If you’re into historic rallying, chances are you fancy yourself owning an ex-works car, a machine plastered with ‘war paint’, driven by your hero and brimming with bits crafted from ‘unobtainium’.
Sure, it would be eye-catching and worth a mint, but where would you drive it, would you risk it, I mean, have you seen how close the trees are to the road?
Let’s step back for a moment and look at the bigger picture. If you want to compete you need a machine you can throw at the scenery, or at least, thread your way through it with a decent amount of ‘Wellie’ applied.
What you need is a faithful replica of that dream works machine, a car that respects the originals but packages it all in a more affordable and usable mouse trap. A car just like Alex Kovacevic’s Fiat 131 Abarth.
Over many years, Melbourne-based Alex developed his previous 4-door PRC 131 to the point where it had gone about as far as it could go. A love of the old Group 4 cars led to the inspiration to put together a suitable tribute, and knowing the Fiat ‘language’ meant the 131 Abarth was an obvious choice.
Given 2-door 131s were never marketed in Australia the most important building block, the body shell, was always going to be a challenge. Fortunately a pre-fabricated Abarth-syle 2-door was found and purchased from Stuart McLachlan in Canberra and the project was born.
This shell came with the bare bones of a rollcage, but with modern safety standards in mind Alex went “a bit overboard” with the cage, adding, “No-one who has a big off says they put too much cage in their car”.
It wasn’t just the bars in the Canberran shell that were minimal, it came without any hanging panels whatsoever, so a set of Australian-market 131 doors were suitably stretched and fitted; just the ticket for keeping the dust out.
A healthy dose of Abarth DNA was added with the fitment of the fibreglass body kit, sourced from Poland and delivered after many months of waiting. Surprisingly it fitted nicely straight out of the (well-travelled) box, requiring only minor work to bring it up to scratch.
The result sees the body shell pared of unnecessary steel and the bonnet, boot lid, rear quarters, front and rear valances and front guards all replaced with GRP. In spite of trimming the ‘fat’ the car still tips the scales at over 1200kg.
The task of propelling that weight falls to a dry-sumped 2-litre Fiat engine, which like the Abarth originals is topped with a twin-cam 16-valve cylinder head.
Budget reality dictated there would be no €10,000 Abarth replica head, so instead a Lancia Delta Integrale unit does the job, providing plenty of rally heritage of its own along the way. Power wise it makes the numbers too, with only about 5bhp difference.
Unlike the original cars, Alex’s must run carburettors as required by the CAMS Classic Rally Car regulations, in place of Bosch-Kugelfischer mechanical injection.
Purists may need to turn a blind-eye to the next paragraph, since mated to the engine is a Ford Type-9 5-speed gearbox.
Original works cars ran Colotti ‘boxes with various ratios available, however, for Alex the Ford transmission and its Tran-X close-ratio gearset was far more readily available, and in spite of proving difficult and expensive to mate to the Fiat bellhousing, matches the engine characteristics nicely.
The ‘multi-lingual’ aspect of the build continues at the back of the car where a customised Nissan diff and rear-end mimic the Abarth IRS set-up.
“I wanted to run the IRS because the original Abarth cars did,” explained Alex.
The result being an “Alex Special” featuring a modified Nissan Silvia rear-end with custom driveshafts and Nissan R200 diff.
Alex Kovacevic in action in his Fiat 131 Abarth replica.
The process of researching the donor vehicle for the rear end involved inspecting and measuring suitable customer cars as they were up on the hoist at Alex’s Automotive, the Silvia getting the nod as it most closely mimicked the Abarth double-A arm arrangement.
The rear end was cut down 100mm, modified here and there to fit, and a pick-up truck 5.1:1 crown wheel and pinion sourced from the US and modified to fit in the short-nose R200. In true Alex style, the end result is over engineered, but fragility was not going to be tolerated.
More modern touches underneath include MCA canister shocks, Nissan aluminium brake calipers and electric assisted power steering, the latter more for the driver’s comfort than added competitiveness.
Inside the boot, however, more traditionally-shaped fuel and dry-sump oil tanks can be found, while the interior features replica instruments mounted in a reproduction dash panel imported from Abarth specialist Guy Moerenhout in Belgium.
Original Abarth instruments are prohibitively expensive, so simple orange globes provide the correct hue.
After countless thousands of hours of preparation, the newly completed car made its debut as course-opening vehicle at the Victoria Cross Rally.
Unfortunately it didn’t quite make the forest after the engine threw off its oil-pump belt during the Halda check. To avoid any chance of damage the whole thing was shut down and returned to the workshop.
Things went a bit better at the Alpine of the same year, however, the wheel alignment (itself a best guess to that point) resulted in a car that tried to launch itself into the trees. With this corrected, Alex and Kate fared better until late in the day when the timing belt began rubbing on the custom-made harmonic balancer.
In spite of efforts to complete successful repairs, the car was withdrawn on Sunday morning, but not before it had made an impact with the crowds.
“The reactions to the car have been fantastic”, says the proud owner. “People have told me it looks and sounds amazing. I’ve found it quite humbling.”
Since its debut the car has undergone continual improvement, including replacing the original vinyl wrap from England with a much better quality locally-produced version, and at some stage an Abarth steering wheel will find its way into the cockpit.
“I’m not a purist… I’m pretty outspoken in saying it’s just a bodgey replica, but it’s a tribute to the original cars, which are just so hard to get and produced in such low numbers.
“I think people do enjoy seeing it out there, anything original from back in the day is just too valuable to go throwing around in the forest. An original Group 4 131 Abarth can be $450,000!”
So, what’s it to be for you then, forest racer or trailer queen?
A faithful replica allows you to combine the sights and sounds of a priceless original with the real-world usability of a look-alike, like having your torta and eating it too.
Photos: John Doutch
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