A true testament to the Hot Hatch wars of the 1980’s, FIAT’s contribution to this all out battle of high speed but small size cars was this, the Strada Abarth, a humble design turned into an incredibly hostile competitor against the likes of the Volkswagen Golf GTi and the Peugeot 205 GTi.
The Strada Abarth is essentially a sport version of the FIAT Ritmo, as humble a car as you could ever imagine. The Ritmo was a small, practical and cheap little machine that replaced the legendary 128 in 1978. Perhaps not a car that was built to set the world on fire, the Ritmo is still cherished by those who used to own it.
However, in the mid to late 1970’s, a very strange thing was occurring, this being called the rise of the Hot Hatch. In 1975, both Vauxhall and Talbot released cars that took what was otherwise mundane family hatchbacks, and fitted under the bonnet engines with enough power to blow your eyebrows off! The Vauxhall Chevette and the Talbot Sunbeam, though not as well remembered as they should be, pioneered the hot hatch concept, and very soon the formula was perfected by everyone’s favourite Teutonic neighbours, Germany. In 1976, Volkswagen took its regular Golf and fitted it with a with a fuel-injected 1.6 engine capable of 110mph, creating what would become an undeniable legend, the Golf GTi.
Immediately the idea of fitting small, practical cars spread across the world of European motoring, and by 1980 the idea had pretty much killed off the idea of traditional open-top sports cars such as the MGB and the Triumph TR series.
Of course, not ones to let an opportunity like this go by, FIAT waded into the fray in 1981 with the Ritmo Abarth 125 TC, fitted with a 123hp, 1.9L engine, and with a wheelbase shortened by just over an inch from the regular production model for better handling. The 125 TC version had a top speed of 190 km/h (120 mph) and it could accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 8.7 seconds, which made it slightly superior to the Golf GTi’s 9 second acceleration.
1982 saw an update of the Ritmo range, and the next generation of the Abarth was unveiled a year later as the Ritmo Abarth 130 TC, entering the fray with an upgraded 1.9L engine good for 128hp, a top speed of 121mph and an acceleration of 0-60 in 7.8 seconds. This was achieved by replacing the single Weber carb used in the 125 TC with twin Solex/Weber carburettors on a side-draught manifold, and via improved cam profiles. The result was on the downchanges, the car would, in the words of Jeremy Clarkson, “it would snuffle and boom, like distant gunfire!”
Although appearing outwardly similar to the restyled 105 TC with its lower door & wheelarch trims, the 130 TC could be distinguished by its polished four-spoke alloy wheels (continued from the earlier 125 TC), aerodynamic perspex front door wind deflectors, and lower hatchback spoiler. The powerful twin-cam was mated to a close ratio 5-speed ZF manual gearbox and had superior performance to its contemporary rivals, which included the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Ford Escort XR3i, Vauxhall Astra GTE and the MG Maestro.
However, in spite of its great performance, the Abarth did have some major issues that FIAT were somewhat reluctant to address. Problems mainly revolved around the car’s unrelenting ability to rust, which was especially prevalent outside of sunny Italy. The cars were also woefully unreliable, notable specifically for problems with its electrics. This meant that starting the car in the morning was more a matter of rolling the dice and hoping you came up lucky! Next was the car’s practicality, which was questionable in some areas, specifically the addition of rear seats. The space in the back was alright, but actually getting into the back was another matter as the folding front seats didn’t go forward properly, thus rendering the rear seats meaningless!
With sales starting to decline as a result of these many overarching issues, FIAT decided in 1988 it was time to see off the old Ritmo, and thus the car disappeared from sales that year, replaced by the Tipo, a car that is remembered for being completely unmemorable.
Today the Strada Abarth is remembered quite fondly by motoring fans, especially with regard to their place in the Hot Hatch wars of the 1980’s. Jeremy Clarkson placed the Strada Abarth at number 56 in his Top 100 cars, and it is certainly deserving of that place on his list. The good thing about the Abarth is that it ended production long before the Hot Hatch wars became bloody, and resulted in the destruction of the Hot Hatch era altogether as rising car crime made other manufacturers such as Volkswagen, Peugeot and Ford, have to tune down or discontinue their models under duress by new legislation. The Abarth on the other hand remained true to itself right through to the end, and it even remains true to this day (well, the one’s that didn’t rust away that is!)