The austere Mr Abarth

His cars were exotic rivals to the likes of Ferrari and Porsche, but Carlo Abarth himself was a man not to be trifled with

Abarth cars have always been something of a Cinderella marque in my mind. They had and still have an enthusiastic following, not only in Continental Europe but also most notably in the USA and Japan.

I think my indifference to Carlo Abarth’s finest efforts was imbued by simple lack of personal exposure to them. The only ones I really recall running regularly on British soil were Bobby Buchanan-Michaelson’s admittedly very lovely GT Berlinetta and the Anstead brothers’ boxy Fiat-Abarth baby saloons, with their engine cowls significantly propped open to help cool the frenzied clockwork within. I actually drove one of John and Jean Aley’s in an extended record run at Snetterton, covering myself with ignominy by being called into the pits for a perverse bollocking – delivered by the redoubtable Jean – for going too fast.

By the time I began to follow endurance racing around Europe, the Abarths I saw were – for my taste – far more impressive than those hordes of small-capacity GTs and production-based Topolini which somebody no doubt loved but which to me provided nothing but a wall of so-what background noise. The works sports-prototype cars always seemed especially exotic, perhaps because they were perennially unfenced against the cutting edge of Porsche, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Matra and Gulf-Mirage’s finest. The Sport 2000 first grabbed me in the paddock at the Nürburgring in 1967, rear clamshell open to reveal the engine dangling outboard behind the curvaceous Spider’s back axle. Like the Porsche 911 such an arrangement looked to me like demanding a triumph of development over intelligent design. A couple of years later a more functional-looking sports-prototype emerged as the V8-engined Abarth 3000 in which little Art Merzario followed his works team predecessor – Peter Schetty – by earning a place with Ferrari. But one of Abarth’s most prominent exponents slightly earlier in the 1960s had been the Dutch driver Ed Swart, later to achieve such great success with his Canon-sponsored 2-litre Chevrons – particularly the B19 – and in recent years still pedalling a Formula 1 Shadow in American ‘Vintage’ events.

Ed – whose motor-trading father was a Dutch Fiat distributor – was reminiscing about racing the little Fiat-Abarth saloons in the mid-60s. I told him I had never formed any real picture of Carlo Abarth’s personality and asked what was the Austrian-born, Italian industrialist really like? Ed replied: “Very old-time Austrian. You could picture him as the product of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Very severe, very strict, very serious. He had a routine in his factory – at the end of every afternoon he’d summon his senior engineers and managers to his office. They would all have to line up, all standing, and all in their white coats. And he’d go along the line questioning them on what they’d done today. Woe betide any one of them who hadn’t done everything expected. And then he’d tell each of them what he expected them to do the next day – and then it was ‘dismissed’, and they’d all file out. You didn’t make jokes with Mr Abarth.”

Ed recalled the 1965 Nürburgring 500Kms – something of an Everest for small-capacity endurance racing at that time, with the entry headed by up to 1300cc sports-prototypes, while Ed’s Fiat-Abarth saloon contested the 850cc Touring Car class. Abarth cars won five of the classes, but were beaten overall by the Bianchi brothers – Lucien and Mauro – in a works Alpine-Renault. Ed won his class after driving the entire 20 laps solo in his 850. He recalled how “Mr Abarth came up onto the podium with us, and then we walked back into the paddock together. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, but he didn’t say anything. Then as we were walking along he rummaged about in his coat pocket, and just said ‘Oh – you did a good drive – ummm, have this’ – and he gave me an apple!

“That was Carlo Abarth…”