Telling Scorpion Tales At The Abarth Historic Track Day
Photography by Rosario Liberti
I remember finding a picture at my grandparents’ house. I also remember the red car in the middle had a very nice shape to it. I was five years old, but with experience enough to tell myself it was not a Ferrari. I asked my grandfather, he knew everything as far as I was concerned, and with the smile of someone keen to share a little wisdom he told me: “Well, Federico, this is an Abarth at Targa Florio.” I of course did not know what an Abarth was, but I was ready to find out.
In our current year, we’ve marked the 70th anniversary of the spring of 1949, when Carlo Abarth founded Abarth & C. along with racing driver Guido Scagliarini. The name is still involved in making automobiles go faster, but the origins are the best part of the story.
Mr. Abarth was born in Vienna in 1908. In 1928, at the age of 20, and still named Karl, he found work as a skilled mechanic for Motor Thun, and was asked to replace a motorbike rider for the occasion of the Austrian Motorcycle Grand Prix. Abarth got the best time twice, ahead of the top riders of the period. During the race, leading it in fact, his bike suddenly failed. Rumors circulated that it had been sabotaged for the simple reason that his opponents viewed Abarth as a talented menace who was not conducive to their plans of winning races.
Abarth won his first race a few weeks later in Salzburg, ascending to a new step in a career that led to him being named European Champion on five occasions, all the while continuing on with his engineering work.
After one of his more serious accidents, Abarth abandoned the dangerous motorcycle racing gig and made a lateral move to work on the design of a sidecar. His project beat the Orient Express in an endurance race in 1934, and he moved to Italy, became a naturalized citizen, and changed his name to Carlo. Five years later he also quit automobile racing after another glimpse of how quickly it could force you to involuntarily cancel plans on doing whatever else you wanted to do with your life. He kept racing cars though, baby steps.
After the the Second World War, Abarth and his family moved to Merano where he started to hang out with Tazio Nuvolari and Ferry Porsche (Abarth had married Anton Piëch’s secretary earlier), who helped him and fellow engineer Rudolf Hruska and sports star turned businessman Piero Dusio establish the company that would become Cisitalia.
They built the unlucky Porsche Typ 360 grand prix car that Dusio had used a lot of personal money to back when it the work was commissioned in 1946. It’s said that part of that chunk of change was sent to France to get Ferdinand back. Whatever the case, Dusio left the company in 1949 in the same year the car was completed. The Porsche 360 project proved too ahead of its time and too tough to build, and its 1.5L mid-mounted supercharged flat-12 engine was not compliant with the sport’s rule change in 1952.
It was a promising car cut short; thanks to its streamlined body for fast circuits the car was said to be quick enough to reach 320km/h. The prototype languished, and at one point it was shipped off to Argentina in try to get the country’s president Juan Perón to invest in the company. Cisitalia was finished, but Carlo used his astrological sign as a company logo, the scorpion, and started Abarth & C. in Bologna. They soon took it all to Turin, which was the defacto capital of Italy’s auto industry.
Carlo had five 204 sports cars left over from Cisitalia’s liquidation, plus a D46 single-seater and a big box of spare parts. The 204s were immediately rebranded Abarth 204 As. His friend Nuvolari made his last appearance as a race car driver at the wheel of one of these, winning the car’s class in the Palermo-Monte Pellegrino Hillclimb on April 10th, 1950. In addition to the production of racing cars, the Abarth company’s main moneymaking activity carried on producing and selling accessories and performance parts for road cars, mostly for Fiat and Lancia models.
In 1952, Abarth began its famous relationship with Fiat officially: the first car created by this partnership was the 1500, a two-seater with three front lights. In 1955, they built what most know them by today when they took a Fiat 600 into the garage and wheeled out an Abarth 750 GT. The car was short, sprightly, generally very light and terribly fast. It was a giant killer that raced extensively, setting records from Monza to the Mille Miglia.
They tweaked the formula to fit the Fiat 500, and found that the Abarth 500 made for a quick and reliable car that could be used on the road on a regular basis. It brought them commercial success where the hotter 750 GT had earned it in racing. The Abarth company had 20 employees at the start of this, and in a few months’ time they swell to count around 160.
Civilian customers and racing drivers are happy with the little Fiats turned into firecrackers, and output grows further with the 595, the 595 SS, the 695, and the 695 SS, the last one being capable of almost 90mph and weighing less than a 1,000lbs. Then there were the Abarth 850 TC, TC Nürburgring, and TC/SS, which were built from Fiat 600s sold to Abarth from the factory without brakes, exhausts, crankshafts, or carburetors. Carlo’s team would start adding the parts and tuning them into into 850cc road going go-karts.
In 1960, the company’s 1000 Coupé Bialbero “La Principessa” obtained several speed records. Indeed in the 1960s Abarth cars were successfully racing all over the continent: among them the Abarth 1000 SP Barchetta, SE 08, 1300 OT “Periscopio,” and the 1600 OT Spider. Typically painted red, always simple, light, fast, and outrageously lively Italian cars were more than just fun things to look at. This was a time when aerodynamics were still far from the near-uniformity we’re used to today, and the funky Abarth racing cars were typically seen at the front half of their diverse category.
In 1966, Mister Abarth spent what amounted to more or less all of his money to undertake a 6.0L 120° V12 engine project. The idea was to power a new line of prototype cars that could be raced against Ford GT40s at endurance events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Iin 1967 though, engines with a capacity larger than 3.0L were no longer allowed, and the Abarth T140 6000 was never able to fulfill its purpose. Today a great example of that beast, built on the original project, has been making the rounds at classic cars events around Europe. It was in the entry list at this year’s Abarth Historic Track day, which is illustrating this article.
This focused one-make event was probably the best way to understand just how different this monster was compared to the previous Abarth projects: tiny but spicy high-revving engines based on production cars to a custom six-liter giant lump with three times the normal cylinder count in a car meant to be hurled down massive straightaways without running out of gear ratio.
The stillborn T140 didn’t stop Abarth from producing its bread and butter, and in 1969 the Autobianchi Abarth A112 was released, quickly becoming the biggest single sales success for the company. It was produced until 1985. Meanwhile, in 1971, longtime base car supplier Fiat bought the Abarth brand. The Fiat 124 Abarth Rally and the Ritmo Abarth were the notable results of that era, along with the 131 Abarth Rally Group 4 machine driven by Walter Röhrl, who used it to win the WRC in 1980. Carlo Abarth and passed away a year earlier.
His love for sports cars and the sport of racing can be translated into numbers better than most: Abarth cars have more than 10,000 wins on the track, all along the local to global scale. A long string of successes in motorsport were used to develop important technological solutions, that, after being tested under the toughest conditions in racing, were later transferred into the cars that the fans could drive. A tuning company, a racing outfit, Abarth was a lot of things that were all separated by very thin lines.