Fiat, along with MG and Triumph, was perhaps the greatest exponent of the affordable, European roadster and after the 124 Spider and the X1/9 had taken (well deserved) retirement, there was another. In some ways it was an absolute home run: the 1995 to 2005 Barchetta, or “little boat”.
The Barchetta was based on the 1993 Fiat Punto supermini –Fiat’s Fiesta, Polo and Corsa competitor – and came with a 1747 cc 16V twin overhead cam 4 cylinder engine, with a round 130 bhp, driving the front wheels through a five speed gearbox. Variable valve timing featured too, a first on a Fiat. All in, around 120 mph and 0-60 in around 9 seconds. This is a 1999 pre-facelift car with a personal registration that maybe has a boat link.
The styling was completed by the Fiat Centro Stile, and the various options proposed for approval were named after pizzas. (If that isn’t a reason for liking an Italian car, then I give up!) In the end, the Diavola lost out to the Marinara, created by Andreas Zapatinas, and assembly was by Maggiora, in the old Lancia factory in Chivasso near Turin.
There are two obvious cars to benchmark the Barchetta against – the Mazda Miata MX-5, then in its Mark 1 pop-up lights form, and the 1994 MGF, which was mid-engined and offered 1.6 litre and 1.8 litre engine options, the latter in particular being a more performance oriented product than the Fiat. The Fiat was more powerful than the 1.6 litre Mazda and consequently faster, although the handling was not as pure “sports car” as the rear drive Mazda. Horses for courses, as on many of the criteria that govern every day life the three cars were closely matched. All were pure two seaters with manual fabric folding tops with glass rear windows. The Mazda had the Japanese reliability tag and attractive styling aping the Lotus Elan, the MG had the name and its history and the mid-engined performance association, the Fiat had that Italian flair and some wonderful details. And a lovely exhaust note!
Take the side crease: the way this emerges below the headlight and flows along the flank rising like a wave below the mirror, dipping and then rising again over the rear wheel before fading away like the wake of a boat. It emphatically does not just run down the side of the car. This is an Italian sports car designed to be enjoyed in warm temperatures and it shows.
And there’s the door handle itself. Fiat didn’t use something from the Punto or the Tipo, but an Aston Martin style push button, pop out handle. What a stylish way to add some theatre, that special feeling, to what is actually a modest and relatively affordable car.
Or the headlights, covered by fairing with a subtle but distinctive point at the leading edge, like the prow of a boat? And the lower profile of the valence which rises in the centre, giving the impression of the water rising against that bow? Similarly with the bonnet shut line.
The vents ahead of the windscreen are a flat area, like the deck of a boat, and are delicately shaped rather just a line of slots. Likewise, the way the screen is mounted, with the body colour seemingly running through under the rubbers, again like a boat. This car has an optional hardtop on, but the folded cover was covered by a folding tonneau panel rather than flexible cover like the Mazda or MG.
At the rear, the boat looks continue with what are some of the neatest rear lamps you’ll see, and a graceful swelling of the rear shoulders.
Heck, even the third brake light added in 2003 is superbly integrated on the trunk lid, which itself is a lovely cross between those of the Fiat 124 Spider and the X1/9 and the hatch on a boat.
All Barchettas were left hand drive, and this UK registered example is obviously no exception. There are two readings of using painted metal work inside the cabin of car: saving money and adding style. There’s no doubt which way this one goes, and the dash adds classic Italian vents, an angled gearlever and a subtle angling of the dash towards the driver as well. Possibly, a nicer, if less durable, interior than the MX-5.
The Barchetta was sold in the UK (and Japan) in this form and although not as numerous as the MX-5 or MGF it has a strong following now. Fiat priced it keenly, undercutting the MX-5 in the UK by about 15% and about 20% against the MGF 1.8.
Underrated, and really rather nice. You want one, don’t you?