It’s a double edged sword, this amateur automotive and motorsport photography thing. You’re involved because of a love for cars, but the only true way to solidly practice the craft of photography is to observe from the outside and document proceedings as you observe them. It’s challenging to both be a part of, and to document, at the same time.
Any entry-level time travel movie revolves around the basic principle that time-travelers cannot interact and change the flow of the events they witness during their travels, otherwise the future will be full of implausibly catastrophic outcomes. You can’t have the protagonist marrying a much younger version of his own grandmother, after all. It’s a pretty tenuous comparison to the recent Fiat Nationals held in country Victoria, but still, you can’t properly document an event and be a part of it at the same time.
And as much as I love taking photos and laying words onto a blank screen for Any Given Reason stories, I undoubtedly prefer to don a helmet and get out on the track. I don’t have the time to drive as much as I used to, so when the Fiat Nationals rolled around I decided to forget the camera and head over to Winton to hang out with friends and family and put some laps down instead.
I’ve learnt in the past that not taking a camera is the only true way to guarantee that there will be something brilliant to take photos of, so I threw my camera in the bag anyway. What follows is not so much an event report on the Fiat Nationals, but rather a small collection of the cars I was particularly impressed with and some irrelevant thoughts along the way.
I’ll start at the top with not just my favorite car of the event, but my favorite car of the year. This Fiat 131 has been built into an exact replica of the Fiat 131 Abarth used by Markku Alen to win the 1978 World Rally Championship, as it appeared at the Rallye de Portugal Vinho do Porto.
All of the correct Abarth parts have been tracked down for the build including its centerpiece, the genuine 16V Abarth head that sits atop the Fiat 2000cc four. The 131 was running a pair of big dual throat Weber carburettors when I saw it, but I am told that the owner has a complete Abarth mechanical fuel injection setup as used on the period competition cars ready and waiting.
The detail that impressed me the most was the complete WRC replica dash, accurate down to the Abarth steering wheel and gauges and exposed fuse panel fitted with period correct switches denoted by Italian language markings.
The only concession to modernity was a Haltech digital dash display fitted in about the most unobtrusive way possible whilst still being functional. As classically correct as those gauges are they’re probably not the best way to monitor the vital signs of such a rare and valuable engine, so the Haltech takes care of that crucial information in one location.
I didn’t take that many photos during Saturday’s show because whilst the location was pleasant in person, it wasn’t terribly photogenic and the harsh light made it pretty challenging. Photography is way more fun when you’re getting the results you want. Plus, it was more relaxing just walking about and checking out the cars, stealing tips and ideas for my own Fiat X1/9 project that sits 90% complete in the shed at home.
Seeing Ian Allison’s 124 CC tarmac rally car brought back lots of good memories. When my friend Guy owned it a few years ago I co-drove with him in Classic Targa Adelaide, and in Targa Adelaide the following year. Guy made a big song and dance about retiring from motorsport when he sold the 124, but he only lasted three months before buying an Alfa 2600 to turn into his next rally car.
Even though I’ve seen many of these cars before I was really impressed at the standard in attendance, even more so this year than when I last attended in 2012. The Australian Fiat scene is thriving right now, with a whole new generation of Fiat nuts continuing a tradition started on the twisting roads of post-war Italy. And I’ve got a theory as to why.
As much as we all love watching old Porsche’s sliding around with an eighth-turn of opposite lock and BDA Escorts three-wheeling over smooth ripple strips, these cars are now worth silly money and are not exactly attainable projects anymore. These days you’d struggle to find a 911 that isn’t rubbish for under $40k, so where does that leave you if you’re trying to build something cool? You’re in so deep that you either can’t afford to do a lot to it or you’re fearful of negatively affecting the resale value too much.
Fiat’s have always been cheap cars to buy used (not when new though), which brings a refreshing lack of pretension and tends to weed out those who buy their cars to reinforce their image. Old Fiat’s are almost unanimously excellent bases for project cars, too.
The last thing the world needs right now is another Fiat/Ferrari comparison, but they are designed and built by the same engineers and stylists who designed and built Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s and they share many common parts. Aurelio Lampredi designed most of the Ferrari V12 engines that powered the famous F1 and road cars of the 40’s and 50’s, then moved to Fiat where he designed the famous two-litre twin cam in the Fiat 124 and the 1500cc single cam found in the X1/9. The insignias of famous design houses like Pininfarina, Bertone and Giugiario are affixed to Fiat’s just as often as the more storied Italian manufactures. Like every company, Fiat have made some truly terrible cars in their past, but most of them are pretty damn good and they are particularly responsive to tuning for speed.
When you can pick up a solid project base that’s relatively competent for not a lot of cash, it lowers the entry point and allows you to modify as time and budget allow. As the years pass, people end up with some pretty cool cars. Now take a look back at that $40k 911, old and worn out with probably a quarter-million kilometres on the clock. Invest $40k into a Fiat 124 or X1/9 and you’ll have a ballsy track car with a legitimate pedigree that revs to 9000rpm, makes all the right noises, is a hoot to drive and pretty darn quick.
I’m not arguing against old 911’s, far from it. Owning a 911 is a major bucket-list tick of mine, yet to be satisfied. But some of these carefully built Fiat’s look strikingly good value when you compare apples to apples, and I think there’s a new generation of gearheads who are turning away from modern computer-laden cars and realising that classic race thrills aren’t always associated with an unfeasible investment.
The next morning we accidentally set the alarms a little too early and arrived at Winton for the track day before the sun was up. It wasn’t a huge problem though, as catching the sun rise over a race track is never a bad way to begin the day.
After a minor mechanical drama in my first session that we quickly resolved, we both ended up having a good day. Winton is a lot more technical than Mallala where we spend most of our track time and I really enjoyed the challenge of the never-ending corners that flow into one another. The Alfa has a Quaife LSD that it didn’t have last time we were here and it made a world of difference in the tight back section of the track. Given Dad was driving the Alfa back to Adelaide the following day, a 1.46.34 was the quickest I managed around the long circuit, somehow good enough for sixth outright on the day.
I know that I said this in 2012, and in 2011, and in 2010 too. But fingers crossed that 2016 will be my year – maybe, just maybe I’ll attend the Fiat Nationals driving my own Fiat. Better get out into the shed, I guess.