Carlo Abarth’s intensity (and capriciousness) might well be attributed to his heredity. Born November 19, 1908 in Austria under the sign of Scorpio as Karl Alberto Abarth (pronounced Ah-bart), his father Karl Anton Abarth was known for rapid swings between passions but not so much for diligence in his endeavors. The family’s foundations were in Merano, Austria where Karl’s grandfather was a prominent citizen.
Karl was mechanically precocious, disassembling and reassembling household hardware as a child. He also excelled at sports and spent his teen years working on and racing bicycles, with noted success. As a seventeen year old he joined Castagna in Vienna as a bicycle and motorcycle frame designer before moving to Degan in the same city. These jobs were mostly unpaid. He spent a couple years there before joining the Motor Thun motorcycle operations in Traischkirchen, 20 km south of Vienna. He worked as the support mechanic for Joseph Opawsky from 1927 to 1934. Not long after taking on his new responsibilities Karl decided to get serious about his own racing aspirations. When a factory rider fell ill, he was asked to stand in for a race in April, 1928. His performance showed a good measure of talent, setting fastest lap during practice and intimidating the regular factory riders. He was given a backup machine for the competition and when it broke down, Abarth suspected it wasn’t an accident. The factory team management refused to support his claims so he quit in protest. His actions brought him grief with most factory teams in Europe. They refused to take him on.
Ever resilient and ambitious, he bought himself a 250cc Grindley-Peerless and tweaked it with the engineering expertise and competitiveness he brought to all his projects throughout life. Mere months after his impromptu and short-lived motorcycle racing debut with Thun, Abarth won his first race on the modified British single at Saltzburg, July 29th, 1928.
Impressed with Abarth’s accomplishments, the James Motorcycle Company of Birmingham, England hired the 20 year old rider to campaign their machines. The same year (1928) Abarth designed and built his own motorcycle, a water-cooled two stroke based on a Villiers power plant and a heavily modified frame. Over the next decade Karl Abarth won many motorcycle races and became internationally known as a fierce, talented competitor. He was European Champion five times, a feat even more impressive because he financed, built and maintained the bikes he raced.
An observation offered by an early (cynical) observer that every motorcycle rider has either crashed or will someday surely crash is even more applicable to racers. Though hardly the first time he went down, Abarth crashed heavily during a race at Linz, Austria and decided he needed to take it a little easier. “Easier” meant designing and building a sidecar rig with which he proceeded to win many more competitions. He also made headlines by racing and beating the Orient Express over the 1372 kilometers between Vienna and Ostend on the Belgium coast in 1934. It did take him two tries, electrical failure leaving him 15 minutes arrears the first time. A week later on the return trip he was home first by 20 minutes. Perseverance was an enduring Abarth characteristic, along with a strong measure of self-promotion and some say more than a pinch of flim-flam. Also in 1934 Karl married the secretary of Ferdinand Porsche’s son-in-law Anton Piëch. This relationship brought him into the Porsche engineering community, opening new doors for future opportunities.
In 1938 the Italian motor sports organization approached Karl, offering an attractive deal to help their national racing efforts in Nazi Germany. Karl, well aware of the political environment swirling about Europe, accepted the offer to race with the Italian’s. He needed an Italian license to compete and decided to use the Italian version of his name. Karl Alberto Abarth called himself Carlo and changed his home address once again to Merano, now an Italian city (annexed by Italy after WWI).
His penchant for going fast on two or three wheels finally caught up with Karl at the end of the season in Yugoslavia. A serious crash put him in the hospital for a year. It was 1939 and he was 31 years old. As he was recovering Europe was once again in growing turmoil and Austria was under the shadow of a belligerent Germany. Karl decided to stay in Yugoslavia working for Ignaz Vok in Lubjljana converting internal combustion engines to run on kerosene for the civilian market. This work further developed his expertise with small displacement motors.
With many adventures and challenges to overcome over the next few years, Carlo finally made his way to his childhood home town of Merano. His father, who had become a naturalized citizen of Italy some years before, was able to smooth the way by arranging an Italian identity credential in the name of Carlo Abarth. A few years later Carlo too gained Italian citizenship, setting the stage for the work that would bring him world-wide fame on four wheels rather than the previous two or three.
Abarth: The man, the machines Georgio Nada Editore
Vimodrone, Milano, Italy ISBN 88-7911-263-5
The History of ABARTH, Carlo (Karl) Abarth and the Abarth Fiat 500
The History of Abarth
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