1975 Fiat 130 5-speed Coupe
Keep Right Past Antibes
There are times, and not terribly rare times at that, when I am particularly pleased to live along Spain's Costa Blanca. Renowned Spanish sunshine, welcoming Mediterranean beaches and mountains that press up to the coast, offering serpentine roadways that wind along high bluffs overlooking the sea. With the road tightening up into a right hand bend I changed down to second, matching revs and hearing the throaty snarl of the Ferrari-derived V6 engine, and powered back out onto the short stretch of tarmac that led into Denia. It's quick, this car. Torquey and willing to rev, but what really strikes on a road like this is how flat and composed the handling is. Not stiff. Not harsh. But for a car this long and comfortable, it's startling how much speed you can carry through bends while still maintaining a great deal of isolation over rough pavement. It reminds me a bit of the best Jaguars I have ever driven. Comfortable and refined, but not at the expense of speed.
"I feel like a Bond girl in this car," my wife said. "Do you feel like James Bond?"
The truth was, I didn't. This is not a car for James Bond. It's a car for a James Bond villain. Scaramanga, maybe. His golden gun ensconced in the huge trunk, making his way fast through the south of France en route to another unsavory job. Flying fast under the radar. Understated styling, substantial pedigree, and magnificent performance, all in a car with supreme luxury and refinement. It'll do nearly 200 km/h flat out, this thing, which is nothing to sneeze at, and with the dog-leg five-speed and elegantly appointed cockpit it'll feel good doing it. Rorty engine, powerful brakes, impressive grip, and an unimpeachable composure.
Yeah, Francisco Scaramanga. That'll do.
The Forgotten Express
The large, fast, 2+2 coupe has always held a special place in my heart. A package that does most of what a motorcar should do, a proper four-place coupe is a grand tourer in the classical sense. Quick enough to be fun, fast enough to cover ground, balanced enough to carve up the twisties, and coddling enough to spend all day in, a good GT coupe should be able to do it all, and cover huge amounts of territory in speed and style. A substitute for air travel, if you will. There have been many good ones over the years, and I will always remember fondly a fast trip I made in a BMW 635Csi from San Diego to the Napa Valley, but although they still exist, big coupes have changed. They are too heavy for me now, and too isolated. Too many electronics and too much mass, robbing them of the spontaneity of the coupes of old.
Many of the classic GT coupes are legendary (and expensive) these days, but three greats from the 1970's have been damn near forgotten. The Lancia Gamma Coupe, the Peugeot 504 Coupe, and the Fiat 130 Coupe. All three styled by Pininfarina, all three from respected European manufacturers, and all three offering a sublime blend of performance and luxury, they are essentially unknown in the USA and inexplicably vanishing from roadways everywhere, even in Europe. This happens with many older, once fashionable vehicles, and always peaks my interest because it rarely lasts indefinitely. How long before these fantastic GT cars are rediscovered? How long before their values go the way of the Dino Coupe and Ferrari 400i?
For me, the 130 is the pick of the three. The styling is spot-on to my eyes. This is not an overtly sexy automobile, but more of a handsome, dignified one, and a true product of the 1970's. I see a lot of the Ferrari 400i in the lines, and at times some of the Bitter SC as well. Particularly in graphite gray metallic it is not a car for those who derive their pleasure from other people ogling them, but rather a car for those who appreciate economy of line and graceful restraint. There is not a crease or bend anywhere on the bodywork that doesn't exist for a reason, and not an angle from which it seems ungainly, and yet there are some cues (such as the headlight treatment and the bend of the C-pillar into the trunk line) that I could stare at all day long.
The 130 has the goods mechanically, too. Another creation of the legendary Aurelio Lampredi, the 3.2L engine is essentially a larger, SOHC version of the Ferrari Dino powerplant, without the flat-plane crank and chain driven camshafts, but with the same fundamental architecture and with a scintillating exhaust note all its own. Less screamy and more basso profundo, with a roar at higher RPM that makes the hairs on your forearms stand up and is encouragement enough to push through the gears again and again. Better still, the ride/handling compromise is truly one of the best I have ever experienced in a vintage motorcar. There is consummate composure and tremendous isolation over bumps, but the car will bend flat into a corner and rip through with startling speed and steering accuracy. It's a big car, this, with legitimate rear seating for adults and enough luggage space to satisfy the Clampetts, but the size disappears when you're driving and the overall impression is one of precision guidance and ease-of-use. For a period grand tourer, it just doesn't get much better than that.
Inside, the front seats are wide and soft, covered in a pumpkin-colored velour, and the interior has simple, black surfaces and a cream-colored headliner that is gracefully pleated from front to back. The large steering wheel is canted at the typical Italian angle for the period, and the pedals are slightly offset to the center, but there is plenty of room for everyone and everything inside, even if you're a big guy like myself. Power windows, air conditioning, plenty of storage space, and an innovative seat belt attachment system that I wish more automakers had adopted - it all feels right and right where you want it.
Getting The Grunt Work Done
With Fiat record keeping being a bit... lax during the 1970's, there is some argument as to precisely how many Fiat 130 Coupes were actually built, in total, but the consensus seems to be somewhere around 4500 vehicles from 1971 to 1977. That's low production by almost anyone's standards. Even fewer records exist about the breakdown of those vehicles, so production of five-speed models versus automatics are even harder to come by, but the estimates of five-speeds sold range from 10% to 20% of total production. Even at the high end, that makes a five-speed 130 coupe a member of a pretty exclusive club, with well under 1000 ever produced. How many remain today?
When we acquired this one, near L'Escorial north of Madrid, it was clearly a good car. A couple small, dime-sized bubbles of rust near the base of the rear window, but otherwise straight and clean. It started easily and ran well. I bought the car and Bill and I made plans for the relatively simple simple repairs and restoration it needed.
But of course, as will likely surprise no one who has been down this road, it wasn't quite that easy. When our body shop got into the sheetmetal, there was more rust worm than we expected, and although still pretty minor in scale, the oxidation was in several different places. We ended up replacing, in addition to the rear glass area, the sills and inner fenders. The rear glass was slightly delaminating from age, so we had the body shop remove it, but I gave them that instruction before I looked into buying a replacement. Turns out, rear windows for low-volume Italian coupes from the 1970's can be quite tricky to procure, and after six months of fruitless searching, we resorted to having the glass custom manufactured by Pilkington in the United Kingdom.
The engine ran well but seeped oil from a handful of locations, so we decided to reseal the powerplant, but the gasket and parts kits, which come from Ferrari, were fabulously expensive. (Aftermarket kits are available, but aren't quite as trustworthy, and with the labor-intensive job of a complete reseal, few economies make less sense than completing the job and finding out one of your cheapie gaskets still leaks. The parts from Maranello seemed the best bet.) With the engine open, new timing belts made sense, complete with tensioner assemblies. The carburettors were overhauled and painstakingly tuned. The air conditioning compressor had been bypassed, so the entire A/C system was checked, installed, converted to R-134a and recharged. The tires, slightly dry rotten from age, were replaced with correct Michelin XWX's, which had to be special ordered from England for the application. Once completed, a test drive revealed a sticking rear parking brake cable, so new ones were fitted to both sides. Months wore on. Items were addressed one by one, and at times it felt like the project would never end.
At long last, when the car was ready for me to collect it, I took off for home only to feel a softness in the clutch. Like it wasn't engaging with the proper bite. I called Bill and told him it didn't feel right, and his response was typical. "Well... I guess we'd better fix it," he said. Back to the shop it went, transmission back out for a complete new clutch disc, pressure plate, throwout bearing and flywheel. With the clutch out, a worn transmission mount was discovered, so a new one was ordered.
It wasn't fun, but when completed, we had a car with all the guts in great shape. A rust free and freshly painted body, lovely interior, cold air conditioning, a healthy, leak-free engine with new timing belt and clutch, etc. Ready for the new owner.
The Only Way To Travel
Back on the road to Denia, twisting through the mountains, overlooking the Mediterranean sea, with the windows down and the warm, late autumn air blowing through the cockpit, a 130 Coupe is a fine place to be. As I have mentioned in the past, I tend to fall in love with each vehicle we buy, but perhaps none so much as this Fiat. Maybe it's my age. I still love driving fast, but I'm not a kid anymore, and a powerful, stylish grand touring coupe in the classical Italian sense scratches me where I itch. I could see myself touring in this car, loading it with a few bags and taking off for long weekends in the countryside, wherever that countryside happened to be. Here, along the Spanish Riviera, or through the Great Smoky Mountains, or maybe winding up from the deserts outside Phoenix to the high mountains of Flagstaff.
Wherever the Scaramanga in me felt like going at the time.
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