Fiat Abarth 124 rally - a WRC cabrio
Until the end of the 1960s, Fiat's involvement in motorsport was quite unusual. Fiat sold its small family cars to Abarth, where they were prepared for motor racing. Abarth own sports team "Scuderia Abarth" entered them in all race events in the Italian and Europe callendar and won virtually all of such races in small engine classes. Fiat financed these starts by paying Abarth for each victory. The Scuderia Abarth won several hundred races a year in Italy alone. For this, Fiat paid the enterprising Carlo Abarth gigantic sums, but had no influence as to which models are promotedy. Abarth bought the smallest, very light models (Fiat 500, 600), fitted them with engines from the larger models (850 and 1000), tuned their suspension, fitted the famous sports silencers and ... won races on an industrial scale. It was these small Fiats with engines from larger models that dominated motorsport in Italy and Europe in the 50's and 60's.
When Fiat introduced a new line of more expensive models with larger engines in the late 60’s Abarth exclusive focus on small cars and prototypes no longer served Fiat business interests In 1971 took over financially failing Abarth, turned it into its sports department, generously funded it to employ Abarth potential not for racing of hill climb, but for rallies which offered a better potential for promotion and advertising. The idea was to select a new model with bigger engine which was to become a "mass production Fiat to win world rallies". The choice fell on a convertible that was seemingly unsuitable for high-performance sports: the Fiat 124 Spider. At the time Fiat was making several variations of Fiat 124: a sedan, a station wagon (Familiare), a sport coupe and a cabrio (124 Spider). The 124 was the "Car of the year "and the 124's were the best selling Fiat cars. Almost 90 % od the Spiders were sold in the US.
Abarth "corsa" Group 4
This rally car did not differ much externally form the mass production version, except for the hardtop made of light materials. It used the same original mass produced chassis and nominally the same 1.8 liter 8 valve DOHC engine developed by the legendary Ferrari engineer Aurelio Lampredi. The Abarth however delivered 165 hp, whereas the basic mass produced model delivered only 118 HP. In its top version with a 16-valve cylinder head and Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection the power increased to 210 km (almost twice as much as the civilian version). This much power for a car with weight of 980 kg made it a real “wolf in sheep’s skin”.
The front suspension was only slightly reinforced. All the real difference was in Abarth's independent rear suspension. The differential gears came from a small truck - Fiat 241 proven also in the off-road Fiat Campagnola and successfully used in Fiat DINO and Fiat 2300s Coupe. The differential was hanging on Abarth tubular suspension arms supported by McPherson columnts and Bilstein shock absorbers. The design of this independent rear suspension proved to be the key FIAT 124 Abarth Rally technical asset. It allowed for unmatched traction and handling on both tarmac and gravel as well as made the car exceptionally stable in high speed curves. In fact the very same suspension only with minor modifications was later used on Fiat 131 Abarth.
In 1972, after FIA inspectors confirmed producing 500 cars FIAT obtained FIA homologation in Group 4 (number 635).
On January 1, 1973 the car with exactly the same specs was homologated again. This time in group 3, with Goup 4 extension under homologation number 3059.
Nobody ever explained why Abarth had to pay for the same homologation twice ... though official FIAT stats indicate that 1013 Fiat 124 Abarths were actually produced - over twice the required number for FIA homologation.
The unofficial history of FIA says that what FIA inspectors came to Mirariori (the Fiat plant in Mirafiori District of Torino, Italy) to check the production numbers there where only 250 Abarth produced. So the inspectors were first shown the existing 250 gathered in one final assembly hall. The Abarth engineers went to great lenghts to explained design and its features. When they were done it was time for lunch. Everybody was happy with the Italian lunch, complete with lots of fantastic Chianti wine. By the time the inspectors were ready to inspect "the other" 250 cars, the Abarth mechanics managed to move the 250 car the FIA inspectors already saw to another hall. This time inspection was brief, as all that was to be said was already said before lunch. Having seen the cars in the two halls the inspectors could confirm they saw 500 produced Abarths with their own eyes and FIA homologation can be thus officially issued.
It is hard to confirm (or deny) such story, but ...such history of FIA is full of stories you would not believe.
Fiat's sports department received 50 cars for rallies, 20 of which started in rallies. The rest were used as test /training /show cars as well as source of spare parts. Remaining produced "stradale" versions were sold by FIAT dealers around the world. Cost of a Fiat 124 Abarth Rally stradale was about three times higher than standard 124 spider. But a cost of group 4 corsa version was 10 times of a standard Spider.
Among the drivers of this car were all the leading Italian, German, French and Scandinavian rally drivers at that time: Rafaele Pinto, Alcdie Pagnelli, Mauricio Verni, Jaro Kinnunen, Markku Alen, Bjorn Valdegard, Ingvar Carlsson, Hakan Lindberg, Hannu Mikola, Rauna Altonen, Achim Warmbold, Bernbard Darische and many other champions These cars were also driven by the OBR SO factory team including such legends as Andrzej Jaroszewicz and Maciej Stawowiak.
The Fiat Abarth 124 Rally has given the Fiat group mass od italian and International rally titles: Two European Rally champion titles; two Italian Rally Champion. Mitropa Rally Cup Winner; a second place in WRC manufacturers classification. For three seasons running Fiat 124 was second best in WRC. However, it did not give what Fiat wanted most: the Manufacturers' World Championship title. Factory crews competed with variable luck sometimes winning and sometimes loosing to their competitors: Renault Alpine A110, Saab 96 V4, Ford Escort 1600 RS and 1800 RS, Renault 17 Gordini., Citroen DS 19, Porsche 911 and Carrera, Volvo 142, BMW 2002. Fiat The Abarth 124 Rally was one of the key players, but did not dominate the WRC rally scene. In 1975, despite the great commercial success of Fiat 124, the company decided that it was time to change the flagship model to a stronger and faster car. Though this model rallied in ex-works livery until mid 1976, the 1975 decision marked the end of the brilliant, though short WRC rally career of the Fiat Abarth 124 Rally.
The rally career of FIAT 124 Spider largely contributed to the sales success of this model. FIAT 124 Spider is the best selling sports car model in FIAT history with almost 200 000 cars sold during its production (1966 - 1985). It did not come cheap, but this success was a very strong practical validation of FIAT marketing strategy based on engagement in world rallies. This experience was reconfirmed later with Fiat 131 Abarth Rally