“Howell, do you wanna drive up the hill at Goodwood on Sunday?"
"No boss, I don't."
"Tough, you're doing it anyway, and stop whinging."
"Okay boss, thank you."
I’ve always tried to avoid the hill climb at Goodwood for one very sound reason: it’s not a circle. Racing circuits are great; you can go round and round, gradually upping the pace until you’ve learnt every twist and turn. On the hill you get one shot, and if you screw up you look like a proper wally in front of 100,000 people.
And what’s to gain? The best I could hope for is not crashing and simply being forgotten. Or crashing, and being immortalised as a loser on YouTube.
Still, I believed I’d be driving the fabulous new Fiat 124 Abarth Rally. “Okay” I thought, “a modern car with powerful brakes and a well-sorted chassis. It’ll be fine.”
As you can see from the pictures, I’d got this slightly wrong. The car I was driving turned out to be an original 1975 Fiat 124 Abarth Rally, with 40-year-old brakes and suspension. It was unique and extremely special, too, being the car that won the 1975 European Rally Championship in the hands of Maurizio Verini; so even more pressure not to crash it then.
Apprehensively I squeezed my 6ft 3in frame into the snug bucket seat, and with my head cocked due to the lack of head room and my knees around my ears, asked: “How do I move the seat back?” “You can’t.” Ah, okay.
Then a lovely man called Francesco, Fiat’s mechanic, explained the controls to me. Despite his loveliness Francesco spoke no English, so I just smiled sweetly as he told me in his dancing Italian mother tongue about the dozen or so toggle switches and the gear pattern. I gave him the thumbs up as he walked off, but still I had no clue what anything did.
If you should ever find yourself in a 1975 Fiat 124 Abarth Rally, subsequent investigations revealed that it’s a dog-leg, five-speed box, and reverse is push down, left and up. But other than the ignition and starter switches, I still can’t fill you in on what any of the buttons do.
At this point I was bewildered and having a very British panic attack – quietly, and without making a fuss. I was sweating like a pregnant nun in my racing overalls, too.
But then I looked around me. I’d already seen Sir Stirling Moss and Derek Bell in the Drivers' Club, and as I lined up waiting my turn, saw Ken Block milling around, Henry Hunt – son of the late, great James – jumping into his car, and I bumped in to Liam Doran, the WRC World Rally Cross Driver.
That’s when the privilege of what I was about to do hit me. Despite its cramped cockpit and discombobulating dash, I was about to drive this very special little car up the Goodwood Hill: "Come on man, this is a moment to savour."
As the marshal’s hand dropped I had the rev-counter needle pointed at 4000rpm, dumped the clutch and with a little squirm at the rear I was off. By modern standards 126bhp sounds puny – especially when you consider the new 124 Abarth Rally will have nearly 300bhp – but this car weighs just 938kg and will hit 60mph in a very respectable 7.7secs.
The gearbox was a mite awkward, with straight-cut gears that would occasionally hang me out to dry. But the stubby, short-throw leaver was a delight, while the gear whine and the closely stacked ratios left no doubt about this car’s proper competition pedigree.
We did have a little moment, the Abarth and I. Starting to really enjoy myself and determined to put on a show, I was approaching Molecomb at a reasonable lick. Just as I was about to brake, the engine misfired and a red light came on. I had no clue what it meant of course, but red lights are never good.
Distracted, I hit the brakes later than I’d have liked, and with no servo and what I can only assume were front discs the size of 10 pence pieces, we weren’t wiping off anywhere near the speed I’d hoped. I knew the nobly tires weren’t offering much grip, either, and suddenly the bales marking the edge of the track were looking more like concrete than hay. But there was no choice: I had to turn in on the brakes, with no idea how the 124 would react. The rear lightened, skipped slightly, but stuck, and we squeaked round, just.
That was the moment this 124 Abarth Rally and I forged our bond. The misfire intermittently returned over the rest of the run, and worried that the still glowing red light meant I was doing irreparable damage to my new friend and its newly rebuilt motor, I backed off to the finish.
But I had done it. Mark Twain once said: “There’s been a lot of tragedy in my life, and some of it actually happened.” What began in my mind as a living hell, in reality turned out to be one of those great moments to look back on. Thank you Goodwood. Thank you Fiat. And most of all, thank you L697 45 TO, my new best friend.