Power is not about how much you have, it’s about how you use it. If you had a Micra with 1,000bhp it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as, say, a Lotus Elise with 200bhp. Power needs to be accessible if you’re going to have fun with it. Otherwise, you’re just playing Top Trumps.
Take the original Fiat 500. This was a car that had less power than toddler’s burp. 21bhp. Twenty. One. There are blenders with more grunt than that. Yet, because the 500 weighed a mere 490kg that 21bhp was fine. It still wasn’t fast, but man alive, you could access every one of those horses from the little two cylinder 479cc engine. It was small, light and agile and as such, it was riotous fun. But not as much fun as it could be. For that, we need to go to Abarth.
Carlo Abarth earned his stripes building racing cars through the 1940s for the Cisitalia company. Sadly though, Cisitalia folded in 1949 after suffering from financial blow after financial blow. Abarth, sensing the time was right, set up his own company and even managed to buy the assets of Cisitalia in the process. And what would this new company do? It would breathe excitement into all manner of cars, a case in point being the humble Fiat 500.
As we mentioned earlier, the standard 500 was hardly what you’d call a powerhouse, what with packing a meagre 21 horses. And given that it was so feeble, it would have been silly to think that Abarth could wind that up by a huge amount. Or would it? Getting another 100bhp out of a 500bhp is hard work. But getting a 50% power increase out of a two-cylinder engine? Well, that’s wholly achievable given the low starting point. Though it was the result of a lot of work.
The 479cc was heavily breathed on by the intelligent Abarth engineers. The cylinders were re-bored, taking the engine out to a capacity of 594cc, A custom camshaft was engineered to deliver improved durations and increased fuelling, there was a new Solex carb to feed the cam’s needs and there was a new exhaust system. All told, the power was upped to around 30bhp. Still not a lot, but as we said, that’s 50% more than standard. Find us a modern tuning company that can up a car’s factory power by 50%.
Then there was the way the little Abarth 595, as it was now known (595 as a nod to the new engine capacity) looked. The most obvious change was the bootlid, which was now permanently open due to the fact the engine with all its new parts didn’t really fit. The ‘50s were a different, pre H&S time, so just leaving the boot open was absolutely fine.
Other changes included the bucket seats, the leather-trimmed steering wheel, the beautiful Jaeger dials and of course, the full complement of Scorpion badging. Other external touches included the gorgeous, if incredibly small alloy wheels, the flared arches and the lowered suspension. The 500 was no longer a cutesy little city runabout. It was an angry terrier, keen to be given a good thrashing.
Of course, when you stack the 595 against cars with the correct number of cylinders, it’s not going to look all that impressive. 30bhp seldom does. But when judged on its own merits, the car was an absolute riot. With handling that was so sharp and direct it was near telepathic, the 595 was a car you could throw about with reckless abandon only to be greeted with grip and stability at every turn. And the turns were where the little car came alive. In a straight line it wasn’t all that, obviously. Through the bends though, nothing could touch the little Abarth. That stiffer suspension, the wider tyres, it all made for cornering perfection. If the driver got really brave, it was possible to even get the back end of the 595 to kick out. Though with such a short wheelbase, that’s probably a move best left to the more gifted drivers!
Autocar reported that the Abarth version was quicker than a Mini off the line, and that it would trundle on to a top speed of 75mph. It also went on to say “Suspension modifications lower the car by a couple of inches and give the back wheels slight negative camber unladen. The result is a considerable improvement in roadholding, and any tendency there might have been before for skittishness when cornering fast is completely eliminated. The small degree of body roll present in the standard 500 on fast bends disappears and the Abarth corners completely flat with all wheels planted firmly on the ground.”
Of course, it wasn’t all brilliant. The drum brakes needed to be worked exceptionally hard to get the most out of them. It’s not uncommon to see cars that have been converted to disc up front for this very reason. Also, the ‘dog box’ transmission was free of any synchromesh device, so needed to be shifted quickly and aggressively to get the best out of it. Which felt somewhat counterproductive in such a small and delicate car. And of course, there was the fact the 500 was and still is tiny, so drivers over six foot are going to have a struggle getting comfortable.
The Abarth was a car that on paper, didn’t make much sense. 30bhp, 75mph, barely enough room for two people, a boot that wouldn’t shut, stiff suspension. Who’d want that? Well, as it turned out, quite a few people, because when those humble stats were lifted from paper and put into reality, they made sense. They added up to create an outstanding little car, one that existed because it could, not because it should. It was and still is pure, undiluted automotive fun. You can have your 500bhp this and 3s 0-60 that, but as we said, that all means nothing if you can’t access it. Give us 30bhp, of which every single horse can be used, every time. Power, as the 595 Abarth so perfectly demonstrates, is not about what you have, it’s about what you access.
Huge thanks to the Classic and Sportscar Centre in Yorkshire for letting us shoot their original 595 Abarth. A car which is even more special than standard, thanks to the tuned Middle Barton Garage 695cc engine. At a mere £34,995 it could well be the most exciting 595 out there.