A Fiesta XR2 was the dream, a Fiat 126 was the reality – Thank Frankel it’s Friday
When we were teenagers, all lovingly clutching our freshly minted full driving licences, there was always one from your group of mates who could afford not to play the game.
The game was finding yourself a car that you could actually afford to buy and run, which could be counted upon more often than not to deliver you to your destination and which would not make you an instant laughing stock among all your friends the moment you arrived.
I was mobilised in 1982 and the standard weapon of choice among friends in a similar position was a Mini. It ticked near enough every box, there was a limitless supply and if you could afford a Clubman, actually looked quite cool. Or at least we thought so. Minis were particularly appealing to me because they were also genuinely fun to drive. I didn’t care that I had to fold my lanky frame in half just to drive a Mini, but I did care massively that my step-mother drove one too. So that ruled a Mini entirely out of the question.
So I went for a Fiat 126, not least because it was free. The 126 was a pretty execrable machine, a far cry from the joyous Nuova 500 it was designed to replace but most were able to command some sort of value if only a few hundred quid. But not this one: A neighbour who had been its previous owner had inadvertently poured a pint of double cream over the velour rear seat and rather than sort it out there and then and for reasons that were never adequately explained, she left the car and the cream to rot. By the time she begged my father to take it away, the interior was fit for neither man nor beast.
But it suited me just fine. I was mobile and if the price of freedom was having to drive everywhere with the windows wound down, that was a small price to pay. What I hadn’t anticipated was the reaction of my friendship group in general and the female members thereof in particular who’s attention I caught for all the wrong reasons. Every one of them refused even to approach the car, let alone travel in it. It is fair to say my plans to form closer relations with the fairer sex took a bit of a backward step. Until one day, I drove it into a tractor.
This appeared to do wonders for my prospects because it was replaced by a Citroën 2CV and I’ve been in love with them ever since. The young ladies loved it too because it was fun, quirky and the roof peeled back. However while it may have made me more interesting to them, it was only in an entirely academic sense. I imagine they’d not realised they had someone sufficiently, well, strange to want to drive what Jasper Carrott once described as ‘an upturned corrugated pram on wheels’.
And then there was Ben. The chap alluded to in the first paragraph who could afford not to play the game. While we scratched and scrabbled around to put anything at even approximately worked on the road, Ben had a Ford Fiesta XR2. A brand new one, circular lights, pepper pot wheels, the lot. It is no exaggeration at all to say that while the rest of us had piles of barely mobile, inexactly assembled wreckage, Ben had a car. He also has a rather cool motorcycle (a Honda VT250F as you’re asking) and a daredevil granny with blue hair and an MGB roadster, but she’s another story.
Then, one day, Ben let me drive the XR2. It remains one of the seminal experiences of my motoring life. After all the rubbish I’d been brought up on, here was a car that actually accelerated, stopped and steered properly. Compared to what I was used to, it had eye-popping performance and essentially limitless grip on its low profile Pirelli P6 tyres (remember them?). Returning to the Citroën was a chastening experience.
And I have often wondered what it would be like to drive another, nearly 40 years on. Its 85PS may have seemed the stuff of miracles compared to the 29PS on offer from my 2CV but it doesn’t get you very far today. And while I considered its ability to reach 60mph in under 10 seconds (9.6 seconds to be precise) to be grounds for wonderment and awe back then, today it seems pretty unremarkable. Would it just be another old nail, or would I be taken back to my wide-eyed teenage days when it seemed an impossible dream? I don’t know, but one day I intend to find out.