Spiders? 124s? Weren’t they boxy little saloons harking back to the fifties? Yes and no. By the end of the ‘50s Fiat knew it had to up its game and replace its successful 1100 saloon that had gone through much iteration over a ten year life. Whilst thinking it would be better to save money and not be radical by basing aspects of any new car on traditional thinking and existing engineering the new car’s designer, Oscar Montabone, freshly back from Simca, wanted to produce a modern and efficient brand new product and in the 124 saloon he did just that.
He was helped immensely by mechanicals designer Aurelio Lampredi, still one of the greatest generally unsung engine designers the world has ever seen. Straight from Ferrari in 1961, he came up with the 1800/2100/2300 six-cylinder units for Fiat’s larger cars, which lived on in four cylinder form in Ladas, but his masterpiece was the 124 engine.
Starting as an 1198cc pushrod four, a huge number of versions were developed from this basic unit. The saloon was introduced in 1966 and by the end of the year the first examples with twin overhead camshaft heads, in 1438cc form, were already rolling off the production lines powering very stylish spiders and, from ’67, coupes. The most important – for the 1960s – feature of these engines was their reliance on a cogged cam belt to drive the cams from the nose of the crank. Lampredi was surprisingly quick at taking up this innovation, first tried by Glas, when other manufacturers felt it was a step too far at this time. The Spiders were built by Pininfarina on Fiat-supplied 14cms-shorter 124 saloon floorpans and the cars were immediately popular.
And not only on the road. As the ‘60s decade drew to a close, Fiat’s interest in rallying was awakened by private entrants such as Pino Ceccato and Luca de Montezemolo through their Associated Marques Division, renamed Rally Car Assistance in 1970, made official and provided with a staff of 50, after the Torinese giant company decided, in a small way, to help privateers with 124s. Initially more popular though was the bigger engined 125. The modest class successes of the latter were, however, overshadowed by the factory’s greater interest in the Spider as a good base for a rally car. As early as 1967 Pino Ceccato had run one in Group 3 on the Tour de Corse. Fulvio Rubbieri’s version with 1438cc engine finished 19th overall in the 1970 Monte Carlo Rally and won the Group 3 category, Alcide Paganelli used a Spider to win the same year’s Italian Rally Championship, whilst on the following year’s Monte, Hakan Lindberg staggered everyone by passing Andruet’s Alpine in the middle of Burzet in his, by now 1608cc homologated engined, Spider that had first been rallied by Paganelli in 1970’s 1000 Minutes Rally in Austria.
Into 1972, the Spiders run by the factory started to show true promise and Lindberg/Eisendle took the model’s first World Championship win on the Acropolis. Further wins were the Polish and Austrian Alpine rallies. In addition, Raffaele Pinto took one to overall European Rally Champion.
At the beginning of that year though, at the Geneva Show, Pininfarina had displayed, in very low-key fashion, a Fiat 124 Rallye. No one took much notice, dismissing it as a boy-racer show car but, work on this car as an Abarth model, had started in early 1972 and advanced, as Ing Sergio Limone says, ‘step by step’.
By the time of the ’72 Turin Show, the new car was officially announced and named the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth. Its engine was the 1756cc unit from the Fiat 132 saloon with twin Weber 44 carburettors on a 124 Coupe manifold. This gave approximately 170bhp. The suspension was modified at the front and independent at the rear. Body weight was reduced by the use of fibreglass bonnet and hardtop with aluminium for the doors but the car was “always too light at the rear leading to a constant problem of poor traction”. Originally the cars were to use a Colotti gearbox but this was exchanged for an Abarth Tipo 152 box with gears made by CIMA in Bologna. The limited-slip differential as used in many Abarth race cars was replaced by a plate type unit as in the then current Opels. All this was helped by the addition of Giorgio Pianta and his extensive testing expertise to the team, when Fiat Abarth absorbed Fiat Rally.