By the mid-1950s, tuner Carlo Abarth had built a reputation among Italian enthusiasts by turning diminutive 22-hp Fiats into snarling 43-hp street fighters, but when he linked his name with that of Elio Zagato's classy coach-building firm, the result was what surely has to be the smallest and prettiest GT car of the time, the Fiat Abarth 750 Zagato "Double Bubble" Coupe.
Not exactly household names on this side of the Atlantic, Abarth and Zagato may become better known as Chrysler and Fiat leverage these legends as part of the hype surrounding the recently introduced to North America Fiat 500.
Fiat revealed a 500 Coupe Zagato concept at March's Geneva auto show - recalling a Fiat-based coupe Zagato created in 1955 - and a special performance-oriented Abarth edition of the Fiat 500 is scheduled to appear early in 2012.
Born in 1908, Austrian Karl Abarth was physically large, larger than life and apparently paradoxical - an egoist who shied away from the limelight. A motorcycle racing champion, he built his first car - and the first of the mufflers that would later, with the black crackle finish, become sought after performance accessories by sports car enthusiasts - at the age of 20. As the Second World War closed, he campaigned to free Dr. Ferdinand Porsche from French incarceration and was later awarded the first Porsche distributorship in his newly adopted country of Italy, where he was known as Carlo.
He created Abarth & C. in 1949 in Turin, using his astrological sign Scorpio as the company logo, and went on to build racing cars, exhaust systems and tuning kits, mainly for Fiat, to which he sold his company in 1971. Abarth's name appeared on at least 30 car models.
Elio Zagato was a son of the creator of the Zagato firm founded in Turin after the First World War, whose designers and coachbuilders created many revered classics for makers such as Maserati, Alfa-Romeo, Lancia, Ferrari, Aston-Martin and Bristol, as well as a number of concepts, a role it continues in today.
The Fiat Abarth 750 Zagato was born of a meeting between Abarth and Zagato at the Turin car show in 1955, in which the pair decided using the engine and underpinnings of Fiat's new 600 econo model, suitably tweaked by Abarth and clad in exotic alloy bodywork by Zagato would be a good idea.
The two-seat coupe that resulted, with its unique double roof bulges, which matched air intakes on the rear engine cover, appeared at the 1956 Turin show and some 600 would be built before production ended in 1960.
The 1959 Fiat Abarth owned by Mark Doust of Toronto could be the poster car for stalled restoration projects. It was acquired in 1980, shortly after the owner graduated from high school, taken apart and painted in 1986 and finally put back together, almost a quarter century later, last year.
"Funny how life gets in the way, eh?" says Doust, whose father George was a partner in Toronto auto dealership Grand Touring Automobiles, and who thus grew up surrounded by exotic machinery. He recalls messing about with the James Bond movie Aston-Martin DB4 at one point as a pre-teen, but drove an MG Midget (with no top) year-round during his high school years.
Keen on Austin-Healeys, he vintage-raced a "Bugeye" and his collection now includes a pair of early 1950s 100-4s, plus a 1950 Riley 2.5 Drophead Coupe, a 1962 Mini Cooper and a Fiat Abarth 600, found in a field and as yet unrestored. Currently between jobs, he keeps busy helping with restorations, including that of another Fiat Abarth Zagato.
It was an Austin-Healey he was looking for when he read a magazine article on the Fiat Abarth and came across this one in Toronto. It was being raced by owner Roger Fountain, who had brought it up from the U.S. where its original buyer would have paid about $3,500 for it in 1959.
Doust drove it on the street before his insurance company took fright and decided it didn't want to have anything more to do with a hand-built, aluminum-bodied Italian exotic - even a little one. In an unsuccessful attempt to avoid alarming another company, Doust decided to peel the round white backing for the racing numbers off, but with them came large swatches of paint. Which is what prompted the lengthy restoration process that included a new interior, mechanical refurbishing and a switch to an 850-cc engine that makes about 70 hp versus the 54 hp of the original 750-cc unit (which he still has).
Weighing less than 600 kg its performance is lively - top speed is about 170 km/h - and so far reliable. "I have no problem hammering it down the 401," says Doust.
Its public debut was at last year's Italian car festival in Ottawa and this year his plans include attendance at the Vintage Automobile Racing Association of Canada's festival at Mosport this June, which focuses on Italian cars.
With its unique "double bubble" bodywork, it's an attention grabber at cruise nights, Doust says. "I can get 70 people gathering around the car before I even stop, all going, what the heck is that?" Collectors, who know exactly what they are, are paying in the $90,000 range for them.