In the years between Stratos and Quattro, rallying was all about a pair of humdrum three-box family saloons. Doesn’t sound great, does it? They became, however, two of the sport’s most successful and iconic cars. John Davenport recalls their tail-happy dogfight for world honours
Ladies and Gentleman, this is a five-round title bout between two of the world’s biggest car companies: Ford versus Fiat. No holds barred, no Group B cars, just a good old Group 4 dust-up. Seconds out…
In the global rally scene of 1976, the Lancia Stratos held sway. The first of rallying’s supercars had just been awarded its third title in a row. Behind the scenes, though, other plans were maturing. For some time, Lancia had been the property of Fiat and it had been a corporate decision to let the Stratos chase the championship in 1976 while the old Fiat Abarth 124 Spider withered on the vine. Its replacement, the Abarth 131 Mirafiori arrived during 1976 after a Fiat ‘Straws’, the 2-litre X1/9, was ditched in favour of a rally car based on a mass-production vehicle. 131 was homologated on April 1, 1976, won its first event in Elba a couple of weeks later and won its first WRC event, the 1000 Likes with Marldcu Alen, in August of the same year.
For 1977, Turin decided their main effort would be with the 131. The Stratos would play a supporting role only, which it did to good effect, starting the season by completing its hat trick of victories on the Monte Carlo Rally in the hands of Sandro Munari. After that, it took a back seat. Its guru, Mike Parkes, was killed in August 1977 and the change of Group 4 rules for ’78 meant it was due to lose its four-valve cylinder head for the following year. From now on, Fiat’s efforts would be concentrated on a car bearing the company name. This was emphasised by the disbanding of Squadra Cone Lancia at the end of ’77.
The Lancia team moved to the Abarth factory and was amalgamated with the Fiat team under a new title, ASA (Attiva Sportiva Abarth). This was controlled by a Comitato Corse, on which sat three Fiat board directors plus Aurelio Lampredi, the MD of Abarth, Cesare Fiorio, president of ASA, Daniele Audetto, CEO of ASA, and Luca di Montezemolo, the Fiat PR Director with responsibility for Motorsport. For its Stratos and Beta Monte Carlo Turbo programmes, Lancia had 50 staff; mainly engineers and mechanics, while the Fiat programmes for the 131, A112 Abarth and the Ritmo had another 60 or so. The whole payroll of the Abarth concern was some 450 people, but this included storemen, fitters building road cars and support staff.
The main opposition thus came not from the team across town, but from Ford Motor Company. Like Lancia, Ford had been rallying since the mid-1960s. They had run Cortina GTs and Lotus Cortinas with moderate success before bringing out the Escort TC at the 1968 San Remo Rally. In the hands of Ove Andersson, Roger Clark, Gilbert Staepelaere, Bengt Söderström, Timo Mäkinen and Hannu Mikkola, this little car made a big impact. When its slightly bigger brother, the Escort RS1600, succeeded it in 1970, the effect was even greater. In no time at all, this Escort had won the Safari , the 1000 Lakes and RAC the last-named three times in a row.
It could have been ever thus, but first Ford introduced a Mk2 Escort and then FISA announced that the old, generous Group 2 regulations were being detuned. For 1976-77, they would have to run in Group 4, and after that they would be banned. Ford was happy enough to run in rallies for two years in Group 4. After all, they were interested in outright wins. But a question mark hung over 1978. The problem would have to be dealt with by Ford’s comps shop in Boreham, Essex. Opened in 1964, this was, by the standards of the day, big. But despite expansion over the years, by the mid-1970s it was considerably smaller than its Fiat rival. Under the direction of Peter Ashcroft, there was rarely more than 30 staff, engineers and mechanics to develop, prepare and oversee their rally programmes.
The two cars that were the focus of the Fiat versus Ford battle were similar in many respects. The 131 was a special production car that went down the line at Abarth. Four hundred were needed to qualify for hornologation in Group 4 and they all had 16-valve engines, five-speed gearboxes, all-independent suspension and disc brakes. They had no homologation fears when the changes for 1978 came into effect; Ford, on the other hand, had evolved the homologation of the Escort For instance, when the RS1600 was introduced, it had a capacity of 1602cc, thus enabling them to run engines of up to two litres. But the RS1800 was not going to be able to benefit from that kind of allowance. So John Griffiths, the engineer in charge of homologation, took the bold step of arguing thus: “Over the last four years, we must have made at least 400 rally cars with 1975cc 16-valve engine, fivespeed ZF gearbox, triple-plate clutch, five-link rear suspension and heavy-duty axle, so why don’t we just submit on that basis?” Ford did and they got the ‘new’ car recognised from April 1977, ready for the ’78 season.
Abarth’s 131 was the product of designers and engineers working under the direction of Giorgio Manta, who became the engineering director for the Fiat branch of ASA in 1978. Rally prototypes completed literally thousands of miles of testing, often with Pianta at the wheel. An ex-rally and racing driver, he knew what kind of punishment world championship rallies meted out and wanted to be sure that the 131 could take it in its stride. It is said that he had a jump built to replicate one in Finland and then proceeded to put a test car over it several hundred times. The 131 was designed to be a good-handling, frontengined, rear-wheel-drive car that was fully adaptable for the various conditions that would be encountered during a full world rally season. It was its independent four-strut suspension that enabled the mechanics to take it from Tarmac spec to gravel settings within 10 minutes. Ride height, camber, castor, toe-in and rollbar settings were also adjustable.
The Escort had no such luxury In basic form, it had one-piece MacPherson struts at the front operating with a track-control arm and rollbar. At the rear, semi-elliptic leaf springs and four homologated radius arms retained the axle. For Tarmac applications, it was possible to use coil springs and a Panhard rod at the rear and compression struts at the hunt with an independent anti-roll bar. These things could not be changed quickly so that on any rally, unless the surface was consistent throughout, any settings used had to be a compromise.
It was under the bonnet that the Escort possessed its trump card. The alloy-block 16-valve fuel-injected BDA benefited from a shorter stroke than the venerable Fiat engine. An Escort driver could rely on using up to 9000rpm and have 245-270 bhp. By comparison, the 131 was initially quoted at 215bhp at 7000rpm and, in its final development, 240bhp at 8000rpm.
If the Escort had the power, it had to transmit it through the synchromesh ZF gearbox, which was reliable but slower and more power-consuming than the dog-clutch Colotti ‘box fitted to the Fiat. The Abarth 131 also had a much better choice of ratios and rear axle, which meant that having the right gearing for a rally was easier. Ford had big problems keeping their ‘Atlas’ axle in one piece when using the lower ratios on Tarmac — even an oil cooler could not guarantee its longevity.
While Pianta and his engineering team honed the 131 to near perfection, the Escort was comparatively lonely. In 1976, John Griffiths and Mick Jones undertook its development of with help from outside consultants such as Len Bailey and Tom Wadkinshaw. For 1977, Ashcroft hired Allan Wilkinson whom, with Bailey’s help, made significant advances to the car, especially for Tarmac. Wilkinson also forced Boreham to abandon its individualistic methods of building rally cars, which had meant that parts on one car might not fit another in the same team. At Fiat, there had never been that problem since standardisation was the rule going right back to the 124.
Out on the rallies, Fiat could count on the tactical experience of Audetto, Nini Russo and Gianfranco Silecchia, while their mechanics, such as Rino Buschiazzo had cut their teeth on six years of competition with the 124. Ranged against them were Ashcroft and Charles Reynolds, and a vastly experienced team of mechanics headed by the irrepressible Jones.
Fiat was in front when it came to equipment. From the moment the rally cars and service vans arrived on Fiat car transporters to the arrival of the enormous Fiat press bus, it was clear who had the biggest budget. But sometimes bucks — or in this case, lire — are not the whole story.
Round One was a skirmish. The 131 had its first outing in Elba, a European Championship round, where they finished first and second. Its first VVRC event was in Morocco, where Maurizio Verini and Fulvio Bacchelli failed to finish but Pianta logged a great deal of data. Alen then won the 1000 Lakes, but all three cars in San Remo retired, two with accidents.
Ford started the year with a fifth on the Monte Carlo with Roger Clark, had both Clark and Makinen retire in Morocco, were second and fourth in the 1000 Lakes, and were first and third on the RAC Rally. Lancia were world champions with the Stratos, while Ford was third and Fiat was seventh in the VVRC standings.
Round Two was the first serious clash. Ashcroft had signed Björn Waldegktl from Lancia at the end of 1976 and Ford’s team was completed by Clark, An Vatanen, with the occasional participation of Kyosti Hamalainen andlean-Piene Nicolas. Over at Fiat were Alen, Bacchelli, Verini, Simo Lampinen, Timo Salonen and Makinen, with Jean-Claude Andruet and Michele Mouton provided by Fiat France.
After Lancia and Saab started the year with their traditional victories in Monte Carlo and Sweden, first blood went to Fiat in Portugal. Ford won the Safari, Fiat triumphed in New Zealand, and then Foal came back with wins on the Acropolis and 1000 Lakes. Against the odds, Fiat won in Canada with new boy Salonen, and Ford then lost, as they might have expected to, in San Remo and Corsica. By then, even
winning the RAC Rally for the sixth time in a row could not save them. Fiat won the championship, but only by the narrow of margin of four points.
Round Three, 1978, saw Fiat getting into their stride. They had signed Walter Rohrl to combat Ford’s acquisition of Mildcola. The new integrated structure at ASA gave them even more strength in depth and, though Alen used a Stratos on San Remo and RAC to ensure he won the FIA Drivers’ Cup (no separate world championship for drivers at this point), this did not detract from the main Fiat effort.
After a disastrous start to the season in Monte Carlo, and with Ford winning in Sweden, Alen and Röhrl won four key events in the middle of the year. When the points from these were added to those from Corsica, won by their French arm, it meant that Ford could win the RAC Rally yet again — even with the competition department out on strike — and still not come within 30 points of Fiat’s total.
But in Round Four, the Fiat machine faltered while Ford discovered extra reliability. Ford also had a better handling car for this season. Wilkinson’s efforts had finally borne fruit and Waldegard should have won the Monte Carlo. Second place was not bad and he repeated that position in Sweden. In Portugal, Mildcola and he scored a 1-2 on a rally that Fiat had missed to concentrate on the Safari. Ford missed the Safari, but their drivers entered in Mercedes, and Mildcola finished second, ahead of Alen, to deny Fiat useful points.
Ford won the Acropolis and in New Zealand in the absence of Fiat. Alen won the 1000 Lakes ahead of both Fords, but it was too late to stem the tide. Ford won in Canada, Fiat were second behind a Stratos in San Remo, and it was a Lancia that won again in Corsica, with Mouton the best Fiat down in fifth. By now it was a certainty that Ford were champions. The only uncertainty was who was going to be the first world rally champion driver.
The two candidates were Mildcola and Waldegard. The RAC went to Mildcola, so it all came down to the Ivory Coast Rally, where both were driving for Mercedes. They finished 1-2, but second place was enough to give Waldegard the first-ever WRC drivers’ title.
Round Five saw Fiat return to the fray determined to scoop the pool. Röhrl and Alen were the chosen pair, while Ford now centred their efforts on Vatanen, with Mildcola only appearing occasionally. Fiat kicked off by winning Monte Carlo and Portugal, and followed up with victory in Argentina and San Remo. Ford’s only win of the year was on the Acropolis. Elsewhere they found Datsun’s 1601 as difficult to beat as the Fiats and, for the first time in nine years, they did not win the RAC Rally. Fiat entered a lone 131 for Munari on the Ivory Coast just in case, but even without his points for sixth, they coasted home as champions, with 120 points to Datsun’s 93. Ford was third on 90. It was a Fiat double, too, as four wins and two seconds saw Rtihrl romp home with almost double the points of his nearest rivals, Mikkola and Waldegard, who were again separated by a single point.
The Last Round (1981) had Ford represented by the David Sutton/Rothmans team as Boreham rolled up its sleeves for Group B with the RS1700T, while ASA got busy on the Lancia 037 Rallye. Rat did compete with Alen, but he only won in Portugal, while Ford won Acropolis and 1000 Lakes. The problem was the new boys: Audi were there with the quattro winning San Remo and RAC, Datsun won the African events and the manufacturers’ champion was Talbot with one win, four seconds, two thirds. The drivers champion was Vatanen.
The final score? Fiat was champion twice to Ford’s once, but Ford could claim two drivers’ championships to Fiat’s one. If the drivers were voting, the Escort came out just on top, but if you considered the whole machinery of the squad, Fiat set the standard for modern rally teams.