1985 Fiat Strada Abarth 130TC

1985 Fiat Strada Abarth 130TC

Fiat’s rev-happy Strada Abarth 130TC may not be the most exalted hot hatch, but it has character to spare. We try a rare survivor and come away smitten. Words: Richard Heseltine Pictures: Simon Thompson.

DRIVEN 1985 Fiat Strada Abarth 130tc

It lets loose a gurgle, followed by a crackling sound, which gives way to a splutter, a wheeze, and finally a breath-starved rasp. Stall. Try again. Idiot, this time try priming the carbs first. A few judicious pumps of the throttle pedal, a twist of the key and… Oh, hello! Merely sitting in the Fiat Strada Abarth 130TC lends the impression that this isn’t your average hot hatch, the well-bolstered seats being your first clue. The sound on start-up confirms as much. This clearly isn’t a car for polite society. It is, to borrow motoring hacks’ parlance of the 1980s, a bit ‘rorty’. That, and perhaps even ‘zingy’ and ‘punchy.’

1985 Fiat Strada Abarth 130TC

It is not, however, a race-bred homologation special with token nods to Highway Code adherence. This was simply Fiat’s way of tackling the era-defining Volkswagen Golf GTi and similar Continental rivals with a junior performance car of its own. It’s just that it typically ignored the recognised template and did things its own way. After all, it was perfectly qualified. There was a time, and not all that long ago, when the Turinese giant made brilliant small cars, and even better hotted-up variants. It’s just that most appear to have been forgotten by history.

Really, seriously, who remembers the Strada in base-spec? Anyone? Born in 1978, this was a car that represented a bold statement on the part of Fiat. It was created as a replacement for the 128 with which it shared much of its mechanical DNA. Whereas the 128 was a visually conventional small saloon and estate car, here was a three/five-door hatchback that appeared strikingly irregular when introduced in 1978. The Ritmo (Strada in the UK and North America) marked one of Fiat’s occasional excursions into the extraordinary, and it’s hard to quantify just how alien this car seemed to most onlookers 44 years ago.

1985 Fiat Strada Abarth 130TC

The adapted 128 hardware spanned the transversely-mounted overhead cam engines and front-wheel drive layout. So far, so ordinary. It may have not been particularly ground-breaking beneath the skin, but it was the skin that provoked so much comment. The outline has retrospectively been credited to Sergio Sartorelli, the former Ghia man being very much a name below the title designer during his lifetime. This likeable artiste preferred it that way. The outline’s signature feature was the extensive use of plastic mouldings, not least up front where the bumper reached to the leading edge of the bonnet, comprised the grille and encircled the headlights.

1985 Fiat Strada Abarth 130TC

This styling treatment lent the car a look all of its own, with some titles from the period coming up with an array of piscine similes. Around back, there was more of the same, the cladding being in place for a variety of reasons: it was cheap to make, resistant to minor parking dings, and relatively affordable and easy to replace. This seems positively normal now, but it wasn’t 50 years ago when the car was in the throes of creation. Then there were the sharply raked front and rear screens, the pronounced beltline crease and the oh-so groovy round door handles.

1985 Fiat Strada Abarth 130TC

Inside, the Strada was spacious for its class, and practical with it. And who can forget the print ad tagline: ‘Designed with a computer. Silenced by a laser. Built by a robot’? It proved a boon for, cough, ‘comedians’ to proffer their own interpretations. Even so, the ads served their purpose in getting the name across. And it’s worth recalling that the Ritmo/Strada sold in huge numbers in Europe, with power provided early on by petrol engines with a displacement up to 1.5 litres (plus a 1.7-litre diesel at home). Then, in 1981, Fiat tested the water by offering a warmish variant, the 1.6-litre 105TC which was sold in three-door form only.

That same year there was also the emergence of the cooking two-litre 125TC which was offered in left-hand drive markets. Then in 1982 Fiat introduced the unofficial series 2 Strada which was markedly smoother-looking and perhaps more… vanilla. Nevertheless, Fiat followed through in the summer of 1983 by unleashing the 130TC which, like the 125TC, employed the sublime 1995cc twin-cam ‘Lampredi’ four-cylinder unit, but here equipped with a brace of twin-choke side-draught Weber or Solex carbs, more muscular cam profiles, and Digiplex electronic ignition to help smooth out the torque curve.

The numerical designation denoted the claimed horsepower figure. It may seem tame in the here and now, but 130bhp was heady stuff in period. It also represented a 24% hike over the 105TC. Fiat claimed a 0-60mph time of 7.7 seconds which, by means of comparison, ensured it was 1.4 seconds faster than the Fiat XR3i. As such, the manufacturer had no qualms about touting it as being: ‘…the quickest hatchback of its kind,’ before claiming it was capable of ‘… an indecently quick 122mph’ in its promotional material.

It didn’t end there, this proven engine being allied to a close-ratio ZF five-speed ’box (with a couple of Abarth-instigated linkage mods), the ventilated disc/drum braking set-up being uprated to cope with the extra horses. And the superlatives rolled in once the model was launched in the UK in April 1984. Italian brands have, how can we put it…? They have not always come up with the most inspired routes for test launches. Not so here: Fiat mapped out a 250-mile adventure that started in Glasgow and took in Glencoe, Loch Fyne and the awe-inspiring Rest-and- be-Thankful hillclimb course.

It did the trick. Cars & Car Conversions, a title that wasn’t afraid of meting out a kicking to the undistinguished, gushed: ‘If there is any justice, Fiat Auto should have problems stopping the potential customers from rioting. An early order could be a wise move. It is so good because it doesn’t feel like a breathedon production car. It feels like a detuned competition car and that’s what makes the difference – sharp steering, perfect gear ratios and a no-nonsense driving position.’ Except there were no riots. Would-be punters weren’t beating down the doors at Fiat dealerships in a desperate bid to land a 130TC. Priced at £7800, it undercut the second-gen Golf GTi by £67, but it was almost £900 more expensive than an XR3i and a Vauxhall Astra GTE. It was faster than all of them, but speed isn’t everything. It was also among the uncouth in terms of noise suppression, the ride was that bit harsher, and it also guzzled fuel. This was very much the enthusiast’s choice, if not necessarily the sensible one. As such, sales never amounted to much in the UK. There were two variants of 130TC, the first having light grey interior trim and Pirelli Plus alloy wheels, the ‘Mk2’ black upholstery with a red stripe and Cromodora wheels. Just 344 of the former were imported in 1985-85, and 705 of the latter between 1985 and 1988 (introduced in line with a further facelift for the regular Strada, which sadly toned the styling down even further). Most of those brought in were resplendent in red, black or dark grey. Elsewhere, the palette was a bit broader, additional colours including white and light silver.

Only 30 or so 130TCs are thought to still exist in the UK, and survivors are nowadays highly prized. This 1985 example has been owned by the hugely enthusiastic Mark Holland for 18 years, his first car as a teenager having been a 1.5-litre Super Strada. Given that he has owned all manner of performance hardware, spanning everything from a Renault 5 GT Turbo Raider to a Ferrari F355 and heaven knows what else in between, it’s telling that this is the car he has kept the longest.

It isn’t difficult to comprehend why. Spend five minutes in the company of a 130TC and even the hardest-nosed cynic will be converted. Visually, it’s resolutely anchored in the mid-1980s, the subtle body kit, distinctive curved rear spoiler, and those Perspex side deflectors ensuring as much (these ‘wind cheats' purportedly reduced the CD figure and were worth an extra 2mph). And, as is to be expected, it appears on the small side by today’s standards, but is far from cramped once aboard.

That said, it isn’t perhaps the most stylish of cabins, but then show us a hot hatch from the period that was overtly attractive inside. Here, there’s a leather-covered three-spoke steering wheel that’s adjustable for rake, full (and mostly legible) instrumentation including oil pressure and temperature gauges (in the best Italian tradition), plus a pair of Recaro bucket seats which were standard on UK cars (and optional in their homeland). They look the part, and are comfortable with it. There are even slots in the cushions to accommodate race harnesses.

And then the good bit: the driving. The fun starts the moment the 130TC catches.

While perhaps not at its happiest when idling, it isn’t particularly lumpy, either. It’s all grunts and snorts. Even at pottering speeds, the Fiat sends out the right salutary signals, the steering being alive and direct with no slop. Once warmed up and onto mercifully traffic-free B-roads, the Strada comes into its own. Acceleration isn’t exactly neck-snapping, but that is to rather miss the point. The Fiat is certainly fast for its vintage, and it sounds glorious as the Solex carbs suck in air before exhaling. The 130TC’s induction roar by itself makes it worth the price of admission.

Then there’s the gear change which unlike that of the 105TC is baulk-free. It’s rifle-bolt cliché good, with precise short throws and ratios spaced to ensure it’s always on-cam; ready to pick up from where the last cog left off in a no-compromise, hang-the-mpg kind of way.

The claimed 130bhp at 5900rpm and 130.4lb ft of torque at 3600rpm seems believable, and the Strada is clearly at its best when it’s being thrashed. It’s its happy place. The 130TC red lines at 6250rpm but it isn’t remotely quiet at higher revs. If you find the twin-cam fanfare intrusive, you’re in the wrong car. Throttle response is immediate, but then Fiat made a big thing about the 130TC’s choke-per-cylinder carb setup using very short inlet tracts, and you’re never kept waiting. It picks up cleanly and keeps pulling. The Strada also has genuine handling poise, too. It doesn’t cock a wheel like many of its contemporaries: the cornering balance remains neutral in all but the sharpest bends. In the dry at least, roadholding is excellent for a car that is approaching middle age. Accelerate hard in a bend and the car simply pulls itself through without any drama.

Prior experience of the model on a track informs you that the 130TC will eventually understeer – you wouldn’t expect otherwise, but it isn’t in widescreen. Lifting off the throttle tightens the line appreciably. Suspension and damping was influenced from knowhow gleaned from a Group 2 motor sport programme. There is inevitably a pay-off for such handling dexterity, mind, the ride being on the firm side of unyielding. Every irregularity in surface topography is transmitted to the cabin. However, it gets smoother the faster you go, all things being relative. It isn’t as nervy as some of its contemporaries, and mid-corner bumps don’t threaten to send you headlong into the scenery.

The brakes also work well, or at least they do once you get past the initial 10mm of travel where there doesn’t seem to be much of anything. The pedals are positioned for perfect heel and toe changes, too. It’s almost as though the bods at Abarth had done this type of thing before. And make no mistake, this is a car fully befitting of the Scorpion logo. Sadly, Fiat didn’t always make the best use of its hallowed sub-brand and competition department for much of the 1980s and ’90s. It generally used the name to tout rubbish leisure wear, merchandising tat, and the like. The 130TC was arguably the last model that truly felt like an Abarth product of old, at least until the marque was reawakened in 2007.

That isn’t to say the Strada is perfect. It falls a long way short of that. Build quality in period was variable at best. It didn’t exactly suggest a premium product and, as such, it wasn’t a favourite of City types rocking red braces. Equipment wise, the 130TC was adequate in its class rather than generous despite its lofty asking price, but it would make a compelling classic buy assuming you don’t mind hunting for one. Having held out this far and read the preceding 2065 words, you may reckon the prose has been too lavishly apportioned, but this really is a car that makes you feel. It is resolutely analogue and all the better for it.

Way back when, CAR pitched a second-gen Golf GTi against a 130TC and its findings still resonate. It reported: ‘This comparison matches an excellent, fast, well-built all-rounder and a less well-built, exuberant, hard-charging street racer… Early GTis were refined up to a pinnacle of performance; later ones have refined down so that, through the sporty performance is all there, the car feels like anyone else’s hatchback. The driver’s involvement with the performance, so gloriously omnipresent in the Fiat, has been homologated away. So here’s the choice: Golf GTi for wise investors and sensible fast travellers, the Fiat Abarth for mad keen drivers.’

Irritatingly, we cannot think of any better way of summing up the appeal of this most characterful of hot hatches. The Strada Abarth 130TC is a car where the flaws serve only to reinforce the positives. It is truly, utterly, and forever joyous.

Thanks to: Mark Holland for trusting us with his beloved Strada Abarth 130TC (and for the sarnies).

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