Tuning test

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Fiat Ritmo Abarth 125TC

Ritmo/Strada + Abarth = 118 m.p.h. and a new production competitor

January 1980: the writer huddles below a low stone wall in the hills behind Monte Carlo. In the valley beneath, a properly picturesque village, lights twinkling in the dusk and wafts of fresh baked croissant tempting one away from the draughty spectacle of the Monte Carlo Rally front runners. Attention is directed primarily upon the domination of Pirelli and Fiat with their boxy factory 131s, a combination that provided Walter Rörhl with victory. From our vantage point the most astonishing sight was the theoretically outclassed Group 2 Ritmo Abarth, with just 170 fuel injected horsepower to pit against the leaders’ 220 plus. After early snow the roads were mainly dry and the front drive Ritmo, and its young Italian pilot, Attilo Bettega, worn expected to drop back down the field.

The Ritmo chattered into sight. Its lightly studded Pirellis flicked the occasional spark to further illuminate the spectacle of an apparent racing saloon on the limit, barking its way through a rock-faced curve as though it were at Monza in a sunny Sunday race, rather than jinking along gravel and rough tarmac. The Ritmo was an impressively steady sight, proving that a front drive car could still punch its way into the top ten (it finished sixth – and a Golf was fifth) on the World’s most prestigious rally.

Last month, in Rome, Fiat announced a road going descendant of that interesting competition car. Chief tester driver Giorgio Pianta confirmed that the front suspension and big ventilated disc brakes, the heart or that competition car’s success, had been transferred (minus the body mounting points for the lower anti-roll bar, for production reasons) to the new Ritmo Abarth 125 TC. “It’s fantastic, Planta grinned happily, “the ride and cornering is the best we can make is a front drive car – and just as good with full load, no?”

We could only nod equally enthusiastically. After a morning spent on rather crowded roads around Rome and some deserted loose going, colleague Peter Newton and myself could only mourn the fact that this 7,500 per-annum production base to a car that will almost certainly dominate national production racing and rallying in the future (group N, or showroom Group 1 in pre-82 parlance) will only ever be available in LHD. There are no plans to import these able, 2-litre, five-speed Ritmos, to Britain, but if you looked into the matter in Europe you would find the cost will be some 10 to 15%, above Golf GTi.

Fiat see this Ritmo Abarth as part of their European sales renaissance. A useful competition base and image booster for the remainder of the versatile Ritmo (call it Strada in Britain) range. The 125 TC is officially aimed at a market above the Golf GT, – Porsche 924 and suchlike – but as one Abarth executive confessed quietly: “this car will attack GTi from the top while our 1600 (the recently introduced 105 TC) will complete the job from below!

The detailed specification you can see from our panel, but it is worth noting that a similar aside revealed that fuel injection (which surely should be automatic on a car with pretensions to GTi superiority) was absent on grounds of cost. If it is used in future it will have to come from Bosch, rather than the mechanical Spica systems used by Abarth Fiats in competition,..

“Driving Acrobats”

Fiat European Sales Manager, Lorenzo Cesare, made a charming presentation of the car, inviting us to view it as “a small bombshell.” He also suffered at the hands of the translators with an invitation to see how the car copes with “driving acrobats!”

Waiting for some companions – we started the trip three up and then settled for two, most noticeable point about the interior was the enormous drilled throttle pedal! Mmm…

Instrumentation includes a large 220 k.p.h. speedometer (we saw 205 k.p.h. as, our best) and a 7,000 r.p.m. tachometer, with warning zone from 5,750 to 6,250 r.p.m. for the long stroke twin cam. Minor instruments are mainly spread to the centre of the fascia and cover oil temperature, pressure and water temperature.

In action one’s impressions are dominated by the mid-range pull of the 2 litre engine in this 2.100 lb. body and the extraordinary comfortable ride. The handling on Pirelli P6 185 60s was in a different league to Golf GTi or Escort XR3. Light understeer, very little change in characteristic if the throttle was released sharply in mid-corner, or the superb brakes applied fiercely. In short the ride and handling justified Fiat’s claim, two or three aboard. We were glad to see Ferodo competition pads specified and working admirably, traffic or country.

Also outstanding was the quick change offered by the ZF gearbox internals. Fiat executives were concerned that we should be aware that their characteristic whining would be silenced in the next production batch, but we found it a nostalgic echo of that Monte Carlo model a (1600 Ritmo 75, officially). More tiring is the expected resonance of a large four-cylinder engine in a tin box, around 3,500-4,000 r.p.m. Particularly as the gearing is quite short, allowing 62 m.p.h. at 3,000 r.p.m.

Third gear is good for nearly 80 m.p.h. and is most widely used for overtaking and cornering. This emphasises the engine flexibility and the remarkably progressive Weber-Abarth carburation. To the point where one accepts that, even if they have skimped the injection from the specification, it is acknowledged that the engine and carburation have been properly matched, along with the gearing, suspension and braking, to the vehicle.

Snags? Really the potential of chassis and 2-litres has been wasted. More straightline performance (perhaps 140 b.h.p?) could be handled. Then the 125 TC would be a worthy contestant in the “substantial European market” Fiat see for this “super GTi” category. – J.W.

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