1971 Fiat 125 (Purpose built Racecar for the Dunlop Targa Rally NZ)

Mark McCaughan
Co Driver:

Giles Abury

Preparing a Classic Racer….

The Dunlop Targa this year was over 900 km’s of closed road racing – winding from Auckland down to a finish in Wellington – 6 days later.

There were 230 cars that started – we finished 6th in our class (being in the Classic Class 1970-1978), 110th overall from 198 cars that finished with no penalties and after just over 7 hours of flat out racing – it was a real highlight and I am certainly going to do this event next year – I just need 50 extra horsepower !!!

The Targa is a full National Rally so all the drivers and vehicles need to be licensed as well as have full race protection ie roll cage, safety seats, harnesses, fire proof suits, boots, helmets. It’s a daunting process to get all of this prepared so I thought, for 1st timers, it would be good to capture what we went through !!!

We started with a wreck – a 1971 Fiat 125 – stock standard.

We then completely stripped the car by bead blasting it just to see what we actually were in for with regards to rust.

Being typically Italian – you can’t see it, but the rust was definitely there !!!

At the same time as the body work was done, we robbed a gearbox tunnel from a Fiat 132 and welded that in – it gave us the ability to use a 5 speed box matched to a 2000 cc Fiat 132 motor – all the better for this type of rally when compared to the standard 4 speed 125 box.

Click on image to enlarge

It went from there to have a full racing roll cage installed by Maurice Thompson Motors in Te Awamutu.

After spending a large amount of $$ on the body work, it was finally ready to paint.

The car was painted to match a Fiat 125T which was a local variant that was produced in 1972 (of which there were around 80 of these made). The 125T was made up by the local Fiat distributor here in NZ specifically to run in the NZ Benson and Hedges 500 race and so was prepared under the old homologation rules requiring at least 200 of the model to be made. The changes that were made to the original 125 T’s included , reground cam shafts, twin carbs, different exhaust, lowered suspension and changed body-work and seating. The story goes that once Fiat found out that one of their distributors was modifying their vehicle, they put an early end to this – quick smart hence the 80 odd only ever being built. There were 3 colours used the 1st being the same as the 124 BC of the day and then a change after only a few were made to a brighter yellow ( like the colour we used being the Ford Daytona Yellow that really stands out ! ) there were also 2 red ones built.

The other interesting thing is that, on the rally, we had a huge number of people come up to us and comment on the Fiat 125T – they all had one in their youth and used to outrun the Escorts and Cortina’s etc of the time. There was even a story of a few being painted in black and being used by the MOT although I am not sure how much of that was urban myth !.

You may ask me why a Fiat 125 – well, Dad used to have a really nice red one that we used to run Christchurch to Nelson in and do it in less than 4 hours – I still remember the exhaust note and mum telling him to slow down as all the 3 kids in the back used to get car sick !!!! I also had one as one of my first cars so when it came to a race car, it had to be the classic Italian.

So back to the car. Once the body work was done, the job of preparing the car was on in full earnest. And was entrusted to the most knowledgeable Fiat guy around in the form of Mal Simmonds from Dino Enterprises in Cambridge ( – there is nothing that Mal does not know about Fiats ! He also runs a very quick Fiat 124 Special T in the Targa !!!

We had also decided early ( on Mal’s advice ) that our 1st Targa was going to be one where we aimed to get to the finish – being the 10 anniversary, we wanted to get maximum enjoyment from the car and being complete novices, we wanted to understand the way the whole race ran. Hence, our goal was to built reliability into the car and not necessarily straight out speed.

With that in mind, we went to work starting on the suspension and brakes. The rear is a standard Fiat 125 Diff running with the Fiat 125T leaf springs which are basically just another leaf on the standard setup and lowered slightly. This give us more bite out of the corners and makes the back of the car sit down lower as the old Fiats tended to body roll when going quick.

Combined with Koni’s all around, we replaced the front springs with a set of after market Lovell performance ones originally designed for a Cortina.

We are also running 14” Lancia wheels which are incredibly light as opposed to the standard 13” Fiat ones.

In the brakes department, the standard Fiat 125 setup was used all around with race pads and race fluid. We did put new disks all round but the rest of the brake package is remarkably competent from the standard vehicle. The only other addition was an in-car brake bios adjustor – it’s the ‘set and forget’ type !

Once the handling was sorted out, we went to work on the electricals. The old fiats are a maze of wire and if you have ever owned an Italian vehicle, you will know that its typically a mess !! Again, Mal did a great job with the car wiring and we are now running electronic ignition and a few other mods (electric fuel pump, electric radiator fan) etc to give us the reliability. Tantamount to that is the only issue we had all week on the Targa was a faulty starter motor ! Of course, there were some mod cons installed as we went like the Terratrip computer which is essential for any rally (as we found out – once we all worked out how to drive the damn thing !!!!) as well as an intercom unit.

In regards to the motor, we left it as a standard 2000 cc motor which cost me $750 including a 5 speed gearbox. The old twin cam Fiats are built to last and the only thing we ended up doing to the motor was to replace the flywheel for a lighter one from a later model Fiat 130TC as well as to put a new sump on it. The lighter flywheel means it get up to revs quickly and the revised sump arrangement allowed us to install a sump guard to protect the front of the car.

Along with new sparkies, leads and performance oil, it runs like a charm. We estimate it is producing about 100hp in total (at the flywheel) and we kept it singing along at 6000 RPM for the full 6 days of the rally - it never even missed a beat.

Exhaust is completely standard and we even ran a completely standard single carburetor! In fact the only mods to the fuel system were to put in a race fuel cell and to run an electric fuel pump – other than that, there were no changes.

I still remember first meeting Mal and having him laugh at me as to the amount of time between when we planned to start to when the rally was – it was 10 months Mal !!!! However, its very easy to underestimate the amount of time and money taken to prepare a car like this. Regardless of the time you actually pay for, we estimate approx 1000 hours of additional time has gone into the car to get it complete ( Another thanks to Mal for his free use of the workshop on weekends ). This is not to mention the 2 full spare cars I now own which we ended up taking bits off just to complete one full vehicle – specifically trim pieces are now very hard to find. O, and of course, not to mention the significant dent in the wallet !!

So the result was a very reliable racing machine. It was never going to be the quickest but our hope was that it would get us to the end. It certainly did and since having now completed the rally, I am itching for the next one !!!

From our side, the investment to date has been in the prep of the package – the next steps for us are in a quest for some more horsepower.

We plan to work the motor, let it breath more with twin 45mm carbs, a decent extracted exhaust system. We are also looking for a Mark1 Escort LSD for the backend (if anyone knows where we can get one) as well as some leading arms arrangement to help us further with axle tramp from the leaf springs setup. Other than that, we are good to go for another round !

For more images check out the Targa rally gallery at (car number 230)

Special thanks to:
- Peps
- Mal Simmonds – Dino Enterprises
- Greg Paul
- Maurice Thompson Motors
- Fiat Club Waikato


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