Seat is a car company with a classic past that has an equally vital future
For the first time in its history, Seat transported three of its immaculate classic models to the UK and allowed Iain Robertson the opportunity to be whisked back to an era, when scarcely anyone outside of Spain knew what a Seat was, in car terms.
While Spain has operated an indigenous motor industry for more than a century, brands such as Hispano-Suiza and Elizalde, as well as Ford Motor Iberica and General Motors Peninsular satisfied most of the nation’s transport needs. However, during General Franco’s dictatorship, it was determined that a ‘home-grown’ brand should take priority and, with an investment of what seems today like a trivial £3.6m, Seat was born.
A relationship had been struck with Italian carmaker, Fiat, which was renowned for establishing links in ‘new’ markets (such as Lada, in Russia) that used ‘old’ Fiat manufacturing methodology and hardware. The first Seat 1400 rolled off the Barcelona production lines in 1953. Interestingly, the amount of Spanish-sourced materials had increased to 93% within a year, thus proving the viability of a domestic car making facility in terms of both wider employment and national pride.
By 1957, recognising a need for more basic and inexpensive transportation, the Seat 600d was introduced and it transformed the entire Spanish motor industry. Costing just 60,000 pesetas (less than £450), it became as much a Spanish motoring icon as the Fiat 500 was in Italy. An amazing 797,319 examples were produced and many thousands were exported to Poland, Finland and Argentina. Rear-engined, displacing 633cc (initially) replaced by a 767cc four-cylinder engine that drove through a 4-speed manual gearbox, it was water-cooled and survived until 1973.
Driving it today is demanding to say the least and interior space is exceptionally tight. Despite having only around 22bhp on tap, the diminutive 600d can just about keep up with the rest of the traffic. Its ride quality on a lot of Liverpool’s poorly surfaced roads (probably the equivalent of some of Spain’s backwaters routes) was grim to be kind to it, demanding due caution. However, its unpowered steering was direct and fairly accurate, considering the tail-heavy load (engine and gearbox).
The next landmark car for Seat arrived in the form of the 1975 1200 Sport. Based loosely on the Fiat 128 Coupe of the early-1970s, it was developed entirely at Seat’s Technical Centre, Martorell. It gained the nickname ‘Bocanegra’ because of its ‘rubber bumper’ front-end. Interestingly, as a car making its appearance in the same year as the passing of Spain’s General Franco (although sales started in 1976), it was also a celebratory model in many ways. Finished in a vibrant lime green, it actually looks very modern, belying its 44 years with its near timeless styling. It was powered initially by a 1.2-litre 67bhp engine, driving through a 4-speed manual gearbox. Another, much-loved, sportier version joined the range soon after in 1430 guise, with the engine power increased to 77bhp.
The car drives exceedingly well today, its firm suspension providing a not uncomfortable drive on Liverpool’s streets and its engine emitting a charming guttural roar, both on acceleration and throttle-off. While it is nothing that a decent service would not cure, the over-rich carburettor settings did create inconsistent throttle responses. Yet, this striking, if compact little coupe offers a moderate turn of speed and a desire to actually own an example!
The third landmark car for Seat came in the form of the first-generation Ibiza model. Although it premiered in 1984, two years prior to VW succeeding with its bid to acquire the company and its assets, the new sense of freedom in Spain seemed to encourage the involvement of several outside suppliers. From the pen of Giugiaro (ItalDesign) came the exterior and interior styling, further developed by Karmann (a German engineering giant), while Porsche lent its design philosophy for the front-wheel-drive engines.
Sold in 1.0 and 1.2-litre petrol forms, as well as a 1.7-litre diesel, this version is a 1.5GLX that develops 85bhp, tops out at around 105mph and drives through a 5-speed manual gearbox. More than 1.3m examples were built and Seat was put onto the sales map across Europe, a factor that underscores its value to the brand. Of course, Ibiza is a model name that remains immensely popular today, the current model being VW Polo-based.
Conclusion: While Seat’s history is not as lengthy as some carmakers, being only 69 years old, it remains an important one all the same and these three landmark models remind you of how far the company has come in developmental terms.