When it comes to vehicles, I like a bit of weird, which is why I signed up to a Facebook group charmingly titled ‘Shite cars for sale.’ Here, people who really ought to have better things to do – and probably have – seek out classified ads for vehicles they consider deserve the ‘shite’ sobriquet.
So, anyone selling an early 80s K10 Nissan Micra, which was unstintingly reliable but, if memory serves, went around bends with the accuracy of Dr Who’s robotic companion K9, their period heap is likely to have been given a boost on SCFS, as the credentials for inclusion are peerless. Another lurching period supermini that has appeared in several SCFS ads is the Kia Pride, a 1990s bargain basement re-incarnation of a Mazda 121, and cars that weren’t dynamically shite, but thanks to intrinsic frailties would be shite to live with now also feature. A good candidate was an Alfa 164 saloon that caused site members to have a ‘I should know better’ acquisitive drool.
Similar ‘I’d like that falling to bits on my drive’ lusting wasn’t on display when an early 1990s Fiat Tipo came up for sale. The Tipo was a Golf/Focus rival that wasn’t as successful. The current one is a nondescript looking thing, not something that could be said of the original, which was a study in squared off ugliness. In profile the car had the contours of a chest freezer, all sharp edges and cubist straight lines. It had a six light body, but for some reason the door window shapes didn’t match the glazing of the C pillar, so the car had a cut and shut quality about it. I haven’t seen one in the metal for years, which given that it’s a Fiat that went out of production in 1995 is hardly surprising. Anyone who likes television detective series with subtitles might have come across Montalbano, starring a squat, bandy legged actor with a pate as bald as Ian Duncan Smith’s. Although set in contemporary Italy, our hero drives an old Tipo, and neither is conventionally good looking, although this doesn’t stop the human member of this duo being inexplicably, if irresistibly attractive, to a series of willowy, exotic girls who are both a good deal younger and taller than he is.
The Tipo has the dubious honour of being the first diesel road test car I ever drove. This was about thirty years ago, and looking back, that 1.9 turbocharged diesel was a distinctly odd period piece. I do remember that the interior had a lot of room for people and their stuff, which was commendable. The trim colour was less so. The seat cloth had a slightly bum fluffed quality and was a lurid green. This vista was further enhanced by swirling patterns, which would make you go a little boss-eyed if you stared at them for any length of time. Ditto the digital dashboard, whose calibrations were also vivid green and could be found lined up in a pair of slots let into the plastic facia. The designer of this hideous confection liked ghetto blaster readouts featuring lots of little vertical bars. For the rev counter, these grew taller the faster the engine span and when you put your foot down, this readout had a wave effect, without actually telling you how many revolutions this involved. Despite the instrument display’s migraine-inducing tendencies, I actually grew to rather like the way the car drove, even though this was in its way just as peculiar. There was some turbo lag, as to be expected of a car of this vintage, but the power, such as it was, didn’t come in with a bang, more a gentle tidal surge, and the Tipo would pick up its bloomers and gather pace like a diesel train on a branch line. This was accompanied by a combination of growly mechanical thrash and a great deal of turbo whistle. In fact, the Tipo was the Ronnie Ronalde of the automotive world (Ronalde being a once famous variety hall performer known as ‘the yodelling whistler,’ but of course you knew that, didn’t you?).
To make decent progress in the Fiat you had to keep the turbo spinning by recourse to the throttle and rubbery gearchange, and travelling at speed you had an odd sense that the car was freewheeling. This became strangely addictive, although not particularly relaxing, and I concluded that this wasn’t a car I’d choose to live with every day.
I’ve since driven hundreds of cars, many of which were better than the squared off Fiat. Most have faded from my memory, but that lumpy, dumpy Fiat diesel has remained in my brain, because it had real character. That’s something that most modern cars, especially EVs, singularly lack – and that’s a pity.