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Fiat 131 Abarth Rally Stradale – rally giant on the road

Words: Glen Waddington; pictures: Jonathan Jacob

In the days immediately before Quattro, Fiat dominated the World Rally Championship and competition begat a beguiling road car

Fog,Unreasonable, unseasonable fog. It’s early morning and as I venture along Blakey Ridge I can barely see the edge of the road, let alone the staggering views across this particularly epic stretch within the North York Moors. I have little idea where I am; external references are limited to the damp-looking tufts of reedy grass and prickly gorse that scratch the patchy tarmac’s edges immediately off-piste, while the tarmac itself is being nibbled rather than gobbled by the wheels of my car. Yet sat-nav suggests the rendezvous is close, and suddenly my headlights pick out a flash of vivid blue within the murk. Not a freak patch of sky, but the bold and boxy body panels of the Fiat 131 Abarth Rally Stradale. We’ve arrived. Hopefully the weather will learn to behave itself.

Until it does, let’s acquaint ourselves with the car in question. While we Brits fondly remember a rear-wheel-drive world in which the Ford Escort swept every trophy straight into a bulging cabinet in Essex, truth is that the World Rally Championship’s Constructors’ title went to Fiat in 1977, ’78 and 1980. The drivers responsible? Take your pic from the likes of Markku Alén, Timo Salonen, Walter Röhrl and Michèle Mouton. Indeed, Alén took the FIA Cup for Drivers in 1978; Röhrl the WRC drivers’ title in 1980. And the car they did it with was the 131 Abarth Rally.

Some context? The Rally took over after three years of the top spot being hogged by the exotic, mid-engined Lancia Stratos; Ford’s Escort RS1800 got the gong in 1979; Talbot’s Sunbeam-Lotus in 1981. And that marked the end of an era: the days of gravel-spraying rear-drive bravado were over, as the prospect of four-wheel drive, unlimited power and F1-rivalling tech arrived with Group B in 1982 and brought with it Audi’s Quattro, Lancia’s 037, Peugeot’s 205 T16 and more. Then the wick was wound down a little and the Delta Integrale had the WRC to itself for six years.

A simple car for simple times, then? Well, yes – and no. Sure, the 131 is a trad-looking saloon on a rear-wheel-drive platform. And, in reality, Fiat saw it taking over from the Abarth 124 Spider rather than the Stratos, though both were homologated for Group 4. And, for rallying purposes, Abarth applied a few tricks to the 131. Which is just as well, as Abarth – the tuning operation founded by the Austrian Carlo Abarth in 1949 – was absorbed by Fiat in 1971, and became the company’s official competition department.

Fiat 131 Abarth Rally

So, in 1976, this unassuming family saloon underwent quite a transformation. Bodywork design and initial construction were handed over to Bertone, which not only transformed the looks and aerodynamics with those flared wheelarches, integrated spoilers front and rear, plus another above the rear window, but also shaved weight by substituting glassfibre for the bonnet, wings and bootlid, and aluminium for the doorskins and roof panel. There were plexiglass side and rear windows, while air intakes let into the bonnet and flanks were intended to aid engine and rear brake cooling on works cars.

As for the powertrain, Abarth – under the managing auspices of none other than Ingegnere Aurelio Lampredi, famed for his engine work at Ferrari, and the man behind the Fiat/Lancia twin-cam – got busy with what was available. The 131 had very much carried on where the previous-generation 124 saloon had left off – don’t forget, that car had been the basis of the rally-bred Abarth Spider. The saloon came with a live rear axle and simple overhead-valve four-cylinder engines in 1.3- and 1.6-litre capacities; it wasn’t until the facelifted Supermirafiori of 1978 that twin-cam power became standard. Paired with a five-speed gearbox, that made for a very desirable mechanical specification in the days of rival Cortinas and (shudder) Marinas.

Fiat 131 Abarth Rally

Still, in ’76 Abarth had to look abroad to the US-market version, which already ran a 2.0-litre twin-cam four that was familiar in Europe in the larger 132. But Abarth went further, topping the twin-cam with a new 16-valve cylinder head, machined in alloy, much as the previous Abarth 124 Rally had featured. Braking was upgraded to discs all round, and the live rear axle was dropped in favour of an independent MacPherson strut set-up, initially designed for the larger 130 saloon, and more easily replaced in the confines of the service park at the end of a rally stage. It was better able to get power down in controlled fashion than the solid axle, too.

The ‘Corsa’ competition version ran Kugelfischer mechanical injection, which boosted power initially to 225bhp and ultimately a claimed 240. It also ran a ZF limited-slip differential and a close-ratio straight-cut gearbox. The roadgoing Stradale, which we have here, has its fuel meted out via a twin-choke Weber, and a less aggressive diff. Power output is 140bhp, so not outrageous, but good going for a 2.0-litre sports saloon of the 1970s. Especially as it weighs only a tonne.

The ‘C’ badges on this example’s front wings suggest the presence of a Colotti transmission – all Stradales left the factory with a dog-box in order to homologate the same type of transmission for the Corsa. Problem was, in an era that had long enjoyed synchromesh, no road driver wanted to go back to the days of a crash ’box; to that end, there’s a standard five-speed transmission in place here. ‘I’ve never heard of a single Stradale that ran with the dog-box,’ Kevin Theaker, proprietor of 131 Abarth specialist RSD Rallysport Development, tells me.

Bertone was contracted to build all the Corsas, which amounted to 50 of the planned 400-strong homologation run, though there’s evidence to suggest that, in total, production topped out at some 608. All cars were initially plucked from Fiat’s Mirafiori production line – the factory was in a suburb of Turin; today, as well as building cars, it plays host to Abarth Classiche. From there the standard two-door 131s were sent for conversion work at Bertone’s Grugliasco plant, while the Stradale versions were then trimmed and completed at Fiat’s Rivalta plant.

Fiat 131 Abarth Rally

Rivalta? These days it’s home to Mopar, the parts distribution network for the Stellantis automotive group that incorporates Fiat (and by extension Alfa Romeo, Lancia and the rest), PSA (Peugeot, Citroën, Opel) and Chrysler-Jeep. If the name is familiar, that’s because it’s a Chrysler servicing brand that for years sponsored drag-racing and NASCAR entries. More conceit than deceit, but it’s a tangled web nonetheless.

It’s been brightening up. A bit more like it should be – at last, I can see. A chance to stand back and admire Bertone’s handiwork. And some of it seems familiar, if in an exotic way. Those wheelarches are clearly a precursor of what Bertone subsequently decided would suit the Lamborghini Jalpa. And with Lamborghini in mind, check out the relationship of the glasshouse to the lower portions, and the shape and position of the doorhandles. You’d never see it in a four-door 131 saloon, but this one brings to mind the Jarama. If Sant’Agata had decided to chase the Cortina market, this could have been the result.

‘I’ve had it about two years,’ its owner tells me. ‘It came from an Austrian collector via a German dealer. There can’t be many left as original as this.’ With barely 31,000km on the clock, it’s pretty much as it left the factory. And how the market has changed: we have it insured for more than ten times what was asked for a similar one 20 years ago. And it’s begging to be driven.

The road up to Blakey Ridge from Hutton-le-Hole climbs via a roller-coaster of snaking bends, with a loose surface of chippings: ideal rally-car territory, then. I squeeze the catch on the driver’s door (it’s left-hand drive, of course) and drop into a huge and plump cloth-trimmed bucket seat that might have looked more at home in the VIP section of a 1970s flea-pit cinema. It’s soft and enveloping, a world away from the carbon-shelled highbacks of today’s road-racers, but once in its embrace, you’re going nowhere. A vinyl strap slams the door, and ahead is a logically laid-out black dash, equipped with a full set of gauges and little else. It’s focused rather than luxurious in here, though not sparse.

I fire up the twin-cam, which settles to an idle that gurgles and threshes in equal measure. There’s a pleasingly mechanical feel to the gearshift, and immediate throttle response; despite the 16-valve head and a torque peak at 3800rpm, there’s plenty of shove on hand right from the off. The ride is surprisingly soft, absorbing the vagaries of the patchy road surface without wallowing over deeper compressions, and the steering, while quite low-geared and unassisted, is blessed with decent feedback and linearity of action.

The sun has burnt off the fog, road surface dampness is rising in an eerie mist, and confidence in the 131 increases with every corner. This is one of those cars that encourages – nay, demands – you get on the throttle early yet, despite the dampness, it just tucks in and powers out. There’s no temperament to take issue with. Winding it up through each gear is a pleasure; click-clack-click through the gate and you land in the next ratio with unerring accuracy, ready to lamp the throttle and head on up the rev-counter again.

Acceleration isn’t vivid, but it’s strong enough to be entertaining, and it’s accompanied by a gruff, chattily encouraging soundtrack. You might wish for stronger braking – something, no doubt, addressed for the Corsa version – but the pedal feel is consistent, and its action free of grabbing.

The 131 is great fun on these roads, something not lost on its owner, who’s a regular in the North York Moors. ‘This is the route I take when I’m visiting RSD. Kevin looks after the car for me,’ he says.

‘We were all obsessed with Escorts in the UK,’ says Kevin Theaker. ‘The 131 was never a privateer car; Fiat devoted a year’s Ferrari F1 budget to winning rallies with it. It was a big investment but rallying was huge then, especially in Europe. It proved to the market what a tough car the 131 could be.’

So tough, in fact, that Theaker now builds Corsa replicas from Stradales. ‘I’ve converted ten so far, for the UK, Italy, even Australia. Everything is bigger, stronger: the diff, wheel bearings, driveshafts, engine internals. The Stradale simply homologated the type of parts used: lightweight panels, the 16-valve head, five-speed dog-box, disc brakes and so on. In fact the cylinder block is all that’s the same in that engine: there are different con-rods, pistons, a magnesium slide throttle, larger valves, different ignition system, not to mention the Kugelfischer fuel injection,’ says Theaker.

And while Abarth developed the 131 until 1981, for RSD it’s still a work in progress. And progress has already been made. ‘Walter Röhrl told me they got a real 236bhp on the dyno. I saw a spec drawing for a late engine with bigger valves and a new manifold, and got 245bhp straight off,’ he says.

For four years the 131 Abarth Rally dominated stages worldwide, from Finland via Argentina to Monte Carlo. Those three constructors’ world titles (1977, 1978 and 1980) came via 18 individual victories, two doubles and five hat-tricks. While Ford had run its Escorts on a shoestring, Fiat had the largest motorsport budget of its era, and was never short of space for building and preparing cars. It had a squad of 13 works machines ready in time for the 1976 season (homologation was achieved by April that year), and a further 20 for 1977. Each car was rarely used more than three times before being sold off or used for testing, and for rallying they were distributed to far-flung corners of the globe thanks to Fiat’s links with the Alitalia airline, the livery of which was applied to Markku Alén’s car for 1978 and 1979. Abarth kept that car for posterity.

There were proposals for development, including a cheaper, steel-bodied Group 1 car that would have required 5000 to be built, and a more powerful V6 version that proved too heavy. But then came Group B. The 131 Abarth Rally was consigned to history while the Lancia 037 took over.

It’s an important piece of history, nonetheless. And while it took only 50 cars to make it, those Stradales that escaped into the public spread the love far and wide. Even into Escort territory.  

Factfile – 1976 Fiat 131 Abarth Rally Stradale

Engine 1995cc DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder, twin-choke Weber 34 ADF carburettor Power 140bhp @ 6400rpm Torque 130lb ft @ 3800rpm Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive Steering Rack and pinion Suspension Front and rear: MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar Brakes Discs Weight 1004kg Top speed 118mph  0-60mph 7.2sec

This article was originally published in Octane 214, August 2021

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