The List




The List


Fiat 695SS Abarth


Question: what is rear engined, rear wheel drive, and enjoyed significant race success in the 1970s? You might be forgiven if your immediate reaction was to answer ‘Porsche 911’, as this seems to be the default choice when the words ‘rear-engined’ are uttered; Porsche has ploughed this particular furrow for many years, during which time, all of its competitors have, metaphorically speaking, abandoned the field in favour of something far easier to manage.


It is quite easy to forget, then, that the location of the engine at the rear of the car was once not the preserve of a rather perverse German sports car manufacturer, but was also chosen for packaging reasons, amongst other considerations, by many volume automobile producers.


Which brings us to the Fiat 695 Abarth, which is rear-engined, rear-wheel drive, and which enjoyed success on the race tracks of the world through the 1970s and beyond, but which owes its origins to the diminutive 500, a car designed to mobilise Italy’s post-war population, and, which, with its tiny, low powered engine, was not the obvious basis for a race car.


But the Abarth name in those days was not just a case of badge engineering - with its enlarged engine barely contained within the structure of the car, modified suspension and brakes and flared wheel arches, plus a significant increase in power over the 500, the 695 was a true pocket rocket, capable of embarrassing much more powerful cars.


It is these race car aesthetics, together with the exuberance of ‘industrial miracle’ era Italy that define the 695 and have earned the car its place on The List. Here is a vehicle that is as joyfully Italian as a classic Ferrari or Lamborghini, yet does not come with either of those marques' associated negative baggage.


It produces 38 BHP from its tiny two cylinder engine, which hardly sounds sufficient for the circuit, or even the city, for that matter, but the 695 is and was easily tuneable to 50BHP or more, which, combined with the single seater like kerb weight of half a ton, makes the 695 nippy, albeit not head snappingly accelerative.


Cornering is the 695’s forte, however. There is wonderful feel through the thin rimmed steering wheel, and despite the short wheelbase, the 695 is fairly progressive. Of course, there is not much power to really get you into trouble when on the throttle, but throw it too fast into a decreasing radius turn and you are rewarded with a smooth transition to oversteer that can instinctively be caught with the application of a little opposite lock. Ensure that you have wound the lock back off in time and you can get the power down early in a corner, using the mobile tail to help tighten your line.


There is some understeer present, of course, although this depends on suspension setup, and some 695s can feel very different to others. Much, also, is dependent on the skill of the driver, as, like most rear heavy cars, the 695 necessitates shifting the weight heavily to the front on corner entry, to ensure that the light front end does not just skitter over the tarmac. In this respect, it’s almost like a mini-911. Unlike the 911, however, the limits of adhesion are not knife edge stuff; perhaps a consequence of the lower speeds at which one is travelling.


What you don’t want to do in the 695 (and any Fiat 500 derived car) is barrel into a corner too fast then find yourself lifting off abruptly prior to the apex. This usually results in a rapid tucking in of the swing axles, followed by a consequent reduction in grip at the rear and a very rapid transition into the ‘travelling backwards at high speed with no control over the car’s trajectory’ type of oversteer.


A few words must be said of the gearshift, which demands a particular degree of concentration to correctly operate; failure to match revs correctly can result in the sort of grinding and crashing noises that usually accompany a pensioner’s attempts to manoeuvre their ageing Rover 100 into a tight parking space. This does not detract from the experience; it just adds to the challenge of driving a car that, unlike modern cars, does not disguise its drivers’ flaws.


Of course, with its relatively large tyres, stiff suspension and short wheelbase, the 695 is not really the sort of car in which you would cruise down to the South of France; this would be more akin to the kind of endurance test favoured by a particular type of Japanese game-show. But what it does do remarkably well, is to keep pace with modern traffic in an urban setting, whilst looking immeasurably cool. And, although it’s unique, valuable and foreign, it never attracts the kind of envious hate to which the drivers of supercars are often subjected in European cities. In fact, bizarrely, given its origins on the race track, the 695 is the perfect city car. And not many forty year old designs could claim to be that.