Ten Classic Cars

Abarth 1000 Berlina

Perhaps the first purpose-built Touring Car in the world, the Abarth 850 and 1000 Berlinas dominated the small classes in the early days of the ETTC. The base of these cars was formed by the Fiat 600D, a car which was put to market in 1956. Abarth soon started making modified versions of it, either by selling kits or building complete cars. Fiat strongly supported Carlo Abarth in this, and Abarth succeded in building enough cars for homologation in group 2. But not only that. Abarth was the first one to homologate 5-speed gearboxes and disc brakes even at the rear (in a time a Giulia had drum brakes at the front!) - modifications which were allowed by the strict rules of group 2 only if properly homologated. The Fiat 600D wasn't a bad car to start with; independent suspension front and rear, rear engine for good traction and a simple but strong pushrod engine.

The 1963 versions shows an early development form. A fascinating point is the rear bootlid, which was raised for competition use. Declared for cooling purposes (the early versions still had its radiator at the back, in front of the engine) the side effect was a remarkable increase in topspeed. I couldn't find evidence of works cars in the ETCC, neither in 1964. A small increase in power, but not a lot more. No high championship placings for Abarth, either the Mini's were too quick or no Abarth driver made a serious attempt to compete a whole season.

That would change in the next year. The 1965 versions pumped out more power (75 HP for the 850 version, 85 HP for the 1000 TC Corsa/65) but the most interesting news was the combined water/oil radiator at the front, another thing you coudn't simply add; it had to be part of the base vehicle.

Much has been said of Abarth's homologation tactics (but the same story could be told for Alfa Romeo, Volvo, Maserati and so forth...); but, on the other hand, one must respect what he did for touring car racing. Abarth's car for the street were pretty expensive; but apart from the works team, he supported privateers to an extent where they had to pay for the running costs only. Ed Swart took Division 1 honours. In 1966, the bodywork was refined and power increased. Abarths now were terrorizing the small classes in Group 2 racing, Baghetti becoming champion in 1966, followed by Willi Kauhsen in 1967. No small names by any standard.

1968 brought new rules with group 5 cars, homologation now becoming less important since nearly everything would be allowed. Power rose to a staggering 110 HP, and the championship was on its way to Turin once again - so it seemed, with 4 wins by Ab Goedemans in the first half of the season.

Then disaster struck - Goedemans was killed at the Nürburgring, racing an Abarth sportscar. "Pam" and Hezemans were not able to fill Goedemans' footsteps (since Abarth wasn't easy on his drivers, some points may be lost there; Hezemans and Abarth had some classic quarrels), and Warwick Banks snatched away the title, even becoming overall champion. The 1969 car, hardly changed, restored the Abarth reign, "Pam" now division 1 champion.

1970, and the final Abarth chapter, the 1000 TCR; a modified car once again, this time with the "radiale" head, Johann Abt trying to become the next Abarth champion. Since the ETTC now only consisted of one overall champion, Abt's task was difficult in any respect.

Hezemans, now defending Alfa Romeo's colors, could not be beaten for overall honours; the main reason being that Abt sometimes lacked competition in the small class - and would therefore not get any points in some occasions. For the last race, Alfa Romeo hired some Abarths to compete against Abt; when they found out that once again few division 1 cars were entered, Alfa withdrew their Abarths, depriving division 1 of points.

Before Hezemans got under way, he was already champion. In 1971, the smallest class was now 1300 cc; at Monza, Abarth withdrew its cars after practice. The Abarth story was over.

Why was the Abarth mostly (in the ETCC and on the continent) superior over the 1000 cc Mini?
Not an easy question. The weight was almost equal. The Abarth might have some advantages in traction; but the front-wheel drive of the Mini was not bad either. Abarth had strong engines, up to 110 HP; but Handley's group 5 Cooper was said to have even more power. Roadholding? The Abarth liked to lift the inside front wheel, the Mini the inside rear wheel. In Abarth's favour may be the bigger wheels (12" or 13" against Mini's tiny 10"), the rear disc brakes and the 5-speed gearboxes (though the group 5 Mini's had that too). But perhaps the main difference was the works team, lead with a sort of Neubauer-type seach for excellence; and a very strong line-up of drivers, whereas BMC never fielded a full works team in the small class. They were probably too busy winning the Monte Carlo Rally?

Sources & further reading:

Abarth 850TC e 1000, by A&E Deganello, Giorgio Nada Editore, ISBN 88-7911-248-1
Abarth Catalogue Raisonné 1949-1986, Automobilia, ISBN 88-7960-062-1
Abarth, Braden and Schmidt, Osprey, ISBN 0-85045-517-0

Ten classic cars index