Paddy Hopkirk, historic rallying and a bucket-list Fulvia Zagato

| 12 Sep 2016

The older I get, the more determined I am to tick off some of the many hundreds (thousands even) of great classics that have passed me by. That’s why I was so delighted to get a “bonus” drive this week.

I had been invited to the gorgeous Manor Hotel in Weston on the Green Oxfordshire for the launch RAC Rally of the Tests by of the HERO (Historic Endurance Rally Organisation). It was a pretty laid back day considering the grueling nature of the event. The always-effervescent (in a good way not an angry way) Paddy Hopkirk did the honours flanked by a trio of legendary rally cars (two of his Monte Minis and a Healey) and with the Peall trophy brought along from the Royal Automobile Club by the brilliant Ben Cussons. Interesting this understated little pot was awarded for prowess at billiards!

The 2016 event (which takes place from 3-6 November, click here for details) will start in Hampshire and run across the West Country  to some of my favourite roads in Great Britain, all along the Welsh borders and including Shelsley Walsh, before winding up in Chester. The charmingly eclectic entry list includes everything from the expected – lots of Volvos and Brits – to the rather less predictable, a 1984 Nissan Sunny.

Anyway, Paddy did his bit and then the HERO people mentioned that the line of rally cars to my left weren’t just there for dressing. This is the company’s Arrive and Drive fleet. I had heard about this and some of my colleagues raved about iy, but basically, if you haven’t got a rally car ready to go, you can just throw a bit more money at HERO and it will lay on the car of your choice.

And what a choice: Triumph sports cars, ubiquitous Porsches, Ford Cortina, Jaguar E-type and more. Then my box-ticking gene kicked in. You see, there was a Lancia Fulvia Sport Zagato, something I have inexplicably missed out on. I’ve done lots of normal Fulvias, even a Fanalone, but the Fulvia Zagato had somehow eluded me. You have to bear in mind that this is not just a visual thing – I actually prefer the looks of the stock coupé to Ercole Spada’s more purposeful machine – but about that special magic that Zagato used to weave into everything it touched, the way it just made things that bit sharper, tauter and more tactile.

Snug in the seat of the late Series 1 S, with the rear hatch cranked open for ventilation and co-pilot Glen Waddington on the maps, we set off on a half hour countryside route. It was a lovely little car, not pristine by any stretch, but the sort of example that anyone could jump in and drive, the sort of condition that can survive anyone’s driving.

It zinged along the country roads on its 1298cc engine with aplomb – though the massive walking stick gearlever took up more than its share of cabin space – even to the point that I started to miss the fifth gear I would have had in a later car.

Low to the ground and on girthy rubber, it handles neutrally and has a lovely power to weight balance that makes driving it extremely intuitive.

But there is an issue – it doesn’t do for me, what in my mind Zagato "does". As mentioned, and excuse the inappropriate anaology, but what Zagato “does” is compact things. If your car is a rubbish sack full of components, after the Milan company has had its way, it’s the same sack, but after the drawstrings have ben pulled tight and tied. In my mind, Zagato means lighter and more delicate, more airily yet tightly packaged, yet in the case of the Fulvia it feels like the opposite.

The comparison I would make is between the early and late Lotus Elans. By the time you get to the squatter, later cars, inevitably riding on big wheels and fat rubber nowadays, you may have a healthy advantage on paper, but, such are the sensations and immediacy you forfeit, that you really don’t on the road.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t disappointed by the Sport and I would have one in a heartbeat – especially if I were lucky enough to be doing the RAC Rally of the Tests – but the fact that its nature was so alien to what I was expecting, such a departure from its own bloodline, made me realise just what engineering perfection was the masterpiece it is painted over. The classifieds beckon…

Photos: Peter Baker/Retro Speed Magazine