Run­ning Abarth

Mak­ing sense of the Scor­pion

Auto Car (UK) - - THIS WEEK - PHOTOGR APHY STAN PAPIOR

When Mario Alvisi re­turns to his of­fice, he quite of­ten finds a sketch on his desk. To­day there’s an­other one, from no less a man than Roberto Gi­olito, the chief de­signer of the cur­rent 500. Gi­olito’s pen­cil sketch is of a sexy lit­tle coupé of just the kind for which Abarth was once fa­mous. It’s la­belled ‘Bial­bero 750’, clearly ref­er­enc­ing the Fiat-abarth 750 Za­gato, a tiny, pretty lit­tle thing from the late 1950s.

Alvisi is Abarth’s head of op­er­a­tions and his of­fice is lo­cated at the heart of the brand’s Of­ficine Abarth head­quar­ters, a pur­pose­built com­plex that in­cludes a large work­shop where tuned cars are pre­pared and an­other work­shop where Abarths are re­stored. In the stylish foyer and be­yond are dis­plays of his­toric and cur­rent Abarths. There’s also a recreation of the of­fice of founder Carlo Abarth, com­plete with his orig­i­nal desk and chair, the wall at­mo­spher­i­cally pinned with pe­riod pho­to­graphs. It’s hard not to get en­thused within min­utes of en­ter­ing the place.

Of­ficine Abarth is next door to Cen­tro Stile, the chief de­sign stu­dio for the Euro­pean brands within Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles (FCA), which is why Alvisi fre­quently gets sketches dropped on his desk, along with plenty of other sug­ges­tions for this in­creas­ingly vi­brant brand. He has been in the job only a few weeks, hav­ing ar­rived from Alfa Romeo (and, be­fore that, Du­cati) as a self-con­fessed “brand ad­dict”. He’s also an en­thu­si­ast, as a glass cab­i­net full of mem­o­ra­bilia and mod­els at­tests. (In there are Abarths and an Al­fa­sud, his dad’s one-time fam­ily wheels.) We’re here to find out where Abarth has got to and where it’s go­ing next, now that this re­born mar­que has been in busi­ness for a decade.

The model that fired the gun on the re­birth in 2007 was the Abarth Grande Punto, which was joined by the Abarth 500 a year later. As with its Fiat sib­ling, the Abarth 500 has evolved into a heap of dif­fer­ent edi­tions, con­vert­ible in­cluded, fea­tur­ing a wide ar­ray of power out­puts, trim vari­a­tions and lim­ited edi­tions.

At least as ex­cit­ing as th­ese was the ar­rival last Oc­to­ber of the Abarth 124 Spi­der. The Scor­pion un­ex­pect­edly ac­quired the chance for a two-seater af­ter FCA boss Ser­gio Mar­chionne changed his mind about Alfa Romeo us­ing Mazda’s MX-5 as the ba­sis

for a new Spi­der. Fiat got the car in­stead, al­low­ing Abarth to profit. A bit too much, per­haps, given the rather lofty prices for the oth­er­wise tempt­ing Abarth Spi­der.

Ap­peal­ing prod­ucts have given Abarth mo­men­tum but, as Alvisi ex­plains, there’s more: “The real change came in 2015, when sales dou­bled. It was 4000-5000 at the be­gin­ning and has now grown to over 18,000 [for Europe, Mid­dle East and Africa] last year.” The big leap was achieved by in­creas­ing the num­ber of FCA deal­ers hold­ing the Abarth fran­chise, al­low­ing more cars to find more own­ers. And it’s sell­ing more tun­ing kits, too, ship­ments of the wooden crates that Abarth sends parts in ex­ceed­ing 10,000 units.

Rais­ing Abarth aware­ness has also been a mis­sion. “Where there’s pas­sion, there’s a com­mu­nity across the brand,” says Alvisi of some­thing he learned while work­ing for Du­cati. “In­ter­est in Abarth was grow­ing, so we opened the Scor­pi­onship 16 months ago and gath­ered 100,000 peo­ple through so­cial net­works for events, track days and technology work­shops. We want to put peo­ple in the cars and in touch with the his­tory, and we need peo­ple to get on track with the cars. If you don’t drive an Abarth, you won’t un­der­stand.”

You can join the Scor­pi­onship as an owner or a dreamer. And col­lec­tors of older ex­am­ples now have a reg­is­ter, as well as a fac­tory restora­tion ser­vice, which has al­ready com­pleted more than 10 cars. Th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties are as much about bur­nish­ing the de­sir­abil­ity of Abarth as the ro­mance of restor­ing old mod­els. Alvisi points out that “the resid­ual val­ues of Abarths haven’t col­lapsed”, as a look on­line at older used ex­am­ples con­firms. “Strong used val­ues are fun­da­men­tal for suc­cess,” he adds.

Suc­cess that might prompt Abarth to build some­thing in the spirit of its coach­built beau­ties from the 1950s and 1960s, then? “You can­not come in here and see th­ese old cars and not dream of those kind of cars,” says Alvisi. “But you have to be clear about what you need to do now. It’s got to be step by step. We can­not dream with­out sta­ble roots. We need to be prof­itable for FCA and es­tab­lish our­selves as a sta­ble, global brand that can go in all coun­tries. We’ve done a good job in Italy. We’re on the right lines in the UK, Ger­many and France. But there’s a lot of scope still. I see a lot of space to do this once we get the mar­ket share up in those coun­tries,” he says. “Iconic brands need some­thing that goes di­rectly to your gut. It’s about her­itage, but it’s also about the present.”

Alvisi won’t be drawn fur­ther, other than to grin and wave Gi­olito’s Bial­bero 750 sketch at us. No, we can’t pho­to­graph it, he says, but the ex­is­tence of this sketch, and many oth­ers, should be cause for hope.

We want to put peo­ple in touch with the his­tory and we need to get peo­ple on track with the cars

Abarth: strong her­itage and, says Alvisi (right), a promis­ing fu­ture

Brem­ner peers in at the Abarth 124 Spi­der Rally

Along­side the Mar­tini-liv­er­ied Stratos and Delta In­te­grale Lan­cias sits the orig­i­nal Abarth 124 Spi­der Rally, in­tro­duced in 1972 and the in­spi­ra­tion for the car we drive over­leaf

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