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Friday 27th January 2012


DRIVEN: BIKE-ENGINED FIAT 126 BIS

Bike engined road cars are always a bit mental but this one's more so than most


Stealth cars. Don't you just love 'em? They look bog stock but tucked away in their mechanical arsenal is enough firepower to blow the mind of even the most hardened modifier. And this 1989 Fiat 126 Bis is the very definition of the wolf in sheep's clothing.

The original Fiat 126 packed a mighty 24hp from its ickle 704cc two-cylinder engine, driving through a four-speed gearbox. The special Bis model added a whopping 2hp, giving 26 not especially wild horses.

Engine transplant somewhat transforms 126
Engine transplant somewhat transforms 126
This one's a bit different though. Instead of the 26hp rear-mounted motor - able to put-put-put to a mighty 4,500rpm - there's now a 1,000cc FZR EXUP 'Power valve' (the R1 forerunner, with four-stroke power valve system and a servo-driven exhaust valve) bike engine in the boot, putting out 145hp at 10,000rpm and screaming to 11,500rpm. Four-speed gearbox? Nah. A sequential Yamaha five-speed close-ratio unit. And gone is the standard rear-wheel drive transmission, replaced with a bespoke chain and sprocket system with a homebrew propshaft and modified limited-slip differential from a Toyota Celica GT4.

Hold on to your hat
As you might expect, performance has improved somewhat. The standard 126 (even in special 26hp Bis spec) just about managed 0-60 in a glacial 33 seconds and couldn't even dream of hitting 100mph, with a 72mph vmax. Now the mega-revs 145hp Fiat is capable (according to its builder) of 0-60 in 3.5 seconds and will hit 100mph in just 12.5 seconds, thundering onto 150mph - if you're brave enough.

Exhaust - and noise - are the only real giveways
Exhaust - and noise - are the only real giveways
To maintain the surreptitious facade, inside and out, standard aesthetics down to the badging and tiny wheel and tyre package have been maintained. And only the handmade exhaust, lowered ride height, 13,000rpm Yamaha rev counter and floor-mounted manual choke point to the Fiat's feisty fundamentals. Even the original dash, instrument panel and gearstick remain, now operating in an entirely different manner. The lengths owner Chris Lockhart has gone to are admirable.

But, looking at the 40-year-old car nut's history, it's not at all surprising this full-on Fiat is so good. Let's just say engineer Chris likes bike-engined, heavily modified cars. He's owned seven, including a Blackbird, an R1 and a Hayabusa-engined classic Minis, a ZX9 Mini Clubman and two bike-powered kit cars. The Fiat is his latest big high revving toy.

The 126 was bought 18 months back, as a part-finished project car. Chris and mates Andy and Jez (all with engineering o

Here's where the skullduggery lurks...
Here's where the skullduggery lurks...
r mechanical backgrounds) then spent over a year fettling the Fiat into the shape it is now - an immaculate, rust-free shell, bespoke rear-wheel-drive and powered by the Yamaha 1,000cc engine.

The dreaded 'unfinished project'
"The bare essentials were there," says Chris, "but it needed a lot of modification to get it working, especially sorting out the cooling [Honda car radiator, bike water pump] and pipework."

What's the appeal of bike-powered classic cars? "The engines are very lightweight, so you can keep the overall weight of the car down, then there's the thrill of the sequential gearbox attached, without having to fork out £10,000 for an aftermarket unit. I guess ultimately, it's all about the revs and long, quick gears," says Chris, smirking.

Helmet handy for masking look of fear
Helmet handy for masking look of fear
And you can see the rationale. Chris has also modified classic Minis with Honda VTEC engines and, in his own words, "they are really, really quick, but you can tell there's a very heavy engine in a light shell up front, and they alter the balance too much. Plus, the gear changes are not in the same league."

No such trouble here. The light Yamaha EXUP unit sits neatly in the boot, over the driven wheels and the 145hp is transferred via the bespoke transmission and the Yamaha sequential with serious gusto. It's an incredible buzz to be around, yet alone drive. So incongruous. So unique. So not Fiat 126.

Cute looks, insane performance
The original 126 was a cramped, noisy affair, and this is still the case, and some. From the moment the free-revving engine spins into life the insane Fiat makes you grin inanely. Your eyes say slow, cutesy, 80s Italian city car. Your ears say 'where's that superbike?'

145hp? Through those tyres?
145hp? Through those tyres?
Pull the gear lever back to engage first with a meaty mechanical clunk, slip the clutch and blip the throttle. Revs rise and fall insanely fast. Then the real mentalism starts. Frenetic, frightening and ferociously fast is the best description. The sheer length of the gears and manic crescendo of the revs rising to 11,500rpm, combined with the instantaneous sequential shifts, while surrounded by a 99 per cent standard Fiat 126 interior is deeply, deeply surreal. Incongruity defined. But God, this phenomenal Fiat is massive fun.

"Everyone comes over to this car, commenting on its condition (and saying words like 'cute' and 'arrrr'), then they see and hear the engine, and they can't believe what they are witnessing," adds Chris.

And I've saved the best news 'til last. Now the bulk of the insane 126 is finished (it still needs big brakes, fat rims and rubber and suspension to be a true weapon really), project car addict Chris is moving on, so the Fiat is up for sale. Time to raid the piggy bank?

Words and images: Phil Royle


FIAT 126 BIS EXUP
Engine:
1,003cc 4-cyl
Power (hp): 145@10,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 78.8@8,500rpm
0-62mph: 3.5 seconds
Top speed: 150mph
Weight: 619Kg
MPG: N/A
CO2: N/A
Price: £9,995 (as tested)








Author: Dan Trent