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Monday, January 15, 2018

The Etceterini Files Part 13---Tiny and Essential: the Cars of Carlo Abarth

Considering that most Abarths have been based upon Fiats, it's always been surprising how few one encountered on the road, even during their heyday in the 50s and 60s.  Part of this scarcity may be due to their low production figures, and part to the fact that even the most popular models (the ones that made it into triple-digit production numbers) were more likely to be encountered at road racing venues than on the Interstate highway system or in shopping mall parking lots. Production figures, when available, are estimates at best, and may have been inflated "in period" in order for Abarth to meet the minimum requirements for their cars to be homologated by race authorities as production cars rather than prototypes. 

When modern eyes encounter an Abarth the first reaction usually has to do with scale. This Allemano-bodied Fiat Abarth 850 was driven by its owner from the western suburbs of Chicago to the Concorso Italiano in Monterey, CA in 2012, more than 50 years after it first exited the Abarth factory.  The owner avoided potential overheating issues by doubling up on radiators as well as oil coolers.  One must assume he also ran light on luggage...

The first Abarth cars had been based upon the Cisitalia 202 chassis, with its dry-sump version of the Fiat 1100 engine. At the time of the Cisitalia bankruptcy, in turn prompted by the expensive adventure of the Cisitalia Porsche 360 race car*, Cisitalia chief Piero Dusio paid employee Carlo Abarth in cars before decamping to Argentina.  This had two effects: it gave Abarth's nascent business some rolling stock as a starting proposition, and it established a pattern of  reliance on Fiat engine blocks...

The little firm was founded by the Austrian Italian Abarth and Guido Scagliarini in 1949, the year which also saw the foundation of Porsche. The Cisitalia-derived 204A chassis featured engines based upon the trusty Fiat 1100 engine block, but by 1952, a startling aerodynamic coupe 1500 Biposto appeared based on the Fiat 1400 engine.  The Biposto body was built by Bertone to a design by Franco Scaglione*, and explored some themes to which Scaglione would return in the Alfa Romeo BAT series of aerodynamic show cars. 

Themes included the divided air intake with projecting curved fender forms, a fastback roof form framed by tail fins to channel air flow, and neatly recessed lights front and rear.  The car was purchased for Packard Motor Company by a delegation of that firm's stylists at the 1952 Turin show.

The 1956 introduction of the rear-engined Fiat 600 sedan provided a new platform for Abarth to use as a basis for higher-performance derivatives. These included sedans punched out to 750cc and featuring Abarth's free-flow exhaust systems, as well as special-bodied coupes and roadsters like the two rare Scaglione-styled Bertone efforts shown above. The car that put Abarth on the map in the USA, however, was styled and built by Zagato, and that was the alloy-bodied Fiat Abarth 750 coupe.  The twin humps formed into the roof allowed a modicum of headroom for driver and passenger, while at the same time keeping frontal area to a minimum. These led to the car being nicknamed the Double Bubble.

The bubbles were echoed on the car's engine lid, where they were deftly formed into air intakes at the upper leading edge...

As the 1950s faded into the 60s, Abarth introduced a twin-overhead cam ("Bialbero") variant of of the Fiat 600-based engine block, and this appeared in the 750 and 850 Record Monza, also bodied by Zagato. These cars were raced successfully by the East Coast Distributor for Fiat, Roosevelt Motors, headed up by FDR Jr. The Monzas lacked the trademark double bubble roofline of the earlier Zagato cars, but their spare elegance of form, with the alloy stretched tightly over the cabin and running gear like an eggshell, set the theme for Abarth efforts well into the 1960s. 

Those efforts included a lightweight rebody of the Porsche 356 Carrera, also known as the Carrera GTL. This effort, styled by Franco Scaglione, completed the circle which began with Abarth's work on the Cisitalia Porsche 360 single seater in the late 1940s.  Twenty cars were commissioned, and the while the prototype (shown below) was bodied by Viarengo and Filipponi, the "production" cars were bodied by Rocco Motto.

The Abarth Carrera, like the Fiat Abarths, featured ample venting in the engine lid to enhance cooling...

By 1962 Abarth had concluded an agreement with France's Fiat affiliate, Simca, to offer light alloy-bodied GT coupes based upon the rear-engined Simca 1000 chassis platform. Unlike the Fiat Abarths, the Abarth Simcas featured an all-Abarth twin overhead cam light alloy engine block.  Not even the block design was related to anything from Fiat or Simca. The cars did use Simca gearboxes, however, and this was a weak point on the more powerful versions. This effort put Abarth in direct competition with Porsche, as the cars were offered in 1300, 1600 and 2000 cubic centimeter capacities. The bodywork on the 1964 car shown on the right below was built by Sibona and Bassano, but resembles the Zagato templates of the earlier cars.  Behind it on the left is a Porsche 904 from the same year...

The fiercest version of the Abarth Simca was the 2000, or Due Mila. The Abarth Simca 2000 won the European Mountain Championship in 1963, beating the Porsche 904.  The 1300 version won the World Championship for Makes for Abarth in 1962.

*Footnotes:  See Unsung Genius Franco Scaglione: The Arc of Success, our post for Dec. 20, 2017.  The Cisitalia Porsche adventure is recounted in The Etceterini Files Part Eleven: Cisitalia: Fiats as Fine Art, from April 22, 2017.  For more on the Abarth Carrera, see The Revs Institute Part 3: Porsches by Another Name, from March 25, 2017.

Photo Credits:

Top & 2nd:  the author
3rd:  barchettasportscars.com
4th:  wikimedia
5th:  oldconceptcars.com
6th:  Gruppo Bertone
7th:  Carrozzeria Zagato
8th:  sportscarshop.com
9th:  Carrozzeria Zagato
10th: the author
11thIan Avery De Witt
12th & 13th: the author