Abarths at Stanton House – March 2022

There is definitely no shortage of great places in the UK for small to medium-sized groups of friends and car owners to meet up, but finding them is not always that easy. Local knowledge is helpful if notessential, as for someone organising an event in an area that they are unfamiliar with, as I well know, they tend to go for the obvious places, the well known names or the ones that they have seen other Clubs have used. But if you really know a locale, there are plenty of other possibilities and the event being presented here was definitely one of those. Inspiration for the location came from Larissa Desciscio, who lives quite literally just around the corner from the venue in question. It is called Stanton House and is found at the end of a narrow country road just off the main road to the east of Swindon between Highworth and South Marston. It is a mix of small manor-style country hotel and restaurant as well as a meeting place and until recently was owned and used by Honda, as it is not far from their UK Honda plant in South Marston on the outskirts of Swindon. With the closure of the plant, Honda sold up and Stanton House is now independently owned. There are 78 hotel rooms, in different styles and it is popular as a wedding venue, which is hardly a surprise, as the setting on the edge of the 74 hectare Stanton Country Park and nature reserve is really rather agreeable, as I found out from this visit.

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In setting up this event, which although open to all Abarth owners was branded as one organised by Abarth Berkshire, Larissa had been to see the venue and they had agreed that they would allow us to park up close to the house rather than in the main car park. Not having been here before – indeed I had never heard of this location until the event details were announced – I initially parked up in the main car park, joining a couple of other Abarths, which meant there was time for a few photos before the bulk of the attendees arrived and we were directed right up to the house.

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Reparked, there was an impressive array of Abarth models, though these were a representative set of Abarth models rather than the complete set. The majority of them were 500-based cars, as is almost always the case. These 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 none of the early cars here. .

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. The car seen here belongs to DJ Lewis, founder of Abarth Berkshire. Don’t be fooled by the Series 4 lights, this is actually a Series 3 car dating from 2015.

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The convertible version of the model was launched as the 500C at the 2010 Geneva Show, Initially it was only available with the semi-automatic MTA gearbox, but it was not long before the conventional 5 speed manual was added. The 500C launch also saw the introduction of the bi-colore cars, and these proved quite popular, though there were no examples of this here on this occasion. The C models were very much part of the 595 range, and it was a 595C in the popular Record Grey colour that was to be seen here.

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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 over four years and with Abarth sales on the rise, it was no surprise that they were particularly well represented here.

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More recently, Abarth have produced the 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 so to get two of them here was quite special. Of course we managed to get them parked next to each other.

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Many Abarths are modified by their owners. Some of the changes are quite subtle whereas others are extensive, whether that is mechanically or visually or both. Many of these now very distinctive cars are well known in the community and are easy to recognise. A number of them were here: Cathan Evans’ car has a distinctive livery applied to it and no-one can really miss it.

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This one is Mark Rosales’ car. The yellow details contrast really well with the Scorpione Nero black paintwork, and Mark has also applied a lot of carbon fibre trim from the KillAllChrome organisation, a company specialising in Abarths and MINIs. I suspect he’s not finished yet!

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Another car that is obviously not standard is Adam Kanner’s Abarth Red painted 595 Competizione, with a series of personalisations he is still in the process of applying.

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Marking its first appearance is Pete Burgess’ newly acquired 695 Esseesse. He actually tried to order one of these to replace his 595 Esseesse last summer but the ongoing chip shortage and consequent supply difficulties meant he has had to be patient and this car was eventually sourced from Rockingham Cars and not the local Pewsham Motors who have supplied his previous Abarths. the 695 Essesse was added to the range in early 2021 and is the model which has everything included as standard, including the 180 bhp engine, a limited slip differential, Sabelt seats, an Akropovic exhaust and the easy recognition point, the white wheels. It does not come cheap, with a list price the wrong side of £30,000 but for lovers of the brand, it has huge appeal.

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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. Production ceased in 2019 and around 1800 examples came to the UK, so this will always be a rare car. There were three of them here: Jeremy Ingham’s blue car, Claire Pottle’s white one, and the black 124 GT of Neil Potter.

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Having spend a while taking pictures of the cars as they were lined up on the approach to the main buildings, we adjourned inside for lunch. We had been advised to pre-book, and the reason for this became apparent, as we were not the only customers and space was indeed sufficiently limited that those who had not made a pre-booking could not be accommodated. That meant that a number of the group departed at this point to a nearby alternative location (which we later found out was very good indeed). Once those of us still on site had finished eating, we returned outside, and figured out that there was another location around the side of the hotel which would be perfect for photos. Space was limited here, so we had to do this in batches of no more than 3 cars, so it took quite a while to get a portfolio of everyone’s car, but that was no real hardship as there were plenty of conversations for the rest of us whilst we were waiting.

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Having done those photos by the church, people started to drift away, but the hard-core of the group stayed, and we had the cars in yet another parking area, which was the cue for yet more photos.

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Eventually, around 6pm, we all realised that it was now heading fast towards evening and what we had all thought was going to be a meet of a couple of hours plus lunch had taken up the whole day. To me. that is the mark of a great event. And this certainly was that. I have no doubt that this is a venue we will want to revisit in due course.

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