With the exception of the 695 Biposto, modern Abarths have generally fallen short of recapturing the magic of Carlo’s early creations, lagging behind rivals when it comes to dynamics and performance, and lacking the bespoke feel that the originals had. However, a recent visit to Abarth’s newly opened Classiche facility and a ‘state of the union’ chat with worldwide head of operations Paolo Gagliardo revealed a brand with renewed direction and, in the form of the just-unveiled Fiat 124 Spider, the potential to do something genuinely exciting.
Classiche itself is like a specialist garage tacked on to the Abarth factory. So you wander down the production line, witnessing brand new Fiat 500s having their insides ripped out to be replaced with bucket seats and dog-ring gearboxes, before finally arriving in a room filled with classic Abarth cars. Dotted about are Fiat 124 Abarths, several freshly restored original 595s, and even a few ultra-rare SS and Assetto Corsa versions of the same car. Set in what used to be a car park in Fiat’s iconic Mirafiori complex in Turin, the new facility provides Abarth with a genuine base for its operations and, crucially, brings all the elements of the brand together under one roof.
Indeed, it has all the staples of a baby Maranello, with an entrance stacked full of cassetta di transformazione – essentially Abarth parts in fancy crates – and more than enough merchandise to clean out the pockets of any 500 fan.
‘We have a beautiful structure here and all of our technicians in one place,’ says Gagliardo. ‘It was a very easy equation to solve. We are growing, we are planning on growing even more, but we were missing that link, we were missing our roots.
‘This is us bringing it all together and it makes sense. We already have in-house records and we receive a constant stream of material, complete with technical descriptions, from classic car lovers. This is being digitised and used to make sure a car is original.’ Gagliardo insists it’s all about performance certification and verifying authenticity, but there’s also a degree of brand-building at work here. While Classiche promises to provide every skill-set required for restoring Abarth cars of old, the marketing opportunities for new models are not being missed.
Plentiful scorpion badges coupled with what looks like a pretty restricted workshop, and the fact that new Abarth owners will soon be able to collect cars from the new facility, suggest it’s a heritage-building exercise as much as anything. Similarities with Porsche’s customer collection, museum and restoration centre are easy to identify. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, and if Abarth can offer a similar ownership proposition but at a much lower price-point, then chances are they will keep customers coming back.
What was even more telling of our time at Abarth was just how limited in scope things were for the brand with only the Fiat 500 to work with. Seeing a production line stacked full of nothing but 500s makes for a stark contrast with a visit to Affalterbach – AMG’s home. AMG has the ‘hot vee’ turbo V8 motor found in the C63 and GT – an engine designed and built entirely in-house by Mercedes AMG. It has researchers, designers, engineers and the ability, should it so desire, to produce a road car all of its own. Abarth does not, and it’s this, coupled with a lack of exciting platforms to work with, that represent the biggest barrier to its growth.
In order to expand, Abarth needs a product line on which to showcase its abilities. Hence why we only needed to utter the words ‘124 Spider’ at the Classiche opening to be surrounded immediately by excited engineers. Unlike the 500, the 124 (like its MX-5 cousin) is a sports car from the ground up, meaning Abarth will finally have a much-needed platform on which to establish itself as a proper performance brand alongside the likes of BMW M or Mercedes-AMG.
evo has spent a lot of time with the new MX-5 and is well versed in its shortcomings. Soft on turn-in and with a fairly flat and unexciting engine, there’s clearly a great chassis there, but the execution isn’t quite right. Abarth could rectify this, bringing some of the character found in the 500 alongside setup tweaks that transform the 124 into an out-and-out drivers’ car. Engineers already speak of stiffer springs, bigger brakes and the promise of a more aggressive chassis setup.
We anticipate the 178bhp 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbo ‘T-Jet’ engine found in the top-of-the-line Abarth 595 will also be making its way across to the Abarth 124. According to sources at Classiche, there’s even talk of running the motor at a higher power output. It is this Abarth 124 Spider that will embody Gagliardo’s overarching vision for the brand – that is, selling affordable performance to all, while leveraging a little bit of the heritage that’s being fostered through facilities like Classiche.
‘What Carlo Abarth did, what his innovation was,’ continues Galgliardo, ‘was to take the dream that Ferrari ownership offers and make it available to regular people. This is exactly what we are doing with the 595 and 695. Our job is to take something and make it a performance car, but still make it useable.’
Just how many of these cars are sold in the form of the £30,000-plus Biposto isn’t divulged, but Abarth tells us it’s selling more cars – 60 per cent more than in 2014, apparently, though it won’t disclose what this figure amounts to. ‘We don’t think in terms of market share and we don’t think in terms of competitors,’ says Gagliardo. ‘We think in terms of customers. Right now that means an individual aged between 25 and 60 years old and with a near 50/50 split between genders.
‘These are people who want to experience adrenalin in their day-to-day lives. We just want to bring them that in an affordable way.’ Our guess is that the clear majority of sales relate to the sub-£20k Abarth 500s that compete with the similar in spirit, but different in price, Mini Cooper S and JCW models.
While there’s no denying that Abarth, on the evidence of this visit, is a big step forward from the badge-engineering days of the Punto, all the talk of heritage does leave us slightly anxious. Ferrari built its name on great cars and earned its heritage through the strength of its products. Modern-era Abarth doesn’t have the product to build that heritage on yet. When we put this to him, Gagliardo’s reply is that Abarth isn’t just a badging exercise, adding that it takes performance testing and racing as seriously as any of its competitors, citing Renaultsport as a company with a similar approach.
‘For us, racing activity is definitely not a marketing tool, it’s our university,’ he contends. ‘We have to ensure there is a link between our 500 race series and the character of our cars. We constantly migrate things between the two. Take the Biposto, for example – it’s a racing car made for the street and is designed really only for those who have ultra-specialist needs.’ We’re not so sure. Simply put, the nature of a regular Fiat 500 doesn’t allow you to simply take racing tech and add it to a road car. If you do, it comes in the form of expensive components such as the £8000 dog-ring gearbox available on the Biposto.
So all the foundations of an emerging performance brand are there in Turin, but Abarth has so far been held back by the products it has been given to work with, and no amount of clever marketing was ever going to change that. In order to really re-establish itself and enter a new golden age, it’s the 124 Spider that needs to be special. Over to you, Abarth.