Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. It of course also comes in many shapes and sizes. Even so, I’m sure every ViaRETRO reader will agree that in the vast world of classic cars, we have been spoilt with a multitude of breathtakingly elegant motor vehicles. But which is the prettiest of them all?
That will naturally always come down to personal taste. There is no right or wrong answer. Are you turned on by the French femme fatale, the Italian diva, by American opulence or perhaps by German functionality? In this brave new world of classic cars, some may even prefer the Asian who let herself inspire by the western world and then perfected what she saw while mixing in discreet flavours of traditional Japan. Certainly, each has their virtues.
Both of my esteemed colleagues, Søren Navntoft and Claus Ebberfeld, have independently and more than once proclaimed the 1954 Maserati A6G 2000 Berlinetta Zagato as the most beautiful car in the world. There is no denying that she is indeed utterly stunning! In fact, I should probably confess that I too have gone on record on these very pages, with words to a similar effect to those of Søren and Claus. However, every time I find myself dreaming of the shapely Zagato, my thoughts invariably veer off in another direction. Soon enough I find myself overcome by an uncontrollable lust for another Italian temptress – the petite yet oh-so provocative and aggressive 1950 Abarth 205a Berlinetta Vignale.
Austrian-born Karl Abarth started off on motorcycles and won no less than five European motorcycle championships before the outbreak of the Second World War. He always showed a thorough understanding of engineering and once the war came to an end, he moved to Italy, became an Italian citizen, changed his name accordingly to Carlo, and then got involved with the exciting Cisitalia project during the late forties. However, lacking funds the writing was on the wall for Cisitalia, and Abarth jumped ship before it sank. As they parted ways, Piero Dusio gave Abarth a number of partially finished Cisitalia 204 race cars in compensation for his services. Carlo Abarth had been an essential factor during the initial development of the 204, and now set up his own company immediately after in 1949 to further develop the Cisitalia’s enough to justify calling them Cistalia-Abarth 204a Spyder. They were raced with great success in Formula 2 by the likes of Tazio Nuvolari, and thus the road was paved for greater things to come.
Encouraged no doubt from their impressive results on track, Carlo Abarth now wanted to build his own road car. Thus, a brand new steel box-section platform chassis was constructed, while the drivetrain utilised the same 1.1-litre OHV 4-cylinder Fiat engine with a Cisitalia head as used in the 204 Forumla 2 race car. Needless to say, the engine was “breathed upon” with Abarth’s own tuning kit consisting of a revised intake manifold, two Weber 32 DRSP carburettors and Abarth’s bespoke exhaust system, all of which resulted in a rather impressive 75hp from the small 1,089cc engine. Drive was sent to the rear wheels through a 4-speed transmission equally sourced from Fiat, while brakes were drums all round and suspension consisting of transvers torsion bars with upper and lower trailing links for the front axle and a live rear axle with semi-elliptic springs.
But to get back to the whole point of this article, Abarth’s very first road car was fitted with a new all-aluminium lightweight coupé body from Vignale – in actual fact, designed by the then upcoming Giovanni Michelotti while he was employed by Vignale. And this is in my humble opinion, perhaps the most beautiful and outright striking production road car in automotive history! The general lines are a new and crisper interpretation of the iconic and trendsetting Pininfarina design from the groundbreaking Cisitalia 202 GT. With the Vignale Abarth making its debut as early as 1950, I’ll even venture that the Cisitalia 202 GT probably needs to share with the little Abarth at least some of the credit for inspiring the likes of the various Ferrari 212’s, the earliest Ferrari 250’s, the Pegaso Z102’s and yes, even the illustrious Maserati A6G 2000 Berlinetta designed by Zagato. The Abarth pre-dates these other fabulous coachbuilt coupés, yet to my eyes the Abarth was never bettered.
If for example comparing the Abarth 205a Berlinetta Vignale with the widely-acclaimed Maserati A6G 2000 Berlinetta Zagato, it’s immediately clear that the roof structure being significantly narrower than the lower body makes the Vignale design less slab-sided than the more bulbous Zagato. At the front, the lower inset driving lights make the Vignale’s face so much more characterful – especially in unison with that quite uniquely shaped grill. The front wings have those distinctive Vignale-signature port holes. And the wraparound rear window gives the slender c-pillar a slight rearward rake, lending the Vignale a tense aggression to its design which the Zagato just can’t match. But the Vignale is also a very small car at just shy of 3.5 meters long and 1.25 meters tall. Yet somehow the Abarth 205a Berlinetta manages to still look like a full-size GT, where other baby-coupés such as the later Fiat-Abarth 750GT Zagato – charmingly designed as it is – just can’t hide its miniature dimensions. The Abarth 205a Berlinetta Vignale is dynamic (even at a standstill), it’s sleek, it’s crisp, and it’s just utterly breathtaking.
Sadly though, the world only saw three examples of this fabulous little coupé. The first – chassis 205101 – was painted red and made a victorious debut in March 1950 in the Coppa InterEuropa at Monza where Guido Scagliarini drove it to a monumental first place in the 1100 class. Only a week later, the little Abarth managed an arguably even more impressive sixth overall in the grueling Targa Florio. After this, the Abarth was cleaned up and made its official launch at the 1950 Turin Motor Show.
A second car – chassis 205102 – was assembled just in time for both cars to participate in the 1950 Mille Miglia. While “101” unfortunately retired, Scagliarini brought home the “102” car – raced in bare aluminium – to 31stplace overall, averaging just above 100 km/h. Shortly after this, the first car was sold to America, while the second car continued to race in Italy and later in Switwerland.
The following year, in 1951, a third and final 205a Berlinetta was assembled – possibly intended as Carlo Abarth’s own personal road car. The cabin was more luxurious than in the first two cars, and it was given a two-tone paintjob with a black roof over a red body. It was even fitted with a slightly larger engine as well. It was displayed at the 1951 Turin Motor Show, but it too eventually ended up in America.
But the small-displacement Abarths were priced at the same level as a 2-litre Ferrari. As such, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise to anyone that Carlo Abarth struggled to find many takers for his exquisite little coupé. Furthermore, their motorsport endeavors weighed heavily on the little company as they were still finding their feet. Probably wisely, Carlo Abarth decided to take a step back and focus their efforts – and not least, finances – on motorsport and of course on the Abarth tuning exhaust systems with which he was gaining so much success. Eventually, for the 1953 Turin Motor Show, a fourth 205a chassis was built which was this time bodied by Ghia. Named the Abarth 1100 Sport Ghia Coupé, it was a handsome enough design and certainly quite unique, but compared to the Vignale, the Ghia’s slightly ungainly lines lacked the gracefulness of the splendid Vignale, which perfectly combined the elegance and the coiled tension of a big feline about to pounce. The 205a chassis was further developed and became the basis of the fabulous Abarth 207 race car which debuted in 1955.
Amazingly, all three Abarth 205a Berlinetta Vignale’s survive to this day in the hands of caring and discerning owners. Not without various events and incidents though!
Living in US, the “101” car had a ceiling collapse over it during a fire in the early eighties. Despite severe damage from both the ceiling and the heat, the car was salvaged and through a monumental restoration process the little Abarth was brought back to life without replacing a single body panel and without use of filler. It came out of restoration in time for the 1989 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, and has since been regularly displayed at various high profile events such as the 2005 Quail and the 2009 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este.
The “102” car was raced extensively well into the sixties with its prominent Swiss owner, Helmut Fischer. To remain competitive, it was given a heavily restyled nose and the original Fiat engine was swapped for a stronger, more powerful 1.3-litre twincam from an Alfa Romeo Giulietta. The complete interior was also modified and changed. When Helmut Fischer passed in 2003, the “102” car was sold at auction, at which point the new owner committed to a huge restoration to return the car to as close to original factory specification as possible. While the car raced in bare aluminium form in 1950, the new owner decided to paint the car silver. The first outing post restoration was at the 2009 Goodwood Festival of Speed and it has since also participated at the 2011 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este.
The third car – chassis “103” – led a slightly more protected life in the US, where it remained in the same collector’s ownership for more than 30 years. In this time, it was thankfully never modified or molested in any way, so it retained huge originality. However, the collector didn’t maintain the Abarth in pristine condition – in fact, it looked rather second hand when he eventually sold the car around the mid-naughts. Like it’s two older siblings, “103” was then subject to a complete restoration by its new owner, retaining the original specification and colour combination as it was born with in 1951. Since then, it too has been displayed at Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance 2011 and even driven in the epic 1000 Miglia 2011 where its sister car “101” also took part.
These three stunning Abarths where the first in a long line of amazing Abarth racing- and road cars. The sharp Vignale design also clearly influenced the trend for the grandest of Gran Turismo’s up through the fifties and beyond. Admitted, the Fiat-sourced 1.1-litre engine will never match the straight-6 of the Maserati A6G or the glorious small bore V12’s of those fifties Ferrari’s, but if we’re only focusing on looks, it’s the diminutive Abarth 205a Berlinetta Vignale which without exception always gets my pulse pumping and my fantasies flowing.