Abarth still has sting in its scorpion tail

Fiat's 500 Abarth has abilities far beyond its cutesy exterior. Photo / Supplied
Fiat's 500 Abarth has abilities far beyond its cutesy exterior. Photo / Supplied

As Maserati launches its version of the Abarth and the latest Fiat 500 version reaches Australasia, Driven looks at the man behind the legendary badge.

Born in Austria in 1908, Karl Abarth's story did not begin with cars, but with motorcycles. When he was 20 he won his first races on a Thun motorcycle, and the following year he built his first motorcycle with the Abarth trademark.

Unfortunately, a serious accident during a race in Linz forced him to abandon motorcycle racing. However, he did not lose the desire to push himself to his limits, and he continued to race in sidecars, a vehicle he made popular through exploits such as racing against the Orient Express train (won by Abarth, of course).

A second serious accident in 1939 forced him to abandon racing altogether.

At this time Abarth's second life, and the real legend, began. In 1945 he moved to Merano and became Carlo Abarth, an Italian citizen.

In 1949, after working for Cisitalia, he founded Abarth & Company. The first car produced was a 204 A Roadster, derived from a Fiat 1100, which immediately won the Italian 1100 Sport Championship and the Formula 2 title.

At the same time, Abarth had the brilliant idea of combining racing activities with products for the mass market, and he began to build conversion kits for standard production cars, which increased their power, top speed and acceleration. Important elements in the kits were the exhaust silencers which, over the years, became veritable icons of the "Abarth style". Thanks to the experience gained on motorcycles, the Abarth silencers were state of the art technologically.

The first prototypes had a central pipe with a constant section and side ducts in fibreglass, eliminating all diaphragms to keep gas compression to a minimum. It was a simple, innovative system that gave his products a clear performance advantage, and an unmistakable full, throaty sound. In just a few years, Abarth & Company went global: in 1962, with a staff of 375 people, it produced 257,000 silencers, with exports accounting for 65 per cent of output.

There were two extremely important elements to the success of the Abarth components and kits: excellent advertising and successful racing. Carlo Abarth introduced marketing and communications techniques that are still used today.

To convince motorists to remove their standard silencers and install an Abarth unit, he invented a clever advertising campaign based on an elegant presentation of the product.

Publicised with a new, revolutionary language in the main newspapers, the silencer was presented in an opaque black version with chrome-plated terminals, and was offered at a price well above that of the competition. His colleagues were initially sceptical about this strategy, but they soon changed their minds: it was an immediate, extraordinary success. The first 50 units were built for the Fiat "Topolino".

The success of the brand in the minds of motoring fans was constant and became almost overwhelming as time passed, reaching its peak in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.

Carlo Abarth created the legend of the "scorpion" with total dedication and almost frenetic activity, which revealed the characteristics of a genius.

The stages of this continuous exploit and unparalleled success story followed one after another at a rate that is still amazing today; a long march, punctuated with records, triumphs and epoch-making ideas that changed our approach to the sports car.

In 1956, driving a Fiat Abarth 750 with a body by Bertone, he set a series of duration and speed records: on June 18, on the Monza track, he broke the 24-hour record, covering 3743km at an average speed of 155km/h. Then, from June 27 to 29, on the same track, he broke numerous other records: the 5000 and 10,000km, the 5000 miles and also the records for 48 hours and 72 hours. International success followed, and on July 21, 1956, the influential German magazine Das Auto Moto Und Sport dedicated the cover to the Abarth 750.

The same car was also available with two bodies by Zagato, the Fiat Abarth 750 Zagato (1956) and the Fiat Abarth 750 GT Zagato (1956). On May 11 and 12, 1957, at the 24th Mille Miglia, there were 20 cars representing the "scorpion" in the 750 class and 16 of them completed the race.

The "roar" of this extraordinary car even reached the United States: Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr., son of the late American President, rushed to Italy to sign an exclusive deal with Carlo Abarth to distribute the model.

In 1958, Abarth achieved a masterpiece on the new Fiat 500, completely transforming the small runabout, and highlighting its huge potential. That same year the partnership with Fiat was stepped up, and Fiat undertook to reward Abarth financially on the basis of the number of victories and records of the stable. This agreement was behind the amazing list of victories to come: 10 world records, 133 international records and over 10,000 victories on the track. The legend grew, and entered everyday language. The 60s were a golden decade for Abarth. The name was synonymous with speed, courage, performance and conversions. The list of cars that put the Abarth name firmly on the motor racing map was a long one: from the 850 TC, which won on all the international circuits, including the Nurburgring, to the Fiat Abarth 1000 saloon and the 2300 S, which set an amazing number of records on the Monza circuit in spite of dreadful atmospheric conditions.

In 1965, Carlo Abarth wanted to set a record himself. On October 20, 1965, he set the acceleration record over a quarter of a mile and over 500m on the Monza track, with the Fiat Abarth 1000 Monoposto Record Class G, 105bhp. The next day he set the same records for higher classes in a 2000cc Class E single-seater.

Another anecdote says a lot about the man's tenacity. He had to lose 30kg at the age of 57 in order to get into the small cockpit and drive his cars to victory.

From 1971, Abarth became part of Fiat Auto, and the last car on whose development the founder of the brand collaborated actively was the A112 Abarth.

In the 1980s, the story continued with other famous cars - the Fiat 131 Abarth, which won the world rally championship, and the Ritmo Abarth.

Carlo Abarth died on October 24, 1979, under his birth sign: the Scorpion, of course.

- NZ Herald

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