The Abarth reputation as a giant-killer was cemented on the racetracks, rallies and hillclimbs of Europe and America, as funny-looking but potent little Fiat sedans stormed to class wins and group championships in event after event.
Based on the Fiat 600D introduced in 1960, the 850 TC, for Turismo Competizione, boasted an 847-cc, Abarth-tuned engine with 52 horsepower capable of a 92-mph top speed. Disc brakes were fitted as part of the enhanced suspension package. From the TC came the 850 TC Nürburgring Corsa, with an additional 16 horsepower and the large front-mounted radiator. This, combined with the propped-open rear engine lid, gave this series of cars their very distinctive look. That raised engine cover, first done in the name of more efficient engine cooling, also had the not-inconsequential benefit of acting as a very useful rear wing, which generated considerable downforce to help plant the rear drive wheels of the car.
Next up was a further development of the block to 982-cc, which gave birth to the Fiat Abarth 1000 TC. Running against the heretofore dominant Mini Coopers in the D Sedan class, they proved a formidable adversary. In fact, they ended up being banned from SCCA competition, such was their record.
The 1967 Fiat Abarth TC Berlina Corsa offered here was discovered by the vendor in 1997 sitting in a back yard in Paso Robles, CA. Part of an estate being liquidated, it was missing its engine and wheels, and parts were scattered about. A two-year search ensued to locate the correct pieces to begin a rebuild, aided by information from Al Cosentino, a noted authority who was once an Abarth importer and racer. As completed, the car is fitted with a full-race, high-performance 1050-cc Abarth engine, said to deliver 110 horsepower at the 8,000-rpm redline. It puts that power through a 5-speed Abarth transmission and a limited-slip, close-ratio differential. An Abarth remote oil filter works with the front-mounted oil cooler and Abarth radiator to keep things cool at speed, and Girling disc brakes haul it down when needed. Koni shocks and Campagnolo Abarth wheels — six-inch in the front and eight-inch in rear — keep things nailed down around corners, as does the evolutionary rear engine hatch, which is a fixed spoiler.
The original 1967 instruments can be seen in the factory binnacle, while a few additional modern gauges to monitor all engine systems have been sensitively mounted atop and below the dashboard. This Fiat Abarth remains a potent racing weapon, having recently been run in VARA events at Las Vegas and Buttonwillow as well as in HSR events at Las Vegas and Phoenix. It has been the winner of the Phoenix Historic Festival “Mini Cooper/Abarth/Lotus Challenge” three consecutive years, and the vendor states it to be “the fastest Berlina Corsa on the West Coast.”
|Vehicle:||1967 Fiat-Abarth 1000 TC Berlina Corsa|
This car, Lot 303, sold for $46,800, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Scottsdale auction on January 19, 2012.
When people think about Italian racing cars, they almost exclusively imagine Ferraris and Maseratis — even Alfa Romeos. In short, they picture relatively large, snarling examples of exotic engine technology powering svelte alloy bodies mounted on hand-built chassis and suspensions.
This scenario is only partly right. The vast majority of Italian racing automobiles (by number, if not reputation) of the past 70 years have been tiny, obscure and weird.
From Cisitalia through Giannini and Moretti and on to Abarth, they have been mostly Fiat-based, limited-production, almost-specials — cars that are more cute than fearsome. They have embodied the post-war Italian reality and personality: limited by government, taxes and pocketbook — but still determined to charge flat out down the road with as much speed, style and verve as possible.
The Stan Mott “Cyclops” caricature drawings in Road & Track caught the essence of these cars. The Cyclops drawings were clearly based on some variation of the Fiat Abarth, a tiny Quonset hut above four tiny wheels with a huge stinger exhaust sticking out the back, always careening through the drawing with a pair of wild eyes behind the windshield. This is the essence of the Fiat Abarth image; it’s almost impossible to even think about them without grinning.
I will argue that Abarth came by the image honestly. Carlo Abarth was a self-taught engineer who had worked with some of the greatest and set off on his own in 1949 by purchasing the bankrupt remains of Cisitalia. He bumped along for a number of years, producing specials and developing aftermarket speed equipment and exhaust systems, primarily for Fiats.
The Fiat 600
Things changed in a big way in 1956 when Fiat brought out its 600 model. The 600 was tiny and cheap, but it was very well engineered and proved to be an excellent platform for what Abarth did best — low-budget hot rodding.
I should note that Fiat was not unhappy with Abarth’s enterprise. Although the 600 was a “car for the masses,” the adrenaline was never far below the surface at Fiat, and Abarth quickly became their quasi-official high-performance and racing arm.
Through the late 1950s, Abarth developed and homologated modifications including a 5-speed transaxle and 4-wheel disc brake conversions for the cars, and he also started wringing serious horsepower out of the engines (if anything from a pushrod 850-cc engine can be considered serious).
By the early 1960s they had a competitive FIA Group 2 racing sedan. Among the developments was the now-iconic raised rear deck lid — ostensibly to improve cooling (the radiator was still in back in those days) — but its real purpose was to clean up the aerodynamics, and it helped top speed enormously. They still couldn’t beat the Minis, though.
1966 and 1967 were the glory years for Abarth. They had moved the radiator to the front and were getting 110 horsepower out of the 1-liter engine in the 1000 TC version, which along with other developments, allowed them to terrorize the small sedan classes — winning the championship both years. The FIA class rules changed for 1968. Although the cars continued to be developed through 1971, they were past their prime. The magical years of 1966–67 were the pinnacle.
Tiny car, tons of fun
To get back to the topic of big and impressive vs. tiny and cute racing cars, it is useful to consider what constitutes “fun” in vintage racing. It’s an ego boost to have people genuflecting in front of your car, but the responsibilities of driving a car that is worth millions, can go insanely fast, and probably deserves a better driver than you are can weigh heavily and limit the plain old fun.
On the other hand, driving something that is not valuable, not particularly fast, and not very obvious on the track can lift the burdens of responsibility and release the inner hooligan that hides inside all racing drivers. I have clients who have more simple fun racing Sprites than Ferraris. Herein is the allure of this Abarth.
There are collectible Fiat Abarths, dripping history and originality and worthy of a place beside the racing greats of our time, but our subject car is not one of them. This is a pure weapons-grade racing toy, built up from parts on what may or may not have originally been a “real” Abarth chassis with no known history.
The compensation is that it was valued at roughly half of what a really good version would set you back. If you are just looking for fun, there is no need to pay for collectibility in a car like this.
As a racing car, it appears well built, it is very nicely presented, and will be welcome in the local and regional races that it is likely to attend. In terms of the cars you are likely to run against, it costs a bit more than a Sprite or an MG, but about the same as a competitive Mini or Alfa, so the essential numbers make sense. It is Italian, and there aren’t a lot of them out there, so there is a certain panache and exclusivity to it — and don’t forget the Cyclops Hooligan factor — Yeehah! I think it was appropriately bought.