Touring in a soft-top in the middle of a wet winter may seem a little foolish. But when the soft-top in question if Fiat's “little boat” Barchetta, it somehow all makes complete sense, says Colin Goodwin


Fiat's good looks hard to disguise Skegness is not in season, and neither is this Fiat Barchetta. Can't remember a wetter, more blustery Christmas/New Year period in my lifetime. East Anglia is not too windy today, thanks goodness, for there are better and safer places to be than in a little soft-top when there's a force 10 puffing away.
   Mind you, there aren't that many trees in this part of the world. It is, however, very wet and much of the ground is coated with a sort of compacted snow and ice mixture. Good for the Ari Vatanen impressions, but a bit nerve-wracking with it.
   I am coming to the end of a Christmas and 1200 miles spent with the little Fiat and, despite the rain and muck, the love affair is very much in full swing. This affair with the Barchetta started in that heady period of the mid-90s when the Fiat Group was right back on the cam and chucking at us one great car after another. Fiat Coupe, Alfa Spider and GTV, and the bambino roadster.
   I very much like the Fiat Coupe and the GTV, admire the Spider but don't like its shaky body and quirky style. But the one for me is the Barchetta. Loved it as soon as I saw pictures of it; the general style of the thing, all its special details such as the delicate, tastefully retrospective door handles.
   I'm not a huge open-topped sports car fan. Having said that, there have been three cars that I've really wanted to rush out and buy in the past 10 years (or considered becoming a bank robber for) and they've all been soft-tops. The Mazda MX-5 was the first of them, and we got very close to slapping a cheque down for one until the idea died when a new Goodwin came to life. Then came the Barchetta, to be followed by the Lotus Elise.
   The Elise I love for its dynamics and the pure driving pleasure it provides, rather than its ability to ruffle the thatch. I know I will one day own one. Same with the Barchetta. Three hundred people in Britain already own Barchettas; it doesn't sound many, but certainly is for a car that is available only with its steering wheel on the left. Which backs up my suspicion that we are not as put off by left-hand drive as we used to be in the UK. Mind you, the Barchetta is extremely good value. Our little racing red number costs £ 15,519; or it would do if it didn't have the optional comfort pack that bumps the price up by another £ 1485. That makes the Fiat less of a bargain, but it contains stuff such as a leather-wrapped steering wheel and leather seats that make the Barchetta that bit more special. A shame to do without them.
   English seaside towns are better in the winter. There are no crowds, no kiss-me-quick hats, no screaming kids. They become more interesting; their bleakness stirring thoughts of Channel 4 plays about teenagers running away from home and frightening landladies. Skeggy looks pretty sad, though. A town that looks to be struggling for its wage in an age far removed from its heyday. Amusement arcades closed for winter, fairground rides covered in ice and snow, and the Arnold Palmer putting greens empty.
   Down on the beach, a mum and her two kids are digging sandcastles with one hand an holding on to their hats with the other. An odd sight in this weather, but no more so than two men folding down the roof on a little sports car and unloading boxes of camera equipment. Photographer Tim Wren looks an even stranger sight: he's recently stuffed a leg skiing, and is on crutches.
Winter time at least improves chances of testing Barchetta on empty roads

Hood hides away under a very neat covering panel; no studs to pop here
Left-hand drive only, but don't let anyone tell you Barchetta isn't a bargain    The Fiat Barchetta is not the ideal conveyance for a chap who is tall, unable to bend his left leg properly, has a pair of crutches and who feels naked without his huge collection of camera clobber. Surprisingly, it all fits in the Barchetta. The boxes go in the boot and the walking sticks and tripod in the space where the hood lives when it's folded.
   Unusually, this little space is currently a bit waterlogged. None of the several Barchettas I've driven before have leaked – never driven one in really fine weather – so this is a bit of a surprise. There is a rubber seal lying in the boot which most likely has something to do with the leak, though we can't spot where it came from.
   The roof itself is one of the Barchetta's great features. With the MGF, Mazda MX-5 and BMW Z3 you have to fiddle around with a cover if you want to hide away the folded roof. And wrestle with poppers and studs that threaten to come undone on the motorway and allow the hood cover to wrap itself around the head of a following motorcyclist. The Fiat's roof takes longer to operate, and you can't do it from inside the car, but there is a neat hinged panel that covers the folded fabric and makes the car look extremely neat and tidy.
   Almost 20 years on I can still raise images of a young Goodwin wrestling with his Sunbeam Alpine's roof in lay-bys in thunderstorms. Not that the collection of rods and fabric ever fulfilled its obligations as a roof.
   We leave Skegness and drive down the coast to circle around The Wash. I don't know this area at all well. Which is why we're here. What better fun is there than exploring new territory in a small sports car? Makes me mad when I hear people say that you cannot enjoy driving these days. I do on a weekly basis, and it's not just because in this job you're spoilt for driving tools.
   It's absolutely true, the maps do not lie; East Anglia is without doubt exceptionally flat. Wren says that the countryside reminds him of the area surrounding the Lamborghini factory in Santa d'Agata Bolognese. He's not wrong, though this wretched weather is hampering my efforts to spirit my mind away to northern Italy.
   Wren also tells me that there used to be a rally that took place up here called the Fenman Rally. That must haven been an event for the plucky. There are loads of narrow roads that cut straight across marshy fields and then do a sudden 90deg turn. Because everywhere is so flat you don't always see the bend coming up, but you can see that nothing is coming the other way.
   The Barchetta's 1.8-litre twin cam engine has 130bhp; enough to take the little boat (that's what a Barchetta is, if you had always wondered) from 0-60mph in 8.9sec and to 124mph.
   I have heard criticism that the Barchetta is not brisk enough. Not in my opinion. Anyway, it is more important in this type of car that the engine performs with spirit rather than how much muscle it has. This one has plenty of character. You can always trust the Italians to get this bit right. And to put the pedals in the right place, so that you are able to blip the throttle as you brake and downchange through the five-speed gearbox.
   We send a loud crackly rasp across the flatlands as we scream into these right-angled bends, blipping down through the gearbox and then accelerating up through it again out the outer side. The Barchetta feels very nimble and small and its steering accurate and quick. There's little trace of torque steer from the front-drive chassis, even when you're hard to the floor and there's mud and mess under the car's front wheels. Like everything about this car, its handling and performance are perfectly in tune with its fun character.
   We blat across this open and bleak country, pasting the Barchetta's pretty red flanks with heavy layers of countryside goo. Even when it's covered in dirt I still love the car's look. This is what little roadsters are all about. If it doesn't appeal visually, then it fails. Of course, it's an individual thing and many people obviously love the look of the BMW Z3 just as much as I dislike it. I'd chose the Fiat in the Z3's stead any day, regardless of performance or price (though the Italian is actually quite a bit cheaper and a lot more fun).
   It's the detailing that appeals. The Barchetta is based on the Tipo chassis and has been built to a keen price. You'd not notice it. Every part of the Barchetta looks as though it has been specially designed and made for the car, as much of it indeed has.
   We squelch and patter into Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast, not far from HM Q's gaff at Sandringham. Not that taken with the place, I'm afraid. Again the inevitable amusement arcades and needs-a-lick-of-paint look about the place. Also as you drive into the town you see acres of permanent caravans in huge parks. I've nothing against the things, but en masse they spoil the look of the place that everybody staying in them has come on holiday to enjoy.
   The rain is sluicing down now and it's pitch black. No matter. The heater is on, and effective it is, too, and though the roof is leaking at the back (or maybe it is its covering panel), it is watertight where it really matters. Perhaps it is a motorcycling past that has made me really enjoy being cocooned in a small car in foul conditions. Maybe I have still not got over the novelty of being dry. We are surrounded by road trip mess, such as empty Twix wrappers and maps, as well as Wren's Barbour and photographer's survival gear. No question, the Barchetta is a fine everyday car.
   Our last port of call on the Anglian coast is Great Yarmouth; a port itself, in fact. It, too, has a seafront plastered with amusement arcades, though unlike in Skegness and Hunstanton these are open. Neon signs advertise The Flamingo and Golden Nugget. Not quite Las Vegas. The seafront seems to be full of local lads in ancient Astras and Escorts wheelspinning all over the place. And not with much joy on thier faces, either. The area near the port itself is much more atmospheric, and there are some fine old hotels with wrought-iron balconies that must have been splendid in the era of tea dances, before the slots and “Win a Tellytubby” machines.
This sign, naturally, doesn't apply to little boats plying East Anglian A-roads

Vegas? Nope, Yarmouth, I'm afraid. Still, the cockpit of the Barchetta is a glamorous enough place to be
   We refuel with a curry and head inlands for the 150-mile drive back to London. The inform Wren is asleep, no mean feat in a Barchetta, especially when it is driven by someone who is still fully enjoying heel-and-toeing and buzzing his way through every roundabout on the A12 from Great Yarmouth to Barking. My back is just beginning to ache after almost 600 miles of driving and a very long day in the bucket seat.
   Very soon, we go to Japan to drive the new Mazda MX-5. We know what it looks like – not too different from the MX-5 that was the catalyst for the current roadster boom – and can roughly guess at how it will drive. Whatever, it is highly unlikely that it will replace the Barchetta as my favourite roadster. It has, after all, taken a car of colossal appeal and ability, and of Lotus badge, to knock the little Fiat from the top of my shopping list.

A small Italian roadster full of the spirit of the '60s, but brought right up to date. Very good value, very easy to live with.