For some reason Fiats have been on my mind. Today, looking through some industry press I noted Fiat recently held the unfortunate record for most days of inventory waiting to be sold (136). The new Fiat 500 is doing ok and the resurrected Abarth is a kick to drive but the 500L has failed to ignite much passion in the market.
In only vaguely related news, a couple days ago Sergio Marchionne, head of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA), pulled the plug on one of the industry’s most prominent and respected players, chairman of Ferrari Luca Cordero di Montezemolo.
While discussing the life and times of Fiat/Ferrari with an acquaintance this afternoon we rummaged back to earlier days of Fiat powered racing and my friend fondly recounted flogging a late ‘60s Fiat 750 Abarth on tracks here in California.
Setting aside the not so good recent Fiat news, we enjoyed reminiscing about the marvelous hardware Carlo Abarth created from otherwise prosaic coupes. I decided to follow the serendipitous path we had come upon and dig through my collection for interesting Abarth material.
Carlo Abarth was indeed a fascinating guy. He shared Enzo’s passion for racing and drove his teams to a long string of racing victories. A brilliant engineer, the breadth of his expertise and his capacity for innovation was amazing. Yet, after decades of success – punctuated by a number of missteps, his company was ultimately absorbed by his main benefactor, Fiat, in August 1971. Carlo’s fanatic focus on racing, combined with a famous my-way-or-the-highway attitude, meant profits sometimes failed to support his ambitions.
Making small bore machines go “… very, very fast…” was Carlo’s obsession. Don Rosendale wrote an excellent history recounting Abarth’s accomplishments, from which that quote is taken. At the time of the article (Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 1 No. 3 Fall 1962) an Abarth Simca 1300 had been clocked at 150 mph on a public highway outside Turin. At the LeMans trials a few months earlier, the modified Simca had beat the times of the quickest Jag XK-E by a humiliating 10 seconds a lap.
The car that made Mr. Abarth’s name famous in automotive racing households across Europe was the Fiat 600. Introduced in 1955, the 600 was the basis for the 750 Abarth coupe my friend campaigned
more than 50 years ago. The stock 600 made 22 horsepower. Carlo stroked it to 750cc and pulled 47 ponies from the same tiny block of aluminum. Bolting on a twin-cam head (Bialbero) to replace the pushrod system raised the power further. The Fiat 600 D model introduced in 1960 could be punched and stroked to a full litre – Carlo’s “Mille” engine. The modern 500 Abarth would undoubtedly suffer under Carlo’s scrutiny: too big, too heavy, too plush and nowhere near fast enough…
In honor of one of those wonderful fanatics who pursued their automotive visions and advanced automotive technology by doing what “couldn’t be done”, over the next several weeks I’ll provide a short series of articles recounting some of Carlo Abarth’s story and remembering several of his creations.
To encourage audience participation I make this offer: I have a press presentation box (see photo) from the 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth North American Debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show – it really should be in the hands of an Abarth collector/owner/admirer. I propose anyone interested write a short Fiat Abarth story and send it along to me via e-mail (Word Doc, please). [firstname.lastname@example.org]A decent command of the English language is necessary, but my close circle of automotive cognoscenti and I will choose the one we like best. The winner will be notified in due course and the Abarth Presentation Kit awarded with appropriate ceremony.
Looking forward to your stories!
Fine print: Only one winner (only have one box). Decision of judges is final, regardless how arbitrary it may seem. All submittals become the property of Alden Jewell, unless specifically requested otherwise. Some of the better submittals may be published on this site or in other forms by Alden Jewell – attribution will always be included. If there is anything about this that violates some law I don’t know about the whole deal is off. Most important – Have fun.
Let’s talk about Woodies (or Woodys)….. wood-bodied cars, wagons and trucks, that is. I’ve harbored a soft spot for woodies for a very long time, even investing the time to write a book about them [Wagons and Woodies: Advertising Postcards 1922 – 1959] a couple years ago. Such vehicles have been around for many decades and have been created in an amazing variety of shapes.
Early cars wore sheet metal bodies that utilized wood as the basic structure. The woodies took the opposite approach, bolting wood bodies onto steel frames. One British manufacturer (Morgan) to this day persists in using ash framing for their steel or aluminum coachwork.
In the second and third decades of the 20th century car manufacturers competed aggressively for market share. Long distance travel in the US remained far more efficient and comfortable on the transcontinental railroads than by person vehicle. Taking a taxi (a “hack”) to the train station was the beginningof a typical cross-country trip and loading several people, along with their pile of luggage, frequently proved challenging. A unique vehicle, optimized to transport passengers and all their baggage to and from railroad depots, was seen as a fresh opportunity to expand
automotive sales. And so was born the “depot hack” or “depot wagon”. In a small, unproven market wood was a low cost, easily worked material well suited to form the desired capacious bodies.
Small firms were the first to test this new market opportunity. Their vehicles employed simple wood bodies mounted on a chassis procured from one of the car manufacturers of the day. The earliest vehicles were intended for short trips carrying large loads at low cost – protection from the elements was minimal or non-existent. Former carriage builders, such as Mifflinburg Body Co. of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, J. T. Cantrell & Co. of Huntington, New York and H. H. Babcock Co. of Watertown, New York, produced successful combinations of wooden bodies built upon automotive underpinnings.
Cantrell offered their “Depot Wagon” in 1915 and later adopted the name “Suburban Bodies”. Period Cantrell advertising claimed they were “Designers Of Cars For Country Use”. In the Model T era Ford chassis were frequently chosen for conversion to woodies.
The economic prosperity of the 1920s brought the Suburban then the Station Wagon, somewhat more sophisticated evolutions of the
depot hack or depot wagon. The earliest station wagons offered optional side curtains to protect passengers from the elements. These proved ineffective and, starting in the mid-thirties, were replaced by windows that rolled up or slid from front to back, no doubt increasing the comfort of the passengers when the weather turned sour.
As this new mode of travel gained popularity as personal transportation rather than merely utility vehicles for hire, wood bodies were developed by a number of companies for Chevrolet, Cadillac, Chrysler, Essex, Franklin, Graham-Paige and Studebaker chassis, among others. Companies such as Hercules, Campbell, Springfield, York, and Martin-Parry were among those competing for the growing market. The Dodge Brothers (later just plain “Dodge”) chassis began to be featured frequently in Cantrell and Babcock advertising in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
Inevitably, the major car manufacturers paid attention to the success of this pragmatic vehicle configuration and wanted a piece of the action. A 1923 Star is generally acknowledged as the first “production” station wagon, but the first of the major manufacturers to produce and advertise their own station wagon was Ford. One full-page full-color magazine ad was published for the 1929 Model A Station Wagon. Today that ad is hard-to-find and much sought after by collectors.
U.S. Body and Forging Co. (USB&F) contracted with Chrysler Corporation to build Westchester Semi-Sedans (station wagons) using Plymouth and Dodge chassis in 1933, and continued to build them until 1941. They were sometimes marketed with small black-and-white ads that appeared in upscale publications such as Country Life.
Chevrolet’s first Carryall Suburban was introduced in 1935, but it was not a woodie. Chevy chose to make their wagon/utility body of steel, and since it was on a truck chassis it was more like an early SUV than a traditional station wagon. The first Chevrolet car-based Station Wagon made its appearance for the 1939 model year.
Other car and truck manufacturers soon followed: Reo offered a truck-chassied Suburban Semi-Sedan for 1935. International’s truck-based woodie wagons in the ‘30s were built by M. P. Moller of Hagerstown, Maryland and a couple of other small companies. Hudson included a station wagon in their Terraplane lineup in 1936. Pontiac’s first station wagon was a 1937 model. Even American Bantam and Crosley made station wagons available, but they were not big sellers.
Packard advertised wood-bodied station wagons in the early ‘40s but few of them left the dealerships. The long-running Estate Wagon by Buick made its first appearance in the 1940 model year, as did Oldsmobile’s first Station Wagon. Chrysler’s first factory woodie was the 1941-42 Town and Country, which seemed to be a cross between a sedan and a station wagon, in a class by itself. Willys had first used that same name for its rather traditional 1940 to 1942 woodie station wagons.
As World War II ended, the manufacturers were faced with pent-up demand for new cars, as none had been built for the 1943 through 1945 model years. The transition from producing war equipment to domestic vehicles would take time. Rather than wait for all- new postwar models to be designed and engineered, Chrysler, Ford,
Mercury and Nash opted to recycle some of their pre-war sedan and convertible designs by adding wood trim to dress them up (and sell them for higher prices).
Chrysler continued the use of the name Town and Country, which now identified their convertibles and sedans with wood trim rather than the sedan/wagon hybrid of the pre-war years. The Ford Motor Company used the name Sportsman for both of their wood-trimmed convertibles, Ford (1946 and 1947) and Mercury (only in 1946). Based solely upon their production date, 28 Ford Sportsman vehicles were identified as 1948 models. The Ford Sportsman appeared in a few ads and brochures, but there were few takers. I’ve never seen an ad or a brochure for the very rare Mercury Sportsman. A wood-trimmed fastback Nash sedan took the oft-used name Suburban for 1946 and 1947, but it too was less than successful in the marketplace.
Chevrolet did not offer a wood-trimmed postwar factory model, but a small firm, Engineered Enterprises, Inc. of Detroit, offered pre-cut wood trim under the product name “Custom Country Club” to Chevy’s dealers for three of their 1948 body styles. Packard’s
Station Sedan (1948 to 1950) was a streamlined woodie that seemed to be the offspring of a sedan and a station wagon, much in the mode of the prewar Chrysler Town and Country. Wood bodies were increasingly mounted on truck chassis in the late ‘40s, for major makes such as Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, International and Studebaker. Cantrell, Hercules and Ionia were major suppliers of station wagon bodies to the car manufacturers in the late 1940s.
The decline of the era of wood-bodied station wagons was initiated by the introduction of the all-steel Willys Jeep Station Wagon in 1946, which proved to be surprisingly popular. The Plymouth Suburban was the first of the Big Three’s all-metal wagons and it was an instant hit in 1949. Ford’s first all-steel station wagon was the very popular Ranch Wagon, introduced as a 1952 model. The top-line Ford station wagon, the Country Squire, continued to use wood trim for a number of years, but it evolved from real wood to faux-wood fiberglass and decals. The last station wagon from a U.S. manufacturer to use any real wood trim was the 1953 Buick.
Station wagons, with or without wood trim, continued to be popular for decades, but the term “station wagon” seems to have drifted into the history books for the most part. “Minivans”, sport utility vehicles (SUVs), 4-door pickups and “crossovers” have taken over the duties of hauling large loads of people and their luggage. The newest concoctions are technical wonders and handle their tasks with efficient aplomb but none match the functional ostentation of a 1953 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon.