#001: A is for Abarth…
It was by many accounts, the first purpose-built Touring Car. It was the product of daring vision and depending on who you listen to, clever engineering or liar-liar-pants-on-fire cheating.
It was the Abarth 850/1000 TC Berlina.
The Fiat 600D wasn’t a half-bad place to start. Equipped from the factory with independent suspension, it retained the rear-engine, rear-drive layout that had given the 500 such excellent traction. And what the 633cc pushrod four lacked in revs, it made up in torque — especially for a car weighing a mere 1290 pounds.
As he had done with the 500, Abarth began selling tuned versions for the road, both in kit form and as turnkey racers.
In addition to four-wheel disc brakes and a 75 hp, 850cc engine, every Abarth-tuned 600 ditched the stock three-speed manual in favor of a fully-synchronized five-speed. Not even the fancy Alfa Guilias had this kind of technology, and the road car’s price reflected that fact. Nevertheless, the added volume of road-going cars meant both modifications met the homologation standards for Group 2 racing.
And with that, Abarth had his new race car.
Now, no discussion could be complete without mentioning the TC’s most unique feature: the boot-lid that would never be shut.
Early buyers of the road-tuned TCs complained loudly about the car’s tendency to overheat in traffic. At the time, both the road and race-spec cars kept the radiator where Fiat put it: in front of the engine, at the back of the car.
Carlo solved the problem by propping open the boot-lid and bracing it in place. Somewhat unexpectedly, the open boot-lid drastically reduced drag, making the road cars faster yet.
Taking note of this, Abarth didn’t just bend the rules, like he had with the expensive brakes and gearboxes. By some accounts, he might as well have set the rulebook on fire.
By the time the 1963 season began, both the privateer and factory Abarth TCs were fitted with a fixed engine cover, completely open from the rear, complete with a spoiler in its upturned trailing edge. Seeking approval from the WSCC, Carlo insisted the cover was necessary, since the road cars overheated so easily…
Much to the irritation of the competition, and despite looking absolutely nothing like the 600’s factory boot lid, the new cover was ruled legal. The
cheat change gave the Abarth its uniquely memorable silhouette, much less drag and far more grip than its road car kin.
In 1965, when a combined oil and water cooler were moved to the front of the car, the engine cover remained. (I’d certainly like to hear how Carlo managed to get that one past the marshals.)
In terms of podium finishes and overall success, Abarth would continue to rule Group 1 from the outset. That much was expected. Abarth helped by subsidizing privateer teams, so much so that in many instances, they needed only pay for tires and fuel.
In Group 2, however, the Abarths faced stiff competition from Triumph, MG, Alfa and Porsche - who in 1965 brought the stunning, razor-sharp 904 to bear. (Another story, for another time.)
In 1966, with Giancarlo Baghetti at the helm of the factory works car, Abarth took the Group 2 trophy home. Willi Kauhsen would do the same in ’67. No small names by any measure, those.
[[Editor’s note: This is the first in what I hope will become a series of long-form posts on classic and modern racing icons, interesting one-offs and such. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and I welcome your input... -DM]]