Second time lucky: Fiat 124 Abarth restoration

| 19 Apr 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Second time lucky: Fiat 124 Abarth restoration

There’s nothing like driving another example of your own classic car to whip up a hornet’s nest – or in Giles Broomhall’s case, a scorpion’s.

“I’d owned my Fiat 124 Abarth Stradale since 1984 and had it restored in the ’90s, but if I’m honest I was never completely happy with it.”

The catalyst for a second restoration arrived in 2010, with a visit to 124 specialist DTR European Sports Cars in Coulsdon, Surrey: “I’d sent my car down to have a few general bits and bobs done, and on a visit I had a quick spin around the block in a white Abarth they had restored.”

Cue a maelstrom of emotion, as the contrast opened his eyes to what his car could be.

Classic & Sports Car – Second time lucky: Fiat 124 Abarth restoration

Broomhall pictured soon after buying his Fiat 124, aged 20

“The problem was that I’d just never driven another, I only had experience of mine,” he explains. “However, in comparison, DTR’s example was so lively and nicely balanced – I don’t think mine was set up properly. That put me on to restoring it.”

His love of the model can be traced back to his older brother’s ownership of two 124 Spiders – a very early 1400 and an 1800 BS – in the early ’80s.

Broomhall himself started actively looking in 1984, and at the age of just 20 became the owner of this example.

“I’d always fancied a Spider,” he explains. “And there weren’t that many in the UK. I looked at a few, some with no floors in, and then this just popped up – I think it was in Exchange & Mart.”

It had been imported from Greece the previous year by its Greek owner, and later bought by a “bit of a dealer-type chap” based in Northwich, Cheshire.

“It had no MoT, seized brakes, semi-seized steering, cracked lights and damage to the rear offside. It was all red, had thick acrylic paint and looked a bit sorry for itself, but I knew I was going to buy it as soon as I saw it,” he recalls.

“The vendor took me out for a drive, I think the exhaust had about half a silencer and so made all the right noises. I thought ‘yeah, this is it’ – just because it was red and made a lot of noise. So I paid £1900, and it was mine.”

Classic & Sports Car – Second time lucky: Fiat 124 Abarth restoration

Prices now justify a restoration

Despite the monotone paint finish and lack of signature wheelarch spats, he knew the car was a CSA: “It was pretty much complete. It had the seats, hardtop, steering wheel, badges, independent rear suspension and, most importantly, the chassis number stamp in the engine bay.”

With the help of a friend he freed the brakes and steering, fitted a new idler arm and gave the car a T-Cut.

“You couldn’t really get parts in those days, save a few mechanical bits. Basically, we tarted it up and it looked okay. I very rarely drove it with the hardtop on because the differential was so noisy.

“On Saturday nights we’d go for a blast down to the Cotswolds – nobody knew what it was, and it had nowhere near the kudos or value that it has today.”

Broomhall ran it on and off for a couple of years – the engine coming out two or three times for different things – before buying “an even rougher” Lancia Beta Monte-Carlo. The Abarth went into a lock-up in ’87 and that winter, without antifreeze in the cooling system, the cylinder head cracked – so there it stayed.

“I restored the Lancia, putting a whizzy engine into it, but it wasn’t until 1990 when I started working in the motor trade that I began getting reasonable funds together. By that time the Fiat was at a point where it needed restoring, not just maintaining.”

Classic & Sports Car – Second time lucky: Fiat 124 Abarth restoration

The painted bodyshell

He stripped it down himself and sent it for bead-blasting to bare metal. Upon its return, it was clear that the car must have been spun at some point.

“The body was fairly sound, but with all the filler out you could see that two opposing corners had been pushed back by around two feet then pulled back out.”

That first commissioned restoration was protracted, taking around five years as and when funds and parts availability allowed.

In that time, Broomhall moved house twice and changed partners: “After that I ran it sporadically. I took it to Monza in ’97 for the World Abarth Meeting, and did a few sprints at Bruntingthorpe – where the head gasket blew – and Thruxton.”

Through all that, certain details continued to niggle: “The ‘mouth’ at the front of the car never looked quite right, the driver’s door didn’t fit very well and neither did the replacement windscreen surround, which I suspected was twisted. When it went to DTR two decades later, my budget was around £5k for a little bit of work, but one thing led to another.”

Classic & Sports Car – Second time lucky: Fiat 124 Abarth restoration

The bodyshell had no rust, but significant metalwork corrections were required

Having been given the go-ahead for the Abarth’s second restoration, DTR proprietor Paul de Turris and his team got cracking.

“The main visual problems were panel fit and front-end alignment,” explains de Turris. “There was a lot of seam-sealer covering joints where there shouldn’t have been.

“The aluminium door skins had been replaced but the fit wasn’t great, so they had to be re-folded and the handle apertures fitted and shaped to the handles.”

The car’s front wings – which are in three sections – were similarly poor, and didn’t marry with the bonnet or lower valance: “The problem with a 124 is that they’re all a little bit different, so there’s a set order to building up all of the external front panels.”

This is where the company’s model experience and expertise came to the fore. “We refitted the front wings and shaped them to the glassfibre bonnet,” he says.

“It’s not an easy job to get right. The process for shaping the floors and bootlid was similarly involved. A full-body restoration on a CSA typically takes around 3-400 hours, depending on original condition, but in this case – despite the fact it wasn’t rusty – it took around 550. It was just wrong in a lot of areas.”

Classic & Sports Car – Second time lucky: Fiat 124 Abarth restoration

Subtle upgrades include leather bolsters and a 131 Abarth gearbox

Next, the bodyshell was primed three times with blocking by hand between coats, then left to harden and settle for a week before the next one. The entire car was then painted to show standard in two coats of Rosso Vivo two-pack.

“90% of all bodywork, as always, is in the preparation,” says de Turris. “The paint finish is only as good as the finish of the substrate beneath. Following baking, we left the paint to cure for another week, before polishing.”

Broomhall settled on having the engine rebuilt to a relatively standard level of tune, with the lower end lightened slightly and fully balanced for optimum throttle response.

De Turris says that a common mistake is to over-lighten the flywheel, which leads to poor idling and difficulty setting up – especially with twin 44mm Weber carburettors. An uprated clutch was another addition.

The head was rebuilt with new seats, guides and valves, and ported to match the inlet manifold. Both the front and that unique-to-the-CSA independent rear suspension were restored and all mechanical units rebuilt where possible, rather than replaced – with the exception of the wheel bearings, where modern units offered an improvement in quality.

Classic & Sports Car – Second time lucky: Fiat 124 Abarth restoration

The twin K&Ns are an attractive underbonnet addition

“The availability of parts today compared to the first time around is like night and day,” says Broomhall. “From that initial budget, it grew to the point where we basically ended up doing everything. When it was finished I was very pleased with it; not just how it looked, but in terms of the driving experience.

“It is no longer slow, lumpy and with the wrong geometry – now it fizzes. There’s just something so satisfying about having a car put back together, and seeing the progress as the restored bits go back on it, and then driving it.”

The restoration took 12 months to complete and since then it’s gone back on an annual basis for servicing, plus a few choice upgrades including a 131 Abarth gearbox – as fitted to the 2000 Mirafiori.

“With the CSA’s extra power, the standard unit can get ‘sticky’ when hot, but the 131 unit is much more heavily built and better quality,” explains de Turris.

The problem is that the transmission tunnel has to be cut slightly to accommodate it, and the propshaft shortened.

“I wanted an improved gearbox feel and it’s made a massive difference,” adds Broomhall. “However, I have all the original parts so it can be put back to stock specification easily. At the same time I had the cabin retrimmed, with door cards and bucket seat sides in leather, replacing the original vinyl.”

Other deviations from factory spec include the two K&N air filters, instead of the original twin-spout black plastic item, quilted bonnet lining and Abarth cam covers with a red crackle finish that Broomhall sourced at the Auto e Moto d’Epoca show in Padova: “The underbonnet heat generated causes the paint on the glassfibre bonnet to crack, so the lining is to guard against that. Paul was a bit unsure about fitting the cam covers, but I wanted them because they lift the engine bay.”

Classic & Sports Car – Second time lucky: Fiat 124 Abarth restoration

Abarth-branded bonnet straps

Time to hold my hands up here. Journalistic impartiality is out the window because I also owned a Fiat 124 Abarth Stradale, in my case for 12 years, and prior to that the car in question was owned by de Turris.

Bought with 44,000km on the clock, it was sold with 100k+ four years ago and I have regretted it ever since.

My mood isn’t helped by photographer Jacob continually stating that the Abarth is “such a pretty car” and that “it just doesn’t have a bad angle”.

Put that down to Tom Tjaarda’s elegant lines, turned bad boy by the correctly reinstated two-tone paint finish and Abarth addenda. It’s one malevolently handsome little brute.

The leather additions to the interior could be deemed overkill for what is essentially a roadgoing rally homologation special, but work well here in this concours example.

The bucket seats embrace you tightly in a legs-and-arms-fully-extended position.

Classic & Sports Car – Second time lucky: Fiat 124 Abarth restoration

Giles Broomhall with his Fiat

Spinning up through the rev range, the 1756cc twin-cam is a majestic, free-revving unit – intake exhortations battling continuously with a wildly honed exhaust note from the twin tailpipes.

“It’s an original Abarth exhaust system, which I sourced from a guy in Holland who has a stash of genuine Abarth parts,” shouts Broomhall over the rising cacophony.

That choice of word is apt, because with the hardtop in place – and just an overlying piece of polystyrene provided by the factory for sound-deadening – it’s akin to sitting in a tumble dryer with a bag of nuts and bolts inside.

“I haven’t driven it with the roof off for 20 years,” says Broomhall. “But I used to, because with that twisted windscreen surround getting it back on was nigh-on impossible.”

From experience, I know that whipping it off completely transforms the car, liberating the exhaust note and releasing that considerable axle noise.

However, with Broomhall’s car it’s the gearbox upgrade that’s transformative; shorter throws, closer ratios and a more positive action allow quicker access to the power, which is 7bhp up – at 135bhp – on how it left the factory.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that I no longer own mine because, to a lesser degree, I’ve just experienced the same thing as Broomhall did with his test-drive of the white Abarth.

“There are very few that have been restored correctly,” says de Turris. “Relatively low values until recent times meant that the costs of restoration far exceeded their value.”

Classic & Sports Car – Second time lucky: Fiat 124 Abarth restoration

The 124 is now everything its owner wants

That has now changed, and while Broomhall’s restoration made fiscal sense, it wasn’t the prime driver. Instead, it all came down to that experience of another example.

So, now that his Abarth is back to its Sunday best, what comes next?

“Paul is building another engine for me,” he says. “Somewhere along the line mine lost its genuine CSA ‘4000’ block, but he’s sourced one. It’ll have a little more power – the 131 ’box can handle it – and can be transplanted in.

“Then it’s a case of trying to start using it a bit more,” he goes on. “My history is that I pay too much for cars, spend a lot of money having them done up and then sell them for a loss – not very good considering what I do for a living.”

There’s no doubt that this exquisite little scorpion will be the car to buck Broomhall’s trend. Does he have any advice for others thinking of buying or restoring a classic car?

“You must drive another example,” he says with the benefit of hindsight. “It may confirm that your example is a great car or, as in my case, it might just turn out to be an inspiration.”

Images: Jonathan Jacob

This was originally in our September 2018 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication


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