10th June 2020

Abarth – the birth of the racing scorpion

Famous as the in-house performance marque for the fastest of Fiats, the history of Abarth dates back to 1908, and started with a bicycle.

Karl Abarth was born in Vienna at the start of the 20th Century and, although not a brilliant student, his inherent love of engineering and machines was obvious from a young age. So was his love of speed and performance and, after progressing from a child’s scooter, his first competitive event was on a French racing bicycle. He’d rebuilt the bike himself and was constantly refining to eke out greater performance.

Ultimately, Karl realised that pedal power was only going to get him so fast and, after a ride on a friend’s motorcycle he was bitten by the petrol-engine bug. From the age of 17, he worked part-time at Italian coachbuilder and engineering firm Castagna, where he produced bicycle and motorbike frames.

Returning to Austria, he worked for Viennese manufacturer Motor Thun and his hard work, attention to detail and dedication was spotted by champion racer Josef Opawsky. His moment to shine came in April 1928, when he was asked to replace a sick rider. Setting fastest time in practice, he was accused by established competitors of unfairly tampering with his bike.

His pride wounded, he then swapped bikes with Opawsky and set the fastest time in the second practice. A mechanical issue robbed him of victory for the race, but he’d already proved his mettle. He went on to win his first race in July the same year on his privately entered bike, a British Grindlay-Peerless.

Success quickly followed, and racing teams vied for the attention of the 20-year-old.

World Championship wins came but a serious accident in May 1930 forced him to stop two-wheel competition. This just shifted his focus, however, and he moved to designing racing sidecars. In 1934 he challenged and beat the Orient Express, travelling over 850 miles from Vienna to Ostend ahead of the famous train. More racing followed, but as WWII loomed, he moved back to Italy and changed his name to Carlo.

In 1939 a serious racing accident in Slovenia that hospitalised him for days, forced Carlo to hang up his helmet and stay in the workshop instead. After the war, he settled in his family’s hometown of Merano and through persistence started working for Ferdinand Porsche on a project that involved the famed Tazio Nuvolari. Over the next few years, he sharpened his business and engineering acumen, and in March 1949 he founded the Abarth & C. company with racing driver Guido Scagliarini.

These were the golden years for Carlo with the company making sports cars and single-seat racers. The company’s own team, Squadra Abarth, achieved some success: Tazio Nuvolari made his last appearance behind a racing wheel in an Abarth in 1950. The company also started making performance parts for cars, and in 1952 started its famous relationship with Fiat, building cars that draw heavily on the company’s components.

Throughout the 1960s Abarth was increasingly successful in hillclimbing and sports car racing, and worked with both with Porsche and Simca. However, the association with Fiat grew and the company produced popular and innovative road cars that were both appealing to the eye and scintillating to drive.

This success culminated in Fiat buying Abarth in 1971, and although the company became the racing department for the Italian manufacturer its remit was watered down over the next 20 years until it was little more than a badge to denote sporty models. Thankfully the brand has re-emerged and is now an independent part of the company, developing a range of high-performance models that are exciting car buyers all over again.

So, why a scorpion as an emblem? Simply it was Carlo’s astrological symbol, and perfectly matched the small and agile nature of his cars.

Have you ever owned an Abarth? Share your story in the comments section below.