Fiat 124 Abarth Rally – Stories of rivalry and success
Last weekend saw the Abarth 124 Rally take to the road again as the motorsport season continued to get underway, with the Roma Capitale Rally, so what better excuse for our ‘Throwback Thursday’ series than to look back through the FCA Heritage history books and take a look at the original Fiat 124 Spider…
The Fiat 124 Sport Spider, presented in 1966, was not conceived by the Fiat management for motorsport use. Nevertheless, this agile, Pininfarina-penned car was considered by privateer drivers to be ideal for racing. Little by little, Fiat officially entered the rallying arena and progressively developed the 124 with support from Abarth, eventually clinching the European Rally Championship in 1972 and 1975.
Created in 1966 to supersede the dated Fiat 1300, the Fiat 124 saloon was soon followed by three variants: a versatile station wagon, a coupé and a spider. Whereas the coupé was developed at the Fiat Design Center, the design of the spider version was outsorced to coachbuilder Pininfarina.
Dutch-American stylist Tom Tjaarda shortened the platform of the 124 saloon and coupé, creating a compact 2+2 convertible with harmonious contours: the result was the Fiat 124 Sport Spider. The car’s low weight and racing engines, which would follow later, influenced not only its road behaviour but also its future performance in competitions.
The eclectic spider went on to enjoy a very long production run and great commercial success, including overseas, before returning to Europe as the sublime Pininfarina Spidereuropa, which was marketed under the Pininfarina brand until the mid-eighties. A specimen recently restored by the Officine Classiche workshops of FCA Heritage is now on display at the Heritage HUB.
The car made its rallying début in 1969, when several privateer drivers entered national races with the first-series 124 Sport Spider, powered by the 1438 cc twin-cam, 4-cylinder engine. Its overriding strength in competitions was its combination of robustness and optimal road holding due to good weight distribution, despite a power output of less than 100 horsepower.
The results prompted Fiat’s unofficial entry into rallying. In 1970 the engine displacement was enlarged to 1608 cc, while power output was increased to 110 HP. With its new, tuned-up car, Fiat entered the 1970 Italian Rally Championship with Alcide Paganelli and Ninni Russo, winning the national title despite fierce competition from the Lancia Fulvia Coupé HF.
Victory in the Italian championship and the subsequent acquisition of racing tuner and automaker Abarth—which became Fiat’s official racing department—led the Turin-based company to present its official works team in 1971: both the 125 S saloon and the 124 Sport Spider were entered in races.
Luciano Trombotto confirmed the Spider’s competitiveness in the narrow, winding streets of the Rallye Elba, winning the race two years in succession.
The victories came thick and fast, especially in the 1972 season, when Lele (Raffaele) Pinto and co-driver Gino Macaluso took the chequered flag in the Costa Brava Rally with a 124 Sport Spider that had been lightened by 90 kg. A series of five further victories followed: at Semperit in Austria, followed by Poland, Yugoslavia, and back in Austria in the Rallye der 1000 Minuten. On the strength of these successes and two runners-up finishes in the Italian rallies of San Martino di Castrozza and Elba, Pinto-Macaluso and the Fiat 124 won the European Rally Championship. In the same season, Lancia clinched the international constructors’ championship with the Fulvia HF 1.6, underlining the Fiat Group’s supremacy.
The 124 was further upgraded, enlarging the engine to 1800 cc and upping power to 128 bhp, which became 170 in the Gr. 4 rally trim. The suspension was changed and even the exterior had the look of a racing car: it had no bumpers and there were plastic wheel arch trims, roll bars and racing seats. For safety and homologation reasons, the canvas roof had already been replaced by a lightweight hard top and even the car’s name no longer bore any trace of the original spider. The new version made its racing début at the Monte Carlo Rally in 1973: despite failing to win, Pinto-Bernacchini finished ahead of the defending champion car, the formidable Fulvia HF.
By the time the 1974 season arrived, the engine had been converted to 16 valves and output boosted to 200 hp. The new Fiat 124 Abarth Rally debuted with a podium hat-trick in the TAP Rallye de Portugal that saw Pinto-Bernacchini finish ahead of team-mates Paganelli-Russo and the young Finn Markku Alen, navigated by Kikki Kivimaki. In the same year, the 124 Abarth Rally cars were also prepared to take on the East African Safari Rally for the very first time, complete with reinforced suspension, additional air filters and front bars to protect the radiator from possible collisions with roaming animals. The race didn’t go particularly well, but provided valuable experience for the future.
The Fiat 124 Abarth Rally continued to evolve and, for the 1975 season, was fitted with a new bonnet incorporating air intakes as well as two additional inset headlamps, while the rear fenders featured an air intake for the brakes. The engine output was further increased to 215 hp thanks to fuel injection. Major wins of the season came in the Rally de Portugal, where Alen-Kivimaki took first place ahead of the other official 124 Abarth driven by Hannu Mikkola, navigated by a young Jean Todt. But the most significant milestone for the history books was achieved by Maurizio Verini, who won the 1975 European Rally Championship. Verini-Rossetti triumphed in France, Spain, Italy (in the Elba Rally), Yugoslavia and Poland, besides finishing second in San Martino di Castrozza. In the same season, the Fiat team earned precious victories and points through Cambioghi-Sanfront, who reigned supreme in the Rallye Eastern Alps, and Bacchelli-Scabini, who came up trumps in Bulgaria. Those wins and podium places brought a second European title for the Fiat 124, in its Abarth Rally guise.
The last time Fiat fielded the Fiat 124 Abarth Rally Gr. 4 as an official team car was at the 1976 Monte Carlo Rally, where it sported the new blue and yellow livery of sponsor Fiat Oil. The event was won by Lancia, itself riding on the crest of a wave with its imperious Stratos, which was virtually unbeatable for several years; Markku Alen finished further down the rankings in sixth place with his 124. Thereafter, just as in its early days, the 124 was driven successfully by many privateer drivers, thanks to its acclaimed reliability. Production of the Fiat 124 Abarth Rally, which had started in 1972, ended in 1975 after 995 cars had rolled off the production line at the Abarth workshops on Corso Marche, in Turin. The specimen in the company collection is the Gr. 4 one driven by Maurizio Verini and Francesco Rossetti in the 1975 season. Still in full working order, it is normally exhibited in the “The Rally Era” section of the Heritage HUB and is given an occasional run-out at major European period car events.
*Special thanks to FCA Heritage