Track time – Tarmac rally 1974 Fiat 124 Coupe CC

The problem with most old Fiats is that they’re exactly that – old Fiat’s. They began their life as expensive statements of cutting edge Italian design, but in most cases the passage of time has not been kind to their expertly sculpted bodies. Victims of a communist regime, Fiat were forced to purchase and build their fine vehicles of junk Eastern European steel which often began rusting within months of manufacture. Combined with a frankly terrible dealer network and rapidly plunging resale values, the reputation of the Fiat marque never really stood much of a chance in a marketplace where consumers demanded more.

But there was a lot to like about Fiat’s such as the 124 and X1/9. They were technically superior to their contemporaries and offered technology such as 5 speed gearboxes, fully independent suspension, crumple zones and 4 wheel disc brakes long before they became market norms. And what’s more Fiat’s could always be counted on to be accomplished handlers and genuinely good fun to drive. With the correct maintenance the engines were almost bulletproof, revved like nothing else and were easily and effectively tunable. And all this was wrapped in a seductive selection of bodies designed by the famous Italian design studios of the time such as Pininfarina, Bertone and Zagato.

The racetrack is the natural home of this marque, and 124 Coupe’s are a regular sight at racetracks around the country. Despite this, it’s rare to find one quite as nicely prepared and sorted as Guy Standen’s 1974 124 CC Coupe tarmac rally car.

Guy’s 124 was originally built by Fiat stalwart Norm Singleton in Queensland. A veteran of two Targa Tasmania’s and three Classic Adelaide’s, for several years the 124 served combined duties as both a tarmac rally car and Group S historic circuit race car. It proved reliable and effective, however the strict Group S rules severely hampered its tarmac rally performance and it was too young to move up to the less restrictive Group N class. At the beginning of 2009 the decision was made to end the 124’s circuit racing career and convert it to dedicated tarmac rally spec.

Guy’s 124 is running the famous Lampredi designed 1800cc twin cam Fiat motor, breathes through twin Weber 45DCOE carburetors and expels spent gasses through an expertly designed tuned length extractor system. There are quite a few internal tricks hidden away in the motor too, including bespoke Tighe camshafts, valves, head porting, pistons and rods. The power is transferred through to a Bacci Romano LSD and pinion unit to the 15” Advan A050 tyres.

Given that I would be co-driving for Guy in the Supaloc Classic Targa Adelaide rally, Guy thought it would be a good idea for me to have a competitive drive in the 124 just in case I needed to jump behind the wheel on a special stage during the rally. Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I found myself strapped in behind the wheel of the 124, focusing all my efforts toward not stalling it in front of the small group of friends who had gathered to watch my first drive. ‘Try to keep it under seven two’ Guy casually mentioned as he headed off to the mound to watch. If he was at all nervous, he was doing a very good job of hiding it.

The first thing that hits you when you pull out of pit lane and onto the track is the pure, unadulterated sound. Winding out through the gears, the induction roar coming from those big Weber’s is simply glorious. I don’t care what you say; there are very few automotive sounds that can come even close to this magnificently rough symphony. For what it’s worth, you can keep your fancy modern fuel injection. Bah humbug.

Changing up into second and then third at just under 5000rpm, I hold it in gear around Mallala Raceway’s turn three and then properly sink the foot in for the first time up the back straight. Changing up into fourth at around 7000rpm, the deep throaty roar swiftly changes to the high pitched shrill that only a properly tuned race prepared Italian twin cam can provide as the tacho needle sweeps toward Guy’s suggested redline.

I was a little nervous about these first few laps because not only had I never sat in this car, I had never properly driven a rear wheel drive car in at speed on a circuit before. My fears were unfounded though as I discovered Guy’s 124 to be the most forgiving and confidence inspiring car you could imagine.

It took me a few sessions to get my head around the fact that you need to be aggressive with it. Whilst it’s not quite as extreme as a locked diff, the clutch plates in the limited slip diff up the back are still extremely tight and you can’t just casually turn it into the corner like you would a road car. You’ve really got to grab it by the scruff of the neck and drive it through every inch. It’s when you do this that the 124 really comes alive. And my god, it’s good fun.

Something I learnt is that an integral part of turning the 124 in is the correct application of the throttle. The old adage of ‘steering with the right foot’ is as overused today as it was twenty years ago, but it really is true. Turn it in like you would a front-driver and it will eventually break into understeer. The trick is to initiate the turn, and then gradually apply the throttle to transfer the weight to the rear outside corner of the car. Once grip has been established, roll the throttle on to really power past the apex, and then balance the throttle with the steering on exit. A little too much throttle and the rear end will gradually break traction, but it’s very controlled and the 124 gives you ample time to apply some opposite lock to correct the slide. The throttle is everything in this car, and it has just enough power for you to hold it with some opposite lock attitude in third gear if you feel the need. It’s a raw, seat of the pants type experience that’s so much fun it will have you laughing out loud inside your helmet.

The brakes have exceptional stopping power, but they do take some time to build confidence. The pedal is not quite as firm as I would like, and the 124 did move around under heavy braking. However, it was perfectly controllable and on a few occasions a slight correction with the wheel soon stopped any thoughts the rear may have had of overtaking the front. On the day I drove it the 124 did have too much rear brake bias that has since been corrected, so I suspect it would be quite a different beast under brakes today.

Guy’s 124 is not as wild as some of the other 124’s out there and it has no large turbocharger or any other daft modifications like that, because that would be missing the point. A great deal of time and effort has been put in to setting this car up correctly and making it easy to jump in and drive fast – exactly what you want in a tarmac rally car. It’s kind, forgiving, reliable, and has been built perfectly for it’s chosen discipline. When you’re right on the limits of sanity and flying down Gorge road at 160kmh (like we did just a few weeks later), you don’t want some peaky, temperamental car that’s nervous on the edge. When a slide breaks out with a cliff face on one side and a gum tree lined creek on the other, you need to be able to gently roll on the throttle, apply some lock and pull yourself out of that situation.

After about 25 laps at Mallala I managed a best time of 1.28.31, compared to Guy’s 1.26.53. But the times don’t even begin to tell half the story about how much fun this thing is to drive on the limit because it’s something that you really need to experience for yourself. Driving the 124 at Mallala was pure and simple track zen. The sounds it makes and the feeling it gives you when you get it right is what we dream of whenever we’re not at the track. And for that reason alone, this was probably the most fun I’ve had on track.

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5 Comments

  1. steve January 17, 2014 Reply

    Im in Adelaide and looking at building a 124 coupe, just wondering who built the engine?

    • Andrew Coles February 3, 2014 Reply

      Hi Steve, and sorry for the late reply. The engine was built by Norm Singleton up in QLD, and has since been maintained and prepared by Peter Axford and the guys at Eurosport in Kent Town. As it turns out, the 124 is now for sale at the moment, too.

  2. Greg March 26, 2017 Reply

    Nice write up. But you need to do a bit of study on the use of the apostrophe. The apostrophe is used to indicate possession but not for plurals. For instance, "Guy's 124" is correct. But not "124 Coupe's are a regular sight". Also coupe should not be capped. Now correct and write out 100 times!

    • Andrew Coles May 23, 2017 Reply

      Thanks - but I'm not so sure on your criticism of my apostrophe or capital letter use. You are correct in saying that an apostrophe is not normally used for plurals however in rare cases it is permitted to avoid confusion. In this case '124 Coupe' is the official model designation. Much as each word in a name always begins with a capital, Coupe should too. And the apostrophe was used to delineate multiple examples of a 124 Coupe, so as to avoid confusion that I am talking about multiple examples of the coupe body style in general.

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