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FIAT 131 Diesel. Using an intercontinental rally as a test bed

In April 1978 FIAT presented the 131 diesel model equipped with the new SOFIM 8140 engine. However, this car was already known to the press since it was tested months before at the 1977 London-Sydney Rally. A very tough endurance competition used by the Italian house - successfully - as a test bench for this diesel model.

In the middle of the XNUMXth century, the English naturalist Henry Walter Bates studied the butterflies of the Amazon diligently. An observation with which he discovered how some absolutely harmless species resemble others much more aggressive. In this way they manage to survive. Misleading fleeing predators with their camouflage by confusing them with other prey much more complicated by their venom or strength. An evolutionary strategy that has been called Batesian Mimicry. Which has a translation to motorsport since the Hot Rod phenomenon emerged in the United States in the fifties.

A fashion that has survived to this day through tuning. The fever for the transformation of vehicles, which usually affects more visually than mechanically. So things, walking through the parking lot of certain nightclubs resembles what Walter Bates saw in the Amazon. Observing a scintillating panoply of automobiles that look more fierce than mechanical tuning. A true collection of trompe l'oeils on four wheels, where oversized spoilers, skirts and panels add weight without improving power, grip or aerodynamics.

An aesthetic element in which many fall when they observe vehicles with bulges in the hood. This being a clue to the presence of huge engines with carburettors unable to enter the engine compartment. A fact that is not always consistent with reality, even less when we talk about diesel models. Rarely intended for competition, but In cases such as the FIAT 131 Diesel, it made an excellent impression even on a rally with more than 40.000 kilometers. By the way, this time with a bulge in the hood that does correspond to what is underneath.

fiat 131 diesel

FIAT 131 DIESEL. TUNED BY ABARTH TO RUN A CROSSING RALLY

When FIAT introduced the popular 1957 in 500, some journalists doubted its reliability, thinking that such a simple model could not be of quality. Therefore, the brand rolled a FIAT 500 prepared by Abarth for a week, rolling 18.886 km without stopping other than refueling and changing drivers. A) Yes, showed how biased the opinion of those media was. A feat that goes hand in hand with others that also demonstrate FIAT's interest in publicizing the toughness of its engines. Like the one that in 1970 led to three 124 Specialissima from South Africa to Norway rolling more than 40.000 kilometers.

Therefore, it was a matter of time before FIAT participated in one of the great intercontinental cross-country rallies. The first of them took place in 1968. Year in which the first edition of the London-Sydney organized by the Daily Telegraph was held. A test capable of putting even the most robust vehicle on the ropes, replicated in London-Mexico in 1970 -where he participated Carlos del Val with a SEAT 124-. Competitions that had more editions in different years of the seventies, having in the London-Sidney of 1977 organized by Singapore Airlines its last great exponent before being overshadowed by rallies such as the Dakar.

A shame Since in these tests of weeks going through several continents the reliability of well-known large series models was put to the test. Hardly modified other than in suspensions and safety before starting out. Therefore, when we consult the London-Sidney 1977 classification We do not see exclusive competition vehicles, but some as common as the winning Mercedes-Benz 280E or the Citroën CX in third place. A list where -in number fifteen- highlights the participation of a vehicle with a priori motorization not intended for competition. The FIAT 131 Diesel Abarth.

USE THE RALLYE AS A TEST BENCH

Along with the introduction of the second series of the 131, FIAT programmed the appearance of a few new diesel models for the range of its saloon. In them the engine manufactured by SOFIM -Società Franco-Italiana di Motore- was mounted. Whose four-cylinder diesel 8140 has equipped vehicles as different as the FIAT Croma, the Renault Traffic and Iveco Daily vans or the FIAT 131 Diesel. A varied set that, with different settings, enjoyed the benefits of a robust engine stretched up to 146CV. Nevertheless, in the case of our protagonist, it was adjusted to 72CV at 4.200 rpm. More than enough for a model where reliability and tight consumption prevail over top speed or acceleration.

A character tuned with the three FIAT 131 Diesel units placed on the starting line of the London-Sydney on August 14, 1977. Used as a prototype, since this version was not presented until the Turin Motor Show in April the following year. Thus, FIAT used this rally as a test bed. Obtaining results from the three teams, where they competed from Giancarlo Baghetti -ex F1 driver for Ferrari- to Tomaso Carletti -head engineer of the development department at FIAT-. Furthermore, of the six people assigned to drive the cars, three were women. The two French women Evelyne Vanoni and Chistine Dacremont, as well as the Italian Marianne Hoepfner -rider specialized in raids-.

After 45 days and more than 30.000 kilometers, the participants finally reached Sydney after having passed through places unthinkable today like Kabul. A finish line reached by two units of the FIAT 131 Diesel, leaving first and second in the category dedicated to this type of engine. But also 15 and 23 in the general. Very meritorious results for a car intended for a mass audience. Which was only far from what would be the standard version in terms of safety for the rally and suspensions, all signed by Abarth.

Photographs: FCA Heritage

P.D. If you've come this far, you're probably wondering why the mention of the bulky hoods is due to being able to fit a larger engine. Well, as you can see in the photos, the FIAT 131 Diesel has a bulging hood. Addition that in this case is not due to a simple attempt to appear more than it is. Rather, it is relevant because the diesel engine was larger than the gasoline. Interestingly, this gives a more sporty look to the diesel versions than to gasoline.

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Miguel Sánchez

Written by Miguel Sánchez

Through the news from La Escudería, we will travel the winding roads of Maranello listening to the roar of the Italian V12; We will travel Route66 in search of the power of the great American engines; we will get lost in the narrow English lanes tracking the elegance of their sports cars; We will speed up the braking in the curves of the Monte Carlo Rally and we will even get dusty in a garage while rescuing lost jewels.

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