This is a car Tim Kirkham almost landed, but it slipped the hook. Will driving a Fiat 130 Coupé renew his desire to catch one? Words Russ Smith. Photography Jonathan Jacob.
‘These cars have a real presence’ – a reader drives the Fiat 130 Coupé
The List Your dream drive made real
Reader Tim Kirkham drives the exotic that got away – a Fiat 130 Coupé
Even before it turns in from the main road into Avantgarde Classics’ base, sited just down the road from another popular playground, Alton Towers, we hear Tim Kirkham’s TVR Griffith. Griffs are like that, and let you know their driver is a true petrolhead – which is very much the case here. Tim is a guy whose very first car was a Triumph Spitfire, bought in the mid-Eighties when it was already a classic. The TVR is just the latest in a long line of sports cars and coupés he’s been working through ever since.
Avantgarde’s boss, Jonathan Aucott, invites us to look around the showroom while he puts the kettle on. We’re briefly distracted by an immaculate and super-cool Mercedes-Benz 220SEb coupé near the entrance, then spot the Fiat 130 Coupé that we’ve arranged for Tim to drive, behind a big lump of Range Rover. The Merc is instantly forgotten and his eyes light up. ‘God, I do love these cars. They have a real presence, and look so much better up close than they do on a page. There are details like that thin scallop along the beltline that don’t necessarily jump out in photos, yet it breaks up the car’s lines so well. It’s sheer styling genius.
‘In looks the 130 wins it hands down’
‘I almost excluded myself from today. I actually left a bid on one of these at an Anglia Car Auctions sale in August last year – a white one, left-hand drive and with an automatic gearbox. It was going to go through right near the end of the sale and my brother and I had to leave for a family event, so I left my details and a commission bid, instructing them that I’d go to £13,000, which was just below the bottom estimate. ‘Then I bottled it on the drive home, once I’d had time to consider what I’d just done and what my wife might say. So I called the auction house and withdrew the bid just in time. I later saw that the car had indeed sold for £13,000 and have wondered ever since if I did the right thing.’
It looks like we might be treading on raw nerve territory today. Is Tim going to drive home kicking himself, or with a huge sigh of relief? Jonathan hands him the keys; we’re about to find out, and in the most fantastic example. This UK market right-hooker with a rare manual gearbox has been cossetted from new, covered just 19,200 miles, and was once owned by Chris Evans.
‘That thin scallop along the beltline breaks up the car’s lines so well. It’s sheer styling genius’
Tim takes time to get himself oriented in the exceedingly ginger -looking driver’s seat. ‘The interior is fantastic – so Seventies, and a proper four-seater as well. Pininfarina designed this as well as the body, you know. The tilt and telescopic steering wheel gives plenty of adjustment. I thought I’d be in for the usual short leg/long arm driving position, but actually it’s really easy to get comfortable. I absolutely love that seat-belt clip; it’s such a neat idea having both belts latching onto a simple central chrome hoop, and they release with a simple tug – there’s no little button to find and prod. This is one of those things you see and wonder why everyone else didn’t copy it. It’s stuff like that that makes old cars so special for me.
‘I’m a bit worried about remembering that there’s a dogleg first gear on the five-speed while I’m driving. I’ve not used one for ages, since my brother Guy bought a Lancia Fulvia, and that was left-hand drive – I’ve never driven a right-hand drive car with this layout.’ But he slots it in and we’re off. ‘The gear lever has a very long throw, reminiscent of the Alfetta GTV I had. As with that you have to be deliberate with each shift and not rush it. It feels notchy too – in fact a bit disappointing. People say the five-speed manual is the one to have, but maybe this car is better suited to being an auto. The clutch is heavy too, but that was expected. I was also looking for a left-foot rest next to the clutch that’s not there, but there’s plenty of space under the pedal. The other thing the dogleg set-up does is make it harder with the interim gears, remembering which one you’re in. It will be something you tune into with ownership, I imagine.
‘I’m surprised how well it deals with town traffic. I wasn’t looking forward to that but it’s so easy to drive and to manoeuvre because you can see out of it so clearly in all directions.’ We soon break free from Tamworth onto an open road where Tim can press the right pedal a little harder. ‘It’s a nice engine, pretty torquey. You can tell there’s quite a bit of weight to the car but that doesn’t detract from it as there’s enough power to carry it.
‘It feels very civilised. Even road noise is well subdued, which is remarkable for a car of this age. The engine also seems a lot quieter from inside the car than out. Now we’re out in the open I’m finding there’s a bit of play in the steering. It’s a nice weight though, with a decent amount of feel. With the steering also being quite low-geared you have to anticipate turns a bit and start to apply lock early, then it flows quite nicely. On a left-right kink you’ve got to be quick on the steering to get it right, but it’s one of those things you just adapt to, and it feels rewarding when you get it right. I also like the steering wheel, which is a Momo – is that original or an option?’ It later turns out to be neither when we discover the car’s slightly larger-diameter original in the boot.
‘The ride is much better than I expected. Fiat really got this right for the market’
For now we have a far more important issue to deal with – the engine coughing and stumbling under more spirited bouts of acceleration. It’s a classic sign of fuel starvation, despite the fuel gauge needle hovering between the quarter-full and red zone, so we divert to the nearest service station for a top-up with fingers crossed that it’s nothing more serious. It isn’t, and we’re soon back to enjoying the quiet Staffordshire lanes north-east of Tamworth. Tim now looks properly relaxed into the car and confirms it with his next comment. ‘I’m so impressed with the seats; they are really comfortable and also give good support round the back and shoulders. It would be easy to do long distances in this.
‘I’m definitely more confident in it now, though it feels better on A-roads than little lanes. The bigger roads are what it’s built for; it’s a wide car and a little bit roly and wallowy, but I’m OK with that. It also has that typical Italian thing in that it feels better the quicker you go; it’s nice that it’s got that. The brakes take some getting used to, especially after my TVR. You have to take the Fiat’s age into account of course, but if it was mine I might try a change of pads to maybe get a bit more bite from them.
‘On some surfaces the suspension feels a bit fidgety but it soaks up bumps well. A couple of times I’ve winced in advance of something I couldn’t avoid but nothing’s come through to the body. The ride is much better than I expected. Fiat really got this right for the market it was aimed at, as competition for BMWs and Mercs.
It’s a shame it didn’t throw more into the engineering and power, but it’s not far off and in looks the 130 wins it hands down. Also, the Fiat’s quality feel wins, which maybe comes as a surprise. It does to me.’
The deserted car park of a pretty village church provides a handy place to stop and take stock. That’s when we find the very Seventies plastic steering wheel in the boot – two fat spokes with three large holes in each and joyous to behold. It’s accompanied by a handy parts catalogue with exploded diagrams. Tim is straight into that, looking to reveal what some of the unmarked dashboard switches do. ‘Got it!’ he exclaims, ‘the switch to unlock the passenger door. I thought there’d be one. Now I don’t have to keep leaning over to open it.’
We now also know which one opens the front-hinged bonnet so make use of it. ‘Ah, now that a nice-looking engine,’ says Tim. ‘So it’s a shame in a way that so much of it is hidden by the enormous air filter housing. I might like some crackle-finish on the cam covers but otherwise the V6 looks great and there’s room to get at it. There’s lots of sound-deadening on the underside of the bonnet too, which explains how it sounds so muted.’ I point out some odd pipework and equipment on the inner wing. ‘Ah, that’s part of the air-conditioning – proper old-school stuff,’ says Tim. As a freelance aircon engineer, he should know.
It’s time to head back and Tim looks around as he slides back into the velour of the driver’s seat. ‘You know it’s so Seventies in here it almost takes you back there. The colours, the materials, it’s all so right. It’s a nice view out of the door mirror that I’ve noticed, too; it sits right on that side scallop and really highlights it.’
Tim’s also found the switch that flicks the horn between town and country settings and tries the latter. ‘Oh, that’s a real Italian sound, and another lovely touch too.’
Pressing on, ‘I’m getting used to the gearbox now. It adds character to the car; you actually need to think about it unlike in a modern car so it keeps reminding you where you are, and that’s a good thing. It’s a car that’s definitely best on open roads. When you can set it up properly for a corner it gives you a lot of confidence, though it’s not so good when one comes up on you by surprise. But that aside, it always feels so composed and solid. You don’t often talk in terms like that with Italian cars.
‘Beforehand I was a bit concerned about the power. It doesn’t look much on paper by modern standards for an engine of that size, but in reality there is plenty – more than enough for easy overtaking. Whatever you do it always feels really tractable and better than that 165bhp figure suggests.’
We breeze confidently over some more road humps and finally sweep back into Avantgarde’s immaculate yard. Those super-cool seat-belts are unclipped for the final time. So how does he feel now about the 130 Coupé that he allowed to get away at auction last year? After a pause he admits, ‘I wish I’d left that bid on. I definitely regret that now. It’s the looks – which I’ve always been drawn to – as much as the way it drives. This car is so special both inside and out, and you’ve got that smooth V6 soundtrack coming through every time you accelerate.
‘You don’t often see such sharp-edged styling like this on the cars of today, so it really stands out. Yet at the same time it somehow looks modern, if that’s not contradicting myself. Overall it’s also just so classy and understated. That’s all the things that I’m not, so it could do the talking for me.
‘Even if it weren’t a right-hand drive and manual gearbox model, that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for me – I’ve owned an Integrale so am used to sitting on the other side. I am going to keep looking out for one of these, and it is very possible I will have a 130 Coupé when I replace my TVR Griffith.’
Thanks to Avantgarde Classics, where the Fiat is for sale
Tim’s drive has him rueing a retracted auction bid last year, and considering a 130 as his next classic. Air filter blocks a little too much view of the 3235cc V6 for Tim’s liking Russ points out some pipework that aircon engineer Tim should find familiar. Tim is pleasantly surprised by the Fiat’s ergonomics. Only the Seventies would turn a safety feature into a design flourish 130s are rare in right-hand- drive, manual ’box configuration.
1975 Fiat 130 Coupé
Engine 3235cc V6, ohc, Weber 45 DFC twin-choke carburetor
Max Power 165bhp @ 5600rpm
Max torque 184lb ft @ 3400rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and roller, power-assisted
Suspension Front: independent by MacPherson struts, lower arms, torsion bars and anti-roll bar. Rear: independent, struts, coil springs, lateral locating arms and anti-roll bar
Brakes Discs front and rear, servo-assisted
Weight 1555kg (3428lb)
Top speed: 118mph
Fuel consumption 18mpg
Cost new £8201
Asking price £42,000
TIM KIRKHAM’S DREAM DRIVE LIST
‘Bonkers six-wheeler with a huge Cadillac V8. Totally crazy but must be awesome to drive.’
Alfa Romeo Montreal
‘Concept car with race V8 and headlight slats. And it’s an Alfa – what more could you want?’
‘Probably my all-time favourite. Awesome V12 in elegant and understated GT body.’
Lancia Rallye 037
‘Brutal and beautiful, a rallying legend for the road.’
AC Cobra 427
‘What every two-seater roadster wants to be when it grows up.’
De Tomaso Mangusta
‘Stunning mid-engined pioneer. Probably not as good to drive as a Pantera but I wouldn’t care.’
Fiat 130 Coupé
‘Sharp and menacing mafia boss styling, pure class. If it was good enough for Enzo…’
BMW 635CSi E24
‘When I was seven a neighbour took us out in one… sideways. I’ve wanted to drive one ever since.’
‘The ultimate blend of Italian muscle, feminine curves and supercar performance.’
Citroën SM 3.0 Automatic
‘Seems crazy that they dared make it, but I’m so glad they did.’
TIM KIRKHAM’S MOTORING CV
Car predilections split between UK and Italy
TRIUMPH SPITFIRE MKIV
‘My first car, bought before I passed my test. Dad even gave me lessons in it. Uncomfortable, draughty, not very quick, but I loved it.’
ALFA ROMEO GTV 2.0
‘A big step up from the Spitfire in terms of engineering and refinement. Owning this really got Italian cars under my skin.’
LANCIA BETA SPIDER 2.0
‘I missed the Spitfire’s soft top but wanted another Italian. Extremely practical with a big boot, four seats and superb roof arrangement.’
‘Bought with my brother Guy to compete jointly in the Luffield MG Car Club speed championship. We were pretty competitive.’
TVR GRIFFITH 4.0
‘Early example that I bought after a windfall. I still have it. Ownership reality not always as good as the dream but then I look at it and forget the hassles.’