Fiat cars with "40 years ethanol-fueled" logo

The ethanol-fueled Fiat 147: birth and development

The world's first ethanol-fueled car was launched 40 years ago, but the project was born well before that

July 12, 2019 - The history of the world's first ethanol-fueled car – pioneered by Fiat in July 1979 – dates back to 1976, when the research and development for the ethanol-fueled Fiat 147 began – not coincidentally, the same year that the 147 powered by gasoline was launched in Brazil. "We were living in the era of Pro-Alcohol, a national program to combat the oil crisis", recalls Francisco Satkunas, advisor to SAE Brasil (The Society for Mobility Engineers). "So, all automakers wanted to be the first to launch a 100% ethanol-fueled car."

Still in 1976, in its first participation in the São Paulo Motor Show, Fiat exhibited a prototype of the 147 for ethanol with tens of thousands of kilometers on its back. It drew as much public attention as the newly launched street model. The following year was dedicated to the technical improvement of the product, as well as the construction of new units that underwent various tests.

In 1978, Fiat developed the 1.3 engine 62 horsepower and 11.5 kgfm (kilogram force meter) of torque which, during tests, proved to be more suitable for the use of ethanol than the 1,050 cylinder capacity of the gasoline engine. At the beginning of that year, three Fiat 147s for alcohol were delivered to the DNER (National Roads and Traffic Department) to be tested for policing the Rio-Niterói Bridge. In September 1978, a Fiat 147 100% ethanol-fueled performed what would prove to be the definitive test for the creation of the first Brazilian ethanol engine: a 12-day and a 6,800-kilometer journey through the country, averaging more than 500 km daily, 3000 kilometers on dirt roads and climatic variations of more than 30 degrees Celsius.

Among the differentials, the compression rate of the 1.3 engine was quite high, from 7.5: 1 in the petrol version to 11.2: 1, and the carburetion started to work with a much richer air-fuel mixture (with a higher percentage of fuel). That was the reason for its higher consumption – 30% higher.

Fiat 147 engine

"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.

Fiat 147 models

For Renato Romio, the Fiat 147 has great importance for the history of ethanol-fueled cars in Brazil for its participation in what he considers the "three phases of ethanol vehicles in the country". "The first phase was simply to make the engines run on such fuel. In the second, the goal was to make them work properly. Finally, to make the propellants less polluting and more economical."

Words: Leandro Alvares

Pictures: Marketing

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