Today, the FIAT 500 Abarth scorpion is a symbol for speed, performance and pure exhilaration. Behind that symbol is Karl Abarth, a man whose innovation and passion forever changed the meaning of the scorpion and forever impacted the FIAT brand.
Karl Abarth was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 15, 1908, under the astrological sign of Scorpio. Scorpios are said to be determined, forceful and passionate – traits Abarth would use to make a name for himself in the worlds of racing and engineering.
Abarth got his first taste for racing as a teenager, winning his first race at Salzburg in 1928 on a second-hand British motorcycle that he modified himself, with no factory support. By 1930, he started racing his own hand-built motorcycles, eventually becoming a five-time European motorcycle champion. Over the next decade, Abarth continued acquiring achievements, including building a motorcycle sidecar that raced against and beat the Orient Express on its 1,300-kilometer stretch between Vienna and Ostend.
After moving to Italy, Abarth formed Abarth & C in 1949. The company produced aftermarket products for production cars, as well as performance exhaust systems. That year he also built his first race car, a 204 A Roadster, derived from a FIAT 1100. In this car, he won the Italian 1100 and Formula 2 championships.
Over the next few years, Abarth would continue to produce aftermarket products, quickly gaining the interest of car manufacturers such as Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari. But it was the arrival of the FIAT 600 in 1955 that gave him the opportunity to create the Abarth 750 GT, a small, affordable sports car using the 600’s underpinnings. The FIAT Abarth 750 would soon set a number of endurance and speed records.
During this time, Abarth also produced a range of options that allowed enthusiasts to upfit their own FIAT 600s. Costing a pricey 250,000 lire, a complete Abarth 750 kit for the FIAT 600 included everything from an enhanced exhaust and crankshaft to signature Abarth scorpion chrome badges.
In 1958 Abarth duplicated his success with the 750 by creating the FIAT 595 Abarth from a FIAT 500. With the 595, he broke six international speed records and tallied nearly 900 victories over the car’s seven-year run.
In the 1960s the Abarth name reached its peak, becoming a synonym for performance, upgrades and victory. The name was so pervasive that in restaurants Italians would order a strong coffee by saying they wanted an “Abarth coffee.”
In 1970 the company merged with FIAT, where Abarth continued to enjoy competitive success until he died on October 24, 1979, at the age of 71. His racing creations continued their success in the following years and continue to be used today.
The legendary scorpion badge returned in 2007 when FIAT re-launched the Abarth brand in Europe. In 2011, FIAT continued to build on the strength of Abarth by introducing the FIAT 500 Abarth in the United States.
And so, the tenacious, ever-wicked sign of the scorpion lives on. Have you driven one yet?