Carlo Abarth Helped Turn the Humble Fiat 850 Into One of the Coolest Icons on the Planet

Photography by Don Weberg

Story by Don Weberg

Many years ago, a high-ranking Italian government official was credited with the following statement: “If it’s good enough for Fiat, it’s good enough for Italy.” 

And, when it came to a tuner for Fiat, Carlo Abarth was the chosen one, which is somewhat ironic as it was the Italian government who brought him to Italy from his native Austria. But that’s another story.

Fiatphiles know well the Carlo Abarth story; a muffler he designed and built for his own personal motorcycle led to a career of producing aftermarket performance parts well before such things were called aftermarket parts. He was also a gifted motorcycle racer at an early age.

Fans will also line up around the block to preach that Abarth vehicles, or cars using the company’s parts, claimed racing victories nearly 7300 times between 1956 and 1971, a record untouched by any other tuner or manufacturer. 

It’s a number so high it seems goofy. It breaks down to about 486 victories per year, or one and a half wins per day. Nutty. 

While Abarth was a racer at heart, he was also a self-proclaimed industrialist. Scuderia Abarth proved extremely capable at tuning and manufacturing, and although his name was emblazoned on other makes, he was especially well known for his magic with Fiats.

Creating an Icon

In 1964, Fiat introduced the 850, a car that was to take the reins from the popular 600. The 850 coupe and spyder models were available with a host of options that gave them a sporty edge over the also-offered sedan. All told, the 850 was a smash hit, as more than two million units were built by the time production ended in 1974.

Among those two million cars, a select few were taken in house by Scuderia Abarth and converted into little slingshots of joy by way of new cranks, intakes, carbs and, of course, exhausts and mufflers. These cars emerged as the 1965 Fiat Abarth OT 1000 coupe, 1966-’69 Fiat Abarth OTS 1000 coupe, and 1967 Fiat Abarth OT 1000 Radiale. How many of each were produced is as enigmatic as the source of Mona Lisa’s smile; no one knows for certain. But then again, doesn’t that further the mysterious nature of the Abarth cars?

The Abarth cars are quickly discernible from the standard Fiats thanks to an obvious nose job. Original 850s had a finished nose with no grille, similar to the Renault Dauphine, while Abarths featured an entirely different front end marked by a special grille. The standard Fiat 850 had its engine and radiator in the back, but to help cool the hardworking engine Abarth moved the radiator to the front of the car.

The Abarth-enhanced cars also no longer carried 850 badging, as more displacement was part of the conversion. The Fiat 850 was originally equipped with an 843cc four-cylinder engine that produced 49 horsepower. By replacing the Fiat crank with an Abarth piece, the displacement increased to 982, which for naming purposes was rounded up to an even 1000. Adding Weber 30 DIC carbs and tweaking the compression ratio to 9.5:1 bumped horsepower to 62, and the basic formula for the Abarth 1000 was born. 

Adding a little more spice to the mix is nothing short of Italian, and the OTS 1000 brought more punch to the road with 74 horsepower courtesy of a higher 11.5:1 compression ratio. The OTS also came with Campagnolo Electron magnesium wheels, larger rear tires, and a top speed of nearly 100 mph. The car received its FIA Group 3 homologation in 1966.

To bring even more bite to an already attractive package, Abarth then developed the OT 1000 Radiale, known to Abarth and Fiat fans as the 1000 OTR. The 1000 OTR was, arguably, the ultimate 850 conversion from Abarth. 

To create the 1000 OTR, Abarth added twin dual-throat 32mm Solex PHH carbs to the OTS 1000 engine while installing special hemispherical heads, hence the Radiale name. This combination produced 84 horsepower and could pull the 1600-pound car past 105 mph.

For those who wanted even more speed, Abarth could still deliver. Swapping out the original carbs for a set of Weber DCO units and increasing the compression ratio to 12:1 would bring a full 100 horsepower to the table. Packing a punch like that was perfect for racing, and that was always what Abarth had in mind. However, the days of Abarth glory were limited.

Abarths were light, powerful and fast, essentially dominating their class with ease. The OTR 1000 furthered the Abarth reputation for successful racing ventures, but it was obvious that car sales were dependent on racing, if for no other reason than to justify their lofty sticker price. 

A 1967 Abarth OTR 1000 could hammer a bank account for nearly $4300—roughly the cost of a new Corvette at that time. Many considered it insane to pay that much for so little, as the U.S. market didn’t have much tolerance for a $4000-plus road car based on a tiny Fiat. 

As such, when SCCA rewrote the rules concerning cars like the 850, Abarth’s sales evaporated. In 1971, Scuderia Abarth was absorbed by the colossal Fiat company. It was the end of a unique era, and the last call for Carlo Abarth, who upon the completion of the sale of his storied company retired to Austria at 63. He died in 1979 at the age of 71.

Benched at an Early Age

Thanks to their racing heritage, it’s easy to believe that most Abarths led hard lives. Furthering the hard lifestyle they enjoyed was the fact that only a few people really knew how to properly work on Abarth and Abarth-modified engines, meaning that very few originals survive today. Dave Steel of Temecula, Calif., is a certifiable car nut with a soft spot in his heart for the Italian breeds. He literally stumbled over this 1967 Abarth OTR 1000 that had covered less than 8000 original miles.

“It was imported here by the dealer who thought it was going to be a sure collector’s item, and when it wasn’t turning out to be one, he sold it to a Fiat parts dealer who basically threw a cover over it, and that’s how I found it,” he recalls.

Steel’s Abarth has never seen a race track, never been modified, and is completely original from the day it was built. During what is loosely called a restoration, master mechanic Raffi Najjarian has only had to detail the car and perform routine service. 

Despite its stellar condition, it’s still a car that stumps many dyed-in-the-wool car enthusiasts, mainly thanks to an informational void swallowing Fiats and Abarths. Their popularity is limited to a few very dedicated souls who have the delicate psychosis needed to maintain them.

“They aren’t for everyone,” Steel admits. “They take a lot of specialized skill to maintain, a lot of patience, and a slightly warped mentality.”

Sprayed in Italian red and sporting a very Spartan black interior, the Abarth OTR 1000 is not about posh treatment, comfortable driving or meandering down the highway sightseeing. Rather, it’s a driver’s car, a machine that not only enjoys being revved to 8000 rpm, but encourages it. 

Rev the engine, drop the clutch, and the OTR moves out with a sweet, raspy exhaust note, and presses the occupants firmly into their seats. Shift at about the 7300 mark, and second gear pulls just as nicely as first, with a solid torque band that’s rarely seen in small packages like this. Speed builds suddenly, allowing a car not much larger than a go-cart to travel down the road at 65 mph. Third gear sends the Abarth toward 80 mph.

Despite the Lilliputian size, the interior is quite spacious, a trait very typical of Fiat. The brakes are also quite able and confidence-inspiring.

But the most pleasing element of the Abarth OTR has to be the exhaust note. There’s simply nothing like it on the planet, as it is insanely difficult to describe, yet somehow fitting of an Abarth car. After all, remember where Carlo Abarth got his start.

“I’ve had kids in Civics pull alongside me and shout that it sounds incredible,” Steel says. “I always tell them thanks and I wish I could hear it, too. I’m always inside the car.”

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sir_mike
sir_mike New Reader
1/21/21 5:11 p.m.

Need a driving viedo and one so we can hear the exhaust.

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