These two are often seen together in a nearby parking lot. I’ve seen them parked next to one another (always in this configuration) for over a year now. Sometimes, one of them is absent, but they always reform their little duo in the end. They might be owned by the same person. But who would own both of these together? They’re so different. But like white wine and orange juice, they do make for a nice cocktail. Kampai!
The Benz is an absolute classic, as any W123 would be – but even more so when we’re talking about the coupé version with the biggest petrol 6-cyl. engine. Yet although I’m a big W123 fan, the two-door is not really my stein of lager. I’m much keener on the wagons. But one must admire the versatility of the platform, as it does wear this aristocratic hardtop body with as much grace as it does the utilitarian long-roof.
Under the hood, this coupe has the M110, a 2746cc DOHC straight-6 that was one of the carmaker’s mainstays in the ‘70s and ‘80s, being used in everything from the Strich Acht and the S-Class to the SL and the G-Wagen. In the 280CE, the M110 is fuel-injected and provides 185hp, which enables the coupe to reach a top speed of 200kph.
Not that these are necessarily made for pure performance – 200kph was hardly impressive by the ‘80s anyway. But compared to the notoriously lymphatic Diesel W123s, this one must feel like a pleasantly smooth Autobahn cruiser. It sleeps outside and is not pampered like some cars one sees in Tokyo, though if the owner decided to treat it to a thorough detailing, I’m sure it would look great, both inside and out.
As some of you already pointed out on previous Japanese market W123 posts, the coupés and 6-cyl. cars sold here all have the lower-end cars’ rubber-tipped bumpers – not the massive US-style 5-mph, but not the chromed ones found on European-spec cars either. Similarly, the vents under the windshield are also of the black plastic variety. Not sure why Mercedes’ Japanese customers were given these (modest) downgrades.
Moving over to the Fiat, we’re faced with a completely different animal. This is what the Italian carmaker devised to belatedly succeed their surprisingly long-lived 124 Sport, built by Pininfarina for 20-odd years, as well as the Bertone X1/9 (1972-89). The base was the Fiat Punto, so we’re talking transverse-engine FWD, 4-cyl. and all the modern fittings. A true technological leap compared to the ancient 124.
Unlike the Fiat Coupé that shared its Punto platform, the Barchetta was only ever available with one engine, the new Fiat modular Pratola Serra 1747cc 4-cyl. It was a spirited little number, with DOHC and four valves per cylinder, providing a very adequate 130hp. Given the Barchetta’s modest 1-ton weight, this allows for the Fiat’s top speed to equal the W123 – and its acceleration is better than the German car, too. Not to mention fuel economy.
But again, this is no sports car per se. They called it Barchetta, which originally meant “little boat” but has been used for automobiles (especially racing cars) since the prewar days. It’s the polar opposite of the land yacht: small and nimble, economical and light – with a hefty dash of style. Said style was home-grown by the folks at Fiat, who have shown their tremendous ability in that domain for decades. Pininfarina, Bertone or Italdesign were not consulted on this one.
However, construction of the Barchetta was farmed out to Carrozzeria Maggiora, at the former Lancia works in Chivasso, until they went bankrupt in 2002. The car was given a quick facelift and production resumed at Fiat’s Mirafiori plant in 2003. It seems these were exported to Japan between 1996 and 2001, but total production, which totaled just under 58,000 units, lasted from early 1995 to 2005.
The interior looks pretty well-preserved, for a 25-year-old Fiat. Bust the rest of the car, just like the Benz, is a bit tatty by Tokyo standards. That’s the price of sleeping out in the open, I suppose.
The thing is, because of the fabric top (always something of an Achilles’ heel), the Barchetta is actually looking quite a bit worse for wear above the beltline than the W123. While we’re here though, let’s praise the Fiat Centro Stile for specifying ultra-cool flush-mounted ‘50s style push-button door handles. It’s one of those excellent details that helps this budget Italian convertible stand out against its Japanese (Miata, MR2) or European (MGF, Audi TT) rivals.
The odd thing about this pair is that the ‘70s-era Benz is wearing a decidedly modern silver paintwork, whereas the turn-of-the-century Barchetta is sporting a shade of orange that was far more popular two decades before it was produced. It just adds to the Fiat’s overall appeal, to my eyes. If you’re going to get an exotic convertible, it might as well be painted in a loud colour. Silver cars, on the other hand, are downright common. Just look at that other Mercedes coupé in the background there…
So I’m picking the Barchetta, no question. There aren’t too many mid-‘90s drop-top designs that are as interesting to look at, and it’s bound to be more affordable (though perhaps not quite as reliable) as The 280CE. Still, if the whacky orange paint were on the other car, my vote might switch. Pinot Grigio and Fanta… now that’s an intriguing cocktail idea.