John Payne tells how Carlo Abarth turned a pretty little car into a real stunner... and how a Third Man turned the story into a tale of much mystery and suspense.
There are three characters in this story but only one are you likely to know: he is Carlo Abarth. Few car enthusiasts will have heard of Francis Lombardi, though his name might ring a bell with students of Italian aeronautical history, since it was for the building of airframes that the Lombardi carrozzeria was set up in Turin many years ago.
Apart from dabbling in four-door conversions for Fiat 850 saloons, which don't exactly pose a threat to Pinninfarina, Bertone, Ghia, Superleggera et al, Lombardi did nothing to bring his knowledge of aerodynamics down to earth, until in 1968 he made a once-in-a-life-time foray into the sports car market with the pretty little coupé pictured opposite.
Lombardi then boldly marketed the car under his own name, calling it the Lombardi 850 Grand Prix. Surely tongue must have been in cheek when the Grand Prix label stuck on a model that could only just about make 90 mph with its standard Fiat 850 coupe engine, chassis and running gear.
It was such a pretty little car, however, that it wasn't long before covetous eyes were turned its way by a man of famous name and prodigious powers of getting quarts of speed out of pint-pots of motor car: Carlo Abarth.The Lombardi Grand Prix was quickly joined by a sort of twin half-sister outwardly identical save that the Abarth scorpion hallmark replaced the humbler Fiat badges on bonnet and tail. Under the skin, the 903cc engine from the Fiat 850 Sport coupé, touched by Abarth's tuning fork, brought the speed up to the obligatory 100-mph of the "proper" sports car.
Just how many of these Grand Prix models were produced seems impossible to establish. Abarth had a habit of not committing production figures to paper and his heirs and successors are apparently reluctant to enter into correspondence. The car that I now own and show here is as far as I know the only Abarth Grand Prix ever to come to Britain, though there are also a bare halfdozen Lombardi Grand Prix over here, of which more later.
The Grand Prix certainly looks as if it goes a lot faster than it does. That said, it's fast enough for me but Carlo Abarth the performance left a lot to be desired. He beefed up his own Lombardi-bodied offering by using the 1300cc engine of the Fiat 124 and this really gave the little machine a sting its tail that justified the new model-name, Scorpione.
Two versions were made available: the "standard" deadly one and a lethal one called the Scorpione SS (for Super Sport), which had forged pistons and completely new suspension of Abarth design to make full use of its 100 bhp and 123 mph. That a car weighing only 14 cwt (in SS form) could handle all this urge without having to be held down by air dams and spoilers is surely a tribute to Francis Lombardi's proficiency as an aerodynamicist.
Yet in the motor industry more than anywhere, progress in one area often gets wiped out by "rationalization". Just as the Scorpione was coming on steam, Fiat acquired the Abarth concern and the Emperor Agnelli turned his thumb down, leaving Francis Lombardi's beautiful project back at square one and down to him alone.
At any rate that would have been the way of it except that by this time Lombardi's venture into the motor manufacturing business had become even more convoluted by the arrival on the scene of the "third man" of our story - truly a man of mystery and intrigue.
Frixos Demetriou was a somewhat shady casino-owning, wheeler-dealing Cypriot who, with his funerial suits, dark glasses and unsmiling face, belonged more to a thriller novel than to the world of international marketing of motor cars. he loved cars however and that love was to make him an integral part of the story.
We know as a fact that on a trip to Cyprus, Frixos Demetriou's plane was diverted to Milan and there he saw for the first time a Lombardi Grand Prix. We further know that a week later he was back in Italy making a contract of the nicest possible kind with Francis Lombardi, by which he, Demetriou, would become importerand sole distributor of the Grand Prix throughout the United Kingdom. A contemporary interview quotes him as implying that he had placed a firm order for fewer than 1000 units.
Imagine Signor Lombardi's joy. Great plans were being laid to give the Lombardi offspring a princely British home in Bayswater. Much money was spent and part of the Demetriou casino holding was razed to make up a great hoard of body parts in readiness for the great alliance and the production line stood poised.
Amazingly, most of those parts are still there gathering dust in Turin, only ten cars being actually delivered here, It is only in fairytales that there is a happy ending. In the real world things frequently take a turn for the worse and signor Lombardi was doomed to disappointment from the beginning. There wasn't any breach of faith on the part of Demetriou - it was simply the fortunes of war. In his line of business there is a chilling occupational hazard which must be accepted and this is that someone might come along and kill you. Nothing personal, just business and this was the way of it for Frixos Demetriou.
The story goes that the assassination was done by some hoodlums in Cyprus but it isn't known whether they intended any irony by choosing to run him over with a car. What make it was has not been handed down to me. I only hope it was one befitting a man who loved cars.
Source: Thoroughbred & classic cars, September 1983