Abarths at Cheddar Gorge – January 2022

Cheddar Gorge has long been popular not just with tourists who flock to see the caves and the attractions at the bottom of the Gorge, but also those who love natural beauty as well as those who love rock climbing and abseiling and in recent years it has found increasing favour with car enthusiasts. The windy road that snakes up the Gorge is fin to drive, if you get a clear run at it, which of course you rarely do and the close proximity of the rock faces to the road means that any sounds reverberate nicely. Not surprisingly that means that this is a popular destination and during the summer months the whole area tends to be packed out. Whilst unlikely to be completely deserted in the winter months, it is generally much quieter, meaning that it becomes possible to organise a Car Club event in the area without spending the whole struggling to get anyone parked up let alone keeping everyone together. I’ve enjoyed a couple of visits to Cheddar at the very turn of the year, as part of a gathering of Italian cars from across the SOuth West (and beyond, as it turned out on the day), and always vowed that it would be worth trying to repeat such a meet again. Even before I could post something on the Abarth Owners Club page, my friends at SWAG (South West Abarth Group) had the same idea and did actually put a post up, with a proposed date, of the 2nd January. Interest was considerable, and grew somewhat more as the event was shared across other Abarth Groups, though as with anything where there are no tickets and no pre-booking involved, the real test was going to be seeing who would actually turn up on a mild but rather grey January day, ready for what would turn out to be the first event of a new year for most people. As with those previous events, the assembly point was at the Wyevale Garden Centre, just out of Cheddar village, and blessed both with toilets and a cafe for those who wanted breakfast or a warming cup of coffee. With little traffic on the roads and one of the shorter journeys to get there, I was the first to arrive but within minutes more Abarths started to appear and soon we had two long lines of cars across the extensive car park.

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The vast majority of cars here were the 500-based models which have been on sale now since the end of 2008, following a launch at the Paris Show that year. Since that time there have been a number of detailed changes to the standard cars and a lot of limited editions. Those who really know the marque can spot most of them, but some are so subtle that unless there is a badge you can see, you will not be quite sure which version you are looking at. It used to be relatively easy, when the model was first launched, as there was only one version as shipped ex works called the 500. It had a 135 bhp 1.4 litre turbo-charged engine coupled to a five speed manual gearbox, with 16″ alloys as standard, and the option of 17″ wheels, and a colour palette comprising of two whites (BossaNova White, the standard colour, or the pearlescent Funk White), Red (Pasadoble), Pale Grey (Campovolo) or Black. If you wanted more power – 160 bhp – then you could order an Esseesse kit, which came in a large wooden crate, containing new wheels, springs, an ECU upgrade, the Monza exhaust system and badging. It was dealer fitted and could be applied at any time within the first 12 months or 10,000 miles from registration. Needless to say, it proved popular. As were many of the optional extras, with stickers for the sides, a large scorpion for the bonnet and even a chequered pattern for the roof among the personalisation options offered. There were not many of those original cars here, not least because sales volumes in the early years were much lower than they are now, and of course those first cars are now well over teen years old, but Andrew Hurley’s Funk White Esseesse stood out among what are sometimes referred to as the Series 1 Cars.

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Having used the legendary 695 badging from the 1960s on the Tributo cars, at the 2012 Geneva Show, Abarth dusted off the 595 name that had been used on the less powerful of the Nuova 500 based cars of the same generation, and created two new versions which we should think of as Series 2 cars, the 595 Turismo and Competizione, both of which could be bought in either closed or open top C guise, with either the 5 speed manual or robotised automated gearshifts. Both models had the 160 bhp engine as standard. Effectively they were a replacement for the Esseesse kit, and it meant that the cars were produced complete at the factory, rather than needing the dealer to undertake the upgrade (and the associated paperwork), though Abarth did not withdraw the Esseesse kits from the market for some while. Turismo, as the name suggests was aimed slightly less extreme in intent, featuring standard leather upholstery, upgraded dampers and climate control, Xenon headlights and Alutex interior details. The sportier Abarth 595 Competizione replaced the leather seats with Sabelt cloth sport seats and Alutex with aluminium, while adding p-cross-drilled brakes and the Record Monza dual-mode exhaust. Some new colours were introduced, and very soon one of those, Record Grey, frequently combined with a tan interior became one of the most popular choices.

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Rumours started to circulate towards the end of 2014 that Abarth were going to upgrade the Competizione model, so as better to bridge the gap between the Turismo and the 190 bhp 695 Biposto that had been added to the range earlier in the year. It was Geneva 2015 when the result was finally shown to an expectant fan base. Most exciting news was that thanks to a bigger Garrett Turbo, the engine had been tweaked to 180 bhp, and with reduced CO2 emissions. A standard spec that included Koni Dampers, Brembo brakes, Xenon lights, Sabelt seats, Climate Control, parking sensors as well as other refinements that had been added like the TFT instrument display all proved very compelling, so not long after the first cars reached the UK in June of 2015, I found temptation too hard to resist, and as is well documented here, swapped my 2010 car for one of these. At the time I ordered it, Cordolo Red, a tri-coat pearlescent paint which shimmers in bright sunlight looked set to become one of the most popular colours of the lot, even though it is a cost option. Indeed, the Launch Edition models were all offered either in this colour or Scorpion Black, with black wheels. Surprisingly, the colour was not carried over to the Series 4 cars.

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What is known as the Series 4 version of the familiar 595 reached the markets in the middle of 2016. After rumours had circulated all winter following the launch of the facelifted Fiat 500 last year, Abarth finally unveiled the Series 4 at the end of May 2016. Initially, we were told that the cars would not be available in the UK until September, but that came forward somewhat, with dealers all receiving demo cars in June, and the first customers taking delivery in July. Three regular production versions of both the closed car and the open-topped C were initially available, all badged 595, and called Custom, Turismo and Competizione, as before, though numerous limited edition models have since appeared and in most case disappeared. The most significant changes with the Series 4 are visual, with a couple of new colours, including the much asked for Modena Yellow and a different red, called Abarth Red, which replaces both the non-metallic Officina and – slightly surprisingly – the tri-coat pearlescent Cordolo Red. as well as styling changes front and rear. The jury is still out on these, with many, me included, remaining to be convinced. At the front, the new air intake does apparently allow around 15 – 20 % more air in and out, which will be welcome, as these cars do generate quite a lot of heat under the bonnet. Competizione models for the UK retain the old style headlights, as they have Xenon lights as standard, whereas the Custom and Turismo cars have reshaped units. At the back, there are new light clusters and a new rear bumper and diffuser. Inside, the most notable change is the replacement of the Blue & Me system with a more modern uConnect Audio set up, which brings a new colour screen to the dash. Mechanically, there is an additional 5 bhp on the Custom (now 145) and Turismo (now 165 bhp) and the option of a Limited Slip Diff for the Competizione, which is likely to prove a popular option. Details of the interior trim have changed, with a filled-in glovebox like the US market cars have always had, and electric windows switches that are like the US ones, as well as a part Alcantara trim to the steering wheel in Competizione cars. These cars have now been on offer for five years and with Abarth sales on the rise, it was no surprise that they were particularly well represented here.

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Larissa Desciscio brought along her 695 Rivale, a celebration of Fiat’s partnership with Riva, which has already seen a special Riva version of the 500,. Described as being “the most sophisticated Abarth ever”, it is available either as a hatch or a cabriolet, with both of them featuring a two-tone Riva Sera Blue and Shark Grey paintwork. The Rivale is adorned with an aquamarine double stripe, satin chrome finish on the door handles and satin chrome moulding on the tailgate, various aesthetic elements inspired by the Riva 56 Rivale yachts and ‘695 Rivale’ logos, joined by Brembo Brakes, Koni suspension, and 17-inch Supersport alloy wheels. Enhancing the nautical theme the new 695 Rivale features either a carbon fibre or mahogany dashboard, black mats with blue inserts, blue leather seats and door panels, carbon fibre kick plates, special steering wheel wrapped in blue and black leather and with a mahogany badge, blue leather instrument panel cover, and mahogany gear lever knob and kick plate. These are joined by the standard Uconnect infotainment with a 7-inch display, which is compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and there is also a hand-written numbered plate that can be customised with the mane of the customer’s yacht on request. Powering the 695 Rivale is the same 1.4-litre turbocharged engine that makes 180PS (177hp) and 184lb/ft of torque, that features in the 595 Competizione, allowing it to go from rest to 100km/h (62mph) in 6.7 seconds and up to a top speed of 225km/h (140mph). This is a regular model in the range, but confusingly, there is also the Abarth 695 Rivale 175 Anniversary, created to celebrate 175 years of the Riva brand. Just 350 of these were produced, half of them the hatch and the other half cabriolets. These featured 17-inch alloy wheels with a special pattern, celebratory badge on the outside, hand-crafted details such as the two-tone colour – blue and black hand-stitched leather seats with a celebratory logo stitched onto the headrest, carbon dashboard silk screen printed with special logo, numbered plate. Standard Rivale cars arrived in the UK in April 2018, and quite a few have been sold. They always attract lots of interest when they do appear.

Pleasingly there were three examples of the Abarth Punto here. These were never common but have now become really quite rare, especially the earlier Abarth Grande Punto. There were two of them here. the one that Andy Purdue has liveried up to promote his tuning business and the more standard looking car of Josh Hammond. The Abarth Grande Punto debuted at the 2007 Frankfurt IAA Show, going on sale in the UK in late summer of 2008. Offering 155 bhp from its 1.4 litre T-Jet engine, coupled to a six speed gearbox, and riding on 45 profile 17″ alloys, the standard car got rave reviews from the journalists when they first tried it, and they were even more impressed by the changes wrought by the optional Esseesse kit. This increased power to 177 bhp, brought 18″ OZ lower profile wheels, whilst new springs lowered the ride height by 15-20mm, and high-performance front brake pads and cross-drilled front disc brakes helped the car to stop more quickly. The most distinctive feature of the car were the white alloy wheels, though, as owners found, keeping these clean is not a job for the uncommitted, and many have a second set of wheels that they use fro grubbier conditions. Despite the positive press at launch, the car entered a very competitive sector of the market, and the combination of being relatively unknown, a limited number of dealers and the existence of established rivals from Renault and others meant that this always remained a left-field choice. The owners loved them, though, and they still do. The oldest cars have now had their 13th birthdays, and some have amassed relatively big mileages, but they are still a car for the cognoscenti.

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Also here was the follow-on model, the Punto Evo. This was launched at the 2010 Geneva Show, with the cars reaching UK buyers in the summer of that year, and it incorporated many of the changes which had been seen a few months earlier on the associated Fiat models, the visual alterations being the most obvious, with the car taking on the nose of the associated Fiat, but adapted to make it distinctively Abarth, new rear lights and new badging. There was more to it than this, though, as under the bonnet, the T-Jet unit was swapped for the 1.4 litre Multi-Air, coupled to a 6 speed gearbox, which meant that the car now had 165 bhp at its disposal. Eventually, Abarth offered an Esseesse kit for these cars, though these are exceedingly rare. For those in the know – which never seemed to be that many people – this was a really capable and desirable car, and the owners love them, lamenting the fact that the model had quite a short production life and has not been replaced.

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The Abarth 124 Spider was developed in parallel with the Fiat model. It does cost a lot more, and there are those who think you don’t get enough extra for your money, but those who have driven it will tell you otherwise. You certainly get more power. The 1.4 MultiAir turbo unit jumps up from 138bhp to 168bhp, while torque also increases by a modest 10Nm to 250Nm, which gives it a 0-62mph time of 6.8 seconds, which is half a second quicker than the 2.0-litre Mazda MX-5. The top speed is 143mph. It weighs just 1060kg meaning a power-to-weight ratio of 158bhp-per-tonne, and with the new Record Monza exhaust system it sounds great even at idle. The Abarth version gets a stiffer suspension setup than the regular Fiat 124 Spider, with Bilstein dampers and beefed-up anti-roll bars. Bigger Brembo brakes also feature, with aluminium calipers. It can be had with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission with paddles, and the latter gets a Sport mode for quicker shifts. Many of the UK cars sport the ‘Heritage Look’ pack, which is a no-cost option. It brings a matt black bonnet and bootlid, plus red exterior trim detailing and has proved popular. The £29,565 starting price gets you standard equipment such as cruise control, climate control, Bluetooth, a DAB radio and satnav, plus Alcantara black and red (or pure black) seat trim. The automatic gearbox is a £2,035 extra, while an optional visibility pack brings LED DRLs, auto lights and wipers and rear parking sensors. Sales ceased during 2019, with around 1800 cars having been brought into the UK, so this is always going to be a rare car, and values are already increasing at a rate reflecting its desirability and the difficulty in finding one.

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With the majority of the cars assembled and initial New Year greetings exchanged between everyone present, it was time to set off for the Gorge. This is a journey of only a couple of miles and it is on a left turn out of the assembly point, but even so the large group of cars got separated quite quickly, so those at the front were able to find a parking place and be in position with a camera to record some of the last cars driving up the Gorge.

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There are numerous official parking areas in the Gorge, and at this time of the year we hoped to find at least one of the larger ones empty enough that we could get all the cars in, and ideally parked up together. Sure enough, as we headed up the Gorge there were fewer cars already parked up and we were in luck in getting everyone into one spot, though we did not quite have it to ourselves. A few bikes at one of the area obligingly moved off leaving just one Scirocco in the middle of a long line of Abarths. The line was not long enough to get us all in, so some cars had to park in the front of the parking area. Since I had last been here, some changes had been made, with large rectangular cages filled with stones carefully positioned in the car park, apparently to deter people from doing doughnuts. They certainly also made life a bit harder for the photographers, but I managed to get a wide variety of shots of the cars from the surfaced area and by scrambling around – cautiously!

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Once we had all taken plenty of photos here, there was discussion about moving onto another of the parking areas. Sensibly, rather than the whole group moving off, a recce car was sent to go and have a look and soon thereafter we got a call to say that there was space but probably not for all of us. This was the cue for people to start moving their cars back and forth, enjoying driving up and down the Gorge and to get some more photos.

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Time was on our side, as we had a table booked for lunch at The Riverside Inn in the centre of Cheddar, but given the size of the group, it was scheduled for around 1:30pm. When it started to rain, though, everyone’s thoughts turned to food. A quick phone call established that we could arrive a little earlier, and this seemed like the best option, so we all got into our cars and headed to the bottom of the Gorge hoping that we would all be able to park in the pub car park. That initially looked optimistic as it was not that big, but helpfully a few people who had clearly eaten earlier than us did emerge and got into their cars, creating some spaces for us. By double and even treble parking our own cars we did finally manage to get everyone in, and there was time for a few more photos before heading inside for a welcome dose of warm and what turned out to be a really rather good lunch.

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That should have been the end of the meet and indeed for a few it was, but with the rain having stopped and some daylight remaining, we decided to head back up into the Gorge. We went to the same large parking area as before but arrived at about the same time as the parking attendant. It was clear that we were going to have to pay the daily charge, and with the machine not accepting cash that meant trying to download the app (in an area with very weak signal!) and making payment, which did take some time. But there was no avoiding it, as the attendant had take a photo of every one of our cars which she said would be cross-checked again the payments. The money was not really the issue, it was more the hassle of the lack of phone signal and the need to download an app first! Once we were all legally parked, we could rearrange cars repeatedly and take yet more photos until the light started to fade, Which at this time of year, it does at around 4pm, of course.

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That was the signal that the meet really was over and we all dispersed, heading home, having thoroughly enjoyed our first Abarth meet of 2022, and knowing that there will be many many more to come.

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