Carlo Abarth: A Passionate Visionary

Cars People

written by Neil Siner

As the company that Carlo Abarth moves into its 50th year, Influx looks at the man and his legacy.

Born 1908 in Vienna, Karl Abarth was reincarnated in post war Italy as Carlo, the true renaissance man of world motoring. Sportsman, engineer and businessman ‘The Magician’ excelled in every aspect of the car industry – from performance exhaust systems, innovative motorcycle racing technologies (see the flexible sidecar setup he invented below) to full ground up builds. If he launched his business now he’d be called an artisan, an indie savant making bespoke vehicles and collaborating with, but never becoming absorbed fully by, the mainstream motoring industry. By the time of his death in 1979 Mr Abarth had notched up ten world records, built and sold a successful automotive business and left a legacy of vehicles still in production today.

Carlo -abarth-riding
Abarth was focussed heavily on motorcycle racing in the 1930s…

A talented engineer in his teens apprenticed to the prestigious Degan works, Carlo Abarth became a fearless motorcycle racer, first for Austrian manufacturer Motor Thun, then going alone and winning five European championships before an accident cut short his racing career. From the wreckage emerged the visionary businessman and constructor that test driver Arturo Merzario (the man who pulled Niki Lauda from that infamous fireball) described as “A hard man with a big heart”.

The boss defined the term ‘hands-on’…

Numerous Abarth works drivers and employees like Mezario describe a big, passionate man, easily moved both to tears or abject anger. Expecting great things from himself and those around him, he would push his team with the direct and fearless approach that he carried forward from his driving days. In his famous ‘newspaper’ test he showed himself as a man who took trust in his machines and his drivers to the limit. He would stand on the test track with the page of a newspaper beneath his feet, instructing his drivers to pass him so close that they took the slither of print away in their wakes.

Abarth could feed back as a veteran racer…

Like many renaissance men Carlo’s true genius lay in being ahead of the curve. His unique legacy is in helping to create a market of accessible performance. Abarth editions of every-man cars allowed ordinary motorists to feel like a racing driver, particularly in his collaborations with Fiat on the super successful Fiat 500 and 600 models he made racing car performance a realistic prospect for the every-man. But the key to his success was as the innovative king of vehicle personalisation and elaboration, by producing a myriad of conversion kits and components that any enthusiast could fit; he was the alchemist that made the ordinary extraordinary.

…as well as a brilliant engineer

Merzario recalls being at dinner with ‘The Magician’ on the eve he sold out to Fiat and the big man saying through flowing tears ‘I now have money, but no more am I the owner of my name’. But now, in the Abarth’s third act, the brand resides at the heart of the renaissance of the FIAT behemoth – but they’re still making incredibly appealling tune packages for the rump vehicles.

More importantly, through the way the kits are delivered, the Abarth cognescenti still get to feel connected to a passionate, hands-on tradition.