There’s something about seeing an Abarth 124 Spider which makes you do a double take. Yes, if you squint, Abarths look like Fiats. But they ain’t. Not really. There’s more there, something more boisterous, pugilistic, testy. You don’t see Abarth’s scorpion badge around much either. The brand is a sort of secret, only known to people who’ve looked at the offerings of the Fiat Chrysler group and then asked where they keep the good stuff. Come right this way, signore. Because from the moment you see one in the flesh, you realise that an Abarth has a kind of purpose, a certain spirit about it. Then you turn the engine on and you hear it. It’s the Spirit of Carlo.
Carlo Abarth, that is, who lent his name and zodiac sign to the Abarth brand. Born in Vienna in 1908, he was a maniacal motorcycle racer who tuned his own bikes and had claimed multiple racing titles by his early 20s. On the track and on the road, he put his money where his mouth was, and it took a big mouth to do things like wager that he could beat the Orient Express on the Vienna – Ostend leg on his motorcycle. Which he did in style in 1934, naturally.
Following a stint in Yugoslavia during the Second World War (laid up after a racing accident there in 1939), Carlo returned to Italy a naturalised citizen in 1940. His formidable contact book, bolstered through marriage connections to the Porsche family, allowed him to get a job developing racing cars at the Cisitalia company. Things weren’t all rosy however – as seemed to be the norm in postwar Italy, Cisitalia’s industrialist benefactor Piero Dusio was overcome by debts and fled to Argentina (we’ve all been there…), leaving behind a very unpaid and distinctly put-out Mr. Abarth.
Luckily, Dusio did leave behind a number of Cisitalia 360 race cars and other pieces of machinery which were used to settle debts to Abarth. From this, Carlo decided to form a race team and workshop, founding Abarth & C. S.p.A. in 1949 alongside Armando Scagliarini. To fund their racing endeavours, the company made money by producing ready-made tuning kits for Fiats, with exhaust systems proving particularly popular. With their distinctive matte-black finish with chrome tips, they gave the average Italian a striking way to increase the power and sound of their humble vehicle. When combined with engine modifications, it was entirely possible for an Abarth-tuned Fiat to humiliate more expensive rivals.
As racing victories piled up and Carlo began to cut his negronis with the salty tears of Ferrari and Alfa Romeo owners, the notoriety of the Abarth name was further boosted by the breakthrough hot-rodding kits provided for the Fiat 500, allowing every man and his dog to become an epic racing duo with just some time spent tinkering in the garage. The roar of an Abarth exhaust became iconic. For decades the brand persisted, eventually to be bought out by Fiat only to languish In the 1970s as the Italian economy stagnated. Carlo died in 1979 and soon afterwards, the brand was submerged into Fiat completely, only being relaunched in 2007 at the Geneva Motor Show. Fiat had decided to give Abarth its mojo back. And thank God they did.
The Abarth 124 is a two-seater sports car which takes the turbocharged Fiat 124 (in turn sharing a mechanical platform with the renowned but naturally aspirated Mazda MX-5) and does a massive Carlo on it. The 1.4 L engine of the Fiat 124 is tuned up by 30 more horsepower to 168hp, with Abarth adding bigger air intakes, Bilstein dampers, Brembo brakes, stiffer anti-roll bars and a rear limited-slip differential to help get all the power onto the tarmac. There’s also some racy aesthetic touches – the matte black paint across the bonnet to prevent sun glare in the manner of old rally cars, Abarth scorpions everywhere, and the racing stripe in the middle of the wheel should you forget which way is up. Abarth have also made sure that the exhaust on this car announces itself with due intent, in time honoured fashion. Press the accelerator firmly and shift up and the Record Monza exhaust system will burble, roar and spit so viciously you feel that there’s a dragon under the bonnet. It’s quirky, nippy, and envy-inducing.
On the road the Abarth 124 is a heap of naughty fun. You can’t just drive the thing – you throw it around with glorious aplomb, wringing every little crackle and gurgle out of the engine you can as you sing the Inno di Mameli. Put it into sport mode (i.e. normal Carlo Abarth mode – and you should always be in Carlo Abarth mode) and the car feels taut, planted, responsive and eager. You whip it round turns, blip on your downshifts, and sigh deeply at lights while gesticulating at the open sky. You call your friends to come and just look at it. You take it to parties so everyone can stand around the rhapsodic exhaust. You sit in it quietly at night, alone.
Reader, we’ve got this far and you’re smiling and nodding politely, but I feel you’re just not understanding. So let’s get one thing damn straight about the Italia di Abarth, about the ethos of the name and what these cars mean. This isn’t the Italy of opera, high culture, of gold leaf thrown over the congealing surface of an overpriced Milanese risotto brushing the puckered lips of some dried up marquesa; Abarth’s Italy was and is the gritty double espresso knocked back with your ragazzi on the way to work for some bum of a boss with ideas above his stazione, so you can scrape together enough money to feed the kid and upgrade a few parts on the car. Dampers and Pampers in Italiano; it’s about cunningly making the best of your humble means. No wonder it is rumoured Abarth’s name was adopted in the Italian language as a phrase synonymous with punchy, homebrewed power; a cafè corretto, an espresso with a shot of grappa, was apparently sometimes referred to as a caffe Abarth. So sod regular cars and gimme a triple…
But as you slam down your corretto, remember – the Abarth 124 is still a road car at heart. If you really begin to venture to the edges of performance, it becomes clear that it is still a convertible designed for spirited driving, and not a race car. The wheel is slightly too big for really pin sharp turns; the engine, while responsive and torquey enough, has a touch of turbo lag and is lacking the instant vicious kick you’d want on a track. The suspension and damping feels excellent on a winding country road, although push everything too hard and the excellence of the Abarth 124’s components is to an extent overcome by the vehicle’s genetics.
Then again, if you were pushed too hard, the excellence of your components would be overcome by events. Nobody expects a homologated racecar when they get behind the wheel of an Abarth 124, so it really is to Abarth’s credit that with comparatively few mechanical and aesthetic interventions, they have created a vehicle which, while having humble origins, is a thoroughly charming thing imbued with a racing spirit. It’s a masterfully executed move.
In fact, after a while of pushing this car around empty roads, you begin to wonder where the limits of your driving lie. Is it the car which is not powerful enough, not snappy enough, or is it the driver who is merely incapable of pulling the maximum amount of performance from the vehicle? It’s an incentive to improve, which can only be a good thing. And you won’t need encouragement to get back behind the wheel.
What Abarth have done here is produce a magical realist car. It’s the Gabriel Garcia Marquez of recreational motoring, the Camshaft Calvino. The everyday setting of the 124 is invaded by something strange and otherworldly from the depths of motorsport history, giving it a seductive sting in the tail. When you drive this car, you feel you owe Carlo some gratitude for that. Yes, it’s showy in a way that will elicit self-conscious murmurs from your uptight English friends, but your continentalist mates will love the devil-may-care sprezzatura of it, the way it encourages you to get out and live a little.
So here’s to Carlo and the Abarth 124. It’s a car for people who have somewhere exciting to be and something exciting to do. It’s for people who know that panini is plural because when you’ve got stuff to do one panino is never, ever enough. Give me another espresso. Put grappa in it. More grappa. Ok, that’s just grappa now.