Karl Abarth was born in November 1908 in Vienna and as a boy became a very competitive bicycle racer who could maintain his own bikes and as he got older he started to look at the new motorcycles that were hitting the market. By the time he was 16, he was working for a motorcycle chassis builder and a tuner and he designed his first full motorcycle at the age of 20!
The tuner offered him a ride in the 1928 Austrian Motorcycle Grand Prix and he subsequently beat everyone in qualifying but a mysterious problem meant he failed to finish. There was talk of sabotage by other riders! Having parted company with Thun, the tuning house, he bought a British made Grindlay-Peerless 250 and rebuilt it to win several races. This got the interest of the German DKW firm who hired him. He was also building his own Abarth motorcycles but had a serious accident and decided that building sidecars was a better option – similar to the idea that Swallow Sidecars had and they later became Jaguar Cars.
The Second World War was looming and Abarth became an Italian citizen (thanks to his father’s parentage) changing his first name to Carlo and he moved to Yugoslavia to escape the war. In 1945 he moved to Italy and became the Porsche representative whilst also providing work for Cisitalia, a tuning house & coachbuilder specialising in FIATs. The combined work for these two companies (a Cisitalia Porsche Grand Prix car) encouraged Abarth to go it alone, and in 1949 he created Abarth & Co using his Zodiac sign, the Scorpion, as the logo. The company was in effect a racing team and by the end of 1949, they had won the Italian Formula 2 championship using cars modified from the now-defunct Cisitalia company.
This success made Abarth think about mass production and they started by producing performance parts for existing Italian cars including water pumps and exhaust systems. This provided the cash flow to keep the racing team going and to explore the development of a road vehicle.
And 1951 saw the arrival of the first true Abarth road car – the 205A, a reworked Cisitalia 204A with a 2+2 body by Vignale. Abarth also worked on prototypes with Bertone and Ghia, who he contracted to build a new body based on a FIAT 1100 chassis. He then took the FIAT 600 and put a sports coupe body on it calling it the 750GT. This was a hugely successful car for him and allowed the development of more FIAT Abarth models using pretty much all the Italian coachbuilders, even including Zagato and Pininfarina for two different body styles on the 500!
At the end of the 1950s, FIAT approached Abarth with an unusual contract – they would pay Abarth for every world record or victory that a FIAT Abarth won. The payment was based on the importance of the victory or record. This was obviously good marketing for both companies!
With the success of the FIAT relationship, Abarth signed another agreement with Simca of France to produce tuned versions of their 1100 and 1300 models. Throughout the 1960s, the Abarth racing team was winning sports car championships and selling the sporty road versions as well as tuning kits for FIATs, however, with economical conditions faltering it was time for more financial support.
So in 1971, FIAT acquired the company and they became the internal tuning shop and the factory racing and rally team. The Autobianchi A112 Abarth was the road going sports hatch of the 1970s whilst the FIAT 124 and 131 Abarths were very successful on the world rally scene. Abarth himself died in 1979 just as the Abarth brand was declining inside FIAT, who themselves were struggling financially.
However the Scorpion lives on! In recent years with the re-launch of the FIAT 500, and 20 odd years after the last Abarth model, the name has come back to take its place as the tuned version of the 500. A new Abarth company was created – still owned by FIAT – to provide sports and racing versions of FIAT cars – the first being the 500/595/695 Abarth, the Grande Punto Abarth and the Grande Punto Abarth S2000. These cars live up to the original mantra of providing more bang for your buck with an aggressive restyled car and lots of extra horses!
With the re-introduction of the FIAT 124 sports convertible developed in conjunction with Mazda, Abarth has a new winner on its hands with the Abarth 124 – a much better version and a true Abarth!