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Fiat, Odds & Ends, Vintage & Classic — November 3, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Fiat 500 Abarth: The Legend Is Coming to the US


I’ve been hearing the tale of a particular Abarth-tuned Fiat since I was a kid. It’s my father’s story of a single ride in the passenger seat of the “small but wicked” Italian machine. He always said it was the scariest car ride he’s ever experienced. Excited about the new 500 Abarth heading stateside, I called my dad today to get the skinny on his decades old, infamous Abarth encounter.

Abarth 695

An Abarth similar to the legendary McCoy car. Photographed by my father in Montreal in 2008.

My father was a high school senior in Orlando in 1965 and already a car nut. He found an Abarth for sale and headed toward McCoy Air Force Base, what is now Orlando International Airport, to meet the Air Force pilot that owned the car and take a closer look. It was a 1960 Abarth 695 if the old man’s memory serves.

If not, there were a few things he’s sure about. The pilot had performed a long list of further modifications. The rear hood remained propped for cooling. The interior was stripped out to make it lighter yet. The pilot got behind the wheel and took my dad out for a spirited demonstration. This Abarth was quick.

But the part that “scared the living $#!+” out of my father in a way that he’s never forgotten occurred when the pilot headed into a hairpin at about 60 mph, heel and toe downshifting and sliding neatly through the apex. My father did not take the Abarth home.

He insists that, despite having been behind the wheel of some formidable sports cars of the day, the Abarth’s size made it seem faster than a Healey 3000 or even a 1963 fuelie Vette. Small but wicked indeed.

So for as long as I can remember, the word “Abarth” has conjured in me a mental image of a tiny Italian car sliding dramatically across the pavement, my tall Italian-American father digging his fingernails into any surface he can find.

I can’t wait to drive the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth.

Big man, small car.