Why An Abarth?

By Steven Feig

Abarth is a name which comes from Karl Abarth, a car mastermind born in Vienna, Austria, on November 15, 1908. Carlo Abarth Which automobile manufacturer has won more races than any other in the history of automobile racing? With over 7,400 racing victories, one would think of Ferrari or Porsche, but that's not it. Let me give you a few hints. Here is a partial list of accomplishments: 1957 Mille Miglia , 1st place; 1958 Florida International 12 Hour Grand Prix of Endurance ( forerunner of the Sebring race), 1st place; 1960 Targa Florio, 1st place; 1965 24 Heures Du Mans, 1st place; 1965 ADAC 1,000 Km Rennen, 1st place; and 1968 1,000 Km Di Monza, 1st place. They were European hillclimb champs for five years in a row. One U.S. competitor won fifty-one of fifty-three SCCA national races before they outlawed the car because it was too fast. Between the years of 1958 and 1960, the cars collected forty-eight different land speed records. In fact, just two years ago, they beat the world land speed record at Bonneville in the 1000cc class. Who is it? It's Abarth (pronounced Ah-bart). With such a history, how can I drive anything but an Abarth? Karl Abarth was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 15, 1908. At seventeen, Karl became an apprentice at Castagna, in Italy, designing chassis for bicycles and motorcycles. Two years later, in 1927, Karl returned to Austria, to work at Motor Thun Motorcycle plant. At the same time, he decided to become a serious motorcycle competitor. Karl's first win came at Salzburg, on July 29, 1928, riding a British James. By his mid-twenties, Abarth had become an internationally known motorcyclist, and was five times champion of Europe. In 1934, he became friends with the Porsche family - a friendship that would last a lifetime - and also got married. With the Depression hitting hard in Austria and Germany, Karl decided to move to Italy to race his motorcycles, and became Carlo Abarth. Around the time that WWII was just beginning, Carlo crashed heavily in a motorcycle race in Yugoslavia, and remained hospitalized there for a year. When he recovered, he saw what was happening to his native Austria, and decided to stay in Yugoslavia for the rest of the war. Carlo worked for Ignaz Vok, converting cars to run on kerosene. It was here that Abarth perfected techniques for modifying engines. After the war, Abarth went looking for work, just as Ferry Porsche (son of Ferdinand) was trying to get Porsche up and running. Abarth, along with Rudolf Hrushka, became Italian representatives of the Porsche design company. Industrialist Piero Dusio wanted to build a grand prix car, but the only man Dusio believed could do it - Ferdinand Porsche - was in a French prison as a German war criminal. Ferry said, basically, help me get him out of prison, and we'll build you a car. Abarth hooked up Dusio's money with Count Giovanni Lurani, who passed it to French racing driver Louis Chiron, who posted the bond for Dr. Porsche's release. Dusio persuaded Abarth to work with him at his new company, Cistalia, where Abarth became the technical and racing director. It was here that Abarth became friends with Tazio Nuvolari, the great Italian race driver. Later, Nuvolari would become a Scuderia Abarth driver; in fact, the last car Nuvolari raced was an Abarth, in 1949. When Cistalia went out of business, Abarth took the remains with him to form Scuderia Abarth. The first five years were very hard for Abarth, so he created an accessories empire to fund his racing projects. In 1956, Fiat introduced the 600, and the company changed dramatically. Abarth now had a low priced car on which he could make modifications. From this chassis came the Berlina Corsa, Zagato "Double Bubble," Record Monza, Allemano Spider and coupe, and many more. Fiat 600 based Abarths won just about everything they entered, including first, second, and third in the 750cc class at the 1957 Mille Miglia. After the 600 based cars, the Simca Abarth was created. From 1962 to 1965, Abarth again won just about everything in the 1300cc class. Abarths were giant killers and, typically, would take most of the top ten finishing positions. The 850 Corsa was nicknamed the "850 Nurburgring" because Abarth took first through eighth place in the under 1000cc class at the Nurburgring in 1963. Abarth racked up a lot of wins because there were so many of the cars racing. Abarth was Fiat's racing arm, so Fiat paid Abarth around $100 per win or second place finish, so the Abarth factory raced everywhere they could. Because the cars were cheap, there were many privateers running, and Abarth got paid for all those wins and seconds, too. Abarth's next move was into all-Abarth engined and chassised cars. They made cars from 1000cc up to 2000cc, including formula cars and sports racers, until the company was purchased by Fiat in 1971. Abarth was not afraid to innovate. In the U.S., the first car that the SCCA outlawed was the Berlina Corsa with Radiale engine. It started with 28 hp, but when Abarth got through with it, had 100 hp. Many authors have suggested that the real success of Abarth was not getting raw horsepower out of small engines (which no one was better at), but the construction of exceptionally light and aerodynamic vehicles. Abarth's innovations in aerodynamics started with the land speed record cars he produced with Farina and Bertone. Later, he worked with Zagato to produce many successful racing coupes. Aerodynamics were the real reason that Abarth raised the rear deck lid of its racing sedans, but most competitors thought it was to cool the engine. Abarth was the first to use a periscope intake to put air where he needed it. With a periscope, a driver could run with his windows up, which improved the aerodynamics of the car. These are some of the reasons I drive Abarths. I've had between twenty and twenty-five of them over the last fifteen years. As a matter of fact, I sold my Ferrari to buy my first Abarth, a 1961 Allemano coupe. I am currently the proud owner of a 1959 Abarth Allemano spider, a 1967 Fiat Abarth 1000 OTR (Omologato Tourismo Radiale) coupe, and a 1967 Fiat Abarth 1000 OT spider. They are all very original, so driving them is like going back into history. The engines are in the back, so if you've got your foot in it, they handle well - just don't lift! Many times, Abarth would build a car with the engine up front, then build another with the engine in the back and go testing - the rear engined car would always be a few seconds faster, so he stuck with that. So why do I drive an Abarth? It's nice to be able to race it anywhere you want. I can take my Abarth to any race group in the world and it will be accepted. In Europe, Abarths were always regarded on a much higher scale than in the United States. The Europeans put Abarth on the same level as Ferrari or Maserati, but the Abarth was a more affordable car for the masses. The average Guiseppe couldn't plunk down money for a Ferrari and race it, but he could race an Abarth. Because they are such popular cars, a lot of European historic grand prix will have a race group designated strictly for Abarths. I recently went to the Old Timers' Grand Prix at the Nurburgring and witnessed a class with well over thirty Abarths. Probably the most important reason I race an Abarth, though, is the people. I have yet to meet an Abarth owner or enthusiast that I didn't like. Through my Abarth, I have been able to meet four-time European driving champion and factory team driver Ed Swart, who has been a great inspiration to me and others by keeping the Abarth name alive. Abarth has introduced me to real friends, like Abarth owners and past owners, Pete Henderson, Ed Roll, Lou Canut, and the best engineer, Willy Mueller. All this is why I drive an Abarth.