Ever seen the James Bond film GoldenEye? You know the bit where Pierce Brosnan is trying to drive the tank through the streets of Moscow? Yeah, that was pretty much what an average trip in my parents’ Fiat Regata was like.
Even I knew the Regata was a barge. I was only six when my parents had it, but I could see my poor Mum physically struggling to manoeuvre the thing round Safeway’s car park, breathing heavily as she pushed on the chocolate brown steering wheel with all her strength in an attempt to make the front wheels move. It looked clunky, with a staggering number of straight lines and huge swathes of cheap Eastern European steel hanging over the wheels. And with a 1300cc engine, there was no chance of it ever overtaking anything.
Apparently the Regata isn’t as big as I remember it being – Wikipedia classes it as a ‘small family car’ and I remember being told it was a saloon version of the Strada hatchback – but I can’t imagine my mother struggling like that with any other small family car we ever had (more about those in the posts to come). There was an estate version too called the Weekend, but owing to the price buying one of those was but a pipe dream for my parents. Perhaps it was the weight that made the saloon seem so big. Perhaps it was the lack of speed. Or perhaps it was the fact I was six, an age where adult shoes seemed unimaginably big.
Like the Fiat Uno, the Regata was brought out to my folks’ house in the countryside by a guy from the garage. I was allowed to accompany my old man on the test drive, which consisted of a run of several miles along to the next few villages and back again. I sat in the back, my wee legs dangling over the edge of the rough tweedy back seat whilst Mabon senior tried his hardest to make sure the big/small (depending on whose account you believe) Fiat was actually able to cope with inclines.
There was then a wait of a week and a bit for the car to be cleaned out by the Fiat dealership in Inverness before we were able to collect it. This entailed several trips to the showroom and several trips back over to the Black Isle in the now tatty and rusting Uno, until finally my Dad and I were brought inside and told to wait while the Regata was brought round to us (what a privilege). The Fiat showroom in Inverness was carpeted, and held the fine smell of value rubber, cheap paint and already-leaking oil that only a purveyor of 1980s Italian cars can achieve. I wandered through the crowds of Pandas, Unos, Tipos, Tempras and Cromas that filled the showroom, only a thin membrane of corrugated iron on the garage roof protecting these shoddily-built vehicles from a certain rusty death. Down the far end of the showroom, demarcated by a change to a red-and-green chequered carpet, were the Alfa Romeos. I never bothered to go and look at the Alfas because my old man had told me, in no uncertain terms, that they were ‘too expensive’ for our family to ever afford. By way of consolation, however, as we left to get into the newly-arrived Regata my Dad swiped a Croma brochure for me in an act of defiance. It smelled awesome.
The Regata was finished in a horrendous matt green colour last seen on machinery in the Somme, with steel wheels and chunky plastic bumpers completing the ultimate case study in form following function. My next memory is of driving towards the bridge out of Inverness and father trying the radio, which was met with a rude farting sound from the speakers due to the lack of any kind of effective aerial. With no cassette tapes – they were back at the house in a plastic bag by the door having been removed when the Uno was hovered out prior to its depature – we completed the rest of the journey in silence. That gave me ample time to admire the wooly beige carpets, brown/green/cream seats and dark brown plastic, complete – of course – with the trademark Fiat burning smell. Hell, it was so old there was even a choke and a four-speed manual gearbox.
By some miracle, during its period as a Mabon vehicle the Regata completed a round trip to York and numerous round trips to the grandparents’ place down in Fife. And just as with the Uno, despite the horrific reputation held by 1980s Italian cars, I have no memories at all of standing by the roadside waiting for the AA to come. The only time I can recall there being any trouble with the Regata was when I managed to lock the keys inside the car at a garden centre, having been petrified into obsessively locking each door individually by all the reports of car crime I had read about – aged six – and seen on the TV. In a spectacular demonstration of the anti-theft mechanisms Fiat installed as standard on their cars, a guy from the garden centre came out with a cable tie and used it to pick the lock.
Like the wee red Uno before it, the time finally came for the Regata to be passed on, and with great excitement it was swapped for a Volvo 340 of identical age. About ten years later, I could have sworn I saw our old green tank – D716DLE – sitting rotting in a cul-de-sac somewhere in north-west Scotland. A bloody good innings for a car produced by the worst country at making cars in the decade when the least reliable cars ever were built, I have to admit.