Dispatches Do Brasil: How I Killed the Sports Car

Marcelo de Vasconcellos
by Marcelo de Vasconcellos

Reading here on TTAC that a BMW executive declared the sports car dead was a sad day for me. Yes, I am one of those who bemoan the passing of beautiful, personal cars like those, whether or not sprinkled with the fairy dust of power. I’m not talking Ferrari here, I’m talking simpler things, like an Opel Tigra, or a Ford Puma, maybe even an old VW Karmann Ghia or a fiberglass, old Beetle motivated, Brazilian Puma GT. Cars like those allowed their everyday owners, with common pocketbooks, to dream of performance and a more enchanted life, in spite of sometime ordinary engines, as their designs were always something else.

Reflecting on the implications of the assertion I remembered that day. That day I had my favorite mainstream-make, exotic–inspired, common-hardware-bundled-up-in-a-an-affordable-package car all to myself. And thinking on that drive made me realize I’m partially responsible for this CUV-dominated, ignonimous state of affairs. You see, instead of living out my playboy fantasies, I decided to live out a fantasy of another kind, more country if you will, and bought a Ford Ranger. My 2-year experience with that ill-handling brute can best be resumed thus: So happy the day I bought it, happier still the day it was gone.

The year 2000, recently divorced, I decided that my new marital status deserved something more fun than the competent, but staid, Fiat Siena. I was no longer a family man, I didn’t need 5 seats, and neither a trunk. So I started looking into other things. It was a good time to buy cars like these. Due to the sudden freeing of importations in the early 90s, there was an abundance of different used cars available, things that up until then were uncommon here. Basically I started looking into jeeps and sports cars. I test drove a Daihatsu Feroza, a Suzuki Sidekick, found them all lacking. That off-road type vehicle search led me to pickups and I thought the Dodge Dakota would look fine in my garage, though eventually I chose the Ranger for better ride and more commodious cabin.

At the same time, I looked into two-seater cars. I test drove an Opel Calibra, a beast of a car, but an interior so pedestrian as to be off putting. Drove quite of few of the Japanese, too, but really, none inspired me except the Mazda Miata and MX3. However, the fact that all the small Japanese makes were getting their butts kicked in the market and falling like flies made me wary. Also, I was looking for something fun, but not desperate and oh-my-big-winged like a Mitsubishi Eclipse or a Hyundai Tiburon.

Finally, one day, I saw it. A Fiat Coupé. I was aware of it, of course, keenly aware as it drew my eyes like no other. But the thing was so expensive when it was brand new, it had slipped my radar. Now a 1996 model was going for the same price of a 1998 Ranger. Buyable indeed. Serendipity struck and I got a call from a friend.

He had decided to sell his green Coupé. It had very low mileage as it was basically his weekend car. Better yet, he was going off to Rio to work for the day and he would let me keep his car all day provided I took him to the airport at the crack of dawn and picked him up on his return at night. Of course!

There it was. Looking for all the world like a small Ferrari, the quality of the design oozed from every angle. The front was aggressive, but not overly so, and the head lights, encased in that plastic shroud, called all eyes. The high intensity projectors were something new here and at night you knew it was a Coupé coming just from the beam of light it projected. The hood was long as befits a sports car, the roof low, but no way claustrophobic, in fact sight lines were quite good for that kind of car, especially to the front and side. Backing up did require care and a prayer to be sure.

The wheel wells are the coolest I have ever seen. Cut like a knife, it as chiseled and suggested power. The wheels themselves made a nice composition with those lines. The back, of course, wow, those round lights! That and their positioning, immediately put me in mind of a Ferrari. Not only me of course, the car was known worldwide as Fiat’s mini-Ferrari. All the way, it was quite grownup, no hint of a wing or an extraneous line anywhere.

Inside, oh my gosh! Difficult to describe the beauty. The external color-coded-metallic-finished stripe on the dash immediately drew the eyes. Quite unusual and striking. The gauges lit up in a deep red, suggesting performance, and the idiot lights were aligned in a tastefully set up strip below the gauges. The steering wheel was the only deception inside. Common to other cars in the Fiat line, it only distinguished itself by being bound in leather. The seats were big and a perfect balance between comfort and support. As the name Coupé suggested, the car was a 2+2, and in the back, a couple of bags could be fit or two children. Not that I cared much, but the trunk held 310 liters, about the same as a Ford Focus hatch of today.

Of course, the famous Pininfarina logo emblazoned that dash. At the time I believed the car was his work, though later research showed that the famous Italian design house “only” did the interior. The exterior had been penned by Fiat’s in-house Centro de Stilo, that was at the time commanded by a talented American, none other than the famous Chris Bangle of BMW fame.

So, I dropped my friend off at the airport and hit the road. I decided to take the famously curvy BR-262 highway. Known as the road of death, there is a stretch further out into the country that has literally hundreds of curves in the less than 50 kilometers of road. I wouldn’t have time to venture out that far. Starting from Belo Horizonte, I decided to go to Itabira. In that stretch of road there is the famous Curva do Sabão (soap curve), near Caeté, a curve that was designed wrong and due to the inclination, tends to throw you car off into the wrong direction.

Getting there I explored the breadth of the engine. Though later Euro versions used more powerful and turbo equipped engines, the Brazilian version used the same 137 hp, 2.0, 16v of Fiat’s own Tipo Sedicivalvole. Putting out the same horsepower as in the Tipo, in the Coupé the engine was reworked as to noise. It was amazing, and no 4 cylinder engine has the right to sound so good. The noises made will be forever in my head. I remembered reading in Brazilian magazine at the time that the Coupé made the 0-62 mph dash in a hair over 10 seconds and got close to 205 km/h at top speed. Due to the heavy traffic and limits of the road, I couldn’t get near those limits.

However, I didn’t really care. I was enjoying too much the curves and trucks along the way. Powerful enough to provide strong bursts of speeds, getting around the trucks, buses and other slow moving cars was a simple as dropping a gear and stepping on it. The precise steering and handling guaranteed that it was a point it and it’ll get there affair. The suspension was a work of art. It soaked up the imperfections nicely and never got unsettled. Disc brakes all around guaranteed the necessary stepping power.

The car’s behavior was provided by an all independent suspension. McPherson struts were used up front and in the back there were longitudinally-mounted oscillating arms. The back never threatened to break out no matter how fast, at least on this road and in the hands of this driver. The Coupé made short work of the infamous curve mentioned previously and I went back on forth on this stretch of road maybe 20 times. It was clearly overkill the setup Fiat used. I can only imagine how the most powerful Coupé must have been. The figures were breathtaking and the top Euro turbo Coupé used a 2.0, 20v, 5 cylinder engine, good for 223 horses. Imagine greater indeed.

As I headed back into the city, crossing it, finding the car pliable enough for city driving as well, I pondered on what to do. The car tugged on me like no other. Beautifully designed, comfortable, it had an unmatchable and undeniable presence, especially in this country. However, only about 1,300 had been imported into Brazil, possibly making maintenance a problem (though that proved untrue as mechanically it was similar to the much more successful Tipo). Also, I had just asked to be transferred back from Brasília to Belo Horizonte and moving could be a problem in that car. If I bought a Ranger, I could do it myself as I would only be taking clothes, books and such…

Besides, this one was green. Had it been blue or red, or better yet, yellow (the most striking color for it in my evaluation) I would not have resisted, I think.

Thankfully such cars as the Mini Cooper, Fiat Cincuecento Abarth, Volkswagen Beetle R, BMW M3 still exist and serve and enthusiast well. However, they are the opposite of what a Coupé was. The modern cars take an extraordinary engine and drop it into a common car. The Coupé and others like it did the opposite, they took an ordinary engine and installed it into an unusual car. Works much better for me.

Alas, the world moves on and there seems to be no place for cars like that (being PSA with the Peugeot RCZ and Citroën DS3 and Mazda with the Miata, exceptions) anymore. They live on in the memories of guys like me who saw them there, in the flesh, and lusted for them. We can only hope they make a comeback.

Excuse me now as I have to go. Let me hop into my Renault Duster and go pick up my kid.

Marcelo de Vasconcellos
Marcelo de Vasconcellos

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  • Marcelo de Vasconcellos Marcelo de Vasconcellos on Nov 23, 2014

    Hola Athos! Oh man you lived the dream! So cool. As to the 5 cylinders, I was very familiar with them. The naturally aspirated one was a Marea wagon and the turbos a couple of friends had them, so... And be sure i do not dismiss hot hatches and sporty sedans. In an age where a Fiesta can put the heat on the Toybaru twins, we are well served. I just miss seeing real sport car shaped vehicles on the streets.

    • Athos Nobile Athos Nobile on Nov 24, 2014

      The quoting marks weren't for free Marcelo. But yeah, it was cool. Specially the reaction of the kids on the street when the head lamp covers popped up. The engine on the NA one revved to almost 8K RPM and it just sang up there. Ah the memories... Although the options have reduced considerably, I see sports cars almost everyday here. The 86 has sold well and same goes for the 3/4 series coupes. On the sporty side... there are GTIs everywhere. I also drove the 5 banger on a Marea wagon. We did not get the turbo version of that engine on any car.

  • Hoonthatprado Hoonthatprado on Nov 23, 2014

    awesome article! My friend bought a Fiat Coupe back when it came out, it was a turbo 16V and looked exactly like the one on your picture. Huge turbo laaaaag, but once boost was there, it went like a little devil. Golf III VR6 couldn't keep up. The good old times of sporty coupes without silly high pedestian-safety hoods (yes Z4 and SLK, I'm looking at both of you). And how do I miss the S2000 that I had to leave behind. It would be a great companion in the sinuous mountain roads of the Sierra Gaucha. Silly Brazilian import regulations...

  • James Hendricks The depreciation on the Turbo S is going to be epic!
  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.