The world was a more relaxed place in the late 1970s, though, and Fiat UK was delighted to offer Autocar its 131 Abarth, an example of the car that had won the WRC manufacturers’ title in 1977 and, at the time of Autocar’s test, was well on course for a repeat success.
The 131 Abarth was the first front-running car to be homologated under the then-new WRC rules. These dictated a road car production run of 400 units and demanded that performance upgrades be made to existing production parts, as opposed to bespoke components being built specifically for rallying.
Fiat officially quoted maximum power of 223bhp at 7500rpm and 166lb ft at 5750rpm, but those figures had to be taken with a pinch of salt, Fiat wary of giving too much away to fierce rival Ford and its rapid BDA-engined Escort.
Kevin Blick was in charge of Autocar’s test and admitted that the mere sight of the car in the colours of the Alitalia airline was thrilling. The 131 Abarth was in tarmac set-up, having recently competed on the Isle of Man, and wore 8in front and 11in rear P7 Pirelli slicks.
By coincidence, rally ace Tony Pond was at the same test track and was happy to have a run in the 131 Abarth, afterwards comparing notes with Blick and fellow Autocar tester John Miles.
“Neither Tony nor John felt that the car was quick, something that was confirmed only in part by our figures,” wrote Blick. “But both remarked on the engine’s docility. It pulls round from under 4000 to its 8000 rev limit without a murmur of protest. It does not rev like a BDA, which will pull to 10,000rpm, but it runs from low down more cleanly.
“But all who drove the car were impressed above all by its gearchange – a quick, positive shift that was simply banged from gear to gear with a speed of engagement only usually seen on motorcycle gearboxes.
“There was extremely good traction away from the line. As the engine barked its way round to 8000 and the car surged forward down the track, it still didn’t feel especially quick, but the figures were to show it as fast as a works Escort up to 90mph, although it was geared to top out at 102mph.
“The reason why the drivers subjectively felt the 131 Abarth to be slow lies in its relatively narrow power band. It simply doesn’t have the power over the wide range of revs that the BDA does and towards the top end both power and torque fall away quickly.
“However, both our experts were impressed with the chassis of the 131. Set up for tarmac, it behaved as a racer should, cornering flat and fast, very forgiving and refusing to be easily provoked out of line by mid-corner throttle or steering changes, the powerful brakes slowing it easily and quickly.”
Fiat UK contested the full British championship in 1978 to gather data ahead of a concerted assault on the season-ending RAC Rally, on which it really wanted to give Ford a bloody nose. But with the fast forest stages placing an emphasis on outright speed, the Escorts achieved a podium shut-out on the WRC finale, leaving Walter Röhrl’s 131 Abarth trailing in fifth place.