For a car manufacturer that went AWOL in the U.S. some twenty-eight years ago, Fiat and its new-to-America 500 are on the cusp of being ubiquitous. Fiat’s formal return began with then-Chrysler deputy chief executive Jim Press arriving on a New York Auto Show stage in 2009 aboard Fiat’s 500, and moved to more formal announcements while Chrysler continued to work through bankruptcy. There was the necessary retooling of a Chrysler plant in Mexico for Fiat production and – finally – the announcement of dealership appointments in most major metro markets. Like most things emanating from Italy in the postwar era, words flowed faster than the actual product, but the excitement was sustained (in no small part) by the attachment many – both within and outside of the industry – have for Fiat cars. And few have done more to cultivate that passion than Fiat’s penultimate postwar guru, tuner-racer-builder Carlo Abarth.
Karl Abarth was an Austrian with a deep passion for design and performance. His competition history began on two wheels, and continued on four through the 1930s. By then, he had moved to Italy, whereby ‘Karl’ became ‘Carlo’. Various collaborative efforts – including the iconic Cisitalia – occupied his time and talents throughout the 1940s, and led to the formation of his own company, Abarth & C., in 1949. Abarth, born under the astrologic sign of Scorpio, chose the Scorpion as his logo. And although most of the company’s tuning capital was expended on Fiat, modified variants of Porsche, Simca, Siata, Lancia, Alfa Romeo and Ferrari were produced, while an Abarth-modified Corvair was contemplated.
Stateside, one of those with a passion for Fiat is Chuck Halper. Now in his fifth decade of working in (or consulting for) the car industry, Chuck’s attachment to Fiat began with the purchase of a 1965 Fiat Abarth 695 in 1974 – for $400. And despite the buck buying more in the Nixon administration than it does today, the Fiat Abarth – discovered near Nixon’s alma mater in Whittier, California – was in exactly the condition you’d expect it to be for a price that (even then) would have purchased little more than a good Schwinn. The original engine – bumped to almost 700cc via bigger bore and longer stroke – had been displaced by a ‘cooking’ 500, original rubber had been replaced by tires too tall, and rust had worked its way throughout the Fiat’s unit-body structure. Halper may have been smitten, but the Abarth’s fate might have already been written had it not been for Chuck’s tenacity, contacts within the industry, and a travel budget partially augmented by those carmakers he worked for.
Halper’s ’65 Fiat-Abarth 695 shares garage space with two ’62 Studebaker Hawks, and the contrast between the Studebakers and the tiny Fiat is striking. Given that the car on which the Abarth was based, Fiat’s 500, was responsible at its mid-‘50s introduction for getting Italians off of their scooters and into entry-level motorcars, its small size – wheelbase of just over six feet, an overall length of under ten feet, and a curb weight of just 1,100 pounds – conceals a rather big capability. It is, in today’s context, a microcar, dwarfed by the 2012 variant of the same name, which sits on a wheelbase of 90 inches, enjoys an overall length of almost twelve feet, and weighs more than 2,400 lbs. With only that as context, the new specs read like a primetime bio of NBC’s The Biggest Loser.