It’s an impressive looking machine, isn’t it? Making its UK debut at the Goodwood Festival of Speed this week, the Abarth 124 rally has been getting plenty of attention, and rightly so.
Bearing the colours of the Fiat 124 Abarth Rally which won the ERC (European Rally Championship) in 1975, the car pictured above is a more powerful version of the Abarth 124 Spider that’s set to go on sale this summer.
Still in development but due to begin production in 2017, it will produce 296bhp as opposed to the Spider’s 168bhp, thanks in no small part to a 1.8-litre, turbocharged engine which will be housed as far back as the laws of front-mounted physics will allow.
And while the extra power, weight savings and hardened suspension will boost performance significantly, those improvements come at a cost: around €150,000, according to Abarth.
The question is, why bother? Abarth told TG that it has no plans to race the car internally even though it has been designed to meet Group R-GT specifications, nor does it have any expectations of how many it might sell to potential customers despite being confident of “success”.
“The idea was to create a new, specific car based on the 124 Spider just to revamp again the interest in this kind of racing,” explains Abarth’s Michelangelo Liguori. “It is also a tribute but of course we are also looking at the future.
“For us, the Abarth is made by two pillars: the cars that we sell normally, but also racing. From the racing, we experience new solutions and new technologies that then can be transferred to the production cars. So it’s also a way to develop the normal cars.”
More than that though, it’s a way of advertising what the Abarth brand stands for. Lately, sales in the UK have been picking up rapidly: they sold 1,352 cars in 2013, 1,642 in 2014 and 2,743 in 2015. This year the target is to shift 4,600; something they believe is possible with the arrival of the 124 Spider and the new 595.
From UK brand manager Gerry Southerington’s perspective, the company had two options for increasing its volume of sales: it could either build cars that appealed to more people, or invest in more showrooms to extend its reach into the niche market it has thrived in.
“When you start to appeal to a wider audience,” says Southerington, “you start to dilute what you stand for as a brand.”
For a carmaker that, in Southerington’s own words, is based on “performance, style and individuality”, there was never any question of them taking a more generic approach.
All three of those qualities are visible in the 124 rally. While its resurrection might be as much about building a profile as it is about racing, the significance of its history is hard to ignore.
Maurizio Verini was the man behind the wheel when the Fiat 124 Abarth Rally won the ERC in 1975. Now in his 70s, he recalls that the Group 4 car was a handful to drive: “Because the car had a very short wheelbase, it jittered about. There wasn’t very much grip on the rear because the rear end was very lightweight.
“If it was slippery, you couldn’t just go in a straight line: it was swinging out left and right all the time. At the Monte Carlo Rally, it would be absolutely fine. But in in slippery conditions it was a nightmare.”
Will the 2017 version bear any resemblance to its predecessor?
“There’s quite a few similarities: there’s an engine in the front and it’s rear wheel drive. But it’s still very light at the back end, so it will be very slidey. On tarmac – in the dry and in the wet – it will go really, really well. It’s not really made for off-road rallying. It is a car for the track or for road use.”
Verini is hoping to drive the 124 rally in race conditions next year. TG is very, very jealous.