For our Throwback Thursday series we took a revisit to the world of rallying in the FCA Heritage archives, only instead of Lancia this time, we found the Fiat 131 Abarth Rally GR. 4 – a time when Fiat conquered the world rally championships
Shaped like a saloon, but with the grit and competitive performance of a top racing car.
The customer is always right… in racing too. And Fiat’s official entrance to the world of rally racing proved exactly this.
At the turn of the 1960s and 70s, numerous private customers were requesting Fiat to support them in competing in rallies with its 124 Sport Spider. In that period, rally competitions were the most popular form of motor racing. The degree of public interest in rally racing helped to convince Fiat management to gradually invest in this field, starting by semi-officially registering certain 124 models in various competitions valid for the Italian Championship and the World Championship. In 1971 Fiat took over Abarth and transformed it into the company’s official racing department. This was to prepare the terrain for the launch of the Fiat Racing Team, which duly made its debut in the 1972 racing season with the 124 Abarth Rally Group 4. This car obtained excellent results – conquering two European championships, in 1972 and 1975 – and so convincing Fiat managers to increase their racing investments. In 1976 it was decided to replace the ageing 124 line, and a special set up was prepared on the new Fiat 131 saloon: the idea being to take advantage of the image return generated by racing successes to increase the model’s sales. And so a quiet three-volume family sedan was transformed into a phenomenal racing car.
The design and construction of the bodywork was entrusted to the Bertone Style Centre. There, fiberglass and aluminium were used to create a lightweight car resembling the Fiat 131 Mirafiori in its two-door version. To decrease bodyweight, the 131 Abarth Rally was fitted with resin bonnets and mudguards, and aluminium doors. Larger wheel arches and spoilers were then added, to provide the necessary downforce. Extra-large dynamic air intakes on the left side of the bonnet and on the sides facilitated the cooling of mechanical parts.
The thrust powering the car – prepared by Abarth technicians – came from a highly original straight 1,995 cm3 four-cylinder engine, with light alloy cylinder heads, double camshaft, 16 valves and Kugelfischer mechanical injection in the “Corsa” racing version. The road version, with a Weber double-barrel carburettor, generated 140 horsepower, but in the injection racing versions it reached 225 HP, later increased to 245. A five-speed transmission with front clutches, which also featured on the 131 Abarth road model, and a ZF self-locking differential (only on the racing version) transferred power to the low-profile Pirelli P7 tyres.
Built between 1976 and 1978, 400 exemplars were assembled – the minimum number to comply with FIA regulations on Group 4 Racing – after which the Fiat 131 Abarth Rally Gr.4 model quickly imposed itself in competitions all over the world.
For four long years it dominated rallies worldwide, from Finland to Argentina to Montecarlo.
The oil crisis of the 1970s shook the racing world even more than the car market. But the Italian public’s enthusiasm for motor racing, and its expectations of further successes, remained unabated.
After two victories in the 100,000 Trabucchi and the Valli Piacentine rallies in the 1976 Italian Championship, the Fiat 131 Abarth Rally triumphed in its debut race of the 1976 European Championship, the Elba Island Rally. In 1976 it also won the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland, this time in the context of The World Championships. For this success, the driver was the Finnish ace Markku Alén, who went on to win the 1000 Lakes four times driving a 131, three them in consecutive years. The same great driver also won the 131 Abarth’s last ever success in a titled race, at the 1981 Rally of Portugal.
In 1978 the ASA (Automotive Sports Activities) was established, combining the racing departments of Lancia, Fiat and Abarth, in order to ensure greater coordination between the Group’s various racing activities: the Lancia models were destined initially for the European Rally Championship, and subsequently for the track races of the Endurance Championship, leaving the fully established 131 Abarth the task of winning the World Championship rallies.
This was a task that the 131 – always competitive and reliable on all terrains – happily fulfilled, winning three constructors’ world titles (1977, 1978 and 1980) with 18 absolute victories, two doubles and five hat-tricks. This astonishing list of achievements should be completed by adding the 1978 FIA Drivers Cup won by Markku Alén, and the World Rally Drivers Championship won by Walter Röhrl in 1980. Numerous other drivers contributed to further increasing fans’ enthusiasm for the 131 Abarth, including the Nordic pair of Salonen and Waldegård and the French trio Andruet, Darniche and “Madame Rally” Michèle Mouton. And of course, many Italian pilots: Becchelli, Verini, Bettega, Munari, Cerrato, Carello, Vudafieri – winner of the European Championships in 1980 – and Zanussi, winner of the Italian Championships in 1982.
The Fiat 131 Abarth Group 4 Rally model owned by FCA Heritage shows off the iconic Alitalia livery it wore in 1978 and 1979. It is proudly displayed in The rally era area of the Heritage HUB in Turin.
*Special thanks to FCA Heritage