You have to be a certain type of petrolhead to be aware of the significance of the Fiat 131 Abarth, certainly if you happen to reside in ‘Blighty.’ The motorsport exploits of Fiat’s three-box Group 4 saloon have been completely overshadowed by Ford’s outwardly similar offering, the Escort RS. And this despite the fact that, on the World Rally stage at least, the Fiat was the more successful car.
The need to best its rivals on the both the race circuit and the rally stage, coupled with the infamously turbulent rumblings within Fiat Group itself, gave us today’s Retropower Hero, a car little remembered today yet one with an important position within Fiat’s competition history.
The car in question is the impossibly evocatively named 035 Abarth Volumetrico Competizione. It was effectively Fiat Group’s ‘missing link,’ the bridge between the naturally aspirated Group 4 cars of the 1970s, and the force-fed monsters of the 1980s. As such it represents a fascinating snapshot from a period when both Lancia and Fiat were at the peak of their respective powers, both fighting amongst one another for supremacy within the wider Fiat group.
The spec of the 035 gives a good indication of how Fiat had fought for supremacy with Ford in the years leading up to its conception, and also how it planned to continue the squabble in the decade to come. The engine of choice was Aurelio Lampredi’s trusty Fiat twin cam, albeit in 16v guise, and a motor already beloved by performance minded motorists of all stripes. It would eventually give Fiat a hat-trick of Manufacturers’ titles and Walter Rohrl his maiden Drivers’ gong, which was rather more global success than the Escort ever brought Ford.
Fiat Group was never a company content to rest upon its (considerable) laurels however, and as such work on the firm’s next competitive step forwards was well underway by the close of the ’70s. It had also become abundantly clear that the days of the NA 16v rally car were numbered and that something rather more potent was now required if Italian supremacy was to be maintained into the 1980s.
The best way of achieving the power hike so clearly demanded by the new age was through forced induction, a simple enough concept and one which Fiat Group knew something about. This being a Fiat Group project from the late ‘70s however, in practice it was anything but. Lancia favoured turbocharging, a dark art it’d come to know a great deal about thanks to its Group 5 Beta Montecarlo race programme, while Fiat trumpeted the known qualities of a belt-driven compressor.
As you’ll no doubt be able to tell from the images here, Fiat ‘won’ this particular spat. Not only did the 035 wind up with a belt driven ‘charger slung over its side, Lancia’s first Group B car, the 037, would also use such a device. This particular inter-company squabble would ultimately be resolved in Lancia’s second and most brutal Group B car, the twin-charged Delta S4. But we digress…
The decision to go down the force-fed route with both the 035 meant that Fiat was compelled to decrease the size of the twin cam engine itself, the motor dropping from 2.0 to 1.5L in capacity during the car’s development phase. This ensured that the 035 would not be as hampered by the capacity penalty placed upon those cars running super or turbocharged engines, a decision which would be vindicated some years later when the 037 began its WRC assault.
The effect of strapping a Volumex supercharger to the side of the twin cam were startling, even more so when you consider the performance standards of the day. Power was cranked to 290bhp instantly, all of it routed to the rear axle by way of a five-speed gearbox. Suffice it to say, Fiat had achieved the step-up in performance it had sought by commencing the programme, while also gleaning invaluable data for its subsequent sporting endeavours.
Then there was the way it looked, which was, in a word, wild. Even the most focussed of tarmac spec 131 rally cars had retained a strong visual link to their road-bound counterparts, which was pretty much the whole reason for retiring its Stratos predecessor a mite too early. The 035 was anything but, clad as it was in aero-focussed bodywork and extravagantly ‘boxed’ arches. These changes meant that while there were certainly still some visual links between race and road car, they were nowhere near as obvious they once had been.
The very fact that it was only ever intended to be a test mule, a technological test bed and a demonstrator meant that the 035 was never destined to achieve the same levels of cult popularity as its homologated, competition proven contemporaries. Yet it remains an immensely important car within the history of the Fiat Group, paving as it did the way for the success enjoyed by the similarly propelled and driven Lancia 037. A mere footnote, then, but a remarkably compelling one all the same and an easy candidate for Retropower Hero-dom.