From its introduction into the World Rally Championship in 1976 until its final season as a works car in 1980, the Fiat 131 Abarth Rally was dominant,winning three manufacturer titles for the Italian firm and two driver titles with Markku Alén (FIA Cup) and Walter Röhrl.
This late-seventies success for a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive family saloon ran somewhat contrary to the accepted wisdom of the time. The most successful rally cars for the ten years prior to the first appearance of the 131 Abarth had been either rear-engined (Porsche, Alpine) or mid-engined (Lancia Stratos). But it was thanks to some skilful engineering and rigorous testing allied to a very experienced team with excellent drivers that this ‘family saloon’ruled the roost for as long as it did.
Lancia had become part of the Fiat empire as far back as 1969,but their marketing and sporting activities stayed separate. In1973 and 1974, however,Abarth were involved with two mid-engined projects,of which one was the Lancia Beta Montecarlo 3200 V6 with a supercharged engine taken out to 3.5litres. The engine and geartrain from this car were fitted by Abarth into a Fiat 131 saloon with grossly enlarged wheel arches and a massive rear wing. All this was under the watchful eye of Giorgio Pianta,who in October 1975 drove it to victory in the Giro d’Italia. The car was a test bed for many of the ideas and concepts that were eventually to emerge as part of the 131 Abarth. The new rally car was already being designed and prototypes made under the direction of Mario Colucci, the engineer behind much of the development of the 124 Abarth Rally.
The most significant thing as far asFiat were concerned was that from the start of the 1976 season, it would no longer be possible to use multi-valve cylinder heads whose homologation was based on just a handful of cars having been fitted with them. Also, the acceptance that saloon cars could be homologated directly into Group 4, previously reserved for out-and-out sports cars like the 124 Spider, the Alpine A110 and the Lancia Stratos, meant that Abarth, with the help of Bertone for the bodies, had to build four hundred 131 Abarths to achieve its homologation instead of a thousand…
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