You’d think the prime location of this new racetrack would have meant more to a guy with dozens of Porsches at home. Yet despite being Official Member #1 at the Monticello Motoring Club — meaning nearly unlimited access to its undulating 4.1-mile road course located ninety minutes from Manhattan — Jerry Seinfeld had never actually had a chance to visit this automotive playground for the fiscally endowed, which opened a little more than a year ago.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
At least now, thanks to a heads-up from his pal Ms. Editor Jean Jennings, the poor man has been to Monticello. And so have we, because he wound up inviting us as his guests on the occasion of his first visit, although it’s not like we arrived empty-handed.
While the television comedian has delivered for his amusement and edification some recent acquisitions — an aqua blue GT3 and a Kawasaki green (yow!) Lotus Exige SC — we came for the Abarths. We being: your humble servant, Jennings, and senior editor Joe Lorio. At the track, we met our friends and mechanics the Spadaro brothers, Frank and Santo, who were joined by their junior wrenchmate, Andrew Paredes. They’d come from White Plains, New York, and Domenick’s European Car Repair, a sports car shop founded by their father, Domenick, in 1961. They arrived bearing gifts. For there, in the paddock as we drove up, were three different Abarths, spanning the years 1955 to 2009. Supplied by a crazy cool (but very private) customer of theirs, they formed the field for Automobile Magazine’s first annual Afternoon of Abarth.
Now that Fiat is returning to America to bail out Chrysler, we figured that a crash (no pun intended) course in Abarth, the Turin carmaker’s sometimes racing team and long-standing tuner of choice, was in order. Back in meaningful action after an extended fallow period as a badge casually applied, the Abarth name has long been synonymous with Fiat motorsport and performance. With more than 7400 racing victories to its credit, Abarth represents a big slice of Italy’s performance heritage, thanks to its work in the underrated but fundamentally wonderful corner of the business known as getting the most out of a little. As timely an art in the twenty-first century as it ever was, it’s one to which Abarth is poised to restake its claim, staffed again by Fiat to the tune of dozens of engineers.
Born in Austria in 1908, Karl Abarth studied and apprenticed in Italy, where he fell hard for motorbikes. Returning to Vienna, he became a successful motorcycle racer in the 1920s and ’30s, campaigning machines of his own design and construction. With Hitler’s ascent to power, however, Abarth was eventually compelled to hightail it out of Austria, on account of his Jewish ancestry.
The war concluded and his racing career ended, Karl Abarth left his Yugoslavian hideout and ventured to Italy, the country of his mother’s birth. Tuning his first name to beef up local appeal, Carlo Abarth took up duty as technical and racing director for Turin’s exciting start-up, Cisitalia. Here he would renew his association with the Porsches, Ferdinand and Ferry, through a technical partnership on an ill-fated Cisitalia grand prix car. His long relationship with the soon-to-be-internationally-famous Germans had begun before the war by amazing coincidence, arising from his wife’s former job as a legal secretary for the elder Dr. Porsche‘s son-in-law, Anton Piëch.
When Cisitalia folded in 1949, its primary owner, Piero Dusio, departed hastily for Argentina, leaving Abarth, who was owed money, several sports car projects and miscellaneous parts, which he soon rejiggered into Abarth & Co. S.r.l. Trading under a distinctive scorpion crest that represented his astrological sign, Abarth sold various performance equipment for road and racing cars but earned prosperity and international acclaim for his aftermarket exhausts. Inspired by the design of a pistol silencer, the exhausts sounded great, actually enhanced performance, and were soon standard equipment on Ferraris.
Postwar Italy being the engineering and metalworking mecca it was, it wouldn’t be long before Abarth started making his own cars, typically based on Fiat bits, with lighter, more aerodynamic coachbuilt bodies. Abarth, who had arranged with Fiat to be paid each time his cars won races — even in the hands of privateers — was not alone in his interconnected closeness to Fiat. But where the car-constructing efforts of other symbiotic independents like Siata, Nardi, and Ermini fell by the wayside where Fiat was concerned, Abarth’s ties with the industrial giant grew ever stronger as it built successful series-production automobiles. There would, through the years, be Abarths with Renault and Simca power, and one limited-production model was based on an already hot Porsche. Needless to say, Seinfeld owns one of the twenty-one 356B Carrera GTL Abarths that were built.
By the 1960s, success, expertise, and an undying thirst for competition would move Abarth to engineer still more complete racing cars, venturing to the final frontier by making his own engines. But the cost was punishing and ultimately resulted in the favored tuner’s acquisition by Fiat in 1971. Not a well man in later life, Carlo Abarth died at the age of seventy in 1979. Today, we remember two of his great creations and one inspired by them.
1955 Fiat ABARTH 207A
The Boano-bodied 207A was a small, open, sports-racing car that drew liberally from the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive Fiat 1100, a sedan that, while humble, was quite progressive for its day. Designed to sell in America, where Carlo’s signature exhausts had already introduced the Abarth name, ten or twelve cars commissioned by New York importer Tony Pompeo were built with Fiat-derived engines (the others were Alfa Romeo-powered). Supported by a box-section steel frame, the 207A was exceptionally rigid compared with most of its rivals, and the 66 hp extracted from its 1089 cubic centimeters was noteworthy, dwarfing the 50 hp available from the standard Fiat engine. However, its aluminum coachwork notwithstanding, the 207A was heavy (1148 pounds), which rendered it generally uncompetitive, undone by Lotus‘s 9 (925 pounds) and 11 (1020 pounds) models. It was also expensive (about $5000, or double the cost, in 1955, of a Triumph TR2).
Today, we are struck by how low and small this first Abarth is, but even more by the car’s enduring beauty, the timeless work of coachbuilder Felice Mario Boano (good looks very possibly explain why at least eight still exist). The 207A — also advertised as the Spyder 1100 — was influential beyond its sales figures, mind-blowingly so, for it was acknowledged by General Motors design chief Bill Mitchell as one of the inspirations for the 1959 Sting Ray racer.
Credited to Peter Brock, Chuck Pohlman, and Larry Shinoda, that car would go on to set the mold for our favorite production Corvette design of all time, the midyear models of 1963-1967. (Check out those raised, creased fender tops.) The 207A is exquisitely constructed and, although hardly fast by any standard, is a delight to drive. Mellifluous chrome side pipes showcase Abarth’s exhaust expertise, while a pair of sucking side-draft Webers add to the rich complement of aural delights, accompanying flat cornering, a slick-shifting gearbox, and an agreeable chassis in an altogether charming package.
1956 Fiat ABARTH 750GT ZAGATO
In a career filled with highlights, Abarth’s greatest hits were the various lightweight permutations he’d offer based on Fiat’s 600 (and later 500) economy cars. Smaller than the 1100 and rear-engined to boot, the factory-bodied Abarth 750s were wildly successful in their day and remain a staple at vintage races all over the world. When new, these and the top-of-the-line 750GT Zagato coupe variant seen here so impressed American enthusiasts that one of FDR’s sons, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., jumped onboard as Abarth’s U.S. importer (through his Roosevelt Automobile Company of Washington, D.C.) in the mid-1950s. (In an interesting sidelight, FDR Junior moved to peddling tuned Fiats right after his national political career went up in smoke for crossing New York’s Tammany Hall.)
Based on the factory’s 600 floorpan, the 750GT coupe was lighter and more aerodynamic, with Fiat’s micro-engine often bored out to 850 cc (even though it was called a 750). Sporting the now-iconic “double bubble” bodywork that became the signature of Carrozzeria Zagato of Milan, it was an instantly effective competition device, winning its class at the Mille Miglia, Le Mans, Sebring, Daytona Beach, and countless other venues and continuing to win races while remaining in production from 1956 through 1960. Many know the Abarth double bubble for the distinctive way it runs with its engine cover partway open, offering cooling benefits to its rear-mounted powerplant but, more important, aiding aerodynamics.
The car in which we hit the track had been the subject of extensive ministrations by the Spadaro brothers and profited from obsessive attention to detail, driving the way we wished all old cars did, like a new one. It was our favorite, owing partly to the qualities of the car – it’s a much more civilized ride than the roadster, not much heavier, and no less fun to drive, with pin-sharp steering and a rev-crazy engine that kicks out 47 hp. A number that sounds pathetic — like it wouldn’t even dry clothes in a spin dryer — proves rather amusing, winding relentlessly and shoving the 750GT to a top speed of almost 90 mph. Get the rear settled before accelerating out of the corner and smiles abound. No wonder those in the know consider the 750GT in the same thought bubble as old Porsches.
FIAT 500 ABARTH ASSETTO CORSE
The retro-kicky new Fiat 500 is expected to arrive in the United States by 2011. In addition to the two-door hatchback, a runaway hit in Europe, look for a convertible, a wagon, and a mini-SUV. Enthusiasts will keep their eyes peeled for the 135-hp Abarth 500, with considerably more power than base models. But one 500 you won’t see here is this one, number twenty-six of forty-nine Fiat 500 Abarth Assetto Corses. A racing car built to compete in multiple European support series, it’s already sold out its limited run, but our Abarth-loving benefactor had the foresight to buy one off the stand at the Turin show and bring it to America. We’re glad he did, because it comes closer to fulfilling the Abarth ideal than any Fiat model in ages.
With a mere 1.4 liters of displacement, a tiny engine by modern standards, the Assetto Corse (meaning racing trim) still wins the largest-engine-of-the-day contest here walking away. And that’s before you consider its 200 turbocharged and intercooled hp or the 221 lb-ft of torque being pumped vigorously through its seventeen-inch front wheels. This is nothing like walking.
Sitting inside the Assetto Corse’s stripped, carbon-fibrous interior, helmet snug and all cinched tight in its single racing seat, it’s easy to see where 397 pounds have been shed, even with the addition of a full roll cage. So lightened, this Abarth is scary fast, a virtual supercar next to the company we’ve been keeping.
Because the nonadjustable seat is set for a taller driver, I can barely see out and have a slightly tentative purchase on the pedals, which only magnifies the terrorizing effect of so much get up and go running through the front wheels in a tall, narrow car with crazy turn-in.
But leave it to Seinfeld to zero in on the most esoteric of differences between Abarth’s tiny new rocket versus its more languidly beautiful creations of the 1950s:
“The materials in the new 500 just don’t excite me like the older stuff does. If only they could figure out a way to get that old-car smell into a new car. I don’t know if it’s the paint or the horsehair or the carpet — old cars never run out of smell. That’s the only thing I don’t understand; they continue to pump out smell year after year.
“I don’t know, I’d rather go slower and smell that stinky smell.”