Back in 1959, Fiat introduced the legendary Fiat Cinquecento (which is Italian for 500). So named because of its engine displacement of 500 cubic centimeters, people loved the little car. Quite fun to drive, the Cinquecento sold very well. Of course, whenever a car this much fun to drive gains a passionate audience, it’s just a matter of time until someone decides there has to be a way to make it go faster. While a number of tuners took up the challenge, the most successful effort by far came from Carlo Abarth (AH-barth).
Born in Austria in November of 1908, Abarth’s start in motorsports came in the form of motorcycle racing. One of his many notable achievements was challenging the Orient Express railway train to an 800-mile race from Belgium to France. He won. A five-time European motorcycle racing champion, Abarth founded Abarth & C. in Italy in 1949 to build racing cars. For his company logo, Abarth chose the symbol of his astrological sign—the scorpion.
Good thing he wasn’t a Pisces, or something with an even less aggressive symbol like Virgo.
But we digress…
Fielding one of the most successful racing teams in Italy, Abarth’s drivers included Tazio Nuvolari; renowned as the greatest of his era. Despite the success, money became an issue. To generate additional revenue, Abarth came up with a performance modification kit for the Fiat Topolino, then one of Europe’s most popular small cars. Flush with cash from this effort, he went on to also produce road cars in his own right.
When Fiat introduced the original 500 back in 1959, Abarth recognized the opportunity it represented right away. Before long Abarth-modified 500’s were winning races all over Europe, making “Abarth” a universally recognized synonym for exceptional performance. Meanwhile the Abarth 500s, like the eight-legged animal used to represent them, became known as “small, but wicked”.
Fiat bought Abarth’s company in 1971.
The current version of the FIAT 500 was introduced in 2007, and just as summer follows spring, the high performance Abarth version debuted the following year. Fiat brought the 500 to the United States for the 2012 model year as the first Fiat product to be sold in this country since 1984. One year later, the contemporary 500 Abarth followed, to considerable acclaim.
So, is it all it’s cracked up to be?