Anyone who knows at least a little about Italian cars will quickly recognize Ferrari’s prancing horse, Maserati’s trident, or Lamborghini’s charging bull. But Abarth’s scorpion most often will draw a blank — a shame since the Abarth badge always promised performance and charisma alongside economy and a relatively low purchase price.
Karl Abarth was born in Austria, under the sign of Scorpio (hence the logo inspiration). He later began a racing career in Italy and won five European motorcycle championships during the 1930s.
During the Third Annual Scarsdale Concours, held in Scarsdale, N.Y., on May 21, Anthony Angotti's 1957 Abarth 750 GT Zagato was given a prominent display spot in front of the village post office. It also earned the Wilson & Son Jewelers Award for the way that its high-revving engine and light-but-strong aluminum bodywork inspired comparison to high-end sports watches.
Abarth spent the early postwar years working on Cisitalia’s Grand Prix racer and served as the Italian agent for Porsche’s design firm. He went into business for himself in 1949 in Turin, Italy, producing exhaust systems and performance parts for Fiats.
Abarth’s company was memorably promoted through construction of several competition and speed-record cars, including the supercharged 1955 Tipo 207-A Spyder. Following that, Abarth began the series modification of Fiat 600 sedans — the rear-mounted fours were bored-and-stroked to 747cc, gained counter-balanced crankshafts, twin overhead-cams, and four-branch dual exhausts. The cars gained anywhere from 38 hp to 47 hp, and promised top speeds around
80 mph (a 20-mph increase over the stock 21.5-hp Fiat 600).
Sleek good looks and a 99-mph top end arrived soon afterwards in the form of the 750 GT coupe. The car was bodied in lightweight aluminum by Carrozzeria Zagato of Milan, Italy, whose dominant styling feature was a pair of headroom-maximizing bubbles in the roof panel.
The Zagato-bodied Abarth 750 GT's most-distinctive styling feature was a headroom-maximizing “double bubble” roof panel, which was cleverly paired with twin air scoops in the engine cover.
“Though Zagato has done similar bodies for Alfa-Romeo, Aston-Martin and, of course, Ferrari, the story goes that Carlo Abarth was a tall man who did it to get enough headroom,” said Anthony Angotti, a retired ad agency entrepreneur from Westport, Conn.
Angotti found his 1957 “Double Bubble” coupe at a garage in Saragna, Italy, that was being used by enthusiasts to prep their cars for the 2001 Mille Miglia road race.
“Even though it was a little dusty, I was immediately struck by its originality,”?Angotti said. “Even the plastic trim on the side-window rain deflectors was intact, and you almost never see those in one piece.
“I also liked the Robin’s Egg blue exterior. It’s a very retro 1950s color that you see on a lot of Alfas and Fiats from the period, and it also looks great on a Vespa scooter.”
Another potent inducement, once the owner told Angotti the Abarth was for sale, “was that I would end up being only the third owner since the car was built.
“The seller was the best friend of the original owner’s son,”?Angotti said. “They had taken the car on the Tour de France four times during the 1990s, and had also used it for ice rallies in the Italian Alps.”
As the exterior measured only 128 inches from stem-to-stern, Angotti said the car was “so small that we were able to bring it back to the U.S. in the same container used to ship my friend’s Ferrari home” following the Mille Miglia.
In spite of the car’s distinctive roofline, complemented by two engine cover scoops, the 750 GT Zagato is still only 47.2-in. tall., and not limo-like in terms of interior space.
“I’m like five-foot-six, with short legs and long arms, so it’s no problem for me,” Angotti said. The roughly 54 hp produced by the Mille Miglia-specification motor is more than enough to thrill in a car weighing just a little over 1,000 lbs.
“The engine had just been rebuilt when I bought it, so I’ve not had to put much money into it,” Angotti said. “I drive it one or two times a week in nice weather.
“It has amazing power once it gets up to 5,000-7,000 rpm, so I can take it right down Interstate 95 to my mechanic.”
When the car goes on display at area shows, he reports that “people really get a kick out of its uniqueness. Abarth probably built about 1,000 examples (through 1961), but most people in this country have never seen one. Considering that you could buy a real good one today for around $80,000, it’s always fun when people come over from a million-dollar Ferrari for a closer look.
“Kids like it especially because it’s more their size and they can see inside easily.”
Though Abarth is best known for Fiat-based models like the 750 GT Zagato, it also built cars in partnership with Porsche and Simca. It is also interesting to note that Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. was the company’s first U.S. importer, before the franchise was assumed by Chicago-based distributor DFL.
The crippling cost of several overly ambitious projects at Abarth, including a 3-litre Formula One engine and a 6-litre V-12 intended for sports cars, led to a full takeover by Fiat in 1971. Karl Abarth was kept on as a consultant. In 1972, the company was proud to advertise that Abarth’s modified Fiats had scored a total of 7,200 class or outright victories in competition.
Abarth eventually returned to Austria, and died in 1979, but his fabled name and scorpion logo are still used on Fiat’s performance models today.