’ he warns. Overcautious? Not really – in his defence, the last time he was a passenger in a Strada Abarth about 20 years ago, it ended expensively...
Before the off, some cabin logistics need attending to. These Recaros feel just as solid and snug as they look, but they barely fit in the car. The flat base doesn’t sit flush with the creases in the floorpan, and you're forced to set the seat and wheel rake adjustment to their furthest extremities to make room for knees and thighs. But once you’re settled it all feels quite sensible and the instruments and switchgear are drawn out close to eye level in long, regimented order. The wheel and pedals are a little offset, without feeling cramped.
On the move the clutch can throw you off. It’s deep and soft, and it's easy to misjudge the biting point when heading for second. Synchromesh on second tends to be short lived, says Doug, and it's easy to see why. But when you get it right, you’ll have a huge grin on your face. The ZF’s five tightly-spaced ratios are perfect for attacking tight, twisty roads.
All the torque comes well before the red line, so there’s little risk of popping the engine even without a rev limiter. It’s very keen off the mark, lunging out of junctions and delivering a gutsy upsurge of midrange power with a big, bestial yowl. There’s lots of noise, all engine rather than tailpipe – unsubtle but huge fun.
Once you’re rolling, the unassisted steering is perfectly weighted and offers a fairly responsive turn-in, neat at first with an extra little flick of attitude when you lift the throttle. And enthusiastic cornering will certainly make you glad of those bucket seats; the Abarth’s stiffer springs help compensate for the engine’s extra weight, but still allow a fair amount of body roll. Grip and balance don’t need to be pushed to the limits to have fun, though it’s easy to feel egged on to try harder. ‘You can see why my last one got written off,’ says Doug. We think he’s still grinning...
As it’s a hatchback, it seems fitting to test its practicality by getting into the back. This involves grappling with the Recaros again and contortion of the hip in order to slot yourself in. When attempted by 6ft English blokes, it’s a recipe for pain and laughter, followed by inevitable affection for this bonkers little car.
It’s an old-school slayer of automotive greats, a weird marriage of the daft and the practical, and as flawed as it is wonderful. But what about the elephant in the room – the one munching bales of £50 notes?
‘Having done a few Maseratis, I know the levels involved to get a good car,’ says Doug. ‘It got a bit out of hand, but my heart ruled my head. There are so few around, and no really good examples, so why not?’
The Modern Classics view
This money-no-object approach isn’t possible for every hot-hatch restoration, but it seems appropriate that it should have happened to one of the rarest and most eccentric of the breed. A good Strada Abarth could be the 1980s equivalent of an Alfa Giulia Sprint of the late 1950s and no one bats an eyelid about throwing money at them.
That’s not to say Doug Blair’s expenditure is about to become a sound financial investment. That was never the point. What he’s done, apart from building himself a wormhole back to 1985, is to nail down the future of one small but exciting piece of motoring heritage.