|"Down the Plughole. Whatever Happened to
By Russell Bulgin
From CAR magazine, May 1997
A subtle difference in intent separate the bespoilered from the despoiled. Bespoilering is to add a chin-piece, a tail-flap, a swathe of notional sub-sill planking which highlights the sly art of the resin-injection moulder, the daunting science behind self-skinning polyurethane foam.
Despoiling is to get this process horribly, scruffily, cheesily, wrong.
Some contemporary Fiats- Punto, Bravo, Cinquecento Sporting- can now be wrought with after-sales aggrandizement, all manner of dealer-fit delights which, in the name of suburban sexing-up and the crisp visual interaction between big wheels and a purposefully droopy front spoiler, are designed to trigger a long-suppressed hormonal response in blokes who like cars. This stuff, however, isnít slapdashtat. This stuff was born under the sign of the scorpion.
What would Carlo Abarth make of his companyís name becoming, in truth, a brand that focuses on aesthetics rather than engineering? For Abarth, the company, doesnít design these bits: Fiat Centro Stile, obsessive about fit, finish, form, function, flair, flare and finesse, does. Abarth today is just a badge.
Carlo Abarth, you might assume, would just shrug. His entire life was, after all, spent as a practicing pragmatist. When the aftermath of World War Two saw him move from his native Austria to Italy via Yugoslavia, he was no longer Karl Abarth. He became Carlo. Almost Italian: Italian enough, at least.
He had begun by racing bicycles. Then motorcycles. He worked in a Viennese machine shop, linked to the cityís university. Unpaid, Karl Abarth moved to Degan, another bicycle and motorcycle frame maker. He must have been talented- or perhaps just dogged and obdurate- because, in 1927 and barely 20 years old, he moved again to the MT workshop.
Thirteen miles outside Vienna, at Traiskirchen, count Mathias thun, a racing motorcyclist, made his own machines. Soon, Karl Abarth would be test rider and mechanic. This wasnít enough: working part-time back at Degan, he combined a Villiers 250cc engine with a hack frame to make his first motorcycle.
In April 1928, Count Thunís regular rider fell ill. At laxenburg, Abarth deputized- and set fastest practice time. Then another team rider commandeered his bike. In the race, the flywheel fell off Abarthís replacement machine. He suspected sabotage. He told the count to stick his job.
Already, the life of Abarth is submerging into myth, into barely believable stories. He would ride motorcycles, smash his leg up, ride sidecar combinations, turn 500cc Sunbeam motorcycle engines into 600cc rockets. In April 1934 he raced, on a motorcycle, the Orient Express from Vienna to Ostend, a substantial 860-mile journey which took the train exactly one day and one night.
Abarth lost by 15 minutes: electrical failure. He tried again, two weeks later, and won by 20 minutes. That Abarth was stubborn is self-evident. That he had a gift for publicity, for hype, for flim-flammery, was now equally apparent.
By September 1939, he was racing bikes again, in Yugoslavia. He crashed, badly. As he recovered in hospital, the war worsened. Karl Abarth, typically, stayed put. He went to work in the Ljubljana workshop of Ignaz Vok, experimenting on how to make the internal combustion engine run on charcoal slack, as petrol was all but non-existent in wartime Yugoslavia.
At the end of the war, Karl Abarth was 37. He rejoined his father in Italy, became Carlo. He made contact with the Posrche family and Tazio Nuvolari, old friends both: Ferry Porsche was, at that time, a prisoner of the French who had accused him of collaborating with the Nazis.
Abarth set himself up as an intermediary, linking the Porsche design studio with Piero dusio, founder of Cisitalia. Soon, Abarth and Rudolf Hruska would be working for Susio on an advanced four-wheel-drive grand prix car, which resembled a scaled-down Auto Union.
But Dusio ran out of money: he took the car to a new factory in Argentina, but the project faltered. Abarth received no money. Instead, he took some cars and parts as redundancy payment.
On 31 March 1949, Carlo Abarth set up Abarth & C srl. His company. It made performance parts. There would be cars, too, beginning with the 204A Berlinetta at the 1950 Turin Show. Six years later came the Fiat Abarth 750GT: a hot Fiat 600, pre-cursor of the Mini cooper, bored-out, simple, sturdy, fast. Coupes and spiders would follow, with bodies by Zagato, Pininfarina, Bertone. Record-breakers, low and sleek.
Yet the heart of Abarth, the product range, fell somewhere between ported heads and the odd slice of decorative veneer. Abarth, cannily, took the codes and tactility of prestige Italian marques and miniaturized them for the Fiat 500 and the Fiat 600. this might have been to democratize performance and luxury. Or to allow the man in the street to go racing. Or to turn a modest profit.
Abarth would, in time, be absorbed into the Fiat Group. The old company headquarters would become the base for the Lancia rally team, as hard-nosed an operation as top-level motorsport has ever seen.
But Abarth, the bits-business, the car-tweakery, had already written the book on performance turning and sub-branding. BMW M-Technik, Mercedes/AMG, Mugen-Honda: each of these liaisons melding speed, sex appeal and a little something else, follow the blueprint laid by Carlo Abarth.
And it seems apt, in a backhanded way, that the latest Abarth range of components is more about show than go. Times change. Drive-by noise, exhaust emissions, the uncrackable implacability of electronic management systems, mean that engines- in a world fringed by warranty claims and customer satisfaction indices- are best regarded as a sealed unit by those previously predisposed to fiddle and fettle.
So, today, the Abarth logo still appears on parts for Fiats. True, they donít make the car go faster. They just make the driver feel that way. Now thatís a subtle difference of intent, no question.