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Abarth marks 70 years of making European cars faster

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Carlo Abarth, posing with a selection of Abarth models. Images courtesy FCA.

It’s fitting that a scorpion adorns the badge of European performance brand – and current FCA subsidiary – Abarth. Not only was it the zodiac sign of company founder Carlo Abarth, but the scorpion – like Abarth-tuned automobiles – represents something capable of punching well above its weight class. Founded on the last day of March, 1949, Abarth is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2019, and over the past seven decades, Abarth-tuned cars have amassed over 10,000 individual race wins and set over 140 world and international records.

Carlo Abarth was born Karl Albert Abarth in Vienna, Austria, in November 1908. In the mid-1920s, he apprenticed with Castagna in Italy, designing frames for both bicycles and motorcycles. By the end of the decade, Abarth was back in Austria, studying engineering while racing motorcycles competitively. He was a natural talent, winning five European championships until a circa-1933 crash left him with serious injuries. He designed a steerable sidecar, which he used to race and beat the Orient Express train on an 806-mile run from Vienna, Austria, to Ostend, Belgium, but a more serious accident, in 1938, permanently ended his racing career.

Abarth – then using Carlo as a first name – spent the war years in Yugoslavia, recovering from his injuries and earning income by converting gasoline-powered cars to run on kerosene. Following WWII, Abarth returned to Italy and became an Italian citizen, settling in Merano. Friends with Ferry Porsche and Tazio Nuvoari, it seemed that a career centered on automobile performance and racing was inevitable, and with Rudolf Hruska and Piero Dusio, Abarth founded the company later known as Cisitalia.

In early 1949, Dusio moved to Argentina and Cisitalia was disbanded. Abarth, with business partner Guido Scagliarini, took over Cisitalia’s assets and founded Abarth & C. on March 31, 1949, in Bologna, Italy. From the beginning, the firm’s goal was to build winning race cars, and its early efforts centered on improving models built by Cisitalia. In its first year, Scuderia Abarth amassed an impressive 18 victories, setting the tone for what would become the brand’s legacy.

Luca Napolitano, head of Fiat and Abarth brands in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, poses with the Fiat 124 Abarth Group 4 (left) and the Fiat 131 Abarth Group 4.

To supplement the firm’s income, Abarth also produced speed parts (primarily low-restriction exhausts and intakes) for common European cars of the day. In 1951, Abarth relocated the company to Turin, Italy, and in 1952 began a long-term partnership with automaker Fiat. The first product of this relationship was the Abarth 1500 Biposto, a futuristic coupe designed by Franco Scaglione and Bertone and built with Fiat internals.

The firm’s reputation for performance continued to grow throughout the 1950s. When the Fiat 600 debuted in 1955, Abarth saw this as a blank canvas, and immediately began producing both speed parts and complete Abarth-tuned versions for customers. In 1956, a Bertone bodied Fiat Abarth 750 broke the 24-hour endurance record at Monza, later taking the 5,000 km and 10,000 km records, the 5,000 mile record, the 48-hour record and the 72-hour record.

In 1962 alone, Abarth produced an impressive 257,000 exhaust systems, 65-percent of which were exported. The firm continued its partnership with Fiat, but branched out to work with racing divisions of other European manufacturers as well, including Porsche. In October 1965, Carlo Abarth climbed back into the driver’s seat, setting a series of acceleration and speed records in the Fiat Abarth 1000 Monoposto Record car, and later, a 2,000cc single-seater. In preparation for this record run, Abarth purposely lost 66 pounds, an impressive feat for a man of 57.

In 1971, Abarth sold his namesake company to Fiat (except for the racing division, which was sold separately to Enzo Osella), but its legacy of performance carried on. Cars like the Fiat 124 Abarth and the Fiat 131 Abarth carried the brand to racing success in the 1970s, but in 1978 the Fiat and Lancia racing programs were merged into a single entity, named EASA (Ente per l’Attività Sportiva Automobilistica, or Motor Sports Activity Agency).

This organization proved successful, winning the 1980 World Championship for Makes and the 1981 World Endurance Championship of Makes with the Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbo Group 5 and winning the 1983 World Manufacturers’s Championship with the Lancia 037 Group B rally car. Carlo Abarth died in October 1979 and Abarth was shuttered as a company in 1981, replaced by Fiat Auto Gestione Sportiva (later changed to Fiat Auto Corse S.p.A.), but the Abarth name remained, adorning performance Fiats, Lancias and Autobianchis.

70th Anniversary Abarth models (foreground) with the Fiat 124 Abarth Group 4 and the Bertone-designed 1956 Fiat Abarth record car.

In 2007, Abarth was relaunched as Abarth & C. S.p.A., wholly controlled by Fiat (under the FCA banner). Today, American buyers are familiar with the name thanks to the Fiat 500 Abarth and the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth, but the brand remains a performance staple in Europe (where Abarth sales grew 36.5-percent in 2017). Other markets will be getting limited-production Fiat 500 Abarth and Fiat 124 Spider Abarth variants for 2019, but there are no plans to market these in the United States.