Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Classic - Fiat Uno Turbo

The human brain is an irrational and inexplicable thing. The series of neurones or nerve impulses that may lead you to absent-mindedly hum along to a James Blunt song on the radio (even though you know he’s a godawful Satanist from the very depths of mediocrity) are the same that may force you to scream blue murder at an elderly woman on the bus, simply because she’s done something as innocuous as dribble slightly or smell of stale urine. We are complex and unusual creatures, naturally inclined to follow instincts however illogical they may be.

The Fiat Uno Turbo represents the zenith of this abject lack of fundamental logic. There’s very little reason to really like it, yet it’s quite hard not to. Perhaps it’s the little grotbox’s tenacity, its very persistence in continuing to exist despite all of the reasons central to the laws of physics themselves that suggest otherwise. It’s an ugly quadrilateral cereal packet fashioned from wafer-thin KwikKorrode™ steel, powered by a dinky motor lifted from a Scalextric model with an ill-advised turbo strapped to the side, with the underpinnings of a Co-op shopping trolley and upholstered with lawn chairs wrapped in J-cloths. It’s the automotive equivalent of the Red Dwarf ‘triple fried-egg chilli chutney sandwich’ (series II episode III, fact fans!) – all of the ingredients are wrong… but it adds up to something worryingly satisfying.

Designed by Giugiaro’s ItalDesign, if you can believe it, the Uno won European Car of the Year in 1984 for its effective optimisation of interior space and admirable fuel economy. Yawn. In 1985 Fiat nailed a turbo to the 1400cc hamster-wheel and the fun started. Of course, with a mere 105bhp and handling that quickly switched from “If it’s this shuddery on the flat it must have been engineered to handle, no?” to “Shit, that chronic understeer suddenly found sufficient front-end grip to become lift-off oversteer… which way am I facing now?!” in the blink of an eye, it was totally eclipsed by the 205 GTi and the Renault 5 GT Turbo. Maybe that wasn’t the point, however. In both its earlier guise and the latterly improved ‘Turbo i.e.’ version (with a Garret T2 turbo mated to the superior 1300cc engine), it offered forced-induction thrills at a bargain basement price. The flimsy build quality and potential to be horribly and unexpectedly killed at any moment simply served to add to the adrenalin rush.

So, in theory at least, a sound buy for the discerning family man with a sniff of petrol in his veins. It was certainly cheap and the admirable heritage and racing credentials were all present and correct in Fiat’s past (assuming you could look past their various catastrophic errors; the Ritmo for one – a sort of Innocenti-with-Ford-Corsair-face thing). The pseudo-glory of being judged as the best car produced in all of Europe – seriously, how did that happen…? – meant that such a purchase could be justified to the missus. The intelligent and sensible interior ergonomics ensured that the little ‘uns could fit in the back and the boot could accommodate the shopping, assuming you were raising a litter of anorexic midgets. Practicality, heritage, that little whooshy noise when you put your foot down… and all for the price of a morning paper and ten Bensons. What could go wrong?

Well, it was a Fiat, meaning it had been engineered to last about forty-five minutes before oxidising into a crumbly heap on the driveway, and everyone you tried to wheeze past on the motorway would give you a sympathetic little smile as if to say “Aww, bless him, he’s trying. I’ll back off a bit so he’s not embarrassed in front of his kids”.

OK – so it’s not the fastest of the hot hatches of the era, or the most powerful. It’s not the best handling by any means. It’s certainly not the best in terms of build quality, or the best looking. It’s incredibly hard to find a good Uno Turbo now because they’ve all rusted to pieces. But there’s just… something. Something about them that makes them fun, a little cheeky, a quirky offbeat choice that has the potential to surprise and enliven. Why do I so admire this terrible car? I have absolutely no idea. It’s just one of those irrational, illogical things.

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