Karl Abarth was born in Vienna, Austria, of an Italian father. At seventeen, he became an apprentice at Castagna, Italy, designing chassis for motorcycles and bicycles. In 1927, he returned to Austria to work at Thun Motorcycle factory.
Abarth built his first car and his first exhaust system in 1928 at the tender age of 20. Even so, until the end of the 1930s he was most associated with motorcycles, as a racer, winning the European Championship five times, a tuner, and the designer of a clever steerable sidecar.
In 1934, with the economy in Austria struggling, Karl moved to Italy again and became known as Carlo Abarth. While racing in Yugoslavia, Carlo crashed and ended up in hospital there for over a year. With the onset of war, Carlo was stranded in Yugoslavia and began working with Ignaz Vok, converting cars to run on kerosene.
After the war, Carlo returned to Merano, Italy, where he took that nation’s citizenship and began working with Rodolfo Hruska. He made a comeback in racing, competing in side cars, winning the championship several times. For publicity he once raced against the Orient Express in a similar duel to the one when Woolf Barnato accepted a challenge to race his Bentley against another express train, Le Train Bleu, from Cannes to London.
Ferry Porsche, who was long time friend of the Abarth family, offered Carlo a job with the Porsche motor company. However, Ferdinand Porsche was being held in a French prison as a war criminal and they needed to get him released. They found the solution in a man named Piero Dusio. Dusio had founded Cisitalia and when Carlo and Ferry asked Dusio to post bond for Dr. Porsche in exchange for their services, he agreed. They had informed Dusio that the basis of a radical F1 car were already on the drawing board.
Thus the partnership between Porsche and Cisitalia began. Abarth began working for Cisitalia as the technical and racing director.
The Porsche designed single-seater, mid-engined, Cisitalia Formula 1 car featured four-wheel drive. Unfortunately the spiralling cost of the F1 car put Dusio in severe financial straights. In 1948 he did a deal with Argentina’s dictator Juan Perón that involved setting up a company to manufacture performance cars in Argentina, based on Porsche designs and in 1949 moved to Argentina. This ended the Cisitalia Corporation. When the company collapsed, Abarth took the sports cars from the team, but not the GP car, as his severance pay, rebadged them Abarth Cisitalias, and continued to enter them in races.
Then in April 1949, he established Scuderia Abarth in partnership with Armando Scagliarini, the father of Cisitalia driver Guido Scagliarini, and set up a workshop in Turin with 35 employees. The company featured the zodiac sign of Carlo Abarth, a scorpion and ran Formula 2 cars in 1950 for Franco Cortese but their main business was manufacturing automobile accessories.
He built a small number of sports cars for the road. Some were derived from Cisitalia’s work, others were more original. Most had Fiat roots, though others, a Ferrari or two among them, also received his attention. All were wrapped in bodywork from Italy’s finest coachbuilders. Some were gorgeous, others were less fortunate, but despite their attention-grabbing looks, their commercial impact was minimal. Ironically, the first post-Cisitalia Abarth racers were too heavy for their small powerplants and did not achieve much success.
Abarth’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1955 when Fiat introduced the 600, the car most synonymous with the Abarth name. Abarth increased the capacity to 747cc, lightened it and improved the aerodynamics and road holding. This led to the 850, with Fiat supplying Abarth with incomplete vehicles to which they fitted the brakes, exhaust, carburettors, and crankshafts. This formula continued with subsequent models and Fiat-Abarth vehicles took hundreds of national and international wins. Fiat even began paying Abarth for each first or second place finish his modified Fiats achieved.
Abarth looked to make complete racing cars, both single seaters and sports prototypes. Their sports cars took a number of victories, however their Formula 2 car, which was raced in 1964 by Hans Herrmann, Geki and “Tiger”, was not a success. There were rumours of a Formula 1 project but it never materialised and Abarth became increasingly linked with Fiat, eventually being acquired by them as the factory competition department in July 1971.
Abarth sold of his other sporting interests to Enzo Osella, who later set up his own team.
Carlo Abarth was an uncompromising man. Lack of punctuality and criticism of his cars were mortal sins. European hill climb champion, Hans Ortner, was a favourite of Carlo Abarth, even though Abarth tried hard to hide this fact in the ten years they worked together. Ortner was one of the best saloon car drivers of the late 60s and also a reliable test driver. One night at 6 o'clock when the factory was closed Abarth summoned his management for a discussion. It was the week before the important hill climb at Leon, and Abarth wanted a decision which gear box to use. Ortner, tired out by the 1000 test kilometers he had driven that day said: "Signore, I've never driven at Leon in my life, the best thing is to decide when we are there." Abarth paused, looked around and replied: "Then you drive to Leon and tell me tomorrow morning what you decide."