By Stuart Grant and images by Etienne Fouche
In 1976 Fiat set its eyes on the World Rally Championship. But unlike the purpose-built Lancia Stratos and Renault Alpines that had scooped the titles in the years preceding this, the Italian automaker called on the unlikely Fiat 131 saloon as a base. It was a little more than just a road car though, with Bertone and tuning aces Abarth called in to make it competitive. And it worked, with Fiat pushed hard by Ford’s BDA Escort that was able to secure the 1977, ’78 and ’79 Manufacturer world titles. For homologation purposes 400 units had to be made. South African soil saw a pair in period, but neither remains. How is it then that we still see a number of ‘Abarths’ at local shows.
The reason is simple. Abarth body kits were available and could be fitted onto any two-door Fiat 131 version. Some might call these replicas, but with the real McCoy differing vastly mechanically from a run-of-the-mill 131, in reality these don’t so much replicate as they do silhouette the appearance – we prefer the term ‘homage to replica’, as they pay respect and give recognition to the real deal.
So what makes the genuine Abarth that much different? The story goes that semi-completed two-door 131 bodies were taken from the production line in Mirafiori and sent off to Gruppo Bertone. Here the shells were kitted out with wide fibreglass wings, bonnets, boots and aerodynamic aids, and the rear metal structure was chopped and changed to house an independent rear suspension set-up (instead of the regular live axle). Once painted, these cars were sent to the Fiat plant in Rivalta where the Abarth go-faster bits were fitted. That said, unlike the wild Group B rally cars that followed in the 1980s, the 131 Abarth was still close to the regular 131, with 75% commonality of parts. Of the 400 made, 350 went to dealers to sell and 50 went to Abarth for competition use.
In road car-guise the Abarth included a 2-litre 16-valve double overhead camshaft lump with Weber downdraught, which was good for a claimed 140 horses and chunky 15×7 Chomadora alloy wheels. In competition cars this number increased to a whopping 240 (with the addition of Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection) and made use of a dry sump for better lubrication in the twists and turns experienced on a rally. Impressive numbers indeed, but the real winner was the rear independent suspension with trailing arms, anti-roll bar, coil springs and McPherson strut. The gearbox too saw a change, with a Fiat dog clutch unit fitted (many road owners later reversed this back to a regular syncro-type box to ease use and drop the noise levels).
Oh yes, all Abarths were left-hand drive, so that’s the easiest way to spot one of these homage car – unless you want to grovel in the dirt and lie down to look at the rear suspension.
A quick look through South African motoring publications will show two genuine Abarths competing locally. One, an Alitalia-liveried car, was brought in for Fernandez Paganini to use on the Castrol International Rally. After the event it was shipped back out. The second was a works car that Gigi Franchitti (Fiat SA Motorsport Manager) imported for local rallies and to reverse-engineer the build of a right-hand drive version with all the correct parts. So SA had a team of two cars: one left-hooker Abarth and one right-hand steering Abarth mechanical copy. Fiat called on Jan Hettema and Kassie Coetzee to pilot these, with Bob Hardy also flying the flag in a semi-works 8-valve car that also sported Abarth kit – the moulds to make the kit were imported along with two spare 16-valve engines and various spares to maintain the works machines.
When Fiat left South Africa and pulled the rally programme, the two 16-valve works cars (left- and right-hand drive) were sold to Serge Damseaux. Sadly the leftie caught alight, set an entire plantation on fire and burned to the ground. Clearly an intense fire; nothing was salvaged from the original Abarth. Damseaux continued rallying the right-hand drive SA-built car until he moved on to a works position at another manufacturer. He sold the car to legendary motorsport engineer Owen Ashley, who removed the 16-valve Abarth engine and shoehorned a 3.5-litre V8 Rover engine into the vehicle – reason being that it was easier and more cost-effective to work with than the highly-strung Group 4-spec Abarth. This V8 Fiat was sold to Dirkie Boonstra and rallied successfully, scooping a number of Western Province titles. As with many rally cars life was hard on the Fiat, and the independent suspension was tossed in favour of a hefty Ford Granada backend. Boonstra eventually sold the car on to John Ramsey, which is where the trace runs cold… chances are that years of modifying have left it unidentifiable as an Abarth.
Hardy’s 8-valve eventually found its way to Fiat stalwart Leon Bester, but it was heavily damaged in a stage accident and sold off, disappearing into the ether. Does it exist today? Who knows? If any reader has an idea, please feel free to make contact with us.
Bester also managed to get hold of the 16-valve engine Ashley removed, as well the two spare factory team lumps. He moved one on to Neil Lobb’s road-going Abarth homage; the second engine is in his own Lancia Monte Carlo and the third is crated and locked away in his collection.
For those who wanted to beef up the look of their regular 131s back in the day, Franchitti was the man to turn to – thankfully he managed to hold onto the set of Abarth moulds. A rally wannabe could simply drive to his Auto Sprint operation in Kitchener Avenue, Kensington (he’s still there) and order a kit comprising of bonnet, boot, rear fenders, front fenders, front and rear spoilers and a roof diffuser. A sharp eye would notice that these local kits replicate the medium-width Abarth body – the original rally cars came with narrow ice stage arches, medium fitments for forest-type gravel stages and wide for tarmac specials. All but the pictured car here are forest kits. This particular set, a tarmac-type, was imported from Italy and fitted to the car by Franchitti.
So there you have it. There is not a single Fiat 131 Abarth in South Africa, but there are a host of tasty homage vehicles, thanks to the man that led the way with them in period. A fitting tribute to one of the most successful rally cars ever made. It’s more than worth taking the time to ogle at them at local car shows or on the tracks and stages in historic events.
The benefit of the base car being a Fiat 131 means that, even though it might not be an Abarth, the classic still drives brilliantly – like all Fiats of the era it exudes a sporting nature on road. It’s the closest thing we have to an Abarth and worthy of a space in the collector’s garage, next to our own 131 homologation racer that killed it on the race tracks. Hats off to Mr Vincatti and the 131 aficionados for keeping the Abarth dream alive – even if only in the looks department.