How Carlo Abarth Brought Performance Cars to the Masses

August 29, 2022

I’ve always had a soft spot for Abarth. It began early and for a trivial reason: the scorpion badge that is the company's symbol. It was chosen because Carlo Abarth was a Scorpio, and since he and I share the same birthday, we have an inborn predilection for that venomous arachnid.

Abarth is a name with which most are familiar since his race cars earned a reputation for punching way above their weight. What many don’t realize is how big of an impact he had on the automotive industry as a whole.

You see, Carlo Abarth invented and popularized the concept of a tuning kit, which made racing and performance cars available to many, rather than just the elite few. He was a tinkerer and entrepreneur who took his ideas for turning ordinary road cars into winning racecars and built a wildly successful business.

Carlo Abarth (on moto) setting off to race the Orient Express.

The Porsche Connection

Carlo Abarth had a secret. His name wasn’t Carlo and he was not Italian. He was born Karl Albert Abarth in 1908 in Vienna. At age 11, his mindset was already revealing itself when he wrapped his scooter wheels with a leather belt to get better traction in races against the older kids. 

When he was still a teenager, he apprenticed in Milan for a motorcycle and bicycle manufacturer called Castagna. This was a transformational experience for young Carlo who had the opportunity to design and build his 600cc racing motorcycle. After Castagna, he returned home to work for Moto Thun in his homeland of Austria, where he worked from 1927 to 1935. 

While in Austria, he started a career as a motorcycle racer and had great success. He won on his debut in 1928, and ended up winning the European Championship no less than five times! He even raced the famed Orient Express over an 800-mile stretch between Vienna and Ostend and beat it by a sizable margin.

In 1934, Abarth emigrated back to Italy to work for his father. This is when he changed citizenship and took the name Carlo. He had a terrible crash during a race in 1939 in Yugoslavia, which ended up being quite serendipitous. He had to convalesce for a year, during which WWII broke out. Abarth stayed there until peace returned, then he headed back to Merano, Italy, his ancestral home in the mountains of northern Italy.

Ferry Porsche, the son of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, was a long-time friend of the Abarths, as was Anton Piech, Ferry’s brother-in-law. (Carlo’s first wife was Piech’s secretary.) After the war, Ferry offered Abarth and his partner Rodolfo Hruska the opportunity to be the representatives of the Porsche Konstruktionen agency for Italy. 

One of the initial projects was to find a builder for a Porsche F1 car. The great Tazio Nuvolari -- an acquaintance of Carlo Abarth from his motorcycle racing days -- mentioned the project to Piero Dusio, the founder of Cisitalia, who was very interested. In 1946, a deal was struck to build the Cisitalia 360. As part of the deal, Dusio posted a bond to spring Dr. Porsche from a French prison where he was being held as a war criminal. 

Showing the Cisitalia 360, with Carlo Abarth, 2nd from right.

Carlo Abarth joined Cisitalia as the technical and racing director to help oversee the Type 360’s development. It was an extremely advanced mid-engined design that debuted in 1949. The single-seater had a 1.5L supercharged engine positioned behind the driver, four-wheel drive, and a sequential gearbox. However, it may have been too advanced, as it never got fully sorted out before Dusio decamped to Argentina.

The Scorpion Rises

In 1949, Carlo Abarth, now in his early 40s, started Abarth & Co. in Bologna with friend Guido Scagliarini. Driven by their desire to compete, they initially developed race cars based on leftover Cisitalia designs that used tuned-up Fiat 1.1L engines. 

Nuvolari in a 204A.

The Type 204A cars were quick, winning 18 races in their first year, including the 1100 Sport Championship. Importantly, the 204As showed they could be successful using existing architectures rather than building everything from scratch. As a quick historical sidenote, Tazio Nuvolari’s last racing appearance was behind the wheel of an Abarth 204A in 1950.

As a way to mitigate the risk of racing and building their own vehicles, Abarth started an innovative aftermarket division. Italians loved automobile racing, but it was out of reach for many as the country’s economy rebuilt after the war. However, with a good road car with some upgrades from Abarth, they could go to the races and win.   

The first year, they made 50 exhaust pipes but it was just the beginning. In 1951, the company relocated its headquarters to Turin where there was ample skilled labor and they could work more closely with Fiat. In only a few years, Abarth & Co. had 375 employees and production of around 300,000 exhaust systems a year. The product lineup also expanded to include performance manifolds, valve springs, valves, and gearboxes. 

The Fiat Partnership

Abarth’s business got another boost with the introduction of the Fiat 600 in 1955. Using the little city car with a 633cc engine as a foundation, Abarth developed the 210A Spider, a futuristic convertible with a body designed by Boano. The 210A, with its distinctive mono-headlight, got plenty of press, which set the stage for more Abarth models. Fiat would supply vehicles to Abarth, which was tasked with fitting them with brakes, exhaust pipes, carburetors, and crankshafts.

Abarth 750 Zagato.

The following year, Abarth built its own coupe body for the Fiat-Abarth 750. In a brilliant marketing maneuver, Carlo Abarth engaged prominent design houses to make alternative models. The most famous is the Fiat-Abarth 750 Zagato, aka the “Double Bubble.” This range continued from 1955 through 1970, with progressively larger engines, ending with the Fiat-Abarth 1000 which had a 1L engine.

These were performance models, and did they ever perform! In the 1957 Mille Miglia, Abarth 760 Zagatos went 1-2-3 in the GT750 class. Between 1962 and 1967, Abarth won the International Manufacturers Championship six times on the trot. The Abarth cars were affordable and were ubiquitous on local circuits across Italy.

Abarth's championship cars from the 1960s.

Becoming Part of Fiat

In 1971, Fiat decided to bring Abarth into the fold and acquired the firm outright. The decision was made to focus their partnership on rally cars -- to great success. Between 1973 and 1981, Fiat Abarth 121 and 131 models won 21 World Rally Championship events, including three manufacturer titles. The Abarth-Fiat partnership became one of the most successful racing ventures in history.

Carlo Abarth strapping in for a speed run at age 57.

Even as he approached his golden years, Carlo Abarth never slowed down. In 1965, at age 57, he lost 50 pounds on a diet of apples so he could squeeze into the cockpit  make some attempts at an acceleration record. He was successful in doing so at the wheel of his "1000 Monoposto Record" Class G Fiat Abarth. The very next day, he did the same in a Class E single-seater. 

In 1979, Carlo Abarth died at his home in Vienna, at age 70. After his death, Abarth models were discontinued by Fiat, except as a sporty trim on some models. In 2007, the Abarth badge was resurrected with Fiat’s introduction of the modern Fiat 500. The scorpion-badged model with impressive performance remains popular to this day.

Carlo Abarth came into his own by taking a different path than others. Most automotive designers made their own cars, but Abarth’s genius was to take an ordinary model and make it special. As Italy was in recovery after the war, it was the perfect offering to allow middle-class folks to have access to performance vehicles, either by purchasing his modified Fiats or by taking their car and adding an Abarth performance kit. It was a tremendous innovation that is widely imitated to this day.

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