A matter of moment
Carlo Abarth may have had fixed ideas about engine placement – but his cars won plenty of races
Over the past few months I have been closely involved with what was Fabrizio Violati’s Maranello Rosso Collection of Ferraris and Abarths in San Marino. When former mineral water magnate Violati died in January 2010 he was the longest-term owner of any Ferrari 250GTO. Obviously in recent weeks it has been the Monterey-week sale by Bonhams of his GTO that has dominated the headlines.
But time among the Maranello Rosso cars provided a fascinating crash course in Abarth appreciation. I vividly recall studying the works cars one year in the paddock at the Nürburgring, gawping at their entirely overhung in-line engine mounting. You’d see a no more impressive pendulum on any grandfather clock.
Back in the 1920s, Vienna-born, German-speaking Karl Abarth became interested in motorcycle racing and began to compete first on solos, then sidecar combinations into the 1930s. He found a kindred spirit in Joseph Holly, another fine mechanic and tuner who became his racing passenger using mainly Sunbeam and later FN machines. Abarth devised a rack-and-lever system that banked the sidecar wheel in concert with the bike itself through corners. He sold the design rights to this ‘Swingachs’ system to Max Porges’ MP sidecar concern, and in 1934 married the secretary of a leading Viennese lawyer named Anton Piech, whose wife was Louise Porsche, daughter of none other than the great automotive engineer Prof Dr Ferdinand Porsche.
After the March 1938 annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany, Karl Abarth was contacted by the Italian Fascist authority, who had found that his father, living since the end of World War I in Merano just over the border, had taken Italian citizenship. This conferred similar rights upon Karl himself and they invited him to compete thereafter as a State-backed Italian rider. What’s more, they would pay him so handsomely it made his eyes pop. So Karl became Carlo, but just after World War II broke out in 1939 – racing at Ljubljana, Yugoslavia – he crashed badly and only narrowly survived.
He then spent the war years in Yugoslavia, but in September 1945 settled in Merano, Italy, opening a tiny Bianchi dealership called Fahrzeuge aller Art. Seeking a future he wrote to Louise Piech, and in September 1946 he was authorised to represent her brother Ferry Porsche’s new car company in Italy. Abarth then got together with another Porsche-connected Austrian engineer, Rudi Hruska, and they interested the great Tazio Nuvolari in promoting Porsche products, which included a proposal for a ‘post-war Auto Union’ GP car.
Turin industrialist Piero Dusio was contacted. In October 1944 he had commissioned engineer Dante Giacosa to build what would became the Cisitalia D46 single-seat racing car on which a post-war generation of Italian racing drivers would cut their teeth. In February 1947 – through Abarth and Hruska – Dusio then bought world rights from Porsche for a number of designs including the ‘post-war Auto Union’ Typ 360 GP car with driver-selectable four-wheel-drive. The two Austrian engineers worked on Dusio’s Cisitalia project until it collapsed financially in 1949, and Dusio fled with the designs and hardware to Peron’s Argentina.
Abarth had found a firm friend in Cisitalia driver Guido Scagliarini, whose father Armando was a wealthy landowner from Finale Emilia, near Modena. And in March 1949 Carlo Abarth and Armando Scagliarini founded Abarth & C to continue development and production of Cisitalia-derived cars and components.
Into the 1950s, building competition cars based on Fiat parts, Abarth’s Porsche-conditioning became most apparent in his preference for hanging the engine out behind the rear axle line. At least Porsche’s initially flat-four and later flat-six engines were only two or three cylinders long – limiting the pendulum overhang – but Abarth went the whole hog with in-line four-cylinder engines behind the back axle line.
His Turin-based company’s engine designer Luciano Fochi extracted remarkable power from Fiat-based units, before producing an entirely in-house family of really serious all-Abarth racing engines.
Early in 1960, fellow engineer Mario Colucci joined Abarth from Alfa Romeo as technical director. He was free of his new boss’s Porsche indoctrination, and in his first design, for the Abarth 750 Sport Spider Tubolare, he founded a new series of ‘centrale’ Abarths with the engine mounted amidships, between cockpit and back axle line, not overhung at all.
Evidently, The Boss wasn’t altogether content with Colucci’s mid-engine theme, and while they worked together for many years they never really settled this particular argument. For some models Colucci would win, for the majority Abarth himself would have the engine mass cantilevered outboard. He insisted that it enhanced traction away from slow corners while Colucci preached instead centralised-mass, low-polar moment design. Somehow their partnership survived.
Although both central and overhung-engined Abarths became well developed to provide consistent handling, marque insiders tell me that only three drivers ever totally mastered the technique of wringing the best from the overhung-engined designs. They were Arturo Merzario, Swiss mountain-climber Peter Schetty and, before that, 21-year-old fast-rising star Franco Patria. The quick technique was supposedly to avalanche the car into a corner, get it turned as soon as possible, then instantly back on the power, whereupon the long lever-arm of that overhung engine mass would load-up the driven wheels and the Abarth would rocket away.
Poor Franco Patria had shown every sign of complete mastery of this technique. He had been tipped for a great future and had shone brightly with a string of great drives until October 11 1964, and the Paris 1000Kms at Montlhéry. There he was just rejoining the circuit after a pitstop when the marshals at the end of the pitlane signalled him to pause. He did so, only for his Simca Abarth 2000 Coupé to be T-boned by Peter Lindner’s Jaguar E-type low-drag coupé spinning off the rain-soaked banking. The Jaguar tore the roof off the Abarth, killing the luckless Patria, Lindner and three marshals.
Carlo Abarth’s intransigent ‘my way or the highway’ character did not sit well with Italian industrial strife into 1969-70. During 1971 Vincenzo Osella’s workshop was given responsibility for preparing customer cars to the same standards as the works team’s. Fiat took over Abarth & C in October 1971 and sidelined Carlo Abarth, who succumbed to stomach cancer in his native Vienna on October 23 1979. But what a diverse and highly-successful legacy he left – though to study one of his extreme overhung-engine designs today is a decidedly different taste sensation…
You’ve got mail
It could have gone into his spam folder, but a message for David Brabham led to great things
Every racing driver used to relish the ’phone call from a major team to offer a plum job. In modern times the e-mail seems to have taken over. In 2009 it was an e-mail from Peugeot Sport that took David Brabham back to Le Mans. David recalls: “I’d been driving for Highcroft Racing and Honda on the Acura programme in America. When Peugeot asked the question I told them I’d have to get approval first, but there were no objections and so I flew to Paris to meet Serge Saulnier of Peugeot Sport. But Bruno Famin joined us and made it plain he wasn’t comfortable with a competitor joining the programme. I said “the very fact I’m in this room shows you how I go about my racing. Anything Peugeot stays at Peugeot”. He relaxed then and we got on fine.
“The first time I drove the car was on test at Barcelona. They’d told me what it was all about and what switch did what, and then I got to the pit exit, gunned it, and before I had reached the first corner I was literally just grinning from ear to ear. It was my first experience of a turbodiesel race car and its power was just electrifying. I knew then that I could win Le Mans.
“During early practice at Le Mans it was obvious that the way to be fast was to bang it over the chicane kerbs, but the Peugeots ran so low that if you attacked the kerbs you broke the nose splitter. The team’s second car hit another one in the pitlane after a stop so it had a long delay. The lead car then broke its splitters over the kerbs – so we emerged in the front-running Peugeot, No9.
“We then nearly lost Le Mans in the last pitstop under a yellow. Our clutch was going and we also had a battery issue, so there was real concern as the pace car came around with the field all lined up in its wake. It then became critical that Marc [Gené] should get our car back out ahead of the pace car, because otherwise he’d have to wait until the entire procession had gone by before joining in at the back. So he took off down the pitlane on our side of the barrier more or less wheel-to-wheel with the pace car on the other side.
“Once Marc had just beaten the pace car back out onto the circuit the team then decided that racing between us should stop and the result was in our favour. It was a similar situation to my brother Geoff’s win for Peugeot 16 years before. That was a great experience, sitting there with the family around me and five minutes to go to winning Le Mans, and I had my brother on the mobile to share it.”
In contrast, when he’d finished second for Bentley at Le Mans back in 2003, he admits he’d felt “Nothing but totally pissed off to have lost it. Trouble-free we would have won that race by a clear lap and a half, but we finally lost 10 minutes in the pits and the race by two minutes. I couldn’t think of anything but the loss. I shared the car that year with Mark Blundell and Johnny Herbert and we’d had just a brilliant time all week. It had been a real laugh a minute up ’til then, but they put their arms round me and said, ‘We’ve finished second, mate, and this is Le Mans. Just accept it and enjoy it – you might never get up here again’. And only then I really got into it.
“Mark and Johnny were something else. We’d spent a lot of time with Perry McCarthy in the paddock and, in front of Perry, Johnny and Mark made out they weren’t getting along. It seemed they absolutely could not bear the sight of one another. Perry was really concerned. We were in the motorhome and Johnny and Mark went round the back and suddenly we heard all this shouting and crashing and something was banging against the wall. We rushed out, and Mark and little Johnny were wrestling on the ground yelling at one another. Perry was completely taken in and was leaping about bawling ‘Marky, Marky, get off ’im, you’ll kill ’im’. Then we all just about wet ourselves laughing at Perry – he’d been completely taken in.
“Right after the finish – and after we’d all been training and living on birdseed for weeks – we three went off and had the biggest British breakfast fry-up you’ve ever seen. And you know what? Suddenly finishing second at Le Mans in a Bentley 1-2 was just absolutely fine by me. To win it six years later was absolutely the icing on the cake.”