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Turin, 12 April 2024
Heritage pays tribute to the history of Abarth with two special projects
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17th November 2023
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Fiat Campagnola

Algiers-Cape Town and back: a record that has never been broken

In the early post-War period, a military commission led to the creation of a versatile vehicle suitable for the widest variety of uses, enabling Fiat to widen its offering, and also cater for rural requirements. Fiat Campagnola became an icon of the post-War reconstruction, suitable for the widest range of different civil and military uses.

Once the Second World War was over, the American Allies left many of the means of transport they had used in the national liberation campaign to the Italian Army. In addition to trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles, they also left their versatile Willys Jeeps: a cross between a hardy working vehicle and an agile compact car, capable of taking impervious routes in its stride and undergoing intensive use in the worst conditions, also thanks to its four-wheel drive.

In the early fifties, the Italian Ministry of Defence launched a call for tenders to appoint a supplier of vehicles inspired by those off-roaders, with the aim of creating the “Autoveicolo da Ricognizione” (hence the military initials AR), or Reconnaissance Vehicle, for the army. In 1951, the two major Italian manufacturers, Fiat and Alfa Romeo, submitted their proposals. The Fiat “AR51”, designed by Dante Giacosa, was chosen by the heads of the army over its competitor, Alfa Romeo 1900 M, mainly due to its lower maintenance costs.

From the design of the prototype on, Fiat’s vision was of building a vehicle that could easily tackle the bumpy - and largely unsurfaced roads - of the Italian peninsula, and that not only met the requirements of the army chiefs, but also those of the agricultural world: a working environment that had always existed in Italy and which, with the rebirth of the post-War period, was increasingly beginning to play a key role in the national economy. For this reason, the name of the new four-wheel drive vehicle, which was originally supposed to have been “Alpina” (a tribute to the exceptional climbing abilities of the AR 51), became “Campagnola”.

The Fiat Campagnola AR51 designed by Giacosa’s team was built around the 1900 cc petrol engine fitted on the sedans 1400/1900, depowered to 53 HP to make it stronger and more reliable. The vehicle architecture was conventional, featuring a chassis with longitudinal and traverse members, leaf springs at the rear and modern, independent suspension at the front end.

The sophisticated and effective powertrain consisted of a 4-speed transmission with reducer, and it was usually rear-wheel drive, with the possibility of sending part of the torque to the front wheels, when the low-range gears were engaged. To optimise the traction in the toughest conditions, the differentials could be locked on the two axles. A range of different wheelbase and passenger compartment configurations was available, making the detailed offering even easier to adapt to suit different requirements.

In 1953, the 1900 petrol engine was joined by a diesel unit, which was less powerful but with a particularly low fuel consumption. In addition to the diesel engine, in the early years the Campagnola underwent various technical updates that were incorporated into the new military model named AR59.
The production of the vehicle continued for over twenty-two years, benefiting from regular evolutions, and over forty thousand vehicles were manufactured.

In 1974, instead, Fiat presented the Nuova Campagnola. It was a completely redesigned vehicle, a true revolution for the time: the conventional chassis with longitudinal and traverse members was abandoned, and replaced by a modern body chassis reinforced by two longitudinal members welded to the monocoque. There was a choice of two engines: a 2-litre petrol engine - derived from the engine of the Fiat 131 - and a 2500 diesel version, available from 1979. This revolutionary Campagnola, which remained in production until 1987, was the basis for the AR76 military version.

In addition to being used for rural purposes and military supplies, many Campagnolas were purchased by the companies operating in the territory, in particular Enel. Following the nationalisation of the electricity industry in the 1960s, it put its trust in the talents of the 4x4 made in Turin to perform the complex maintenance of one of the most modern electricity grids in the world.  A Nuova Campagnola, donated by Fiat to the Holy See in 1980 and scrupulously painted white, was also used as a popemobile for almost thirty years, at the service of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

4 in line Otto cycle, overhead valves, front longitudinal 1901 cm³
52 HP @ 3700 rpm
100 km/h
Dante Giacosa FIAT
4x4 body on frame car

In 1952, the Campagnola achieved one of the most legendary exploits in post-war motoring, travelling the length of Africa, from south to north, in 11 days, 4 hours and 54' 45". An epic adventure, due to both the adverse conditions of the vast, varied expanse of Africa they had to cross, and their isolation during the harshest sections of the route.

In autumn 1951, to promote the newly launched Campagnola, the Fiat management decided to attempt to break the record for driving from Cape Town to Algiers, travelling the whole length of Africa, from south to north, in the shortest possible time. The chosen team members were driver Paolo Butti, who had acquired plenty of experience in previous African rallies, supported by a Fiat test driver who knew the Campagnola inside-out. This was Domenico Racca, who had worked on the development of the military prototype.

Two vehicles were prepared, starting with the long wheelbase version, with special closed body, equipped with a strong roof rack, two auxiliary headlamps on the mudguards, folding travel bunk, mesh document pockets, extra water and oil thermometers, petrol cans firmly attached to the bodywork, spade, pickaxe and various mechanical spare parts including an internal leaf spring attached to the front bumper. FIAT la “Campagnola” read the writing on the door, with “Algiers – Cape Town and back” (in Italian and French) along the sides.

In the outward journey, the crew was joined by film-maker Aldo Pennelli from Istituto Luce - tasked with filming the adventure - and Maria Pia Butti, the driver’s wife. The vehicle that made the journey from north to south was equipped with a trailer to carry all the equipment, especially the film-making gear. During the harsh crossing, the crew sent telegraphs with instructions for all the changes to be made to the twin Campagnola to be used in the return trip. The magazine Auto Italiana dedicated its entire front page to the first success of the adventure: in fact, as early as in the outward journey, the Campagnola broke the record for the fastest Sahara crossing by a vehicle with trailer in tow: 3,800 km of desert in less than seven days.

Butti and Racca left Cape Town for Algiers on the morning of 21 January 1952. A book would not be enough to fully describe the historical enterprise, marked by insurmountable problems caused by the awful conditions of the route. All of a sudden, heavy rains quickly turned small streams, but also the dry dips of the desert known as wadi, into actual rivers, impossible to cross.

What's more, in many parts of Africa night driving was forbidden - this is still the case today - and this was another obstacle to the attempt at the record. Having even overcome the snow on the peaks of the Small Atlas mountains, the Campagnola finally reached its destination on 1 February 1952. An official timekeeper of the French Automobile Club was there waiting to record its time, surrounded by a huge crowd. It had completed the trip in a time of 11 days, 4 hours 54' 45”, taking an impressive two and a half days off the previous record. The length of the route calculated on the maps is 14,193 km but the odometer on the Campagnola indicated that it had travelled 15,256. To date, the record for travelling this route set by Butti and Racca has never been broken.

The glorious Fiat Campagnola, protagonist of the epic African adventure is proudly displayed in the Heritage HUB in Turin in the “Epic Journeys” section, exhibiting proof, even today, of the soundness and strength of a vehicle whose glorious feat will forever remain imprinted in the history of motoring.

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