CLEMENTE EUROPEAN MOTORS' FIAT 124 COUPE B-SEDAN CHAMPION
Written by Joey (Giuseppe) Clemente
"One to kill 'em all"... Without a doubt, the one car most readily associated with our racing history and success was our B-Sedan 124 Coupe. There was nothing really special about this car on paper and it certainly didn't look the part but it was freakishly fast and a winner from day one. Throughout it's career it notched up four consecutive Regional B-Sedan Championships, including CASC and ICSCC. On points alone, it would have clinched an SCCA National title but the trip to Road Atlanta was just a bit too far at the time. It held numerous lap records at Westwood and also competed in the original Trans-Am 2.5 Challenge with appearances at Portland and Riverside. Significantly, the success of this car was the fruit of a wonderful collaboration. My father Frank and older brother Gio did much of the preparation work but it was in the hands of our driver Norm Matovich that this simple little Coupe conquered all. Fittingly, this history has been dedicated to his memory.
Building a 124 Coupe was a natural and logical choice of race car. It was a new car and better in every way. It also had numerous technical advantages over many of its contemporary competitors. I'm going to start here with my traditional dig on Datsuns; this car was better than its class rival the Datsun 510 in every possible way. As for the other types in its class, well, with a twin overhead cam motor, five speed tranny, four wheel servo assisted disc brakes, wishbone front and multi link rear suspension all standard equipment, the car was well ahead of its time and most of its rivals. In fairness, a good street car does not automatically make a good racecar but at least this one provided an excellent platform.
This particular platform received all the requisite upgrades necessary to render it race ready but it was not a big budget operation. Although my father was a former Fiat dealer his racing cars were funded entirely out of his own pocket and his means were truly modest. Fiat never put a cent into this car much less any other grassroots competitor which is a shame. In truth, prior to building this car my father had a parting of ways with the Fiat and tore up his contract because of the company's narrow minded internal politics. That's another story altogether but ironically the on-track success of this one car helped him sell more Fiat cars, parts and service than he did during all his time as a dealer. It was the early 70s and it was arguably a time when sedan racing was at the height of its popularity in North America. Success on the track was often closely tied with sales on the street. And so you saw your Coopers and BMWs and Datsuns and Alfa Romeos... and Fiats.
In the first phase of the Coupe's development the car featured a 1438 with basic bolt on equipment and the modifications all compliant to B-Sedan specs. On its first outing the car won outright, a real testament to how good a car the 124 Coupe could be.
It soon became apparent that the 1438, as good a little motor as it was, could not long cope with the type of competition it would face in B-Sedan. It just so happened that Fiat produced a new motor at the time, the sweet little 1608. This motor would be a key ingredient in the car's future success. More on that shortly.
The images above were taken at Victoria. Significantly, this was a time when Vancouver Island actually had a "race track" and not just a ridiculous paved oval in a parking lot you see today. Gone are those days man... Anyway, as you can see the Coupe mixed it up with an interesting array of small sedans, and it won, first time on the track.
It would be completely wrong to lay the laurels just on the car itself. The history of Frank Clemente's championship winning 124 Coupe is also and very significantly the history of Norm Matovich. Norm simply made our car famous. He could pretty much drive anything on wheels and his success with our Applebox 124 was indicative of this. But where winning in the Applebox was a matter of will and driving the car by the scruff of the neck, with the Coupe it was a function of perfect symbiosis. Certainly the car provided Norm with a much better platform from which to demonstrate his remarkable driving abilities but to see him in action with this car, as my dad puts it, really seemed as if Norm was wired to it. He could not lose. Importantly, there were other guys racing 124 Coupes at the time but I can tell you with unmitigated confidence and from the benefit of actual history, that none of them even came close to matching this combination. I'll give a couple of examples later on.
I still love listening to my dad recount those glory days and I believe he loves talking about them just as much. I was fortunate enough to catch up with Norm in late 2003 when I wanted to try to find out more about this car from another perspective. Growing up I had heard so much about him and the car and I would hang on every word and detail recounted by my dad. So ultimately I felt compelled to try to reconnect. When I finally managed to do so it was a real treat to converse with Norm and hear the stories he had to tell. It was a fabulous history lesson; one I shall never forget.
As I mentioned earlier, the car started off with a 1438 but being competitors, my dad and Norm were always looking for an edge. So very early on, the car received a transplant; they swapped the 1438 for a super high revving 1608. Now the car became a fire breathing dragon. The bolt-on equipment included 40mm Weber IDFs with larger chokes, Breda racing cams which measured over 11mm of lift and 300 degrees duration, Asso 11:1 pistons, and Conti racing headers. Incidentally, these headers were probably the best ever made for a Fiat twin cam. Regrettably, Conti equipment is no longer available. The valve diameters were standard but the backs, seats and throats were carefully machined for better flow along with the intake ports. The rotating assembly was thoroughly lightened and balanced from front pulley to flywheel. There were a few other tricks that my dad did on the motor but he would prefer not to give out too much information. In any case, whatever it was that he did, it really worked well because on racing fuel that little 1608 put out over 170 hp. Unless you were talking about the factory Datsun and Alfa teams, this kind of grunt out of a little motor was unheard of back then.
As for gearing, the stock 124 tranny and rear end were all they had. Better equipment than that was just not available at the time but norm's driving more than made up for that deficiency. The brakes were also stock with the exception of Ferodo racing pads. They were very good pads even by todays standards and Norm made the most of them. Actually, his two major strengths were driving in the rain and his ability to outbreak almost any car on the track.
Have a closer look at this picture on the right. Notice the hood line? The hood (that would be the bonnet for all you Aussies and Brits) isn't closed properly. That's because the clearance between the carbs and the bottom of the hood is insufficient on AC Coupes. So if one wanted to run carbs, one would either have to use DCOEs or, for IDFs, modify the hood by cutting it open, or propping it as shown here. My dad had his own solution to this problem.
Here it is...
A 124 BC Coupe yeah? Just get a newer Coupe right?
Not quite. Here's another picture from a different angle...
My apologies for the small size but if you look closely at the back of the car you should still be able to see...what's wrong with this picture?
Tail lights... that's right. The back end does not match the front end. Those are AC Coupe tail lights on the back of this BC Coupe. Surprize, surprize... it's not a BC Coupe. It's the same car we started out with. Using another, newer Coupe altogether might have just made sense but really, that AC was already perfectly sorted with the exception of the carb clearance issue. So instead of cutting up the AC hood or building a new car and starting everything all over again, my dad just pulled the AC front end off and mounted a set of BC fenders, facia and hood. This was now the definitive look, the mechante gueule that made my dad's killer 124 instantly recognizable. And with Norm behind the wheel, the car's development was steady and of enormous value. Norm and my father made this car the one to watch and the one to beat on the West coast and arguably in all of Canada.
At Westwood, this car didn't beat its competitors, it hammered them. The first shot shows typical Norm Matovich style; hard out of the hairpin to start the uphill section with a swank little tail drift. The second picture shows the car under full power at the start of Westwood's esses which were taken flat out. For those familiar with the track, this car hit fifth gear on the climb just at the start/finish overpass. As for lap times, Norm did 1:18 at Westwood in 71-72. Simply unheard of. And let's put that lap time into perspective; by 1990 the fastest and most expensive balls-out full tubeframe GT-3 cars in SCCA were just under 1:14 on that same track...
Thumbs up, waving hands, checkered flag, victory. The event was the Datsun Trophy races, forty car field, sponsored by Datsun dealers, and a Fiat 124 takes home their trophy. It was just the kind of slap in the face those cocky Datsun 510 guys deserved, he-he!
Another shot of our unbeatable 124 Coupe rounding the hairpin at Westwood under yellow, circa May 1972. The symbiosis and success of Franco Clemente's 124 with Norm Matovich at the wheel was unmatched.
Big fish in a small pond? No, I would never brag or kid anyone about how good this car was. Here is a sequence taken at Portland International raceway in 1972. The event was the Trans-am 2.5 Challenge. Now the car was put up against the best B-Sedan competitors on the continent so this would be a major proving ground. The parked car in the picture on the right is the BMW 2002 of another great B-Sedan competitor, Loren St. Lawrence. At Westwood he always came up short against Norm. Here at PIR, his Bimmer had more legs and could outdrag the 124 down the long straight. Unfortunately, as the image demonstrates, it was of no consequence.
In this race, our Coupe only qualified 24th out of 25 cars but typical of Norm, he picked cars off one by one durng the race and got up as high as fifth overall for most of the way. Not bad considering the front runners were Wetson Alfa Romeos, and even more significantly, factory backed BRE Datsun 510s. BRE in particular was a team that had the best of everything down to the smallest fastener. A side note, neither our Fiat nor any Alfa team had any kind of factory support in the Two-Five series. The BRE Datsuns also enjoyed a weight advantage thanks to the rule makers. Think the manufacturer would not have had a hand in that? Think again. That BRE had so much success basically against privateers should, at the very least, have been expected. I believe that had either Fiat or Alfa Romeo put even half as much factory support into their competitors' efforts, the history of the Two-Five would be very much different. Notwithstanding the limited resources, according to Norm, the sight of this underdog 124 from "arctic" Canada running right up with these big name teams really ruffled some feathers. Unfortunately Norm picked up some shrapnel from the exploded crankcase of a lapped car which caused a puncture. The Coupe limped home in eleventh place. That same year, Norm also brought the car down to compete in the 2.5 at Riverside in California. This time Norm qualified the Coupe 17th out of 32 cars and again ran up into the top five and again as if from some freak déjà vu, the car suffered another puncture, this time in the right rear. The culprit this time was a broken connecting rod that was launched through the block of Bobby Allison's BRE Datsun 510 on lap 11. The puncture caused Norm to spin off the track. Promptly, he put it in gear and wrestled the Coupe back to the pits gathering cheers and applause from onlookers. I'm told it was quite the show. End result, again just missed a top ten finish. Thirteenth overall. Point made though. By the way, here is a little document I thought I might add to substantiate these claims for the sake of all you sceptics out there. 1972 Portland 2.5
Here's another table: 1972 Riverside 2.5
By far, the best race Norm ever had in this car was the Canadian National B-Sedan championship event at Westwood in 1972. It would have been Canada's B-Sedan equivalent to the SCCA Runoffs, but strictly for the one class. There were cars from as far east as Quebec and the entry list was so big that the main event was run in two 30 minute heats. I am told there were over 60 cars just for the B-Sedan event. Also competing at that event was a highly touted Fiat 124 Coupe from Toronto driven by a certain Giorgio Comachio. This guy was supposedly the best from the east, here to show all these lumberjacks on the west coast how it's done. Backed by Fiat dealers, Comachio's car had the best of everything and with it, he won lots of races at Mosport. Being from Toronto, naturally he would have felt his was the only B-Sedan Fiat of any relevance in Canada and so the expectation was one of an easy victory. He faced a few challenges though: First, as he really had no idea of what our 124 had already accomplished, he foolishly dismissed it as any kind of a possible threat; didn't even give it a second look. Secondly, he wasn't at Mosport anymore.
This was and anyone who remembers Westwood knows that its combination of tight and fast corners, banking, crests and elevation changes made it second to none as a technically challenging circuit. So being a hotshoe at Mosport or Edmonton or Mont Tremblant or Shannonville meant absolutely nothing when one came out here for the first time. To make matters worse, Comachio's best-of-everything Coupe came to Westwood rather ironically unprepared. The problem was that he did not have adequate brakes to survive even a couple of laps. all he had on the car were stock pads. This fact alone raised a few questions about the team's credibilty but as my dad was a good sport, he graciously offered up a free set of good Ferodo racing pads. After all, it was another Fiat on the track and that was a good thing in his eyes. He genuinely wanted to help a fellow Fiat driver even if he was the competition.
First heat, Norm qualifies on the pole, checks out at the green flag and wins with little fuss. Second heat, now it's raining. Typical Westwood weather but it mattered little as Norm loved the rain. He was on pole again, Comachio's 124 well back in the pack. At the green flag a dice for the lead had Norm going three wide into Westwood's turn 3 with St' Lawrence's BMW and a Datsun 510. Not wanting to give an inch, Norm overcooked it and spun dropping him from first to dead last on the very first lap. He lost a total of 90 seconds from the moment of the spin to when he was finally able to get out of the mud and back on course. Once on track though, he picked off car after car in what was quite possibly the best display of driving ever seen on that track. With each successive lap the corner workers at the hairpin and turn 2 would shake their heads in disbelief at the depth with which Norm was outbreaking other cars. He literally ran a clinic on the field that day. At the checkered flag he ended up third, a mere two seconds off the two leaders. As Norm reflected later; "I just wanted to have one more lap with those two..." What about that bad-ass 124 Coupe from Toronto? Well, he was lapped...twice.
Norm's explanation for the spin was that he was really pissed off after being protested by Comachio at the end of the first heat. That's right, Comachio protested. It was petty to say the least. Nobody could believe he would do that after being helped out with his brake issues. Needless to say there were a few expletives hurled about that afternoon. Getting protested was nothing new actually. Our Coupe's speed and success also made it a target. The sad thing about this little affair was not that Norm lost the race, it was that after careful scrutiny ( and kudos to them for being officious) the inspectors concluded that my dad's car had no possible technical advantage over Comachio's Fiat. Very poor form indeed.
Franco Clemente next to his Champion Coupe. My dad tells me he had a little ritual with this car. With every race Norm won, he would crack open a bottle of fine scotch in celebration. Each of them would have a little drink to toast their win and the car would get one too. Dad would pour a shot down the barrels of each carb, fire it up and let her snort it down. It was magic! Oh and uh, the car preferred Highland single malt...
Seeing double! Not at all, This is a recently found photo, circa 1973, when my brother Gio got started as a novice. He's seen here rounding the Westwood hairpin in our second 124 Coupe (I had no idea about this one) followed by Norm Matovich.
That's me, little Joe standing next to my favorite car. This picture was taken around 1975. Same 124 Coupe, just a different color scheme. Italian's just love to fly the flag don't they? As proud as I am of my Italian heritage, this is just about the last color scheme I would personally ever choose for my own race car. By this time the Coupe was fully developped and it had a few new features including a front spoiler, improved suspension and better brakes.
The spoiler was questionable for B-Sedan but it worked in ICSCC (International Conference of Sports Car Clubs) in B Improved Sedan. Conference also saw the car running an 1800 though both my dad and brother admit the 1608 was the better engine.
My brother Gio was also driving the car now and he too had a pretty successful time with the car. Eventually though, Gio moved to a 2 liter Alfa Romeo GTV as it was considered to be the better performer. The car did prove competitive but it never matched the pace and success of this little 124. My one regret is that I was not old enough to have driven this car myself.
On the left, Gio spitting out another 510. On the right, sharing the front row with Georges Boucher's Renault. These two cars had some great battles. The 124 was generally the better of the two cars but they were often pretty tight. This image also gives another nice perspective of the beautiful mountain setting that Westwood provided its racers. Here, the cars are coming down the back straight on the pace lap cresting Deer's leap in the background and descending towards the hairpin. Big grids, beautiful track. That was the magic of Westwood. We miss it.
The official event programme was a great publication. It was more of a racer's magazine that it was a race programme. Lots of cool info, tech talk, classifieds and great pictures like this one.