The Manufacturers A – Z
By David Cavaliere
I would like to introduce our readers to a new feature within The Italian Tribune. Many readers know and appreciate the glamorous automobiles of Italy – Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Alfa Romero. For more than a century Italy has produced some fantastic cars and many lesser known vehicles produced by short-lived auto companies. There have been close to 70 auto makers over the years and it is my pleasure to bring you the history of these makes. I hope the passion that I have for these cars will both inform and entertain you.
Italian cars are unlike the cars produced anywhere else. Whether it is a Fiat or an Alfa Romeo, a Lancia or a Lamborghini, Italian cars have a way of forcing their personalities upon you. The relationship between man and car, or woman and car has been compared to a love affair. There are aspects of the relationship that leave you breathless and other features that try your patience. In the end, you yield to the persuasive nature of the car, and the love affair continues…
Recently I was driving home on Route 80 and whoosh, an Abarth Fiat 500 passed me by, then a second and a third. It was a small convoy of these automobiles and I do mean small. The Fiat 500 Abarth is the performance version of this tiny car, producing 160 horsepower. The cars flew by me and I had to smile. The cars are cute, quick and responsive, but how many of you realize that Abarth as an auto manufacturer had been founded in 1949 by Carlo Abarth? In this series covering the auto manufacturers of Italy from A-Z, Abarth is the first one to discuss.
Karl (later Carlo) Abarth was born in Austria in 1908. He was a 3-time motorcycle racing champion during the 1930’s. Abarth fled to Italy during WWII and his career as an automotive tuner, designer and manufacturer took off in 1947 when he became the sporting director of a racing team called Cisitalia – a name from the past that will be covered in another feature. The Cisitalia factory racing team had a short existence, but in addition to their grand prix car, the company also produced a gorgeous coupe called the 202. When the company’s financial fortunes plummeted in 1948, Carlo obtained funding from Armando Scagliarini, and took over Cisitalia’s assets in early 1949. On March 31 of that year he founded Abarth & Co. Carlo selected a stylized scorpion for the car’s logo, using a red and yellow backing for the badge (he was a Scorpio). From the Cisitalia liquidation, he acquired five cars and rebuilt them as racing sports cars. Alongside its racing cars, the company soon expanded into the production and selling of accessories and performance parts. For a number of years thereafter, this became the primary source of revenue for Abarth.
In 1951, Abarth commissioned one of Italy’s leading automotive design studios and body builders, Alfredo Vignale to complete a luxurious coupe body for the 204. He also designed and installed a fully appointed interior. The racing engine of the 204 was detuned, to make it more tractable and reliable for use on the roads. This was presented with great acclaim at the Turin Show. Abarth called the car the 205 A. It had a small four cylinder engine of only 1089 cc’s and produced 65 HP in street form (rather than the 75 HP of the high strung racing motor). Unfortunately, only three of these beautiful machines were built. Although the last 205 A to come up for sale was a few years ago, it fetched more than $500,000 at auction.
The success of the automotive accessories and performance parts business allowed Abarth to relocate to Turin in 1951. The following year Carlo began a long association with Fiat, the company that would ultimately purchase the small specialty firm. The first car prepared for Fiat was the Abarth 1500 Biposto. The body was designed by Franco Scaglione, who worked for Bertone and hand built by Abarth & Co. It used a Fiat platform with an inline four cylinder engine. This was an experimental coupe and was displayed at the 1952 Turin Motor Show. The car was dazzling. It attracted the attention of one of the executives from Packard, which, at the time, was still a revered automotive manufacturer. Packard bought the 1500 Biposto and brought it to South Bend, Indiana. The car was used for design inspiration by the Packard body studio.
The first great success in car production came with the Abarth 500 and 595 derivatives of the 500. The Fiat 500 (Cinquecento), was one of the all-time great micro cars and the first city car. It was produced between 1957 and 1975. Measuring just under 10 feet long, it was originally powered by a 500 cc engine (497 cc’s in reality).
The performance model of the car had a larger engine tuned by Abarth, who also revised the suspension and a body by Zagato. The model was called the Fiat 500 Elaborata Abarth Carozzeria Zagato. This light weight body of the car allowed its curb weight to be only 1,025 lbs!
The 595 arrived in 1960, the model with also a 2-door car and was powered by an uprated (2-cylinder) 38 hp engine. Not the fastest car on the road, the 595 would accelerate from 0-60 mph in 17.8 sec, but it handled nicely and accommodated four people. In this case, the car was a relative heavyweight at 1,260 lbs.
Abarth also had a significant presence in the setting of closed circuit speed records. Using Fiat platforms, between 1956 and 1966, Abarth built eleven separate cars. The factory used these cars to set 113 international speed records (all conducted on the famous Monza circuit, outside Milan). Six of cars were “streamliners” built to set medium and long distance records.
Carlo sold Abarth to Fiat on 31 July 1971. Through the 70’s and into the 80’s, Abarth was used by Fiat for the tuning and preparation of rally cars produced by the conglomerate. This included models primarily under the Lancia brand (owned by Fiat). The Abarth Lancia’s won the World Sports Car Championship in 1980 and 1981. In 1983, it captured the World Manufacturers' Championship. Some models built by Fiat and its Lancia and Autobianchi subsidiaries were co-branded Abarth. This included the popular Autobianchi A112 Abarth, a lightweight and inexpensive performance car. The Autobianchi A112 was what was termed a “supermini." It was developed using a shortened platform of the Fiat 128. The most interesting version was the A112 Abarth. It was introduced in September 1971 and became much admired by young performance enthusiasts.
In the 1980s Abarth name was mainly used to denote performance cars, including the Fiat Ritmo Abarth 125/130 TC.
On 1 February 2007 Abarth was re-established as an independent unit, although wholly owned by Fiat, with the launch of the current company, Abarth & C. S.p.a. The first models launched were the Abarth Grande Punto and the Abarth Grande Punto S2000.
The Abarth 500 is a performance model of the Fiat 500 made by Abarth & C. In the U.S. the 4 cylinder engine is only 1.4 liters and is turbocharged to produce 160 HP and will reach 60 mph in less than 8 seconds (the quickest production models can reach the speed in 6.7 seconds). It is available with a host of different performance and customization options and has proudly continued the tradition of big performance in a small car that Abarth has become so rightly famous for.