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FIAT 131 Racing: Sportiness with authenticity, not fancy dress.

Chris Haining November 23, 2016 Car Shows, Cars You Should Know 13 Comments


Before we mention the car, I want talk for a moment about war heroes.

In the little cul de sac in Frinton-On-Sea where I grew up, one of our neighbours was an elderly gent by the name of Vic Whale. Softly spoken and always well turned out, he was a quiet chap who kept himself to himself. By all accounts he was a lovely man, and loved the presence of youth, especially his own children and grandchildren. He actually owned a brown ’81 Fiat 131 Supermirafiori for a while, before replacing it with an ’87 Rover 820i. I liked him very much.

However, it wasn’t until after his passing that I got to know him. During his funeral I learnt more about him than I had ever known when he was alive. I knew about his air-force service in africa and his fighter-pilot past, but I had no idea of his belonging to the Guinea-Pig Club. This was the name given to the support group formed among that group of incredibly brave men who received pioneering plastic surgery to repair wartime injuries. I think you’d have liked him, too.

The most notable thing about him, and my own grandfather, for that matter, is that they seldom advertised their heroic conducts.

Now, why can’t cars be that understated, too?


This is a 1980 Fiat 131 Abarth. You can tell that from the way it says ‘Fiat 131 Racing’ on the back. It also has little Abarth badges on its flanks, a hat-tip to the tuning powerhouse that supplied the expertise in elevating the Racing from family saloon to tarmac tearaway.

Ah OK, there were quad headlights and slightly extended wheelarches, too, but that was pretty much it. The wheels were steel (and oh, so sexy) and there were two fewer doors, but there was really very little in the way of ‘look at me’ outlandishness.


Fair enough, in terms of raw power the 131 Racing (or 131 Sport as it was properly known in the UK) wasn’t really all that special – its 110bhp put it in competition with the similarly powerful, and similarly rear-wheel drive Ford Escort RS2000.

It was a great handler, though, and had a characterful engine in the shape of Fiat’s legendary twin-cam two-litre four-banger. It could manage 110mph flat out, but the real fun came in maintaining momentum at far slower speeds.

The 131 Racing, or Sport, more than anything showcases how much subtlety performance cars have lost over the years. But there’s more than just that.



I’m talking about Sport Appearance Packs. Anything M Sport, AMG Line or S Line. Anything that you can buy and have applied to your entry-level sedan that gives it the look of a rip-snorting highway warrior.

In the UK that probably counts for about 80% of all German cars sold, and probably a similar proportion of cars from other nations. You can, if you’re an honest man, buy a BMW 320i SE, which looks just like what it is, an impeccably developed car with serious attention paid to achieving a blend of performance, economy and comfort. Or, if you’re an obnoxious git, you can buy a BMW 320i Sport, with the precise same mechanical package but a set of big wheels with spine-compressing low-profile tyres, a highway-scraping front spoiler and sill extensions, and seats that could deal with the lateral forces of an F16. But none of it will make a blind bit of difference to the way it drives.

The 131 Racing, the RS2000, even to a lesser extent the Saab 99 Turbo and the BMW M535i – all offered performance without showing off. Today, the reverse is true of most cars on the market.

You wouldn’t catch Vic Whale in a car with a bodykit.

(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2016)