All Red and Leathery Smelling - a "pur sang" Italian Sport Machine

You are minding your own business driving down the freeway in Los Angeles when suddenly you find yourself pursued by Porsche pushers! Now Porsche drivers are a very exclusive clan and they are not given to glancing, let alone staring at any other type of vehicle. What causes all this attention from the sophisticates is that you are driving the very slinky new Abarth Scorpion SS 1300. The name, as is common with Italian machines, is nearly as long as the car. 'Car' is really an inadequate term for describing one of Carlo Abarth's creations; these dandy sporting vehicles are definitely machines made for driving pleasure and little else.

The name Abarth is probably most familiar to American readers in connection with the fancy exhaust systems that the Abarth Company manufacturers for almost any of the imported sedans and sports cars. However, Abarth. the man, started his automotive career as a racing driver in Austria prior to World War II. After the war he moved south and joined the Cisitalia organization working with Count Johnny Lurani, Tazo Nuvolari, Piero Dusio. and Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. By 1948 Cisitalia was out of business and Abarth started out on his own in Turin with eight employees to build racing cars. Carlo Abarth also was interested in touring cars, and soon he began making the special exhaust systems for mass produced cars; it was this business that became the mainstay of the firm's income. Involved in prototype work, Abarth produced several sleek designs. Many of these cars were based on Fiat components. The first one in production that made any impact in this country was the Fiat Abarth Zagato. The Zagato was a tiny, rear engined coupe with a distinctive dip down the middle of the roof and astounding performance from its under one liter engine.

Today Abarth production is in three segments: the exhaust systems, the hop up conversion kits for popular priced cars, and the manufacture of complete grand touring cars bearing the Abarth symbol. The Scorpion emblem appears on all Abarth products and the story goes that Carlo Abarth chose the rather ugly creature for his trademark for two reasons. One, he felt that the strange looks of the scorpion would not only provide great possibilities for artistic expression, and, being ugly, It wasn't apt to be imitated. Secondly Abarth was born under the Zodiac sign of the Scorpion. Today the red and yellow shield with the scorpion on overlay is a familiar sign to all enthusiasts in the motoring world.

With the advent of the federal safety and smog laws, many high performance cars of limited manufacture, including Abarth's, disappeared from the U. S. market. Difficulties for small companies include the crash testing and the development of emrssion control devices that please the feds and do not inhibit the driving pleasure for which the cars are designed. The Abarth factory still produces exciting little GTs, but the problem of getting them legalized for the federally protected American consumer are myriad. West Coast Abarth distributor John Rich is not easily discouraged however He has made the trek to Washington more than once in an effort to import the latest Abarth offering. At this writing there are stall a few details that need changing before the Scorpron will be legal for sale in all fifty states, but John Rich Motors in Glendale, California, has possession of one of the new 1300s. We managed to kidnap It from Rich for a few days In order to bring you this test of a real live pre- avarlabrlrty sports car.

Power train

Power for the Abarth 1300 comes from the in-line, four cylinder Fiat 124 sedan engine. The liquid cooled, oversome head valve unit has a cast iron block and alloy head. The Abarth version is in creased slightly in displacement from the standard 1 197 cubic centimeters to 1280. The bore and stroke evolve to 2.97 x 2.22 inches. New forged pistons, a dual throat 40 DCOE Weber carbu retor, and sundry touches of Abarth magic plus an 11.5 to 1 compression ratio. increase the horsepower figure from the stock 65 to exactly 100 SAE ponies. The 124 sedan is a conventional front engine, rear drive car. In the Scorpion the engine is mounted backwards in the rear behind the rear axle. There it is mated to the gearbox and final drive unit from the Fiat 850 which is rear engine, rear drive in standard form.

The 850 transmission is an all synchromesh four speed in standard H pat tern. Final drive is 3.89 to 1 on the Abarth. The gears are close, but spacing seems just right for quick starts and rapid acceleration on the light weight (1600 lb.)Abarth. The clutch is dia phragm type with a seven inch disc di ameter. The gear lever is very short in the sporting manner and is well posi tioned for driving ease. The synchros are smooth working, but there is a slight notchy feel when shifting until one becomes accustomed to the very close gate pattern. Reverse gear has a lock out device, and the gear lever must be pushed toward the floor before reverse can be engaged.

The power output on the hot rodded 124 engine is as much as anyone could desire, and power comes on smoothly through the gears. The 'Abarthed'en gine demands the very best gasoline available and will ping on many of the so-called premium grades. Other than its appetite for top line fuel, the engine doesn't exhibit any temperamental tendencies in daily use. It starts easily when cold if full choke is used. Fiat fanciers will get a chuckle out of the manual choke location. There it is along side the parking brake lever at the driver's right elbow in the classic style of the Fiat sedans. Our test Scorpion had had the anti-smog devices removed for redesign work to meet California's stiff laws, so our Abarth boomed along a bit better perhaps than the salable versions will. But the emission control is not an impossible problem and the car should be certified by press time.

Roadability and handling

This whole section could be done in one word - wow! Imagine what It would be like driving a Group 7 or Formula car that had a street body attached to its fancy chassis. This is the feeling you get from the Abarth. Every thing about it seems super quick. One hiccup and the tiny steering wheel moves a degree which is enough to change the dlrection of the car. Acceleration is rapid through the gears and top end comes out around 125 miles per hour. But speed for speed's sake is not what a GT is all about. This is one vehicle that handles as good as it looks. The Abarth feels like a baby Group 7 for sure. For all its sensitive quickness, it is forgiving once you come to terms with the light steering and the ultra quick response. The Abarth is not for the clod, but rather for the driver who likes to wring out a car on tight and twisty roads. Faint heart and light throttle will not do for driving the Scorpion. One needs to get on the gas, stay in the mid to top rev range, and keep the foot firmly planted in the carburetor while going through a tight turn. Too much back pedaling in a corner will bring the rear end around faster than you can think about it. Light deceleration will bring the rear end out in a delightful drift, and then a stab at the throttle will zap the little stormer just where you point it. For the enthusiast, the handling is absolutely superb.

The Abarth is shod with 155x 13 Kleber Colombes radial tires, and they are a good combination of sticky tread and all weather performance. The U. S. Abarth has special 13 inch alloy wheels with six inch rims. The suspension is all Abarth out of Fiat. At the front, unequal length A arms with concentric coil springs and telescopic shocks are fitted. The same coil spring/shock setup is on the rear coupled with semi-trailing arms. Anti-sway bars are fitted to both the front and rear. The drive axles are fabricated for Abarth and are much stronger than the original Fiat to handle the additional torque. The Fiat worm and roller gear steering is retained, but the small, Formula style wheel has less than three turns lock to lock on a revised ratio. The body is all steel with the exception ,of the engine hood surround which is fiberglass, Even so, the entire vehicle weighs under 1600 pounds at the curb with a front to rear weight bias of 39/61. In practice the weight balance is quite good. There is some nose lift and slight wind wander at high speed though, and the importers are experimenting with atr foils that may be added to eliminate this slight annoyance.

Power and performance

The Abarth is not the type of car that is at its best on the dragstrip. The GT is designed for overall performance and maximum roadability of the available power. But we lined up at the Christmas tree at Orange County Raceway just to see what the little charmer would do. We are not particularly oriented to catching top quarter mile times either, but nonetheless the best run came out to 16.83 seconds with a terminal speed of 81.81 miles per hour. This time could be improved with a little rear suspension work too. Taking off above 4500 rpm caused the rear end to wind up, shake and dance a bit before moving away, and that is all lost time. For more normal use extra go comes on in any gear, provided you are above 4000 rpm, when you reach for passing power. The marked red line of 5500 rpm is a little pessimistic, and we were told to wind it to 6500 on test. It felt like it would go further, but we dutifully stayed under the 6500 mark rather than scatter anything.

Our test car was equipped with a kilometer reading speedometer which did add to the aura of speed. It turned out to have an optimistic error of about five miles at 60 miles per hour, so we drove around at a legal speed while indicating 110 (kph) on the speedo.

Wheeee! Driving the Abarth on the highway is exhilarating, especially with everyone staring at the brilliant red car that stands just a shade over forty inches from ground to roofline. But the back roads, free of traffic, or a road race road course are homes for the Abarth. This responsive machine is nothing but fun to fling around corners, and the tighter the corner the more fun it is. One can Walter Mitty away, dreaming of the Mille Miglia, the Carrera Pan Americana, and such events that called for a road racer in streetable form. The Abarth is not only racing bred, it is a racer. The uncanny handling, surefooted stance on the road, and predictable steering combine to make it the closest thing to a well set up road racer we have ever driven on the street. One needs only a short period of testing to gain the needed insight into the quickness of the car.. and then look out.. it will make you feel like a very talented driver. The Abarth may have some faults, but none are in the roadability department. It is just great to drive, and with all this nifty handling, it has a good boulevard ride as well. None of the oxcart springing often associated with dual purpose cars for the Abarth. The ride is nice and firm, but quite comfortable and quiet on the street.

Brakes and safety

In our opinion cars like the Abarth are among the world's safest vehicles. Not because they are padded and roll caged, crushproof and the like, but because the vehicle is designed to be well and truly roadable in the first place. Quick and agile with more brakes than it needs, the Abarth gets high marks for sensible and usable safety engineering. Like the 124 Fiats, the Scorpion has Girling 8.7 inch disc brakes on all four wheels. After ten stops in a row from speed, we still could not induce fade or erratic behavior from the brakes. Swift and sure stops are constantly available on the Abarth, and pedal pressure is not unduly high. On the decelerometer the Abarth recorded 30 ft. per sec. on a stop from 60 miles and stops short and straight per hour, a figure that far exceeds capability of almost anything else on the road. Actually when you are driving on an expressway in heavy traffic, you need to check the mirrors as you brake heavily to avoid being rammed by more common machines that cannot stop as short and straight.

The Abarth dash is properly constructed for the Impact laws and most of the interior suits federal regs. Seat belts only were installed in our test car since there is no place to hang a useful shoulder harness unless the car has a roll bar installed. We don't subscribe to the practice of attaching harness fittings to the thin and easily collapsed sheetmetal of the ordinary roof as so many manufacturers have done, so we appreciate this lack of hokey in the Abarth. A large red light in the center of the dash has been added to meet the requirement for a parking brake warning light, and rather ponderous headrests overpower the seats. Fortunately the headrests are removable, because vision to the rear is severely restricted with the headrest installation. However, without these appendages the center mirror is quite useful for quick glances through the steeply rear window. The distortion is not bad, and the consensus of all the staff drivers was that rear vision is as good as in any slant back GT on the market. The driver's outside mirror is very handy.

There are many diverse thoughts on concealed headlights and safety. The body design by Lombardi predicates the pop up style lights which are acuated by poking the light switch on the dash. A hand crank mechanism for fail safe requirements is up front in the trunk right by the light bar. The single headlights are well angled and throw an excellent light beam for night driving. There is no room for auxiliary lights though. In fact there isn't anyplace on the sleek nose for the front license plate required by many states, a problem the owner will have to solve himself. The big tail lights are borrowed from the 850 Fiat coupe and are mounted high to be easily visible at night. With a few exceptions this Abarth conforms to all the various safety laws. Things like the single windshield wiper are "no no's" in some states, but the addition of another inch of wiped Tt area will make it Okay in California, one of the toughest states on certification. The wiper performs well and gives an adequate area of visibility in inclement weather.

Comfort and convenience

After all the praise we come to the section where the Abarth has some real drawbacks. In the case of the Scorpion, convenience is a matter of how much comfort you are willing to sacrifice to drive such a handling delight on theroad. Trunk space is nonexistent. Open the front hood and you might get a toothbrush in beside the spare tire, but get slanted that is about all. Behind the seats there is area for a few small soft bags, but the gas tank is right under the bulkhead and takes up most of the space. It is a very .small gas tank too. Holding just 7.8 U. S. low the gallons, the tank is not made to accommodate cross country touring. With poir town and country driving the overall tor mileage figure came out to 20.3 miles flov per gallon on the corrected speedo. This doesn't give the Abarth driver much hea range, in particular when the car needs the often hard to find super high grade gas.

Because of the door design, the windows foot roll down just half way. But there are real vent windows on the door to aid the ventilation, and the armrests are well placed in relation to the seat. The seats low are something else again. One piece racing, bucket style. the seats are in stalled locally and fixed to the floor without adjustment tracks. However, the pedals are fully adjustable so the car can be tailored to the individual owner. Getting into the seat calls for an agile body and good balance, you can give up your gym exercises if you own an Abarth. You will be kept in shape just getting in and out daily. Once inside the seats are comfortable and fit well and afford decent head room for the average size man.

Heater and fresh air controls are be low the instrument panel on the dash Two fresh arr vents are on the cowl and point at the windshield. Despite extrac tor vents behind the side windows, flow- through ventrlatronIS not very good on a warm day. By contrast the heater warms the tiny area instantly without blowing heat directly on the face or feet.

The passenger has sufficrent leg and foot room, but the big footed driver has scant area In which to rest his left foot. The owner must do his own house cleaning too, because the Abarth is too low and lacks the proper ground clearance to fit through a five minute car wash.

On the plus side the center mounted instrument panel is easily read by the driver. There are small dials for water temperature and gasoline. The large and legible tachometer reads to 8000 rpm, it and the 200 kph speedometer are easy read even if not in front of the operration ator. The speed0 incorporates a resetand table trip meter and there are button switches for lights and wipers. High beams are actuated from a stalk off the steering column, and the horn button is placed in the center of the well padded, Formula style steering wheel. A small toggle switch is mounted for an auxiliary engine cooling fan that IS needed in heavy traffic on a warm day. Also on the panel are the usual warning lights for oil, ignition. and so on. The front hood re lease is under the dash on the far left, and some small security is gatned by a lock on the rear engine hood. We found the positioning of the window winders and door latches well done, far more handy in fact than on most cars of any size. There is a tiny interior light mounted behind the center mirror and a passenger grab handle affixed to the windshield post on the right. The doors and seats are upholstered in good looking vinyl, and durable and attractive carpeting covers all the floor areas.

Summary

So we did find a spate of in-adequacresin the Abarth. Typical of Italian high performance equipment, the designers overlooked a few things in their zeal to make a real fine road car. But most of the gripes fall in the realm of 'so what'to the fellow who would be interested In such a car. We had all our consultants drive the Abarth. They all complarned about the contortions re quired to enter the car Then after a spin around the test area, no one ever men tioned it again. Some back yard tinker ing could help the fresh air flow, and the seats can be positioned to frt anyone with the adjustable pedals. The guy that owns an Abarth would not be interested in a lot of excess baggage either, and small cases can be sandwiched into the car for weekend trips.

We took the Abarth to a sports car club gathering and the buffs all clamored for a ride. We also took it to an engineering plant at coffee break. The technically oriented men fell in love with the diminutive GT. The Abarth is defi nitely an attention getter -it even attracts the fuzz. But if You truly enjoy driving, try this one next. It flatters the ego immensely! The little Scorpion is not really fragile either. Most of the components are reasonably durable and derived from relatively available stock. Still the Lombardi body might be a hangup if the exterior suffered major damage. But again 'who cares' if the sheer joy of driving a responsive car is Your bag. And this GT is not out of sight on cost either. With the US. added extras such as head rests, rear splash guards, fancy wheels and seats, the car retails for $4495 complete. There are no extras, and if you want a radio it is up to You to find a place to put it. The exhilato gained from driving the Abarth its sleek styling are its chief charms. We invented all sorts of excuses to keep it around, but we finally had to hand it back to Glendale's Rich Motors. A pity too we had finally mastered the art of entry. We miss the little sportster and the fun of driving it. The Abarth exemplifies the phrase 'the fun is in the going. '

Abarth Scorpion SS 1300
Data in Brief
DIMENSIONS
Overall length (in.) 142.0
Wheelbase (in.) 80.5
Height (in.) 42.3
Width (in.) 58.2
Tread (front. in.) 48.4
Tread (rear. in.) 48.9
Fuel tank capacity (gal.) 7.8
Turning diameter (ft) 36.5
ENGINE
Type OHV in-line, 4
Displacement (cu. in.) 79 (1280 cc)
Horsepower (at 6200 rpm) 100
Torque (Ib./ft. at 5000 rpm) 140
WEIGHT, TIRES, BRAKES
Weight (lb) 1595
Tires 155 SR 13 Kleber Colombes Radial
Brakes, front 8.7 in. disc
Brakes, rear 8.7 In. disc
SUSPENSION
Front independent, unequal length A-arms. concentric coil springs and shocks, anti-roll bar
Rear independent, semi-trailing arms, concentric coil springs and shocks, anti-roll bar
PERFORMANCE
Standing 1/4 milel(sec.) 16.83
Speed at end of 1/4 mile(mph) 81.81
Braking (from 60 mph, ft.) 130

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