Special feature

The historic rallying battle royale revived 40 years on

Ford Escorts have dominated historic rallying for years but finally, in the shape of a Fiat 131, they face some tough opposition from an old foe

JulianReynolds3RAC2014 1

The combination of reigning British Rally champion Matt Edwards and a Fiat 131 from Rallysport Development is reshaping the British historic rallying landscape after more than a decade of Ford Escort domination. Victory in the British Historic Rally Championship, with three events to run in the early autumn, is a real possibility.

Those around rallying in the late 1970s will remember the time when co-driver Christian Geistdorfer sat in the back of the works Fiat 131 while Walter Rohrl sat up front. It was all about weight distribution and the practice was quickly outlawed after the 1978 RAC Rally. Reputedly, team manager Giorgio Pianta reckoned the move was worth a second per mile.

What cannot be disputed is that in the Group 4 rallying era the 131 was a match for the Ford Escort Mk2. Fiat’s 131 Abarth took the World Rally Championship manufacturers’ title three times in 1977, 1978 and 1980 to the single crown for the Escort Mk2 in 1979. The drivers’ title tally was two each (if you count the FIA Cup): Markku Alen and Rohrl for Fiat, Bjorn Waldegard and Ari Vatanen for Ford.

Despite its period parity with the Escort Mk2, the Fiat has been largely absent as UK historic rallying developed over the last quarter of a century. The last non-Ford Escort driver to win the British Historic title was the late Dessie Nutt back in 2009 with his 1967 Porsche 911. That was at a time when the scoring system favoured the older cars.

While Ford Escorts, notably Group 4 Mk2s with BDG engines, have routinely won most events, there was a landmark moment this spring when Edwards won the historic element of Rally North Wales in a 131. That dusty day marked a high point in a story covering the better part of a decade as the dogged determination of one man and his team to make the Fiat a winner was finally rewarded.

The pioneer for bringing the 131 to the forefront of historic rallying is Kevin Theaker, the man behind Malton-based Rallysport Development. He decided it was time something other than an Escort led the way in historic rallying and many hours were spent gathering photographs, drawings and ex-works components to help turn a dream into a reality. This was a project that bubbled away, showing signs of promise but not scoring a breakthrough result until this year.

The Group 4 Escort is supported by an infrastructure of specialist suppliers, with most parts available off the shelf. That’s one of the main reasons the Escort is so popular in historic rallying. Others have tried with the Vauxhall Chevette and the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, but the Escort stranglehold remained resolute.
When turning the 131 into a rally winner, Fiat pretty much started from scratch. The rigid rear axle was replaced by independent suspension complete with MacPherson struts. The gearbox was boosted up to five gears and disc brakes were added all round. The 16-valve cylinder head was reworked and even the bodywork was radically changed with fibreglass panels. The humble Mirafiori was transformed into a proper rally car, ready for homologation into Group 4. Recreating that specification is the task that RSD took on.

Fiat had the upper hand on Ford for makers' crowns between 1977-1980

Fiat had the upper hand on Ford for makers' crowns between 1977-1980

Photo by: Motorsport Images

UK rallying’s long COVID-enforced break allowed Theaker and his team to fully focus on the Fiat project. Theaker knew what he was up against as he had built and run pacesetting Escorts for some of the grandees of historic rallying – notably, Matthew Robinson, Nick Elliott and Steve Bannister had all enjoyed success in Malton missiles.

However, winning with an Escort was not enough for Theaker. He wanted to bring the 131 back to life, reasoning that if it had been good enough to beat the Escort back in the day, then it could do so again. Of course, there was a big rider. Very little in the way of rallying parts for a 131 were available. Undeterred, Theaker accumulated what he could and set about machining what he needed.

“We machine all the engine parts except the cylinder block and we make the whole engine,” he says. “So it’s a massive task. Mental! The issues we’ve had have been developing the gearbox by trying to get stronger gears and working on the suspension, the engine and the ignition system. Everything, really!” At times, it has been a massive reverse-engineering project to ensure period accuracy.

"They have made amazing progress with the Fiat in the last couple of years and the engine is now equal to a good BDG. It’s now a very good all-round package with better suspension and traction. But you’ve got to be a lot less flamboyant with the Fiat and it’s not as nimble. You can make an Escort dance but you’ve got to be smooth in the Fiat" Nick Elliott

Aside from the bare shell and the engine block, just about everything else comes out of a small workshop in rural Yorkshire. Theaker’s work, first revealed back in 2013, clearly caught the imagination. “We’re building a 12th car at the moment,” he says. “There’s one in Australia and a couple in Ireland now. It’s just trying to make it like it was in the 1970s, Ford versus Fiat.”

While the sale of complete cars was great news for the project, success in the fiercely competitive UK historic rallying arena proved harder to come by. Back in 2014, the talent of Julian Reynolds took the development car to third on the Roger Albert Clark Rally, albeit well off the leading Escort pace. Ahead of Reynolds were two drivers in Escorts who would go on to play important roles in the 131 story: Robinson and Elliott. In a supreme twist of irony, the rally was initially won by Edwards in another Escort, but his exclusion over route information elevated Reynolds to the podium.

Robinson was early to try the Fiat route and bagged some reasonable results. But, in truth, he never really got on with the car as it was then and reverted to his Escort. Then Elliott, once a rival to Richard Burns in the Peugeot Challenge, took a Fiat on alongside his Mk2.

Julian Reynolds in action in his Fiat 131

Julian Reynolds in action in his Fiat 131

Photo by: Paul Lawrence

When COVID-19 struck in the early spring of 2020, rallying went into shutdown and it was 18 months before cars returned to the forests with any degree of regularity. Up in Yorkshire, it proved to be a timely break for Theaker and his team as more time was available for the Fiat project rather than turning customer Escorts around between rallies.

Out of the pandemic, the 131 emerged stronger than ever for 2022 and, with triple BRC champion Edwards at the wheel, the car is truly taking the fight to the Escorts. That breakthrough first BHRC victory came on Rally North Wales in late March and was backed up by a 1-2 result in the historic section of the Rallynuts Stages two weeks later as Elliott chased Edwards home.

Though he missed the opening BHRC round in early February while trying to seal a deal for the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship, Edwards is now aiming to chase the BHRC title over the remaining three rounds after taking maximum scores on Rally North Wales and the Plains Rally. With the best five from six scores to count in the final reckoning, it is achievable but he can ill-afford a non-finish.

As well as untapping the car’s pace, Edwards has also been working to make the 131 more user-friendly. “We’re trying to make it easier to drive as well as faster,” he explains. “The target market for the car is the historic championships and, if it is a bit of a wrestle for me to drive, that’s not ideal. But that’s definitely going the right way. We’ve made a lot of progress in a couple of tests and rallies, so that’s been important.” Theaker – a typical Yorkshireman of relatively few words, who lets the results do the talking – adds: “It’s taken a while but it’s been good having Matt in the car because he’s really good for feedback and set-up.”

Elliott is well-placed to discuss the relative merits of the two cars and has been impressed by how the 131 has developed. “They have made amazing progress with the Fiat in the last couple of years and the engine is now equal to a good BDG,” he reckons. “It’s now a very good all-round package with better suspension and traction. But you’ve got to be a lot less flamboyant with the Fiat and it’s not as nimble. You can make an Escort dance but you’ve got to be smooth in the Fiat. It is a close call!”

Edwards concludes: “We just need to run it as often as we can in the same format, rather than trying to tweak and improve – we need to get to a place that it’s a finished article.” If recent form is a guide, then the finished article looks like a match for the Escorts in historic rallying, just like the works cars were in the WRC more than 40 years ago.

Can the Fiat 131 take on the Ford Escort over a season, just as it did in the 1970s?

Can the Fiat 131 take on the Ford Escort over a season, just as it did in the 1970s?

Photo by: Paul Lawrence

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