The Giant-Slaying Fiat 131 Abarth
In the late 1970s, an unfancied Italian challenger arrived to shake up the world rally championship. The boxy little Fiat 131 Abarth overcame extreme odds by toppling rivals with superior power and pedigree. Through determination and development, the 131 Abarth evolved into a giant-slayer against established competitors. In the hands of legendary drivers like Markku Alén, Walter Röhrl, and Attilio Bettega, this little Fiat became a world-beater.
Today the Fiat 131 Abarth endures as one of history’s greatest underdog success stories in motorsports. Join us as we explore the story of how Fiat created a world rally legend starting from a humble family sedan. Discover what made the 131 Abarth a perennial title threat that humbled Ford, Lancia, Toyota, and more to grab world rally glory.
Originating from an Unlikely Source
When it debuted in 1974, Fiat’s new 131 Mirafiori sedan aimed simply as an affordable family car. The rear-drive 131 came equipped with engines displacing between 1.3- to 1.8-liters powering the rear wheels. While no performance car, it sold steadily thanks to spacious accommodations and unique styling characterized by dual square headlights. However, the capable chassis presented an opportunity for Abarth, Fiat’s motorsports and tuning division, once rally rules changed.
New requirements in 1976 allowed vehicles under 2.0L into top rally competitions. At Rallye San Remo, a near-stock 131 won its class right away. This stunning debut convinced management that with proper development for rallying, the 131 Abarth could be genuinely competitive against purebred sports cars. Through extensive collaboration between Abarth and Bertone, the Fiat 131 transformed into a no-holds-barred rally weapon ready for 1977. What began as a humble sedan rapidly advanced to a fire-breathing giant-killer.
Pioneering Effective Aerodynamics
Realizing horsepower limitations compared to rear-wheel drive competitors, the 131 Abarth focused aerodynamics for improved performance. Wind tunnel testing refined the angular bodywork for reduced lift while enhancing cooling airflow. Bulging wheel arches covered wider track dimensions including bespoke suspension and beefy wheels/tires. Combined with weight reduction efforts, the 131 Abarth’s handling proved nimble belying its height. While engine upgrades followed, aerodynamics is where the 131 Abarth first took the fight to more powerful cars.
However, the car’s signature design feature certainly helped onlookers distinguish this still rather boxy silhouette. Bertone ingeniously incorporated a highly effective rear spoiler into the normal trunk line. This key innovation kept the 131 Abarth legal while also generating serious downforce at speed. The unique spoiler embodies the racing focus melded seamlessly into everyday usability that allowed the 131 Abarth to enter top-flight competition. Work on maximizing aerodynamic grip complemented the balanced chassis, granting giant-slaying abilities.
Giant Slaying World Beater
In only its first full season in 1978, the lightweight mid-engine Lancia Stratos looked set to continue dominating the World Rally Championship. However, the Fiat 131 Abarth quickly proved too quick through fast sections where full downforce played an advantage. 131 Abarth drivers Markku Alén and Walter Röhrl chased victories from the very beginning. Development accelerated on the engine as well for a final push of power. By 1979, victory finally came thanks to immense determination alongside reliability issues for rivals.
From there, the momentum was unstoppable as the 131 Abarth grew ever more effective. The little Italian upstart embarrassed European and Japanese manufacturer teams variously by 1980. Cosworth-powered Ford Escorts, the mighty Lancia Stratos, even the technically advanced Toyota Celica stood little chance. Fiat captured the constructor’s championship for an emotional first title in 1980. In 1983, Walter Röhrl added a hard-fought driver’s crown after runner-up finishes in previous years. In total, this Fiat won over 40 epic World Rally Championship rounds through sheer development and dedication.
The Fiat 131 Abarth succeeding against the odds established itself as a bonafide giant killer still revered today. Driven by innovation from Abarth and Bertone, sampled by star rally drivers, this world champion originated from a humble family car. What made the 131 Abarth special was not immense power, but maximizing capabilities through effective problem-solving. Much like David defeating the giant Goliath, the 131 Abarth overachieved tremendously and ultimately emerged victorious.