The Mouse That Roared!

By Colm Doherty

Inside many Fiat competition cars lurks a truly unsung hero of Motorsport. Here lives an Italian whose heart beats fast and throat sings Soprano. Hewn from Aluminium and Iron, it swallows great gulps of petrol and air to produce magic!

Designed almost 35 years ago and displacing just 1290cc, it is, as they say, small but perfectly formed. Fiat's 128AI engine has done more to popularise budget motorsport than it's ever been given credit for.

Given its heritage, how could it turn out any other way? In 1970, Fiat had recently returned to racing and the works team, run by tuning specialists Abarth, campaigned the Fiat 128 Saloon in its original 1116cc guise. Competing in the 1150cc class in Group 1 touring car racing, the 128s were moderately successful.

But Fiat had just changed promotion policy, and was anxious to exploit their involvement in the sport. The real action was in the 1300cc class, mixing it with the nimble Mini Cooper, and so on April 1st 1971, Turin homologated the Fiat 128 Rally.

The car's 1290cc engine was the first purpose-designed by Fiat during the period for competition use. The engine was sized to encourage 1300cc class involvement, in contrast to the older 124 engine which, at 1608cc, had kept them out of racing! Underlining the change of heart in Turin towards the sport, Fiat launched the larger engined 128 in a flurry of advertising with race-suited drivers posing beside it.

The concept - a transversely mounted Single Overhead Cam four cylinder, breathing through a twin choke downdraught Weber carburettor, set an industry standard. But perhaps the real genius of designer Ing. Carlo Lampredi was his decision to configure it as a short-stroke high revving unit with aluminium cylinder head.

Ing. Lampredi was head of Fiat's Engine Development Department at the time, but also a director of Abarth. Looking ahead to its tuning potential for competition, Lampredi gave the world an engine which could rev continuously to 8500 rpm in standard trim. This was at a time when VW's Beetle gave up at 4800rpm.

The new engine for the 128 range shared its bore & stroke measurements with the World Champion Fiat Abarth 1300cc DOHC engine, 86mm pistons with a 55.5mm stroke. Motorsport was in the 128 engine's DNA even before it left the drawing board.

Meanwhile, the 128 itself was breaking many records, collecting a European Car of the Year award in 1971, and pioneering what became another industry standard - The transverse engined FWD small saloon car segment.

Later in '71, the works team switched from saloon to the superior handling 128 SL Coupe, and success followed success. By now, the little screamers from Turin were winning on the racetracks and rally stages of Europe, and in SCCA races in the US.

The tuning potential of the brilliant engine design was being fully tapped, and while American racers such as FAZA tuning shop owner Al Cosentino were routinely pulling 9500rpm at tracks from Lime Rock to Road Atlanta, the Swiss based Team Filipinetti, run by Mike Parks, red lined their 128 Coupes at 10,000 rpm!

Swapping the standard 32mm Webers firstly for 34mm items, then twin Webers, power outputs gradually climbed from 65bhp to 130bhp. In the US, Cosentino raced with twin 45s, while Enzo Ferrari himself had twin 40s fitted to his 128 road car! In September 1972, Mr.Ferrari watched Filipinetti's 128 Coupes score a 1-2-3 at Imola, beating off the all conquering Alfa 1300 GTAs, and reportedly became a 128 convert. "My Fiat 128 is a very fast road car" he was heard to say.

The search for maximum power probably ended when a fuel injected version produced 165bhp, although Cosentino claimed to have exceeded this with a twin-cam variant!

Some years later, in it's updated 138I and 138BII guise, the faithful screamer found it's way into Fiat's new generation of cars, the Ritmo (nee Strada) and Uno. Works race and rally programmes were initiated for the Ritmo from the outset, and a factory sponsored 'Giro d'Italia' series in 1978 featured stars such as Ferrari contracted Grand Prix driver Jody Scheckter and Ricardo Patrese racing Ritmos at Monza.

The engine probably found its sportiest home amidships in the Bertone-styled X1/9. But it was also used in sportscar racing, and former F1 star Arturo Merzario won an Italian national sportscar race in a Dallara powered by a 128 engine, beating Cosworth-powered Lolas and Chevrons in the bargain.

Our little hero popped up again in the 1300cc Lancia Delta, thus powering a hat-trick of European Car of The Year winners (UNO scooped the award in 1984).

In Ireland, enthusiasts took the 128 to their hearts, and to the track, special stage, and hill. The Coupe, or 128 Sport, starred in Production Saloon racing, rallying, autocross and hillclimbing, followed later by the 3P ("Tre Porte" or three door) and Saloon versions. During the late '70s and early '80s, the 128 lost out to the more nimble Alfasud and Opel Kadett, but the problem was confined to the twists and turns of Mondello Park. The annual trip to the big Phoenix Park road course always tipped the balance in the 128's favour, with its long straights suiting the car's high revving engine and higher top speed.

One-make Fiat racing was introduced in Ireland in 1980 for the 128, followed by the arrival of the sharper handling Ritmo in 1987, and the Uno class in 1992. Packed grids of young drivers enjoyed low-cost motorsport in Fiats powered by this gem which was always destined for serious competition use.

While the number of 128AI-based Fiats remaining in circulation dwindles, these engines are well built and long lasting, so if you can find one, install it and enjoy it - the screamer from Turin, the mouse that roared!


(c) Copyright Colm Doherty, 1993.

This article was first published in the 1994 Irish Motorsport Annual. The author rallycrossed 128 3Ps and circuit-raced Ritmos in the late '80s/early '90s. In 1992, he finished 24th overall and 1st in class in the 800 mile Circuit of Ireland Rally, then the world's longest tarmac special-stage event, in a 128-AI powered Ritmo.

This page created: October 8, 2003
Courtney Waters

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