Abarth must surely bear one of the most exciting badges the car industry has ever enjoyed next to the prancing horse. Its bold yellow and red shield plays backdrop to the scorpion that was actually inspired by founder Karl Abarth’s birth sign rather than the popular legend that a number of his rear-engined Fiat-based cars had a sting in their tail.
And while Abarth has been intrinsically linked to Fiat since its inception in 1949, the acclaimed engineer and motorcycle racer’s talent has adorned Porsches, Ferraris, Alfa Romeos and Pininfarina, as well as bespoke Abarth racers, while influencing even more.
Now directly linked to Fiat Group Automobiles, Abarth became famous as a fierce independent thanks to his tuning capabilities and bolt-on accessories in a grand era of go-faster kits. As a result, Abarth is not just a performance badge of honour for Fiat, but a hallowed brand fitting of the legend his cars became.
“Any Abarth was so fundamentally different from its base components that they became cars in their own right,” explains Oscar Rivoli, CEO of Fiat Group Automobiles South Africa. “That mystique and ethos has continued in the Abarth cars available today and owning one of these cars is for the discerning few that will value the special treatment we have given it in South Africa.”
Born in Austria in 1908, Karl Abarth showed an early affinity to all things mechanical. His apprenticeship as a machinist allowed him to realise his love affair with speed through a promising motorcycle racing career where he proved quicker than the establishment thanks not only to his riding talent, but also his fastidious and innovative preparation and mechanical optimisation.
A bad accident put paid to his two-wheel ambitions, revitalized by an equally successful sidecar racing career. He even won a challenge against the infamous Orient Express. But another severe accident re-focused Abarth’s attentions on building cars and running racing teams, first with Cisitalia, then Porsche and ultimately Fiat with an illustrious set of drivers, including the legendary Tazio Nuvolari.
The roots of Abarth as we know the brand today was conceived as a performance kit for the Fiat Topolino that transformed the humble 500cc run-about into an attractive and appealing performance proposition. Later kits on Fiat’s small car line-up could literally double power output, with clever, simple and effective modifications, not least of which was based on a growing demand for Abarth exhaust systems.
After World War 2, Abarth had relocated to Italy as Carlo Abarth and by the early 1950s, Abarth “mufflers” were the performance modification to have on a myriad of cars. Cleverly marketed, with matt-black paint, chrome tailpipes and that bold and bright yellow and red shield, Abarth exhausts not only looked and sounded the part, but made a tangible impact on performance.
Abarth performance kits got momentum later in the 1950s and 1960s with Fiat-based cars – either in production trim or with special bodywork by Zagato among others. Abarth transformed Fiat 500s and 600s in class-winning and world-record breaking performance cars. Abarth went global, taking America by storm and notching up Le Mans, Sebring and Nurburgring endurance successes along the way.
The Fiat Abarth 500 first saw the light of day in 1958. Abarth transformed the original two-cylinder 18bhp bambino into a car capable of 150km/h. Through 595 and 695 models, including “esseesse” derivatives, the ubiquitous Fiat 500 became a force to be reckoned with in the small car world. Its bigger 600-based cars would also go onto mass success in 850TC and 1000TC guise, not to mention the special sports cars and single-seaters spawned from the engine technology.
Now the scorpion adorns a new range of performance Abarths. The 500 and 500C Abarth give the funky Fiat 500 that much more appeal, just as it did originally. And the “esseesse” kit adds flare and performance in even bigger chunks. So legendary is the fabled Abarth scorpion that the 695 “Tributo Ferrari” will see extremely limited production as the ultimate 500.
The Abarth mystique in South Africa will initially be handled by a single Abarth Performance Centre in Johannesburg, with specialised technicians and a dedicated facility.
“As we reintroduce Abarth we do so with a genuine passion for its cars and for the people who have made them great. The spirit of Karl Abarth is still here for all to see in the new range of Abarth cars,” says Rivoli.