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Sting in the tail - Driven: Classic Abarths

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Fiat's rear-engined baby 600 was unassuming - until it wore the scorpion badge of tuner Carlo Abarth.

‘It’s noisy!’ says Tony Castle-Miller. A succinct statement of 
fact and also a definition of understatement, ‘noisy’ being a totally inadequate adjective to describe the level of sound generated by an Abarth 1000TCR.

The ten-minute warm-up session (‘You have to make sure the oil in an Abarth is really thoroughly warmed up,’ says Tony; ‘there’s almost as much circulating as there is water, maybe more!’) did nothing to contradict the fact that it was noisy but still did not prepare the senses for the absolutely deafening din inside the car. In this modern age it would require a health warning pasted to the roof. I can’t imagine what 500 miles thrashing round the Nürburgring would do to the senses.

With no power below 6000rpm and a gearchange point at 8000rpm, the constantly snarling, screaming bark of the tiny 1000cc engine, the greedy sucking of air into the two massive sidedraught Webers, the metallic rattling of the sintered clutch and the whine of the gearbox combine into a madman’s musique concrete symphony of noise as the full 112bhp batters at the very fabric of the tin shell. And that’s with the ‘quiet’ exhaust fitted, to placate the locals!

By comparison the TC is quiet, but then, of course, everything is relative. It still buzzes with energy but as it is fully trimmed inside (even with the standard-looking but Abarth-lightened rear seats) much of the sting is taken out of the noise by the sound-deadening effect. The tune that the car plays is the same, but taken down a few decibels – more sotto voce than fortissimo.

The 1950s were the decade of mobilization for the Italian working classes (as, indeed, they were for most of Europe) and the 600 was Fiat’s contribution to Europe’s post-war swing to the rear-engine location as the way forward for small family cars. It was introduced in 1955, the first elaborazione-derivazione Abarth-modified 600 appeared 
almost immediately, and the Abarth factory continued to work its 
magic on this humble saloon for another 15 years. It’s unlikely that 
any other mass-produced car has undergone such extensive and continuous development for racing, transforming it from a 21.5bhp family runabout and bursting through the 100bhp-per-liter (without forced induction!) barrier on the way to becoming a 112bhp race-winning, wheel-waving track legend.

Carlo Abarth was a snappy dresser, both in his later ‘Italian’ 
identity and his ‘first’ life as Austrian motorcycle ace Karl. Study the photographs of Karl Abarth and it is evident that from his earliest 
years he had an eye for fashion and an innate sense of style – an 
attribute not obviously associated with the rough-and-tumble oily world of bike racing. Whether attired in voluminous, chequered plus-fours and tight-fitting glossy zip-up leather motorcycle jacket or, with 
racing sidecar passenger, sporting matching polka-dot scarves, the young Karl cut a dash.

As an ‘Italian’ businessman, Carlo was no less fashionable, always immaculately dressed and invariably with a neatly folded handkerchief in his breast pocket. Appearances clearly meant a lot to signor Abarth and his beautifully presented cars reflected that, with their striking graphics and attention to detail. Of course, a great paintjob doesn’t make a great race car but Abarths were far from all show and no go, 
and for more than a decade they set the pace and were the cars to beat in the small-capacity racing classes.

In the turmoil of post-war Europe Karl/Carlo Abarth found employment first as an intermediary between Italian industrialist 
Piero Dusio’s Cisitalia sports car concern and the Porsche design consultancy, then still situated in Gmund, Austria (in 1934 Abarth married the secretary of the Viennese lawyer Anton PiΫch, husband of Louise Porsche, Ferdinand Porsche’s sister), and later as Cisitalia’s competition manager.

Dusio was building some very pretty and successful sports cars based around Fiat 1100 components but his ambition to build a 
Porsche-designed grand prix car over-extended his company, which went broke. Out of work, Carlo and several key ex-Cisitalia colleagues set up their own company, Abarth & C., in April 1949.

In only a few years Abarth & C. was producing an astonishing 
range of performance-enhancing exhausts, inlet manifolds and accessories for cars as different as the Volkswagen Beetle and the Jaguar XK120, as well as building a small number of Abarth cars based around the familiar Fiat 1100.

At the 1956 Turin show Abarth & C. premiered its improved version of the Seicento. Abarth offered a kit of parts that virtually doubled the horsepower of the little 633cc engine from 21.5bhp to 41.5bhp (those fractions of power clearly being very important to both Fiat and Abarth). The kit comprised a bore and stroke increase from 60 by 56mm to 61 by 64mm, which upped capacity to 747cc. The elongated stroke required 
a new crankshaft, which was complemented by a hotter camshaft, new pistons, valves, valve springs and a larger 
sump. The carburettor was changed to a Weber 32IMPE and there was, of course, a special four-branch exhaust system. Maximum revs were up from 4600 to 5500rpm and compression from 7.8:1 to 9:1. Speed increased from 95km/h to an 
impressive 130km/h.

The Derivazione Abarth 750 was an immediate hit among the young, sporty and fashionable, much as the Mini would be several years later in Britain. Ten ‘Abarths’ competed in that year’s Mille Miglia, with one (wearing a beautiful Zagato body) winning its class in the Gran Turismo category.

To add even more lustre to an already glowing reputation, Abarth set a host of international endurance records using his 750 engine in a beautiful dorsal-finned single-seat streamliner designed by Scaglione and built by Bertone. With a top speed of 192km/h, the tiny jewel of a car circulated the Monza track for 24 hours at an average speed a gnat’s whisker under 156km/h (96mph). A succession of record cars followed and international class records tumbled.

The enormous publicity encouraged Fiat to offer Abarth a bounty for every win and record. For the next decade the small-capacity classes of every major race around the world (and many less so) were dominated by Fiat Abarths. Victories peaked in the mid-1960s, with 741 wins in 1964, 900 in 1965, and in 1966 a staggering 904 first places! Abarth claimed more than 6000 victories for his Fiat-based cars between 1956 and 1971.

The tuner added a bhp here and a bhp there, to the point where you could order a ‘sprint’ motor pumping out 47bhp. But there was a lot more to come and by 1959 another capacity increase to 847cc saw the output jump to 57bhp at 6500rpm. The result of this ongoing development was a bewildering number of bore/stroke/compression ratio combinations.

In 1960 Fiat introduced its own ‘big bore’ 767cc engine in the 600D and it was on this model that Abarth really hit its stride, with the introduction of the charismatic 850TC (Turismo Competizione) in early 1961, followed in ’62 by a 1000cc companion, available in both road and Corsa versions. The 1000cc cars, however, used Abarth’s own casting of the earlier 600 block rather than Fiat’s new 600D block: Fiat had changed the 600D’s internal oil system and switched to a centrifugal filter on the nose of the crank – adequate for a road car but not up to the rigours of racing. With the TC came Girling disc brakes, initially at the front only but soon at the rear too.

The steady increase in power not only tested the brakes but was also stretching the cooling ability of the rear-mounted radiator, so a slim supplementary radiator was fitted under 
the car amidships. Not a great location, and this radiator quickly migrated to the nose, at first simply hanging there naked but soon to be shrouded by a neat glassfibre fairing. Eventually the rear-mounted radiator disappeared entirely, replaced by a larger combination oil-and-water rad mounted low on the nose of the car. This configuration is the Abarth look that most people associate with the 600.

The other component of that look was at the opposite end of the 
car: the famous propped engine cover. Getting enough cooling air into and out of the rear engine compartment had always been a priority 
and the earliest modified cars could be seen with engine covers raised by a few inches but, somewhere along the line, Abarth noticed that if the lid was propped horizontally it improved the aerodynamics, adding several mph to the top speed. This was a secret well worth keeping 
and Abarth allowed the public, and the competition, to continue to assume that the new look was simply for cooling.

Although the Turin factory was busy building Abarth-converted 600s, the kits and accessories were also offered around the world via approved dealers. For the impecunious Abarth enthusiast the lowest state of tune for an ‘Abarthised’ Fiat 600 was a scorpion badge on the engine cover, but a badge alone left the driver open to ridicule and a rorty free-flow exhaust was really the minimum requirement on the long road to a full-house Abarth conversion.

Tony Castle-Miller, who owned his first 600 before he was legally allowed to drive, started his Abarth odyssey with just such a toe-in-the-water approach after a visit to Radbourne Racing, the mid-1960s Abarth agent and race-shop tucked away in London’s Notting Hill, but he quickly graduated to the full box of tricks. Little could he guess 
that, 40 years and an endless succession of TCs later, he would 
become a latter-day Radbourne with his Middle Barton Garage.

The TC and TCR featured both started life in 1966 as factory-built Group 2 spec 1000TCs (1000 units per year produced), but Tony’s personal Middle Barton car was constantly updated during its racing life, taking full advantage of homologated goodies as and when the factory introduced them, and in 1970 evolved into a full-house, wide-bodied Radiale version. It continued to race in this form before being retired in 1975.

Tony has owned the car since 1998, competing with it extensively 
– and successfully – across Europe. Radiale referred to the shape of 
the combustion chambers in the special Abarth-designed eight-port crossflow cylinder head, which was completely different to the 
600-style single-port head. The TC, on the other hand, remains as delivered in ’66, even retaining the full interior trim so often jettisoned by owners seeking to save weight, and has just emerged from a comprehensive going-over at Middle Barton for owner and long-time Abarth enthusiast John Lloyd.

Mid-1960s touring car regulations restricted bodywork mods so the TC looks almost standard, with a small lip on the front wheelarches and a subtle bulge on the rears to accommodate the 4½x13in Campagnolo-Abarth magnesium rims. The TCR, on the other hand, conformed to the more liberal, new for 1970, Appendix J regulations and has the full glassfibre rear extensions covering 8x13in rims, with 7x13s at the front, and an extended rear wing that has abandoned 
any pretence of being an engine cover.

The cars are a joy to contemplate, from the Abarth-inscribed 
(and invented) rubber bungees holding the bonnet down, to the wonderfully finned magnesium split-sump with ABARTH picked out in red, and those Abarth-designed Campagnolo Elektron wheels: there 
is a wealth of detail on which to feast the eye. But, given Carlo Abarth’s attention to detail and the almost endless succession of accessories 
he produced, the very ordinary (and original) ironmonger’s door-latch screwed to the door to stop it springing at speed comes as a surprise and a disappointment. A lovely little cast-magnesium Abarth number would have been the final treat!

Both cars are not only about revs but also grip: the 
way they grip the tarmac and the way they grip you. After you’ve squeezed past the bars of the full rollcage you have to force yourself down into a deep-sided Abarth bucket. From the hip-hugging fit it’s pretty obvious that the seat of your pants and the car will be as one but, to make sure that the driver is in full control of his ‘loose bits’ and even more wedded to the chassis, there is also a vertical padded brace for the right leg rising from the central tunnel just ahead of the gearlever and, for the left, a similar padded extension jutting from the door.

On a streaming wet track there would be no wheel-waving antics ahead but, with the weight bias over the driving wheels, there is no lack of drive off the line and, with the revs up and the light clutches out, both cars take off like drag racers. The distinctive parallelogram wipers (designed to stop them lifting off the screen at high speed) have a slightly disconcerting motion, bobbing up and down like a pair of Punch and Judy puppets as they traverse the screen, distracting attention away from the job in hand: changing gear.

In the TCR in particular, feet and hands have to move with the speed of light to change gear and keep the engine singing – or perhaps screaming might be a better description. The five-speed dog-leg gearbox requires barely a flick of the wrist to select cogs, with the four higher gears being in almost the same plane. The change point (and maximum power) is at a hysterical 8200rpm in the TCR, the TC only a couple of hundred revs lower, and with close-ratio ‘sprint’ gearing and the throttle mashed to the floor the revs barely drop between gears.

The lowered suspension, wider track, wider rubber, anti-roll bars and several degrees of negative camber combined with the short wheelbase result in kart-like directional precision, and only tiny movements of the thick-rimmed steering wheel are required to adjust course. Of course, with the engine at the rear, the steering remains pleasantly light and effort-free. A major surprise is how both cars absorb surface irregularities. I’d expected a choppy, teeth-jarring ride on the far-from-smooth surface but the suspension compliance is soft enough to absorb bumps without disturbing steering or driver.

The smooth ride can no doubt be attributed in part to 
the Abarth-modified front suspension, which replaced the standard Fiat-type. The transverse spring, which also doubled as location 
for the dampers, was replaced by a solid beam with 
wishbones and Koni coil-over-shocks at either end. In the 
ever-evolving struggle to keep all four wheels on the tarmac, more 
and more of the Fiat suspension was discarded. The final 
development was the so-called pendolare rear suspension, a 
tubular steel trailing-arm set-up that further lowered the car by an 
inch and completely replaced the few remaining Fiat components. Indeed, by 1970 little more than the bodyshell could actually claim to have been a product of the Fiat factory.

The diminutive TC was a true giant-killer, always punching above its weight and mixing it with the bigger saloons, winning the European Touring Car class championship in 1966, ’67, ’69 and 1970 (a BMC Mini won in ’68). Spectators were entertained and enthralled by the sight of duelling TCs powering through bends with their inside front wheels lifting way off the deck in balletic synchronicity.

The end of the factory-developed Abarth TC era came in 1971 when the FIA moved the break point for the class capacity to 1300cc. The one-litre Abarths simply were not competitive against cars with almost a third more capacity, and left the arena. Italian industry was plagued by industrial unrest and Carlo Abarth decided to call time. He sold his company to Fiat and retired in 1972. But the famous scorpion badge – Karl/Carlo’s zodiac sign – lives on...

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