Carlo Abarth
sporting fiats club Wednesday, July 24, 2024
A Legend is Born
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The Legend of Carlo and Abarth

Carlo Abarth 1908 - 1979
Carlo Abarth was born in Austria. But most of his later life was spent in Italy. Here he pursued his principle passions for winning races, consummate car design and his canny applied business skills. By 1950 these combined to give us Abarth and Co. A tuning company with a truly world class reputation and competition pedigree second to none.

The co-founder (with Armando Scagliarini) of the Abarth & Co tuning company, was born in Vienna on 15th November 1908, named Karl Abarth. (Under the Scorpio star sign – from which the Abarth emblem originates). His interest in mechanics was evident from an early age. And he was apprenticed in a motor bike factory becoming a test rider, then chief tester during the 1930s. He was European Champion 5 times on racing bikes before an accident in 1939 forced him to retire.
At the age of 30 he emigrated to Italy ,where he started work for his father. He changed nationality and became an Italian citizen (hence the change of his first name from the German sounding ‘Karl’, to the more Italian sounding ‘Carlo’).

In 1946, after the war, it he joined Merano where he became Italian distributor for cars and Porsche products. With the help of his old friend Ferry Porsche, Abarth was hired as a director at Piero Dusio's Cisitalia. Piero had formed Cisitalia (Compagnia Industriale Sportiva Italia) just before the war to develop and race Porsche based cars. Dusio’s ambition was to become a performance car manufacturer and Abarth obtained the licences for Cisitalia from Porsche. In 1947 following Cisitalia race successes, Carlo Abarth became technical and sporting director of Cisitalia, but the company’s finances foundered. And Dusio headed for Argentina.

This proved to be the impetus for Carlo to take several of their chassis and build his first race cars. The Abarth & Co tuning company was created in 1949/50. Carlo Abarth, with his friend Armando Scagliarini, formed ‘Abarth & Co S.r.l.’. They located in the beautiful university city of Bologna. Together with the limited production of the Abarth 205A, (car coding taken from the Cisitalia cars) Abarth modified various other Italian GTs, altering both the appearance and performance of the original cars. By 1954 Abarth employed 90 people and had become a household tuning name in Italy.

From the outset he applied a route to success that would become world famous. While the race cars and race winning were his passions, the main earner for the new tuning company was actually the exhaust systems and performance manifolds Abarth & Co produced. Most of the firm's resources were directed towards tuning kits based around performance exhaust systems. And as a result Abarth's reputation for quality products had a popular and broad base. A second line of effort was directed towards racing GTs and Prototypes, initially with mixed results. While the Abarth 205A and 206A achieved some success, the 207A and 208A were more expensive and not as popular. It is the third 'product' line that really launched the Abarth legend. Carlo produced the road/race Fiat 600 derivatives - underpinned by an agreement with Fiat.

The Fiat 600 modifications hit the Italian market at just the right time. His engines were built from Fiat's production blocks, and his chassis were as small and light as possible. His business genius was to focus on what he did best - extract reliable power from the Fiat engines and combine these with attractively styled bodies, but always with performance in mind.

By 1956 the bodies clothing Abarth’s chassis read like a who's who of Italy’s finest carrozzerie – (coach builders). Firms from Allemano to Zagato had produced cars carrying his name. But in 1956 Fiat produced the 600, the first really modern looking Italian car of the post war 500/600 range. Ever alert to the opportunity these little cars created, Abarth built six Fiat opalescence grey 600 Berlinettas (saloons) for the Turin Salon show that April. They were equipped with the Abarth 750 engine - this had quickly captured a performance reputation in Italy. Abarth had transformed the 600cc 22bhp original engines into 747cc 51.5bhp race winners. So while the world’s motoring press crooned over the body styling exercises displayed at the exhibition (for instance Zagato's ‘Double Bubble’), Italians flocked to Abarth for an affordable road/race car.

Actually, demand was too high for such a small company. But
instead of trying to increase the small numbers of staff already busy producing exhausts, Carlo decided to offer the 600 conversion as a kit. This 750 Abarth had many incarnations across a truly noteworthy racing career in a huge selection of bodies and specials. Carlo had tapped into a real passion in the best Italian spirit at a time when many Italians would afford to buy.

The kit was expensive in its day, more so when prices for the extra radiator and brakes were added. It was still a lot cheaper for the average Italian to purchase the kit, and do the work themselves (or borrow a relative’s machine shop). Even though each car started with it’s standard Fiat body, every Abarth built car was different. The cars built in Abarth's workshops also benefited from additional mods, like strengthened front leaf springs, larger rear springs, front disk brakes, the extra radiator mounted below the floor pan and top hinges that allowed the engine lid to sit open. (In competition it was thought that the open rear bonnet lid was for extra cooling - in fact it was to improve the car's aerodynamics - which it did very successfully). Abarth built cars also received a unique three-spoke steering wheel and Amadori or Campagnolo road wheels

There is no accident about Abarth’s focus on the small 4 cylinder Fiat engines. Three years later, he repeated the trick (late in 1960) with the 600D. Abarth increased the stock engine’s four-cylinder's displacement to 767cc, and breathed his own brand of magic on this engine to produce one of the all time motoring masterpieces. Ultimately engine capacity was upped to 847cc. The bore was stretched from 60mm to 62.5mm and the stroke lengthened from 63.5mm to 69mm. Top speed was increased to 87.5 mph (as fast as saloon cars with twice the engine size) and torque increased from 5.5 kgm (39.8 lbs/ft) to 7 kgm (50.6 lbs/ft) at 2800 rpm. The car was designated 850 “TC” (standing for Turismo Competizione). Abarth continued to build all manner of racing and sporting variants on this theme.

850 TC Kit
The kit itself included a crankcase with larger diameter bearing supports, a tempered steel crankshaft, lighter and stronger connecting rods, and lighter pistons with smaller skirts.
It also included a new camshaft (altering timing and valve lift), a Solex 32 PBIC carburetor and single-pipe manifold, plus a famous Abarth silencer. The head was given larger valves, valve springs, gaskets. While an air filter, clamps, and miscellaneous screws completed the kit.

Extras for the cars included essential perforated wheels, a larger front radiator and bigger brakes. These were sold separately. The Abarth Scorpion emblems, grilles, badges and lettering also had to be ordered separately.

In the fifties, the Abarth name can also be found on a variety of Porsche Renault and Simca cars - competing in a wide range of events and breaking records. Abarths captured four World Records (all on the Monza banked track) and many European titles with Carlo himself often heavily involved. Abarth & Co also tried out the sports car markets with a range of larger engined cars, exploiting the company's ability to generate small batches of different sorts of car. As always willingly aided by the best of Italian coach builders. By the end of the fifties the Abarth brand was truly renowned across Europe.

By 1961, to meet racing homologation requirements in the ‘Touring Competition’ class, Abarth was required to build 1,000 units – apparently completed by the end of 1961! After this point the number of 850 TCs built, either as cars or kits is not known but is large. This was only achieved by Abarth's move to new premises on Corso Marche, in Turin. Corso Marche was also much closer to the centre of the Fiat empire

Carlo Abarth was a magnificent tuner, comparable to his contemporary soul mates Enzo Ferrari and Ferry Porsche. To give an example of Carlo Abarth’s technological knowledge, in 1960 Ferry Porsche asked him to design a Porsche for their race programme. The result was the famous Porsche Carrera Coupé Corsa. To complete this racing beast, Abarth received 26 chassis of the then 356 B Porsche. With this car, Porsche basically cleaned up in the European Championships.

By the end of the sixties, although the race results were still successful, Abarth & Co found itself in a more competitive marketplace, and profitability was beginning to decline. Furthermore some development issues with the 2 litre race engines were proving expensive, and in 1971 Carlo sold Abarth to Fiat. The car giant embargoed further work on the race cars, preferring Abarth to focus on rallying. This was the cue for several ex-employees on the racing side to begin their own businesses, (for instance Osella).

With such a world reputation, it was unlikely that the Abarth name could be seen as anything but a prestigious asset. And the Fiat Competition department was based at Corso Marche until its closure and move to Chivasso during 1992-93. In this time all the competition cars continued to be prepared there, including the 124 Abarth, Lancia Stratos, X1/9 Prototipo, 131 Abarth, 037 Abarth, Delta S4, and finally the Delta HF4WD and Integrales.

There was also a change of name to Fiat Auto Corse and more recently to N Technology. Fortunately some traditions were retained. For instance the new project codes are still applied in sequence from the 1960s, beginning SE001, the 037 being surprisingly enough SE037, the Delta S4 being 038, and the last Evo 2 Delta was SE050.

The importance and pre eminence of this tuning company, in both the Carlo Abarth and Fiat Abarth eras cannot be understated. Their range of achievements and Championships remain formidable. In the later years it was the Abarth teams that provided the backbone of Fiat/Lancias' World Rally Championship success. And 12 World Rally Championships between 1974 and 1994 make them the most successful WRC constructors of all time.

(I've omitted the 1972 Lancia Fulvia win as this was achieved with little Abarth support)

Equally important is the legacy of beautiful and gloriously noisy performance cars Abarth have left for us that bear witness to the craft and passions of their Italian creators.