SEAT may be one of the biggest carmakers that’s almost unknown in America. They’re sold pretty much everywhere but America, and as a result even American gearheads who are aware of Citroëns and Skodas often forget all about Spain’s biggest carmaker. That’s probably why no American automotive journalists have ever visited SEAT’s wonderful historic collection. Until now, bitches.
When I was in Barcelona to drive the new Volvo XC60, I knew I had to try and carve out some time to see some old SEATs. SEAT doesn’t invite Americans on press trips, because what’s the point? They don’t sell them here. I’m not in Barcelona very often, so I figured I should take advantage of the chance.
SEAT is now part of the mighty Volkswagen Group, but that wasn’t always the case. SEAT started in 1950 with a license to built Fiat and Fiat-based cars. Even though their early history is very heavily Fiat-based, they often managed to put a unique Spanish spin on the cars, and had a number of cars unique to them.
I reached out to Isidre Lopez, the man in charge of SEAT Coches Históricos, the SEAT heritage museum. Isidre told me he “has the best job in the company” and I believe him. The man was clearly delighted that he got to work with these wonderful old cars that he’d spent his life with — he’s an ex-rally driver, too, so when he tells me something’s fun to drive, he means it.
There’s about 200 or so cars in the collection, and Isidre had some poor employee remove the plastic covers from every one for me, so thanks, whoever did that.
Remember, this is the first time any American-based media outlet has covered this collection, so get excited! These cars are engaging and charming, and I think you’ll find that SEAT is at the very least worth killing several hours with Google image searches.
Come on, let’s check this out!
The SEAT Heritage collection is right on the grounds of their factory in Zona Franca, Barcelona. They stamp hoods and doors for SEATs and other VW group cars here.
Let’s start at the beginning: this is the first production SEAT, the SEAT 1400. This was basically a re-badged Fiat 1400, and didn’t sell that well, since it was a bit too expensive for the masses of Spanish people who needed simple, basic transportation.
Some of them did have these wonderful cyclopean foglights, though.
This is the car that really made SEAT: the SEAT 600. It was essentially a re-badged Fiat 600, and the little rear-engined lump was what finally put Spain on motorized wheels. This was Spain’s Volkswagen; their people’s car and a symbol of Spain’s economic growth.
The SEAT 600 also has a great example of one of my automotive fetishes, the tiny but usable trunk. Man, that gas tank eats up a lot of room!
SEAT also had their first real Spain-only variant of a Fiat with the 600: a special four-door version just for them:
This is a SEAT 800, and was the car I really wanted to drive here in Spain. As you can see, though, the one the SEAT museum had was undergoing a restoration, so no drive for me. Still, you can see how nicely they designed the stretched version of the 600. It’s still tiny, but this was a viable family car for a good number of Spanish families back in the day.
Both doors are hinged on the same post, the front suicide, the rear conventionally-hinged. It’s like the opposite of a clapdoor Lincoln.
The Spanish market liked four-door sedans, so other Spain-only SEAT models appeared, like this sedan version of the Fiat 850, called the SEAT 850 Especial. It’s quite handsome, I think.
The collection has a couple of fantastic one-offs based on the SEAT 600, both designed as people-movers for VIPs visiting the factory. The first is this Siata-built open one, which is sort of like a Fiat Multipla Jolly, if one of those existed. Even though it isn’t, this feels like an amphibious car, to me. Something about it reminds me of something that should be able to swim.
I think this may be my favorite car in the collection; it’s also SEAT 600-based, and it’s also a lot like an early Fiat Multipla, but somehow just better, all around. It’s got a crisp, tailored style, and looks like a Michelotti design, though I’m not sure he had anything to do with it.
It’s incredibly roomy, has a clear panoramic roof, seats at least eight, is rear-engined — this is pretty much what I want for a daily driver. If this thing were any further up my alley I could charge it rent.
Just look how clean and perfect these tiny little engines are kept. So satisfying.
SEAT got back into the higher end of the car market as Spaniards began to get wealthier with this fierce-looking SEAT 1500. These started production in 1963 and were based on the Fiat 1500L.
The wagon version is especially lovely.
SEAT had their version of the Fiat 124, and in a lot of ways this can be thought of as a sibling to other Fiat 124 derivatives, like the Lada 1200/Riva.
The 124 had a sort of cooler sibling, the SEAT 1430. There was a hot GTI version of this car, and it had lights from the Fiat 125, set in a different front face. I think the lights are interesting here because their proportions are portrait-oriented instead of landscape, which is very unusual for car headlamps. I like it.
The SEAT 124 Sport is basically a Fiat 124 Sport Coupé, but whatever four letters you stick on the front, it’s still a fantastic-looking car. It feels a bit like a shrunken Iso Rivolta to me. As you can tell by the numbers and lights, this one has a rallying history.
The SEAT 133 is another interesting Spain-only mashup. It was designed to replace the aging SEAT 600 and SEAT 850 in the early ‘70s, and retains the rear-engine layout of those cars. In that sense, it seems a lot like Fiat’s rear-engined 126, but the 133 is much bigger. It’s sort of like a Fiat 126 that was embiggenated to the size of Fiat’s 127 front-engine car.
As a fan of the tiny 126, I really like this thing, especially the interesting silver plastic face mask it wears instead of a grille.
I like the strong horizontal thrust of the front-end of this car, the 131 Familiar.
SEAT also manufactured the Fiat Panda under license, but I want to talk about this one particular Panda, because it’s a Popemobile. And not just any Popemobile; I believe it’s the smallest and most rapidly-produced Popemobile in history.
When John Paul II was planning his visit to Spain in 1982, part of his tour involved a route that would take him through some gateways that were just too small for his usual Popemobile to get through.
This wasn’t realized until about two weeks before the visit, which meant that SEAT had to put together a small-enough yet suitable Popemobile inside of two weeks. They grabbed a white Panda and some clever designs and quick workers and boom, a delightful mini-Popemobile, suitable for Pontiff-transport through the smallest of openings.
Eventually, SEAT and Fiat had a breakup, and this car is the result of that. I explain it all here, if you’re curious.
After the breakup, SEAT continued to make a re-worked version of the Panda called the Marbella. You really need to see the upholstery and fabrics used in these:
Maybe I’m an idiot, but I kind of love this interior.
This is SEAT’s first completely independently designed and built car, as in not something that started life as a Fiat. It’s the SEAT 1200 Sport, better known as the Bocanegra, which means ‘black mouth.’ I’m guessing you can see why.
I’ve always loved these, and was delighted to get to finally see one in person. I think it’s one of the best examples of ‘70s-era crisp-edged fastback design, and things get more interesting when you realize the body was originally supposed to be for a rear-engined NSU.
That’s why the Bocanegra has those odd little vents in the rear quarter panels; in the original NSU design, those fed air to the engine.
I was so excited about the Bocanegra, I was able to convince Isidre to let me take it for a little spin. I just had my phone to shoot with, and the video is, let’s face it, pretty terrible, with way too many shots of my feet and the dashboard, but it should at least give you an idea of the car.
See? Not a great video. Still, the car is an absolute charmer. Nimble, light, engaging, comfortable—I love the damn thing. Driving the Bocanegra gives you a sense of being in something airy and mechanical, like if you could pilot a nicely engineered clockwork cloud. I’m not sure how else to describe it, other than it’s a blast.
After the Fiat split, Porsche came along to help them re-engineer their engines, and the result is the only engines other than the ones in actual Porsches to bear the Porsche name. Pretty cool!
This is pretty remarkable, too. Wondering why that little station wagon has the Nürburgring on the hood? Because, car-friends, this is the fastest wagon to lap the Nürburgring.
Yep, this SEAT Cupra 280 did the ‘ring in seven minutes, 58 seconds, and 12 hundredths of a second. That’s a full 10 seconds faster than the old record holder, a B7 Audi RS4. Ther’s a reason VW was planning on positioning SEAT as the VW Group’s affordable performance brand.
For the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, SEAT had this electric Toledo built. Isidre gleefully showed me how half-ass this car was, with its generic power cord charger. It was apparently put together at the last minute, and worked well enough for what was needed.
The level of wear on this 124-based race car is just about perfect.
SEAT has a lot of rallying pedigree, and there’s a lot of great rally cars in the collection. I think this Ibiza rally car is my favorite, because of this:
See that? That’s a second engine in the back. They had some fun with the badging on this one:
That’s pretty great.
There’s a lot of great rally and touring cars here.
SEAT did some tie-in with these guys. I’m guessing someone from Spain will know who the hell they are.
SEAT’s had some interesting concept cars as well, like this one. It reminds me a bit of the old Smart Roadster, and that’s a very good thing.
I love the detail of the visible, horizontal suspension parts.
This was a fun SUV concept from a few years back, and nearby was SEAT’s first concept car:
ThoughI’m not sure it’s technically a car, since it’s a painted clay model. Still, very sleek.
It’s a shame SEAT is so obscure in America. They’re building inexpensive, engaging cars and filling some niches that we don’t really have many good options for in the states, like inexpensive, fast station wagons. The history, while heavily Fiat-based, is just different enough from what’s expected to be actually interesting.
The museum isn’t normally open to the public, but if you find yourself in Spain, and you know someone with some connections to SEAT, I say it’s worth a try to see if you can swing a visit.
Isidre is a warm, welcoming man who clearly loves his job, and while I don’t want to swamp him with requests to see the collection or make his job even harder, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t recommend it, at least to some degree.
Now I need to figure out how expensive it’ll be to get a Bocanegra here in the U.S., because I clearly need another old car that’s impossible to get parts for.