The Wonderful Fiat Barchetta
Turin's National Automobile Museum has recently added a gorgeous early Barchetta to its collection. So I guess it's high time to revisit what's perhaps the most seductive Fiat model ever...
Few things make you feel older than finding a car you've seen in dealers when it launched appearing in a museum.
Yet that's exactly what happened here in Turin, where the National Automobile Museum has recently added a gorgeous early Barchetta to its collection. I guess it's high time to revisit what's perhaps the most seductive Fiat model ever.
The overnight success of the first-generation Mazda MX-5 spurred a brief but nevertheless intense sports car frenzy among automakers, and Fiat was no exception.
Work on the Barchetta started in 1990, and, given that a bespoke rear-wheel-drive platform was simply out of the question, the Barchetta was based on a modified version of the first-generation Punto's platform. The wheelbase was cut by 175 mm, and, interestingly, the cowl was lowered and moved back by 100 mm, something that's rarely done but was essential to achieve the desired proportions.
The design proposal created by the Greek designer Andreas Zapatinas was selected for further development around July of 1991 and ultimately became the Barchetta we know and love. It's a deliberate homage to the classic roadsters of the 1950s, particularly the MGA and the Ferrari 166 bodied by Touring Superleggera, and it looks just as pretty.
The interior was also inspired by those classic roadsters: the body-color section just below the windscreen suggested the kind of connection between interior and exterior typical of 1950s roadsters, where the windshield frame was a separate element simply bolted on.
The Barchetta was launched in 1995, and it would be offered with a single powertrain option throughout its career: a 1.8 liters 16-valve, four-cylinder equipped with variable valve timing and rated at 130 HP.
Construction of the Barchetta bodies took place around 40 Km northwest of Turin. Each bodyshell required the intervention of skilled workers to smooth out the seams between the front and rear fender panels and the rest of the car: an expensive solution only possible because of the Barchetta's low production volume. The bodies were then transported to the Bertone facility in Grugliasco for painting, then transferred to Chivasso, where the supplier Maggiora took care of the final assembly.
Maggiora itself presented an intriguing Coupé prototype at the 1996 Turin Motor Show, which remained a one-off, as Fiat by then had already considered and discarded a very similar concept.
The Fiat Barchetta changed remarkably little over the first eight years of its existence, apart from color and trim choices or complying with legal requirements, like the third brake light that was tastefully integrated into the car's boot lid in 2000.
Although well-received in its home country, the Barchetta's chances were certainly hampered by Fiat's decision not to offer a right-hand-drive version for the UK, one of Europe's largest markets for open cars. Moreover, the Barchetta couldn't count on US sales the way its predecessors did, as Fiat had abandoned that market since 1982.
The twilight years
Production of the Barchetta suffered a hiatus in 2002, following the bankruptcy of Maggiora, and, as in that period the Fiat Group itself nearly suffered the same fate, one wouldn't have expected the Barchetta to ever come back, yet it did.
Production of the little roadster resumed in 2003, this time in-house at Fiat's historic Mirafiori site, following a questionable restyling curated by the late Tom Tjaarda. The operation was done on the proverbial shoestring budget, and I can't help wondering why Fiat bothered at all, given the Barchetta's age and negligible sales volume by then.
The last cars were made around June 2005 and, with the final production tally sitting well below 60.000 cars, the Barchetta is a much rarer car than most people think and well worth saving up for posterity.