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Fiat Abarth classics

Broadcast date : 27th August 2006

Carlo Abarth was born in Austria but lived most of his life in Italy, and in the 1950’s and ‘60s he was a legend that rivaled the great Ferdinand Porsche.

Jerry Spaans’ interest in Fiats and Carlo Abarth stems back to his hotrod days when he raced at the Pretoria Mahem circuit in the 1970s. 

Marriage and business intervened, but a few years ago he began supplementing his Abarth model car collection with the real thing. But he remains fascinated with Carlo Abarth, the man.
The parallels between Abarth’s career and Porsches are fascinating. Whereas Porsche’s great legacy remains the Volkswagen Beetle, Abarth’s is the tuned version of the Italian People’s Car, the Fiat 600.

Both were miracles of space packaging, thanks to a rear-engined design. But when an enthusiast saw that Scorpion badge, he knew this car meant business.

There are many counterfeit Fiat Abarths running around in the world, for the simple reason that Carlo Abarth marketed kits to turn standard Fiat 600s into Abarths.

But he also produced complete cars like this 850 TC, and one of the ways of identifying the car is to look at the interior.

The genuine cars had a comprehensive three-dial instrument cluster with Jaeger rev counter, a plastic-rimmed aluminium three-spoked racing steering wheel, 850 TC interior badging and, well, not much else.

Exterior ID marks include badging, the famous twin exhaust, the deep cast-alloy sump and of course the open engine lid, as if the motor was so powerful the little Fiat couldn’t contain it.

Jerry’s restorations are so good because they don’t look like restorations, they look like the genuine new factory article. The immaculate 850 cc Abarth motor runs a small Weber carb, a modified cylinder head, and it can rev to well over seven-thousand five-hundred rpm with absolute smoothness.
Even more lethal from a competition point of view were the special-bodied Abarths which Carlo and his merry band of elves built in amazing numbers and varieties.

This tiny racer was designed and bodied by Zagato, the same styling house that gave us various renditions of Ferraris, Alfas and Aston Martins.

The Fiat Abarth Zagato 750 GT coupe, or "double bubble", as it’s commonly known, is chock-a-block with exquisite detail. 

And no, that body is not fiberglass but aluminium, as is just about every other part of the car, apart from the stainless steel door handles.

This car was originally owned by sports car racer Lew Baker. It was restored in a Johannesburg panel shop – and it has a unique shape.

Something special too was this classic interior, with shades of Alfa Romeo in its instrument layout. To get so much poke out of a tiny 750 cc engine in those days was not easy, with no computers, no electronic engine management or variable cam timing.

This car was extremely fast, and there were special versions that were even faster. Abarth cars were constantly setting international speed records in their engine capacity classes while on the racetrack they were perennial class winners.

Jerry’s good friend Abie Fullard turned up in Pretoria with an Abarth of his own, and his 1969 Fiat Abarth 1300 OT – which stands for Omolagato Turismo –illustrates the pace of car development between 1959 and 1969.

Next to the 850 and the Zagato, this 850-based Abarth is a modern motorcar. And a massively fast one too.

There are a few 850 coupes left in South Africa, but this is probably the only Abarth. 

An instant identification mark, apart from the more modern scorpion badging, is the fitment of pressed steel widened wheels.

Not just any wheels though. Look for those special cooling slots, and, of course, the Abarth hubcaps.

That 180 km/h speedo marking is not optimistic! The car weighed only 700  kilograms. 

And with that hot 124 motor, it ran a 0-100 in around 11 seconds, and a genuine top speed of over 170 km/h.

These guys love all Fiats, not just the hot ones. Jerry Spaans slowest car is also one of the cutest.

The nice thing about restoring a car like a Fiat 500 Jolly is that apart from the whicker seats, it’s relatively simple because there are practically no interior trim parts.

But Jerry Spaans is not afraid of the real nitty gritty of full restorations. This includes full engine rebuilds which are painstaking when it comes to Abarth bits and pieces as the components are so rare.

Jerry’s latest project is the restoration of a very special sports car Abarth, a 1971 model built just before Carlo Abarth sold his business to Fiat.

This car was found in a ditch in Cape Town, and is one of three known to exist in South Africa. Jerry has been busy on it for three years.

The twin side draught Webers give a clue to this car’s potential.

Show cars indeed, but ones that are meant to be driven, and driven hard. Priceless stuff.

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