In Italy in the 1960s, if something was Abarthizzara, it was superior to the norm. As one Italian author put it, 'Abarthizzata could be....used indiscriminately to describe a particularly well-endowed girl or a garden tool made more efficient as a result of some ingenious alteration.' The more common use for this adjective was to describe cars, of course, but it's evident that a word with such ubiquitous applications could only come about from a truly popular source. The source was Carlo Abarth.
Though born in Austria, Carlo Abarth lived long and prospered in Italy, where his number one goal over the length of his auto-making career was to win races. His earliest efforts, running Cisitalia's racing team, produced impressive race wins. When Cisitalia floundered in 1949, Abarth took several of the chassis and built his first automobiles. His engines were built on Fiat blocks but were blessed by his unique ability to generate maximum power out of minimum metal. Until 1956, his chassis all wore custom bodies provided by Italy's finest carrozzerie, from Allemano to Zagato. While cars and the race tracks were his passion, his bread and butter work was mufflers and high performance exhaust systems.
In April 1956, Abarth's first Fiat 600-bodied automobile appeared at the Turin Salon. The stock Fiat 600 had taken the country by storm the previous year; it was Italy's first new post-war people's car (the original 'people's car,' the Topolino, had been updated in 1952, but still looked hopelessly pre-war). The 600 was affordable, and it was a huge success. For that April show, Abarth lined up six identical Fiat 600 Berlinettas (sedans) that hid under their modest pearl-grey sheet-metal the true star of the show: the Abarth 750 engine. Abarth had transformed Fiat's diminutive 600cc 22-bhp motor into a fire-breathing 747cc 51.5-bhp race-winner. While the design world and international automotive press went gaga over the custom-bodied 750s that appeared alongside those humble sedans (especially the Double Bubble Zagato), the Italian consumers did the opposite: here, finally, was a race car they could afford.
Well, some of them could afford. At first, the process of converting the 750 Berlinettas at the factory was slow and costly. Abarth's exhaust system business kept his small staff too busy to satisfy more than a few Berlinetta customers. All that unsatisfied demand was hard to ignore. So instead of hiring more staff to take apart, modify, repaint, then reassemble all those cars, Abarth decided to offer the conversion as a kit.
The 750 had an illustrious racing career in a mind-boggling array of bodies, both kit and custom, before Abarth went to work on his next great engine. In lat 1960, Fiat introduced the 600D, which increased the stock four-cylinder's displacement to 767 cc. In Abarth's hands that number jumped up to 847 cc. Carlo stretched the 600's 60mm bore to 62.5mm and lengthened the 63.5mm stroke to 69mm. Maximum speed rose to 87.5 mph (as fast as saloon cars with twice the engine size) and torque increased from 5.5 kgm (39.8 lb-ft) to 7 kgm (50.6 lb-ft) at 2800 rpm.
The car was designated 850 TC, for Turismo Competizione, and to meet homologation requirements to race in the 'Touring Competition' class, Abarth had to build 1,000 units, which he (apparently) did by the end of 1961. How many more 850 TCs were built--as cars or kits--is anyone's guess. The kit itself included a crankcase with larger diameter bearing supports, a tempered steel crankshaft, lighter and stronger connecting rods, and lighter pistons with smaller skirts. A new camshaft altering timing and valve lift, a Solex 32 PBIC carburetor and single-pipe manifold wed to the famous Abarth silencer joined valves, valve springs, gaskets, air filter, clamps, and miscellaneous screws to complete the kit. Those all important emblems, grilles, badges and lettering had to be ordered separately. The front radiator (seriously needed to cool the larger motor), perforated disc wheels and larger brakes (definitely recommended!) were also extras obtained for a price.
Despite the price of the kit and the add-on prices for essentials like the radiator and brakes, it was still cheaper for the average Italian to purchase the kit, and do the work themselves (or in cousin Giuseppe's shop) than to pay Abarth to build one. The Abarth-built cars did benefit from extra touches, though, like strengthened front leaf springs, larger rear springs, front disc brakes, the extra radiator mounted below the floor pan and caliper hinges that allowed the engine lid to sit open--a touch that the competition though was for extra cooling, but in fact was a trick that increased the bubble car's aerodynamics considerably. Abarth-built cars also usually received a fancy three-spoke steering wheel and Amadori or Campagnolo wheels. Even though each started with a standard Fiat body, every Abarth-built car was different.
On the race tracks, it didn't matter if your 850 TC was built on Corso Marchie in Turin, or if you'd built it in your own backyard. Depending on the compression you chose, your new Abarth 850 could crank out 52 bhp (at 6000 rpm), 55 bhp (at 6200 rpm) or 57 bhp (at 6500 rpm). These little sedans racked up victories right and left, helping Abarth win the Manufacturer's Championship 7 years running, from 1962 to 1967, and the European 'Challenge' touring 850 Class in '65, '66 and '67. When the 55 bhp version won the tough Nurburgring race in 1963, the cars with the motor henceforth wore that German track's name on their trunk lids. The later 57 bhp version first wore the nickname SS, then took on the word 'Corsa' (Italian for race) and competed in Touring's Group 2 and Group 5. The last two 850TC/Corsas had compression ratios of 12.5:1 and generated 78 bhp at 8000 rpm with the single Solex carburetor, or a whopping 93 bhp at 8000 rpm with two Weber 40 DCOE 2s. Those Group 5 Corsa cars reached top speeds of 190 k/h (118 mph) and wiped out most of the competition.
Thirty years later, Fiat-Abarth 850 TCs are coveted collector cars. Later Corsa models with race histories sell for $50,000 and up. Though there's a small group of Abarthisti who can tell an Abarth-built TC from an Abarth kit car or Fiat replica, the majority of aficionados respect the fact that these cars were meant to be enjoyed by the many, not the few. So there's no shame in building a replica, even if there are no true Abarth parts in the final product, as long as the work is done with respect for the original design, and the owner is honest about it. The car featured here is a perfect example of one way to do it right.
Related Reading : Fiat 850 History
Since 1899 the Fiat name has been a sign of creativity, versatility and practicality. The history of Fiat began at the dawn of Italian Industrialision, and has continued through the decades to keep a sense of distinction upon every vehicle produced. Released in 1964, the Fiat 850 was a small rear-engine rear wheel drive vehicle that was designed in the tradition of the Renault Dauphine. A.... Continue Reading >>
The Carlo Abarth's Fiat conversions were both very popular and equally successful on the racing circuit. His first Fiat 600-bodied car appeared in 1956 and was later offered as a kit conversion as popularity surged. In the late 1960s, Fiat introduc....[continue reading]
Carlo Abarth (1908-1979) founded Abarth %26 C. on 31 March 1949
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