Rally Legend: Fiat 131 Abarth
Fiat’s striking 131 Abarth moved the technological goalposts in rally car development in the 1970s. The Italian super-saloon was a potent fusion of the collective efforts of Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino, the tuning expertise of Abarth and the era’s most evocative of corporate colours: Alitalia.
Under the guidance of former driver and engineering brain Giorgio Pianta, Fiat mated its potent two-litre, 16-valve engine from the Lancia Beta to a glassfibre/aluminium-panelled body, ensuring that the power-to-weight ratio was spot on. Not only that, but thanks to its McPherson struts and adjustable anti-roll bars, the 131 had fully-adjustable suspension. Fiat’s engineers could perfect the car for asphalt and/or gravel in no time at all. The front-engined, rear-wheel drive layout, harnessed by the independent rear suspension and limited-slip differential gave the 131 an all-round ability the likes of which had not been seen before.
The result was that everyone who drove the 131 in anger happily declared it one of the greatest-handling rally cars yet seen.
So confident was the Fiat management with its latest weapon designed to take the fight to Ford and Porsche in world rallying that a number of drivers with differing specialities were signed to the programme. Asphalt experts, gravel specialists and endurance aces were brought in for Fiat’s big push for the manufacturers’ crown – rallying’s raison d’etre before the drivers’ crown was introduced in 1979.
The man who proved to be the constant in the all-star Fiat line-up was Markku Alén. The lanky Finn was mighty in the 131 – the robust, neutral-handling Italian machine suiting his aggressive, attacking approach. That he won arguably rallying’s toughest test – Finland’s 1000 Lakes – four times in the 131 speaks volumes about the car’s ability on the world stage.
Alén was unlucky that his most successful season, 1978, came just one year before the drivers’ title was created. FIA Cup victory was scant consolation – ‘Maximum Attack’ Markku was never to land rallying’s ultimate prize throughout the rest of a glittering career that lasted well into the 1990s.
For Fiat, glory would come with fellow legend Walter Röhrl. The German brought the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles to Turin in 1980, giving the hard work and expertise demonstrated by all involved a very real sense of worth.
Fiat 131 Abarth World Championship Rally victories:
San Remo 77-Fiat 131 Abarth (Christian Delferrier)
Finland 76-Fiat 131 Abarth (Ilkka Kivimäki)
Portugal 77-Fiat 131 Abarth (Ilkka Kivimäki)
Portugal 78-Fiat 131 Abarth (Ilkka Kivimäki)
Finland 78-Fiat 131 Abarth (Ilkka Kivimäki)
Finland 79-Fiat 131 Abarth (Ilkka Kivimäki)
Finland 80-Fiat 131 Abarth (Ilkka Kivimäki)
Portugal 81-Fiat 131 Abarth (Ilkka Kivimäki)
New Zealand 77-Fiat 131 Abarth (Francesco Rossetti)
Corsica 77-Fiat 131 Abarth (Alain Mahé)
Corsica 78-Fiat 131 Abarth (Alain Mahé)
Greece 78-Fiat 131 Abarth (Christian Geistdörfer)
Canada 78-Fiat 131 Abarth (Christian Geistdörfer)
Monte Carlo 80-Fiat 131 Abarth (Christian Geistdörfer)
Portugal 80-Fiat 131 Abarth (Christian Geistdörfer)
Argentina 80-Fiat 131 Abarth (Christian Geistdörfer)
Sanremo 80-Fiat 131 Abarth (Christian Geistdörfer)
Canada 77-Fiat 131 Abarth (Jaako Markkula)
More feature stories here
Videos: Portugal 1977, Monte Carlo 1980
Also check out this home movie of Corsica 1978