Alfa Romeo Abarth 1000 Bertone – When Two became One

Looking for an article for this weeks ‘Throwback Thursday’ series, the opportunity to feature not one but two Italian icons was too good to miss with the Alfa Romeo Abarth 1000 Bertone, the first “tubular” Abarth.

The Alfa Romeo Abarth 1000 project was the result of the joint cooperation between designer Mario Colucci and Carlo Abarth. The two men had technical views that pointed in two diverging, yet complementary directions, and their continuous offsetting spawned new design solutions that would characterise the racing Abarths of the Sixties.

Abarth began collaborating with Alfa Romeo halfway through the 1950s. Indeed, when the assembly line for manufacturing the 1900 was introduced at the Portello Factory, Alfa Romeo was obliged to dedicate all its resources to the new production and set aside its efforts in the racing field. Some of the managers considered that the development of the racing cars could be delegated to another, external facility: the young company established just a few years earlier by Carlo Abarth therefore appeared to be the ideal partner.

The initial contact between the two manufacturers came about in 1955, when the Alfa Romeo 750 Competizione was created: a barchetta-style car designed to participate in the Sport racing category. The vehicle was driven by the twin-cam engine of the Giulietta, “further” tuned in Abarth and assembled on a classic square steel sheet chassis, whereas Turin-based coachbuilder Boano was tasked with developing the bodywork. However, the excellent results achieved by the vehicle in the tests would not be good enough to convince the top management of the Milanese manufacturer to go beyond the only prototype. Today, the only one of its kind ever produced, it still forms part of the FCA Heritage and is kept at the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese.

The second attempted collaboration took place in 1958, when an agreement was signed to create a new vehicle, also driven by an engine based on that of the Giulietta: the Alfa Romeo Abarth 1000. Alfa Romeo sent engineer Mario Colucci to Turin to oversee the project in person. The technician brought to Abarth a new, more engineering-based and less empirical approach to design. And Carlo Abarth, immediately recognising the valuable contribution that Colucci could make to his company, offered him the position of technical director.

Colucci’s design was the blueprint for a lightweight vehicle that met with great favour. Unfortunately it remained a prototype because, in the end, the agreement forged with Alfa Romeo did not continue. On the other hand, the designer accepted Carlo Abarth’s job offer and, under his technical management, a family of Sport cars destined to make their mark was created.

During the design process for the Alfa Romeo Abarth 1000, the Austrian entrepreneur set aside his own preconceptions and allowed the technician free rein to express himself, choosing the solutions he favoured: the result was more than just encouraging. Colucci’s tubular trellis chassis weighed only 50 kg, and the kerb weight of the vehicle was only 640 kg. Fitted with a different drive shaft, the displacement of the Giulietta engine was reduced to under a litre, but Abarth cleverly developed it to achieve 88 hp at 8000 rpm, despite the odds. The purpose of reducing the displacement was to ensure that the new vehicle did not come into direct competition with its “donor”, the Giulietta, in the races, where the two vehicles would compete in different classes, but also to further distance the Abarth-Alfa from the coupé and spider versions of the Giulietta. The independent front suspension also derived from the Giulietta, as did the rear live axle, braking system, gears and transmission: the many legacies of the Alfa Romeo vehicle’s mechanical elements obliged Colucci to keep the engine in the same front position as that of the sedan made in the Portello facility.

Unlike the 750 Competizione, for which a barchetta-style bodywork had been designed, the new Alfa-Abarth 1000 was “kitted out” in a coupé version: its aerodynamic lines flew out of the pencil held by talented designer Franco Scaglione, then an employee of the Bertone coachbuilding company. The previous year, the Scaglione-Bertone duo had created another car that was just as beautiful and unusual: the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Speciale, on which the Giulia SS was later based. The front of the Alfa Romeo Abarth 1000 was even lower and more streamlined than that of the Giulietta SS and the wavy lines of the mudguards ran into the aerodynamic mirror caps that covered the headlights. The particularly low-lying, sporty engine hood ended in a slightly protruding thin oval mouth, set alongside two openings that channelled other air into the engine compartment. The windscreen was tilted and special attention was paid to the aerodynamic aspect of the design: the doors, reaching forward into the front mudguards, had no protruding handles. The very short tail was completely rounded and characterised by a large rear seat window attached directly onto the roof.

The Alfa Romeo Abarth 1000 made its debut at the fortieth edition of the Motor Show in Turin on 5 November 1958, on the stand of coachbuilder Bertone. The streamlined, compact coupé was a hit, due to both its dynamic look and its sophisticated chassis, but the prototype was the only one produced. Not only: the agreement between Alfa Romeo and Abarth fell through too, and in parallel, Abarth strengthened its relationship with Fiat. It may have looked as if everything was over, but actually, a new era was only just beginning. For Mario Colucci, who accepted Carlo Abarth’s offer, and became technical director of Abarth in 1960, but also for Abarth as a whole, because the lightweight coupé with Alfa Romeo engine became the predecessor of a series of racing cars characterised by a tubular chassis. A veritable dynasty of racing cars that helped make the Brand even more successful and popular worldwide.

And indeed, in 1960, Carlo Abarth appointed Colucci to build a Sport vehicle for racing. Not only could the designer exploit the characteristic rigidity and lightness of the tubular chassis, but he could also finally place the engine immediately behind the driver: the solution that had always been the new technical director’s preferred option.

The result was the first Fiat Abarth Sport Spider with tubular chassis and central engine: the first version had a displacement of 750 cc, which was subsequently reduced to 700 and then increased again to 1000. Indeed, it was not born under a lucky star: a certain degree of naivety in interpreting the regulations, a number of driver errors and a few unfortunate pull-outs due to mechanical faults caused Carlo Abarth to have doubts about Colucci’s technical solution. The matter remained open in the years to come. Colucci’s architecture improved as time went on, but Abarth also found it too expensive. To a certain extent, Colucci squared the circle in 1966 with the Fiat Abarth 1000 SP. Using the tried and tested Abarth twin-cam engine derived from the base of the Fiat 600, and a polyurethane bodywork welded to the tubular chassis with fibreglass, Colucci found the winning solution for combining excellent performances with economic convenience. It would be the first in a long series of winning Sport racing cars that subsequently made Abarth a household name all over the world.

ENGINE: 4L cylinder Otto cycle, DOHC, 2 twin-choke Weber 40DCOE carburettor, front longitudinal 958 cm3
POWER: 88 HP @ 8000 rpm
SPEED: n.d.
WEIGHT: 640 kg
DESIGN: Bertone (Franco Scaglione)
*Special thanks to FCA Heritage

User Login

Reset password or Register


    Contact us

      Be part of Enzari

      Sign up to our newsletter and receive your free copy of the “A brief history of Italian cars”