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COMPETITION CARS are a hoot to drive, mainly because they make few concessions to anything resembling practicality. I’ve driven more than few in special settings, a Lancia Beta Montecarlo Group 5 Turbo, a bunch of Formula Fords, and, especially memorably, the Napier-Railton and Benetton B186 Grand Prix car. Another competition car, memorable because of its driving venue, was the 1979 Fiat Abarth Brava Alitalia Group 4 rally car.
Apart from gathering test numbers at the track, the rest of my Brava Alitalia driving took place on the streets and roads of Orange County, California.
Like other manufacturers, Fiat was in the World Rally Championship to advertise its road cars. Thus, in 1977 the company chose to transform one of its family sedans into a Group 4 rally machine. The Fiat 131 had a variety of models, two-door, four-door, five-door wagon, even a 3-door panel van. During the decade of its production, 1974 – 1984, the 131 was also called the Mirafiori, Supermirafiori, Polski Fiat and, in the North American market, the Brava. The 131 was assembled in Italy, Columbia, Indonesia, Morocco, Poland, Spain and Venezuela.
The Fiat Abarth 131 won the World Rally Championships in 1977, 1978 and 1980. (Ford’s Escort RS1800 took top WRC honors in 1979.) The one showing up at the R&T office in 1980 had run the 1979 SCCA Pro Rally circuit.
For part of the car’s residence with us, we had the company—and instructional skills—of Sandro Munari, Italian race/rally specialist with Targa Florio and Monte Carlo victories and the 1977 FIA Cup for Rally Drivers title as part of his career. It was Sandro who taught us a trick known to rally drivers (and dirt-track racers)—that of initiating a turn with a twitch in the opposite direction. The point of this is to exploit a car’s lateral momentum, weight transfer and suspension dynamics for optimal grip through the approaching corner.
Not that I attempted perfecting these techniques on the streets of Orange County, California. However, even what passed for ordinary commuting in the Brava Alitalia was a sufficient challenge. For example, firing its competition-tuned engine from cold was a ritual: Pull out the choke cable, set the ignition switch, hold down the spark-retard control with the right thumb, push the starter button with the index finger. The engine barks to life. Then release the retard control, finesse the accelerator to coax the revs to 2000 rpm so the electric system will start charging, and don’t forget to push in the choke.
Nor was the five-speed gearbox for the uncommitted: Its close-ratio gears were straight-cut and devoid of any synchromesh. Upshifts profited from slight pauses to avoid crunches. Downshifts required perfectly executed double-clutching.
The engine revved crisply from 4000 to 7500 rpm, the exhaust snarled and the close-ratio gears whined gloriously. As reported in the Brava Alitalia’s Road Test in R&T, May 1980, the combination was not so much loud as frantic.
Just the thing for a spirited Orange County commute. Fortunately, to exercise the car there was W. Alton Avenue, in those days with a railroad track on one side and bean fields on the other. Today, the bean fields have been replaced by Thorpe Elementary School, Segerstrom High School, Christ Our Savior Catholic parish and the Santa Ana Family YMCA. Back then, local drag racers had permanent quarter-mile markers on the tarmac. (By the way, the Brava Alitalia did the quarter in 15.2 seconds at 92.0 mph.)
The car bristled with neat technicalities. For example, to lessen the rigors of unpaved rally stages, Bilstein devised little shock absorbers specifically for the car’s gearbox, differential and steering rack. The Brava chassis was roll-cage-trussed.
Its front seats were custom form-fit for driver and navigator with full five-point harnesses. The navigator had dual Halda Tripmasters, two built-in Heuer analog stopwatches, a bank of 12 Bosch relays with 16 fuses safeguarding one or another electrical subsystem and a Lucas flex-neck trouble lamp. The driver had less to fool with, but no less to do.
The back seat was replaced by a thick piece of foam rubber with two deep recesses. It may have looked like a twin-occupancy outhouse, but in actuality was for storing driver and navigator helmets on transit stages.
One of 400 cars produced to qualify for the WRC’s Group 4 competition, our Fiat Brava carried Alitalia Airlines livery. Its siblings displayed front air dams resplendent with Alitalia, Pirelli and Fiat logos. Our car’s air dam was obviously freshly renewed, though Fiat always wisely painted sponsor names on the nose covered by this device. Even with the air dam’s frequent destruction through jumps and prangs, the sponsors still got their due. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015