Does the name Abarth ring a bell? If you’ve been around automobiles a while, you may recall a line of performance mufflers and exhaust systems sold under the Abarth name. For much of the ‘50s through ‘70s, it was one of the hot setups. Relatively affordable compared to more extensive modifications, an Abarth exhaust system bolted on easily, provided at least a few additional ponies, and sounded like you added more than just a few.
Fast forward a bunch of decades, 2012 to be exact, and remind yourself that this was the year Fiat reentered the U.S. market, offering new Fiat automobiles to Americans for the first time in about 30 years. To start, there was one model, the 500, available in several trim levels. Top of the heap was the Abarth, utilizing a turbocharged engine which gave it a 59-horsepower advantage over its lesser brethren. A few years after that, when the 124 convertible was reintroduced, there was an Abarth version too.
Of course, there’s more to the story. The Abarth company was started by and named after its founder, Carlo Abarth (born Karl Abarth in Austria), who moved to Italy, amended his first name to sound Italian, and began to build performance engines. From there he progressed to modifying Fiats, and eventually manufactured his own cars. The Abarth company was at its peak during a 15-year run from about 1956 to 1971, at which time the company was purchased outright by Fiat. His Astrological sign, Scorpio, inspired the Scorpion image which adorns the Abarth badge.
I’ve long been obsessed by Abarth cars. First, they’re Italian. Second, their diminutive size is something I’ve always found attractive (this coming from a former Isetta owner). Third, their status as the “David” versus the “Goliaths” of the day always had me rooting for them. Amazingly, in spite of a sometimes tremendous horsepower disadvantage, they racked up a series of impressive racing wins. Not a lot of Abarth cars were built, more than a few were wrecked, and even fewer were preserved, so spotting one today is a treat.
I’ve photographed Abarths at Hershey, at Lime Rock, and at the New England 1000 rallies, yet I realized that I knew very little about the cars. Poring through my automotive library in search of historical information on the brand, I was surprised how little I found. Most of my general-interest books on European cars do not mention Abarth, and I would venture to guess that they were thought to be similar to a ‘tuner’ like Dinan for BMW or AMG for Mercedes-Benz. The Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-1990 has the most extensive Abarth coverage of any of my books, with good technical specs yet few photos.
Searching online, I discovered a book by Peter Vack: Abarth Buyer’s Guide, published in 2003 by Veloce Press. I bought it and have begun reading it. It’s not easy keeping track of models with such similar names as Fiat Abarth 750 Berlina, Fiat Abarth 750 GT Zagato, and Fiat Abarth 750 Allemano. Then we move to Fiat Abarth OT 850 Series, Fiat Abarth OT Coupes, and Fiat Abarth OT Sports Racers. Some have stock Fiat sheetmetal, some are externally modified, and some have bespoke bodies. All of them have rear-mounted Fiat-based engines, modified modestly or aggressively. For some models, the book notes that “no two cars were alike”.
There will be more to say about Abarth cars in the coming weeks. Actually, this post will be tied into another recent post, and will become an ongoing storyline through the summer and fall. In the meantime, if you come across an Abarth on the street, please snap a pic and send it to me. Thanks.
All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.