"The engine had slightly more power than its gasoline counterpart, due to the need to contain its consumption: 62 gross horsepower versus 61. On the other hand, the higher compression rate not only favored torque but also the pickups and accelerations at a low or medium rotation. But the number that really mattered was the cost per kilometer, which was less than half compared to the gasoline version and fuel prices of the time", says Cotta.
The huge consumer interest in the Fiat 147 powered by ethanol is confirmed by the sales figures. From 1979 to 1987, when it was produced in Brazil, 120,516 units were sold. "It was a revolution in the direction of the energy matrix, because it didn’t exist anywhere else in the world" according to Renato Romio, head of the engines and vehicles division of the Mauá Institute of Technology. "In addition, the car's cost-effectiveness with the new fuel was very good because the price of ethanol was practically 50% lower than that of gasoline and the performance of the vehicle with alcohol was also better. No wonder ethanol cars started to emerge as leaders in sales in the country."
Challenges of a new technology
The development of the ethanol engine was not a simple task and many technical challenges were solved along the way, as Renato Romio recalls. "Manufacturers had to develop important solutions, such as a special protection treatment for the carburetors, plastics and more resistant materials for the valves, in short, the characteristics of the engine had to be changed so it wouldn’t breakdown."
FCA Product Engineering Supervisor Ronaldo Ávila, who worked in the chemical laboratory of the automaker in the 1980s, closely followed the constant improvements on the ethanol-fueled 147. "My team analyzed the engine parts. It was a very big challenge: at first there was oxidation. In order for it to work with ethanol, the entire fuel system [fuel tank, pump, piping, carburetor, etc.] had to be more robust to withstand the extremely corrosive fuel", he says.
After many tests, Fiat engineers found a solution to protect the parts of the motor by using chemical nickel. "This metal creates a layer of protection in the components, inhibiting the actions of ethanol", Avila explains. Another provision was the installation of an aluminized exhaust system.
As a pioneer among ethanol cars, the Fiat 147 was also the first to face some of the fuel’s characteristics challenges, such as its low calorific value over gasoline. In practice, this meant having to face the infamous problem of starting the engine on cold days. "To solve this problem, engineers installed the cold start tank. A button on the dashboard triggered a pump, just like with windshield washers, injecting into the intake manifold enough gasoline to start the engine at low temperatures", Cotta says.