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Heritage pays tribute to the history of Abarth with two special projects
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17th November 2023
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The Pininfarina record-breaking single-seater Abarth

Looking for records to break.

Breaking speed and endurance records has always stimulated Carlo Abarth's competitive spirit: starting in the mid-Fifties, he built special single-seaters specifically for this purpose. Aware of the importance of aerodynamics, he benefited from collaborating with the Pinin Farina bodyworks, with whom he built race cars with Alfa Romeo and Fiat engines.

Challenges always stimulated Carlo Abarth, who has been racing motorbikes since he was young, beating the Orient-Express at speed and thus making a name for himself not only in Austria. Setting records is a demanding sporting activity that enhances the visibility and prestige of cars and car manufacturers. Precisely this type of challenge, against time and distance, particularly appealed to Carlo Abarth.

In the Fifties, the Austrian entrepreneur was looking for solid relationships with the great Italian car manufacturers. At that time, Alfa Romeo was undergoing profound changes and a drastic reduction in competitive activity. Some directors maintain that Abarth was the perfect partner for not entirely abandoning the world of racing: the two houses started collaborating in 1955 with the Alfa Romeo 750 Competition.

After this experience, aware of the quality of Alfa Romeo's engines, Abarth decided to create a record-breaking single-seater around the Giulietta's four-cylinder twin-shaft engine. In order to get the required results for class G, he reduced the engine displacement from 1298 to 1088 cm3.

Abarth built a very light boxed chassis in which it places the Alfa Romeo twin-camshaft behind the driver and uses components from the Giulietta for the chassis. In order to adorn the car with efficient aerodynamics, the Austrian manufacturer called on the collaboration of Pinin Farina.

News of the project for an Alfa Romeo-Abarth single-seater reached the top management at Fiat: it seemed that the same Piedmontese bodyworks mentioned it to president Vittorio Valletta. Carlo Abarth was thus urgently asked by the Turin-based car manufacturer for a similar car, promptly built using the Fiat 600 engine that had already been developed earlier, and parts of the Fiat 1100 chassis.

Thus the two record-breaking single-seaters – the Alfa Romeo-Abarth 1100 and the Fiat-Abarth 750 - were shown side by side in the Pinin Farina stand at the Geneva Salon in March 1957. They are low, streamlined single-seaters, over five metres long, with wide front and rear overhangs, a tapered nose, a domed cockpit and receding mudguards - particularly the rear ones, which end in two long fins considered useful for giving the racing cars greater directionality.

The scene of the record attempts was the Monza Autodrome in the high-speed ring, which allowed no slowing down to negotiate the elevated curves. Precisely to reach and maintain maximum speed, the Abarth record-breaking single-seaters were made as light as possible and fitted with single-axle brakes because they were only needed for pit stops.

The first to take to the track at Monza was the Alfa Romeo-Abarth 1100, on 18 May 1957.

Modified in some details compared to the version exhibited at the Geneva Motor Show, the car managed to set six records before a tyre explosion brought the session to a premature halt. Its Fiat-powered sibling, which broke fifteen long-distance records from July 24th to 27th the same year, had better luck with its track debut, while another three short-distance records were set on 28 October.

In 1957, Fiat launched the New 500, which initially did not meet with the success it would later have. Taking one of his tuned versions to the track, Abarth demonstrated the new small car's reliability and strength. After that success, he decided to set up a record-breaking single-seater around that small twin-cylinder engine he had developed. The feat went down in history with no fewer than twenty-eight records broken and inspired Abarth to build new record-breaking cars to promote his new engines, once again availing himself of Pinin Farina's invaluable contribution.

Launched in July 1957, the Fiat Nuova 500 did not immediately make inroads into the automotive market: the trade press and the public were not particularly convinced by the qualities of the small twin-cylinder engine that drove the small car. Carlo Abarth, on the other hand, realised its potential and decided to produce the car and go on the track: thus was born the Fiat 500 Abarth production.

In February 1958 on the Monza Autodrome high speed ring, six records were beaten in seven days. The decision to include authoritative specialised journalists among the drivers meant news of the excellent result could spread rapidly around the world. The success stirred Fiat executives once again, in particular its chairman Vittorio Valletta. The relationship between the two companies thus changed: Abarth got a new marketing contract and financial recognition for every record broken. It was only the beginning.

Strengthened by the new incentive, Abarth built a light, sleek record-breaking single-seater around the same engine, using a tubular chassis and an aerodynamic body, again in collaboration with Pinin Farina. The single-seater Fiat-Abarth 500 was much more compact than its preceding sisters, besides losing its rear fins: weighing only 368 kg, the twin-cylinder 36 HP engine pushed it past 180 km/h.

The first record attempt was on 22 September 1958, interrupted, however, by a trivial mechanical failure and night-time collisions with the wild rabbits that populated the Monza Park. Once the inconveniences were remedied, the real assault on the records began on 27 September.

The team of nine drivers broke seventeen long-distance records, finishing the gruelling marathon on 7 October, only for the adverse weather conditions to cause it to end. Two weeks later, on 21 October, three drivers took to the track again and broke six more short-distance records. The following summer, a further session of attempts allowed the invincible Abarth single-seater with the small Fiat 500 twin-cylinder engine to amass a total of 28 records, an astonishing achievement.

Having archived the great successes built around the small Fiat twin-cylinder engine, the evolution of Abarth's record-breaking single-seaters did not stop, but in 1960 the House of Scorpion's objectives changed somewhat: now the records were used to demonstrate not only the quality of the starting engines, but above all the power and reliability of Abarth production.

For this new project, Pinin Farina decided to further refine the aerodynamics. Several models were prepared to test different solutions, particularly in the “tail”, which varied in shape and length. As with the small single-seater with the 500 engine, the new record-breaking bodywork was devoid of the long tail fins used in previous years. Not only that, it was much shorter due to the significant reduction in overhangs beyond the wheels.

On 22 September 1960, the new record-breaking single-seater was equipped with the tried-and-tested 4-cylinder 750 Fiat-derived engine to set four short-distance records, before the new one-litre twin-shaft engine was introduced: the 1000 delivered a total of 108 horsepower, over 100 HP/litre without turbo-charging, a very high figure for a racing engine of the time that had to endure the arduous long-distance runs.

On 28 September, nine drivers were summoned to Monza, and after twelve hours the first record was broken at an average speed of over 203 km/h. After six other records were broken, the prestigious record for the distance covered in 72 hours remained to be broken, when weather conditions begin to deteriorate. Abarth decided to entrust the car to the experienced and versatile driver Umberto Maglioli. But before time ran out, the car lost its road grip due to the rain, and after a series of spins, stopped on an embankment off the track. The driver was unhurt but the engine could no longer restart. Carlo Abarth did not give up and started making calculations: the regulations, in fact, allowed the car to cross the finish line even with the engine switched off, as long as it was pushed by the driver alone. Maglioli was thus encouraged to complete the job and, albeit just pushing, the 72-hour record previously held by Ford was also beaten by covering 12,824.545 km at an average speed of 186.68 km/h.

One example of Fiat-Abarth 1000 record-breaking single-seater by Pininfarina is preserved in the Stellantis Heritage HUB in Turin, next to the first Abarth 750 record Bertone of 1956 and to the last Abarth 1000 single-seater of 1965.

Together, the three single-seaters are displayed in the “Records and races” area along with other examples that have triumphed at major circuits around the world.

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