The Fiat Campagnola That Conquered Africa
Mention Fiat and most people think of the cute 500, the 124 Spider and maybe the fabulous Dino but few will think of the Campagnola or possibly not even heard of it?…
The iconic Campagnola achieved one of the most legendary exploits in post-war motoring, travelling the length of Africa, from South to North, in 11 days, 4 hours and 54′ 45″. The maps of the time indicated a distance of 14,193 km, but the Campagnola’s odometer read 15,256.
In 1950 the Italian Army issued a call for bids for the supply of multipurpose vehicles in the style of the Jeep Willys, the all-terrain vehicle used by American troops during the European campaign in the Second World War. Alfa Romeo and Fiat took part, each building its own prototype, of the “A.R. 51”, the abbreviation of the Italian military’s chosen name of Autoveicolo da Ricognizione modello 1951 [Reconnaissance Motor Vehicle, 1951 model]. The army chose the Fiat version, designed by Dante Giacosa, judging it easier and cheaper to maintain.
This led, in 1951, to the large-scale production of the vehicle, which was not only built for use by the military. In fact, the name Campagnola, with its echo of “campagna” or “country” was intended to promote a vehicle seen as ideal for use on farms. The vehicle had a steel longitudinal beam and crossmember chassis,beam axle on leaf springs at the rear and independent suspensions, innovative for the time, on the front axle. The 1901 cc type 105 engine produced 53 HP at 3,700 rpm, while the vehicle had a4-speed transmission with low-range box, and normally rear-wheel drive, with front-wheel drive only available with the low-range gears engaged.
In 1951, for advertising purposes, the Fiat management decided to attempt to break the record for driving from Cape Town to Algiers, the whole length of Africa,in the shortest possible time. The chosen team members were driver Paolo Butti, with plenty of experience acquired in previous African rallies, supported by aFiat test driver, Domenico Racca,who knew the Campagnola inside-out, since he had worked on the development of the military prototype some time earlier. Together with Butti’s wife and cameraman Aldo Pennelli of ILCOM, they made the outward trip on an “A.R. 51” with a trailer for the film equipment, before transferring to a “fresh” twin for the return leg, from Cape Town to Algiers, and their attempt at the record.
At that time it was a truly epic adventure, due to both the adverse conditions of the vast, varied expanse of Africa they had to cross, and their isolation during the harshest sections of the route.
The version chosen was a long wheelbase model, with special hard-top body, equipped with a rugged roof rack, two auxiliary headlights on the mudguards, petrol tanks fixed to the bodywork, shovel, and various mechanical spare parts, including a whole leaf-spring fixed to the front bumper. FIAT la “Campagnola” read the writing on the door, with “Algiers – Cape Town and back” (in Italian and French) along the sides.
A book would not be enough to describe the historic feat, beset by almost insurmountable problems caused by the terrible conditions on the route, rendered virtually impassable by the rains, which transformed meagre streams into impassable rivers within minutes.
What’s more, in many parts of Africa night driving was forbidden and this was another obstacle to the attempt at the record. After even overcoming snow on the peaks of the Anti-Atlas mountains, the Campagnola finally reached the finishing line, to be greeted by the timekeeper from the French Automobile Club, around whom a large crowd had assembled. The journey had been completed in 11 days 4 hours 54′ 45”: a still unbroken record.
FCA Heritage still has the heroic Campagnola in its collection, and is exhibiting it at Heritage HUB to recall its magnificent feat and the record, and to show the solidity, impressive even today, of a vehicle capable of an achievement that will remain in automotive history for ever.
*Special thanks to FCA Heritage for the images & information