Carlo Abarth celebrated at 2018 Rétromobile

Carlo Abarth would have been 110 this year. In honor of the brilliant engineer and entrepreneur, Rétromobile 2018 is hosting a special exhibition of his cars. Twenty-two of them will be on show at France’s number one classic car show. Engelbert Möll, the Swiss Abarth collector, has opened up his garage and sent a large selection of his vehicles to Paris.

From a new perspective: Carlo Abarth

In anticipation of the event, we spoke to Anneliese Abarth about the special exhibition and about her recollections of life with Carlo Abarth. As his wife and life partner, and having lived through so many key moments with Carlo Abarth, she has a very personal take on the cars and their history. And she’s looking forward to the special exhibition: “It is a lovely tribute, but also very emotional. It brings back a lot of memories.” The big age difference between Anneliese and her husband Carlo is a stroke of luck for today’s Abarth fans. As one of the last remaining figures from the era, she is happy to provide information about it; and to help keep her husband’s legacy alive, after he died she set up the Carlo Abarth Foundation.

Even at a young age, Anneliese Abarth loved motor sports and watched Carlo Abarth’s successes on the race track. “I was always very interested in cars and followed the scene very closely.” The young Abarth, who was still called Karl in those days, laid the foundations for his later successes before the Second World War. In Vienna, he worked at the Count of Thun’s renowned motorcycle racing team “Motor Thun”. He also competed in races himself, and built his own motorbike for the purpose. Following an accident, Karl Abarth concentrated on side-car racing. In a side-car challenge in 1934, he beat the Orient Express by travelling from Vienna to Ostend even faster than the train itself.

After the Second World War, Austrian Karl Abarth became Carlo Abarth. He went to Italy, the country of his father’s birth and a mecca for motor sports enthusiasts. This new beginning was definitely a kind of homecoming, because, says Anneliese, “Carlo was everything you would expect of an Italian. He felt very comfortable in Italy. He could be himself there”. The original plan in 1946 was for him to represent Ferry Porsche’s construction bureau in Italy; but Porsche and Abarth both soon answered the call from Pier Dugongs and his Cisitalia sports car company.

Cisitalia and Nuvolari

Though Abarth’s time at Cisitalia was short and came to an abrupt end in 1949 when the company went bust, it was a ground-breaking episode in automotive history. Abarth received no wages, but was able to use the firm’s remaining assets as the basis for a new business: the Cisitalia D46 Monoposto, two 204s and some chassis were the dowry from which the Abarth brand was born. He entered his own team of four cars in the 1949 Mille Miglia, where an Abarth 204 Berlinetta achieved 5th place in the overall classification. Meanwhile, Pier Taruffi won the Formula 2 Championship in a D46. One year later, racing legend Tazio Nuvolari won a mountain race in Palermo in an Abarth 204 A – the last victory of his career.

As well as building and optimizing cars for racing, Abarth and his company developed another line of business, inspired by his experiences in motorbike construction: a new type of muffler, which he built for various makes of car. These were lighter and helped improve the cars’ performance. They were painted black, so any vehicle with an Abarth muffler was easily identifiable. They were by no means cheap, but the mufflers sold extremely well, and soon the company was turning them out in their tens of thousands every year.

Carlo Abarth Portrait

For Abarth fans, one of the most important things about the mufflers was the way they changed the sound of the car. It’s an integral part of the brand’s appeal to this day, and a continuing source of fascination for Anneliese Abarth: “When I’m taking part in an Abarth rally,” says Anneliese “and we drive through a tunnel in a little Fiat 500, everyone goes vrooom vroooom. It’s an amazing experience.”

Ah yes, the Fiat 500: even without it, Carlo Abarth’s place in motor sport history would be assured; but there’s no doubt that the huge popularity of Dante Giacosa’s lovable little car contributed greatly to Carlo Abarth’s incredible success. His performance-enhancing parts allowed anyone, bit by bit, to build a sporty car. “The Italians really worshipped him. You can see their enthusiasm even at events today,” says Anneliese Abarth. “For many people, the Abarth was their first car. I get told some delightful stories.” The Fiat Abarth 500 really was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Decades before the Golf GTI, it was an everyday car with the soul of a racer.

Fiat Abarth 500 Club Isonzo

Carlo Abarth’s cars based on the Fiat 600 were possibly even more pioneering for motor sports. The first came onto the market in 1955, and in the same year Abarth doubled the engine output and used a Zagato body. The Fiat Abarth 750 was born. This was continually developed for the next 10 years, with new chassis types, souped-up engines and countless other optimizations.

One of the most striking variants of the 750 was a 1956 streamlined version with Bertone body and an ultra-lightweight tubular frame. It was designed to test the Fiat power unit, and in June of the same year, fitted with the standard engine, it broke one long-distance record after another on the race track at Monza.

There were so many sporting triumphs that it’s hard to pick the best. Here are just a few examples:  In the early 1960s, the FIAT Abarth became GT World Champion in the 1000cc class. In 1962, the fourteen Abarth 1000s entered in the Nürburgring 500 km race took all the top places in their class. The model conquered the USA as well. With Bruce McLaren at the wheel a 1961 Fiat Abarth 1000 Bialbero Competition Coupé won the three-hour race at Sebring, for example.

In 1964, Carlo Abarth put the tried-and-tested Fiat platform to the ultimate stress test. With its 4-cylinder engine, the Fiat Abarth 1600 OT could generate 155 HP. Those who drove it called it the “Monster”. Race cars based on the 750 were still scoring successes in 1967, when an 850 TC won the European Touring Competition – for the third time in a row.

While working on these vehicles during the early sixties, Carlo Abarth was simultaneously looking for other viable platforms for his racing cars. He entered into a partnership with Simca, partly because it allowed him to install engines with capacities of up to 1300cc. The French company supplied him with parts including bottom plates and chassis, while he took the body from the FIAT-Abarth 1000, which was adapted for the larger dimensions. This Simca-Abarth used a new 4-cylinder engine completely developed by Abarth himself. The cars proved successful for, among others, Hans Herrmann and Jochen Rindt.

From the mid-1950s and into the ‘60s, Abarth dominated motor racing – whether Formula, mountain races or GTs – especially in the smaller classes. Historians put the number of victories anywhere between six and ten thousand. Anneliese Abarth was by Carlo’s side for many of these triumphs: “I also had a passion for these cars. We were at races every weekend. I especially loved the mountain races: when the cars came up the bends so slowly, making a noise that just echoed everywhere. It was amazing.”

Carlo Abarth, on the other hand, was very focused on the race track. “He could be extremely sensitive when drivers broke anything on his cars. He’d go mad. These were his creations.” Anneliese Abarth remembers an incident involving Jochen Rindt. The driver had been in an accident and had to walk back to the pits, where he was taken to task by Carlo Abarth: “He asked where the car was and went completely crazy.” Anneliese Abarth tells us that such outbursts were not just a matter of temperament. In the days of racetracks without barriers, there were also practical reasons for getting upset about missing cars. Back then, at the Targa Florio, for example, you had to be careful about leaving a car standing somewhere, because spectators could just come and start dismantling it.”

There are still certainly plenty of people today who would love to get their hands on one of Carlo Abarth’s cars. Clubs have been set up all over the world to discuss technical and historical issues, and to enjoy the cars on drives together. There may seem to be a lot of Abarths about, but if you want to invest in an original Fiat-Abarth 500, you will actually find that a lot of the cars on the market have been upgraded to Abarth specifications at a later date. Assessing authenticity is definitely a matter for the experts. And when assessing, it’s important to remember that Abarth continued to develop his cars even during production; you should also look out for traces of a racing history.

Certain Abarth models in good condition – and ideally with proven racing success – are much in demand. The Sebring winner mentioned above is a good example: precisely this 1961 Fiat-Abarth 1000 Bialbero Competition Coupé was sold at auction by Bonhams at The Quail in 2010 for almost USD 337,000. Demand for the 750 Record Monza is particularly high. In 2014, for example, a 1959 FIAT Abarth 750 Record Monza Bialbero Coupé changed hands for just over USD 200,000.

If you would like to get an overview of the different models, or just bathe in memories, you should definitely visit the special exhibition in Paris. The cars on show there come from perhaps the most prestigious Abarth collection of all. Anneliese Abarth herself is very excited about Engelbert Möll’s treasures: “A collection like that is living history. And you can see just how many beautiful cars Carlo made.”

For more information on the special exhibition, please visit the Rétromobile Website about Carlo Abarth.
General information on Abarth may also be found on the website of the Carlo Abarth Foundation.

Rétromobile 2018
7 – 11.2.18
Paris Expo – Porte de Versailles (France)

All photos courtesy of Carlo Abarth Foundation except Fiat Abarth 500 by iStockPhoto.

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