Thanks To Abarth, Bertone, And A Big Budget, The Humble Fiat 131 Became A WRC Hero
Story by Alexander Byles
Photography by Marco Annunziata
By the time the 1973 energy crisis ended, Fiat projects were focused almost exclusively on reliability, safety, and cost. The Fiat 131, launched in 1974, embodied the strategy, and its only notable stats were reduced fuel consumption and exhaust emissions—an ideal car to meet the demands of those looking for cheap transport.
The Fiat 131 was the car for the mid-1970s Italian family. It was spacious and comfortable, had air-conditioning, and a strong protection against corrosion, all features that at the time belonged to cars of a much higher price point. The 131 also introduced a milestone in automotive manufacturing, for in 1976 Fiat inaugurated the world’s first robotic system for the assembly of mechanical parts on the 131’s body in the historic Mirafiori plant.
It was a good-enough car, but the 131 would hardly make you think of motorsport. Not only did its engines lack substantial power—1300 and 1600cc four-cylinders that delivered 65 and 75hp respectively—the transmission was also a four-speed, and it had front-only disc brakes. Not a total dog of course, but nothing particularly sporty. Its appearance too was quite traditional, and far from typical for a would-be race car.
To the wholesale surprise and derision of motorsport commentators of the day however, the Fiat Group decided to retire the Lancia Stratos from world rallying, and aimed for the next world title with the Fiat 131. The immediate response was that the 131 would provide no sporting competition, and was not a replacement fit for the mighty Stratos.
The car’s prowess in rally trim was startling however, and the 131’s versatility and overall reliability would become crucial factors in its success in the sport. The family sedan went on to achieve three world rally titles, securing the manufacturers’ title in 1977 behind Sandro Munari’s individual win in the Lancia Stratos HF, as well as manufacturers’ and driver titles in 1978 and 1980.
But first they had to build the car. In 1975, Agnelli and his Fiat team turned to Abarth to initiate a tentative look at the rally project and to help develop the 131 ahead of the season, and the result was a box-flared beast referred to as the Fiat Abarth SE031. Developed by Abarth and Bertone by modifying the body of the Fiat 131 and adding a slew of parts taken and modified from one of the two Fiat Abarth SE030s, the car was a success.
Masterfully driven by Giorgio Pianta, it competed in the third edition of the Giro Automobilistico d’Italia in October 1975, beating important rivals such as the Lancia Stratos, Alfa Romeo 33, Porsche Carrera RSR, and De Tomaso Pantera. Crucially, the car’s performance at the “Giro” convinced fans who had previously criticized the project and encouraged Fiat executives to move forward with the rally program.
The body of the 131, which was already highly robust, was reinforced by Bertone to withstand the additional stresses of stage rallies, and other modifications included lightening the bodywork with the adoption of fiberglass and aluminum, as well as widened fenders and the addition of other aerodynamic appendages. While the 131 Abarth Rally now had a decidedly aggressive appearance, at the same time it was not so different from the original family saloon.
For the tests and initial races, the 1840cc 16-valve engine of the 124 Abarth Rally was retained as they anticipated a special two-liter block, designated the 131 AR. Even so, in October of 1975 a Fiat 131 Abarth Rally pre-series car with the non-definitive bodywork and the 1840cc engine put up a good performance with the in-car pairing of Pianta and Scabini, and ranked eleventh in the Saluzzo Rally. Meanwhile, construction of the 400 production specimens needed to obtain FIA homologation in Group 4 began. To build 400 cars would have been too much for Abarth on their own, but too few for Fiat’s Mirafiori plant to take over, so the nearby Bertone factory was chosen, seeing as it had just the right production capacity to handle the job.
The Fiat 131 Abarth Rally obtained homologation for Group 4 on April 1st, 1976, and on April 10th, it immediately started winning, with Alen-Kivimaki in the Isle of Elba Rally (later that year, in August, the same crew achieved the first world rally victory for the car in the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland). By Autumn, the 131 had confirmed its potential as a contender for the upcoming 1977 season with victory in October for Bacchelli-Rossetti at the close of the season event, the Lombard RAC Rally. In 1977, victory at five WRC events in Portugal, the South Pacific, Quebec, Sanremo, and Corsica secured the manufacturers’ title in the WRC thanks to the Fiat 131.
The results were due not only to the quality of the car, but also because of Fiat’s heavy investment, their intent focus on victory, and attention to detail. Daniele Audetto, head of Fiat’s racing business, joined the official team with new drivers supported by the European Fiat branches, such as Jean-Claude Andruet (Fiat France) and Timo Salonen (Autonovo Oy), in order to have specialist drivers best suited to the terrain and conditions of each rally. As for the preparation, Giorgio Pianta, racing and test driver, subjected each rally car to severe tests before delivering them to their crews.
Though Lancia, which had won WRC titles with the Stratos in 1972, 1974, 1975, and 1976, and Fiat both belonged to the same business group, up until 1978 they had both faced each other as competitors. In 1978 though, a unified racing team was created, A.S.A. (Automotive Sports Activity), a new department based in Corso Marche, in Turin’s Abarth premises. The sports departments of Lancia and Fiat were thus united, being tasked with multiple objectives to exploit the maximum potential. The creation of A.S.A. led the Lancia brand to the circuits and left the 131 Abarth to compete in the WRC, and for the 1978 season, the 131 Abarth raced in the Alitalia livery inherited from the Stratos.
In Portugal, with Alén behind the wheel, the first victory of the season came thanks to Fulvio Bacchelli’s 131 (in yellow and blue Olio Fiat livery) playing a decisive role, forcing the other competitors to an unsustainable pace. In the Acropolis Rally, Röhrl won with Alén second, and the 131 took another one-two at the 1000 Lakes with Alén first and Vatanen second. The third one-two success came later on in Canada, with Röhrl and Alén again. The manufacturers’ title became a certainty after the East African Safari, where Fiat didn’t compete, but where its nearest rivals—Ford and Opel—failed to score any points. Confirmation that the 131 was the rally car of the year arrived at Corsica with Fiat dominant, featuring four 131s in the top five finishing positions.
In parallel for production vehicles, in 1978 Fiat launched the 131 Racing, a variation which emphasized the sporty characteristics, with a 1995cc motor producing 115hp. In this period, the second series 131 now represented a pivotal model for Fiat production and was produced in multiple versions, from the 1300cc two-door to the four-door Supermirafiori 1600cc twin-cam.
As a result of a drastic reduction in the rallying budget, the results of 1979 didn’t match those of the previous years, but participation in only three WRC events still yielded good relative results. In Monte Carlo with Alén in third, 1000 Lakes with Alén taking the victory, and in Sanremo with Röhrl second and Bettega third. That same year the Fiat Alitalia Championship was also created, in which all the drivers of the rally, circuit, and hill climb disciplines could participate with the 131 (both the Abarth and Racing models), the 127 (1050cc and Sport models), and the Ritmo (the 60, 65, and 75).
In 1980 Fiat regained its conviction to win in the WRC and returned to the top with a double victory in the manufacturers’ and drivers’ championships. The season began with triumph in Monte Carlo for the 131 of Röhrl in the new blue and white livery. Fiat also won at Portugal and Argentina with Röhrl, and in Finland it was the turn of Markku Alén who took yet another victory in the 1000 Lakes. The certainty of the manufacturers’ title arrived in Sanremo with another victory from Röhrl, who had to wait for confirmation as the World Champion driver until his second place at Corsica.
It was not only the drivers and team managers who were responsible for the success of the 131 however. The mechanics often operated 24/7 in all-weather conditions, taking on staggering workloads to maintain and repair the cars and get them back into the race—and often in record time. Cars which initially seemed to be wrecked beyond all limits. The mechanics of the WRC loved the 131 because it just worked. And the 131 meanwhile repaid them for their commitment with great reliability, excellent performance, and most importantly, victories.