My Abarth Affair

One man's obsession with an Italian maestro

One of the interesting experiences in collecting automobiles is the discovery that, for some unfathomable reason, we are totally obsessed with a particular make and model automobile, perhaps that obsession even includes a certain body style.

The interesting part comes when we try to explain this rather embarrassing automotive crush to others, for who knows how to explain this personal oddity in a sensible way? Certainly not the smitten owner. And that state of affairs is true for me and the products of Carlo Abarth, the Turin-based tuner and car manufacturer. But let’s give it a try.

The famous "scorpion" badge of Abarth.

My affair with Abarths goes back to the sports car magazines of the 1960s. Through the prism of memory, the articles printed in those days seemed magical to my untutored automotive sensibility. The accounts of the Targa Florio, which I viewed as especially fascinating, may have arrived in my copy of Sports Car Graphic a mere four months after the event took place, but to me, absent other sources of racing news, this was the latest stuff hot off the presses. Invariably, through my selective memory now sixty years after the fact, there was always a shot of a Fiat or Simca-Abarth with its engine lid propped open on a complex tubular frame, hammering through a corner, inside front wheel barely touching the pavement. I especially liked the major amounts of negative camber that their rear suspension displayed. This was the glamorous racing life, piloting a factory team Abarth GT coupe, snapping at the heels of the bigger cars like an African wild dog on a wildebeest. Looking at those black and white images, I could almost feel the hot sun, and smell the dry, powdery earth with the clumps of cactus and century plants.

1964 Abarth Simca 2 Mila Corsa.

I particularly recall driving over to the Vintage Car Store in Nyack, New York, with my equally Abarth-obsessed cousin, Bill. On the lot stood a full race Fiat-Abarth 1000 bialbero (twin cam) coupe with Sibona and Basano coachwork (Abarths were always badged “Carozzeria Abarth” irrespective of the maker. Carlo Abarth insisted). That was the body that featured the swoopy duck tail engine lid and front radiator opening. It was the most appealing of the Abarth body styles. The twin cam engine with its two cross-ram Weber carburetors lurked behind the opening between the back edge of the engine lid and the rear end of the car. The machine itself was resplendent in Sebring war-paint. It was ruby red with white roundels on the nose and doors. Fiat Abarth 1000 was picked out in white on each front fender. For all that, the car had a certain air of embarrassment about it, perhaps due to its reduced station, a current Sebring 12 Hour racing car on the sales block at what amounted to a used car lot.

The salesman, Les, as I recall, was indulgent enough of two high school age car nuts to allow the resident Italian mechanic to try to start it for us. He hooked up a jumper battery and all the while the engine was grinding away, kept repeating, “No benzina.” At any rate, the car was not to start that day. I suspect if Les thought we were real buyers, the little Abarth would have fired up on the button.

1970 Fiat Abarth TCR 1000 Berlina Corsa.

I never did end up with that car as much as I mooned over it that summer. Like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows after he saw his first motorcar, I was hellish keen on taking to the open road in that thing. What would I have done with it had I been able to buy it? I shudder at the prospect.

A few months later, I saw a French racing blue 2.0-liter Simca-Abarth short nose running at the Bridgehampton FIA World Sports Car Championship Double 500 race out on Long Island. There was one race for under 2.0-liter cars and another for the big Ferraris, Cobras, and the like. And, boy, did that Abarth blow down the pit straight. It went by all hunkered down on its fat Dunlop tires and screamed down the descending fourth gear, right-hander. The race announcer commented that it had the fastest trap speed among the 2.0-liter field at over 140 mph. Sadly, the car blew an oil line and staggered on, covered in oily gore, to an undistinguished finish.

Years later, I answered an ad for a Simca-Abarth 2.0-liter coupe. And didn’t it turn out to be the very same car, now painted ruby red, that I had seen at Bridgehampton so long ago.  I have owned that car now for close to thirty years. We have rebuilt it mechanically while carefully conserving its worn paint and rippled coachwork. We have even used it for vintage racing. Whenever I encounter it, at the track being fettled, or in its customary place in the museum, it never fails to thrill me.

The maestro, Carlo Abarth, and the "apples" of his eye. 1965.

Researchers have defined three collecting motivations. Each of us who aren’t public museum curators working to objective accession plans, probably have cars acquired through all three of these impulses: nostalgic, fetishistic, and systematics. My reaction to Abarth automobiles clearly falls under the fetishistic motivation. While such a diagnosis might seem invidious and makes me sound deeply disturbed, it’s really just a way of saying my reaction is deeply held and inexplicable, tied up as it was with those early magazine-inspired fantasies about those fascinating little cars. In essence, owning an Abarth just pleases me. All of us as collectors have certain objects that in some way just please us more than other cars in our collection. Alternatively, others remind us of our past and evoke particularly pleasurable associations. These are the nostalgic operators in our collecting psyche. We’ll discuss them some other time.

Fetish automobiles make us feel pleasure, not from memory, but from the sheer act of possessing: viewing, touching, working on, and driving them. And so, when I see the Simca-Abarth in my collection, I always get a little jolt of pleasure.

On a more global scale, the fetishization of authenticity is a central property of all collecting of anything. Collectors seek out and cherish the real and the authentic while disdaining the copy, the replica, and the pastiche. I may try to unpack the importance and the role of authenticity in another column. Suffice it to say that the dynamics of authenticity is an intrinsic property of collectibles.  Despite its importance, it becomes very slippery and hard to pin down as we analyze the factors at higher degrees of rigor. In the end, we might say we cherish authenticity for inarticulatable reasons; because we just do. And so it is with my affection for Abarth cars. I like them and enjoy seeing them wherever I encounter them. They give me joy. What cars do that for you?