On a back alley in a quiet suburb of Calgary, a sun-faded Porsche 356 stands watch over a three-car garage. It’s an ordinary-looking place beside a carefully manicured lawn – but inside, there’s a nest of scorpions.
Grant Kinzel, compact, tanned and wiry, with the ropy musculature of a professional cyclist, is working on his road-bike, a carbon-fibre affair that hangs from the ceiling. Above his spotless workbench, three posters show squadrones of tiny buzz-box machines, all cranked up on a methamphetamine-like concoction of speed and noise.>
1961 Fiat 1000GT Bialbero
Kinzel sets down his tools and shakes my hand. He’s recently retired from Focus Auto, a large, Calgary-based manufacturer of bug-deflectors that handles OEM applications. Strange then, that all five of the cars in his carefully laid out garage have been touched in one way or another by a scuttling arachnid.
The little red racing car, an ex factory-supported 1961 Fiat 1000GT Bialbero, is rolled out into the sunshine where the battered old Porsche seems to gaze leerily at it. The crimson Italian has an intake flap cocked open at the rear, a warning of what lurks beneath. Lettered in bright white across its length is the name of the man who put the sting in its tail: Abarth.
If Ferrari and Lamborghini are the part of Italian culture that gives rise to grand operas and ornate sculpture, then Abarth is the part that’s espresso and hurtling along the Mille Miglia like a maniaco. Abarth is a compressed sort of insanity, and the five sleek beauties crammed cheek-by-jowl into this three-car garage all have a little wildness under their delicately curved sheetmetal.>
1959 Fiat-Abarth 850 Scorpione
Abarth – pronounced “eh-bart” – would become so infused into Italy’s national identity that it actually became part of the language. To order an Abarth coffee was to expect an extra-strong cup, or one fortified with liqueur. To say that something was filled with the spirit of Abarth was to intimate that it was fast, beautiful, and dangerous. A dark-haired beauty with flashing eyes? Una signora Abarth.
Oddly enough, Abarth isn’t an Italian name at all – it’s Austrian. Karl Alberto Abarth was born in Vienna in 1908, and would come to have strong bonds with that other Austrian marque, Porsche. In his early teens, a natural mechanical ability combined with a craving for two-wheeled speed, with Abarth apprenticing at both Italian and Viennese motorcycle companies like Degan, Castagna, and Motor Thun.
He won his first motorcycle race in Saltzburg in 1928, astride a British-built Grindley-Peerless he stripped down and built up himself. The win would be the first step on the way to five eventual world championships, and was perhaps most extraordinary because he had no support whatsoever. It was simply Abarth, his home-tuned bike, a toolbox, and a surfeit of talent.>
Carlo Abarth turned the docile little Fiat 500 into an ingenious racing car.
Like many contemporaries who diced with death in the two-wheel racing of the time, Abarth had a taste for adventure. Taking up sidecar racing, he issued a challenge against the Orient Express over 1,300 km from Vienna to Ostend. The first time, an electrical fault slowed him up and he lost. Two weeks later, Abarth’s bike beat the train by 20 minutes.
In 1939, as Europe teetered yet again on the brink of war, Abarth’s luck ran out. A near-fatal accident while racing in Yugoslavia saw him confined to a hospital for a full year. He would remain in the country for the duration of the war, working in a small factory in Ljubljana co-developing kerosene-fuelled engines to cope with gasoline shortages. His racing career was at an end, but his true legacy in the automotive industry was just about to begin.
Sometime in 1934, Abarth had married the secretary of a man named Anton Piëch. Piëch himself was married to Louise Porsche, making him brother-in-law to Ferry Porsche, father of the 356, and son-in-law to Ferdinand Porsche, designer of everything from the Volkswagen to the 600-hp Auto-Union Type-D racing car. Louise Porsche’s contributions to the Porsche/Volkswagen company dynasty cannot be glossed over either.>
1959 Fiat-Abarth 850 Scorpione
Other connections earned through Abarth’s motorcycle-racing career include Tazio Nuvolari, a legendary driver in the early days of formula one racing. Aside from triumphs too numerous to mention and nuttery including racing with a broken leg, Nuvolari was responsible for one of the finest moments in motor racing history.
At the 1935 German Grand Prix, the highest echelons of the Nazi party gathered to watch the inevitable triumph of their state-sponsored racing Mercedes and Auto-Union racing teams. It would be one more masterstroke of propaganda, with the incredibly powerful Reich’s rockets simply trouncing the competition.
In simply brilliant piece of driving, the tiny Nuvolari beat the pants off his Teutonic competition, coaxing his wheeled-chicken-coop of an outdated Alfa-Romeo to victory, right in front of the stunned Führer himself. Frankly, it couldn’t have been more satisfying if he’d run the lot of ’em over with Elwood Blue’s ex-cop Dodge Monaco.>
1959 Bertone Fiat Abarth
Abarth combined the precision-minded thinking of Porsche with the flair, spirit, and swashbuckling charm of Nuvolari. When he returned to Italy in 1940 as naturalized Italian citizen Carlo Abarth, he immediately found himself employed, thanks to his heavyweight connections.
The company he went to work for was called Cistalia, set up by a wealthy industrialist Piero Duso, most famously the president of the Juventa football club. Abarth and a former Porsche engineer named Rudolf Hrushka were employed to create a followup to the delicate machines that were already earning Cistalia a reputation as a successful racing team.
Their design was called the Cistalia 360, and it was based upon work done by Ferdinand Porsche Sr. At the time, the patriarch of the family was languishing in a French prison: his work on the Volkswagen, the Mercedes and Auto-Union racers, and war machinery like the Tiger Panzerkampfwagen VI had earned him jail-time under suspicion of collaboration. A portion of the profits earned by the 360 project would go towards bailing Porsche out of prison.
The car was as revolutionary as it was beautiful. A compact, spidery-looking aluminium craft, it was powered by a twin-supercharged 1,493-cc flat-12 engine that hammered out more than 300 hp. Weighing just 650 kg and getting the power down through a complex all-wheel-drive system, the Cistalia 360 might well have changed the face of racing forever.>
Abarths were usually tiny and always fierce.
As it happens, Dusio’s fortunes took a turn for the worse and he scampered to Argentina, taking the prototype car with him. He left behind massive debt, and no payment for Abarth. Instead, Carlo claimed three of the remaining Cistalia racecars as well as two uncompleted chassis, and decided to found his own racing team. On the 31st of March, 1949, Abarth & C was formed by Abarth and Armando Scagliarini; for a symbol, they took Carlo’s zodiac birth sign, the scorpion.
The team was called Squadra Abarth, and their lineup included Nuvolari himself, as well as Guido Scagliarini, the son of Abarth’s business partner. They fielded four Abarth-prepped Cistalia 204s, and came close to victory in the ’49 Mille Miglia. The next year, Nuvolari would deliver victory in the Palomero-Monte Pellegrino hill climb. It would be the last time the legend would ever race, and it gave the scorpion the recognition it needed.
As the old saying goes, if you want to make a small fortune in racing, start with a large fortune. Abarth had neither, but he was no fool – among the parts he had taken as payment after Cistalia folded was a curious design of exhaust pipe. Based on the sound-suppression of a silencer for a gun, it had lateral side passages to absorb the exhaust pulses, rather than power-robbing baffles. The exhaust was finished in matte-black with polished silver tips, and both the sound and the look were instantly recognizable. Combined with growing racing successes, the company was soon based in Turin and selling thousands of them.>
1961 Fiat 1000GT Bialbero
Alfa-Romeos, Masersatis, and Ferraris – all would soon wear Abarth exhausts. However, it was another company that would forever fix the scorpion brand in the public imagination: Fiat.
Fiat introduced the prosaic little 600 in 1955, a modestly powered family car that produced 28 hp and provided inexpensive mobility for the everyman. On these humble bones, Abarth first built a 750-cc-powered monster with more than twice the power, and a custom-bodied shape by Zagato.
Selling complete hot-rod kits in crates – cassetta di transformazione – Abarth created both profits and a huge fanbase. Not only were his racecars scoring victory after victory, but would-be Nuvolaris could put the same level of winning engineering into their street cars.
Abarth’s personal racing days were long past, but he returned to the cockpit again. Piloting a single-seater Bertone-designed Fiat Abarth 750, the company’s head set speed records at the Monza circuit, running 3,743kms at an average speed of 155 km/h to set the 24 hour speed record. Next, he set speed records for 5,000 and 10,000 kilometre distances, and 48 and 72 hour time-spans.>
Abarth has produced a mind boggling array of racing models through the years.
If that was impressive, Abarth’s next creation would be even more of a legend. 1957 saw Fiat releasing an icon, the tiny cinquecento – the Fiat 500. If anything, this little people-mover was even more humble than the 600, with a 479-cc engine producing a paltry 13 hp. Dubbing his creation the 595, Abarth’s modifications included increasing the compression, fitting a Weber carburetor, and tuning intake, fuelling, and exhaust. The result was a doubling of the horsepower, and in a car weighing less than 500kg – half that of a first-generation Miata – that was enough to turn a toon-town runabout into a blisteringly fierce little car.
The ’50s and early ’60s were the true golden age of the scorpion, giving birth to Kinzel’s high-strung 1000GT Bialbero with its bored-out, outrageously loud engine, and the light-blue car that sits next to it, a very original ’59 Fiat-Abarth 850 Scorpione bodied by Allemano. Both based on the Fiat 600, the last is rare simply because most Abarths were driven past the point of destruction, and then had their engines replaced with something even more powerful.
It was a time that produced some of the most memorable machines to come out of Italy: the 1500 Biposto, the Zagato-bodied “Double-Bubble,” the Abarth-Simca 2000. Abarth even tuned a version of that 356 Porsche called the GTL – it would go on to take class victories at the Nürburgring and at the 24 Hours of LeMans.>
Abarth has a storied history
But, like those high-strung racing engines, nothing is meant to last forever. Despite resting a Fiat takeover longer than Ferrari, Lancia, and other manufacturers, Abarth would eventually sell off his company in the summer of 1971. For a time, Fiat used their Abarth division to run a rallying team, but the scorpion-brand would fade into obscurity in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
However, Fiat would revive the Abarth brand in 2007, with a dedicated rally team running the Grande Punto. Sometime later, Canadians would be able to get a proper Abarth experience with the return of the Fiat 500 Abarth; while the version we get owes much of its excellence to Chrysler’s legacy of turbocharging, it is nonetheless a throughly scrappy little thing and, pound-for-pound, one of the best-sounding cars on the market – just as an Abarth should be.
Carlos Abarth died in the fall of 1979, during a period that falls under the astrological sign for Scorpio. It is said that Scorpios are intense, resourceful, focused, and passionate.
The cars that bear this badge are much the same: concentrated bursts of intensity making the most of meagre displacement and a tiny footprint. They are tiny but fierce, an animal to be feared. Like the scorpion, a true Abarth carries a powerful sting – watch yourself! They do not suffer fools gladly.
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