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Abarths at Chobham – May 2019

Have you ever wondered how some of the articles that fill the array of motoring magazines every month come about? No, not those which specialise in brand new cars, as their task is generally relatively easy with manufacturers and importers providing a seemingly never-ending supply of press releases, what I gather are now referred to as “launch cadences”, first drives, and the longer tests undertaken in cars from the press fleet. But those who focus on other aspects of the motoring scene have to work rather harder to source their content. The internet and social media have all helped, of course, but for many, the Owners Clubs are one of the most important sources of contacts and ultimately of cars. Many of the journalists have an extensive network of contacts and enduring relationships with major and smaller clubs which certainly help them to source interesting vehicles for the features that they want to write. This is certainly true in the Italian car community. The team that produce the globally respected Auto Italia magazine also run a series of events for Italian cars, such as the massive Brooklands event in May and the Autumn MotorSport one in October, and as well as working with the Clubs to get cars along in quantity, they also come across some of the rarities that emerge for just such events. With my Abarth Owners Club hat on, I’ve certainly known Phil Ward – founder of the magazine – and his photographer son, Michael, who now runs the whole show, for some years, so it was not that great a surprise when an email popped into my in box in early May from the Editor, Chris Rees, asking if I could help him to source 5 specific variants of the Abarth 500 for an article that he wanted to write The initial request was simply to see what I could come up with, with an indication that the target photo shoot would be in late May, on a weekday, either in Surrey or Leicestershire.

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That was enough for me to get started. I decided that the easiest way of sourcing the cars would be to call for volunteers and see what this elicited. I wrote a carefully crafted announcement for the Abarth Owners Club Facebook page and the forum, setting out the 5 models that were sought, with the request that they at least appear standard, so ruling out the many heavily modified cars around and pointing out that if people offered something else, I would delete their post. Needless to say, they did, and lots of people challenged the whole basis of the article, with the most extreme saying it was clearly going to be a boring article, as it would not contain the cars that he wanted to read about, though he did later have the decency to remove his post before I did so for him. I knew that some of the 5 models requested would be easy to source, and others would be difficult if not mission impossible. And so it proved. There were plenty of offers of an 500 Esseesse, though some had clearly ignored the geographic requirement for the shoot when offering their car. The 500 Assetto Corsa was likely to prove far harder. I did recall someone in Bristol had one, but that he had sold it the year before and lost track of where it had ended up. The only other ones I was aware of were for sale at specialist dealers. Third car on the list was a 695 Tributo Ferrari. I thought that this was going to stump me, too, as most of these cars were exported to Asia quite some time ago, but then I remembered a lad called Bailey Abbott had one. I messaged him, and much to my relief, he was very keen to help out. Then there was the 695 Competizione. Yes, a 695. I did not recall anyone ever mentioning that they had one of these in the UK, as they were a limited production car that was not sold in Britain, but the alternative was for a 595 Competizione. And of course, I had one of those, so that was easy. And then there was the 695 Biposto. There are a few of those in the club, but the issue was the date and venue. Armed with my initial view of what we had, I went back to Chris and in a series of emails we agreed that we would also include one of the Fiat-Abarth 595 50th Anniversary edition cars so we still had five, as the plan for the Assetto Corsa involved a dealer and getting it trailered over – which was a big ask. The Biposto was to be sourced form Abarth UK, and with limited availability for it, that gave us a few days at the end of May and made the venue selection easy: Longcross and not Leicestershire. We agreed on a Friday morning, the last day in May. All that we had to hope was that the weather gods would be kind.

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Although I’d heard of the Longcross track, also known as Chobham, I’d never been there. Part of a massive site which includes a huge film studio, it straddles the M3 only a few miles south of the M25 junction. Much of the site has been sold off for housing development, so what its ultimate destiny is remains to be seen, but for now, there is still a test track on the opposite side of the motorway to the rest of the facility. You have to pass through a security gate, so don’t imagine that just anyone can turn up. When I arrived at the control tower, the agreed meeting point, there was a familiar looking Fiat Doblo there, Michael Ward’s car and one which was to prove particularly useful for the time ahead of us. As we were chatting and waiting for the other Abarths to arrive, a McLaren Senna arrived, the lower flanks beating a protective shipping wrapper. Michael told me that McLaren bring all their cars here for a final shake-down, and sure enough the car immediately did a few quick donuts before heading off for a couple of quick laps of the track. Photos of those cars are not welcomed, so I had to restrain. It was not long before the next Abarth driver arrived. and whilst we waited for the others Michael took us for a quick lap of the track, so we could see what was there, and also so he could see what the light levels were like. The weather gods spared us the rain, but it was a rather murky day, and most of the track has tall trees on either side, which meant that some of the favoured locations were going to be a challenge. When we got back to the control tower, another car had arrived, an Audi e-Tron, and Autocar’s Matt Prior was at the wheel, waiting for a colleague, We went over for a chat, and as well as talking about some of the recent features in that magazine and his recent column castigating the vulgar grilles of new BMWs, he asked what cars we had – they were all present by this point – and then we agreed where each respective group was going to be so we did not clash. I understand that many of the motoring mags make regular use of this site for their photos, and indeed now I have been I recognise it in so many features across every mag I read.

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First task, after a few shots of the cars all together at the control tower was to take them part way around the circuit to get the group photo. The first place we stopped was just too devoid of light so we moved a bit further round, on a downward slope, Michael’s Doblo carefully position so by climbing on the roof, he could get some height to look down on the cars. Gradually we got them all into the position he wanted, and it was at this point that the thought I had given to the variety of colours was both apparent and appreciated. Black would have been a challenge on a day of a bit of sun and a lot of clouds. First few shots bagged, we them moved the cars round to get some more with a different car as the “lead”.

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After this, it was back to the control tower, to get ready for the individual shots on track. One by one, the Doblo set off, editor Chris Rees driving, Michael hanging out the back and the Abarth following, at a heady 25 mph. It is not as easy at you might think as clearly the desire is for the driver to look like they are totally focused on the track, but in fact watching the movement of the Doblo, staying in close and responding to the requests from the photographer for positioning requires concentration. When it came to the Biposto, only Chris was insured to drive it, which meant someone needed to drive the Doblo. That task fell to me, so I then had to go round at the steady 25 mph, listening to Michael’s camera shutter being constantly pressed as we made our way round. He confirmed that he can easily fill a massive memory card in the space of a couple of hours on a shoot like this.

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Action shots over, it was time for the static ones, with the cars moved around in front of a pair of faded red garage doors, a suitable backdrop for the series of cars we had assembled. First up was the oldest car of the day, Paul Feldman’s 500 Esseesse. This car has recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and Paul has owned it for most of that time. The Esseesse was an interesting concept, as to get one, you ought a standard Abarth 500 and then bought the Esseesse kit which was supplied in a large wooden crate. The contents had to be applied within the first 12 months or 10,000 miles for the registration then to be update to record the car as an Essesse. You did get quite a lot for the £2500 that the upgrade cost, with a power increase from 135 bhp of the standard car to 160 bhp, a Monza exhaust, cross-drilled and ventilated 11.2″ front brake discs with new pads, 9.4″ cross-drilled rear brake discs, lowered springs, sport air filter, 17-inch white or titanium colour alloy wheels, a tyre pressure monitoring system, and a unique key cover. Many cars have had some of the upgrades done over the years, but verifying if everything is there and that it is genuine Esseesse that you are looking at is not easy.

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Then it was the turn of the 695 Tributo Ferrari. Don’t be fooled by the lack of the twin stripes that you usually see down the middle of the car which had been removed as they were peeling. This is a genuine Tributo Ferrari, a limited edition version developed in collaboration with engineers from Ferrari. You got more power than was available in the standard cars at the time, with the engine uprated to 180 bhp, thanks to a different Garrett turbocharger. The spec included a MTA (Manual Transmission Automated) electromechanical transmission with paddle shifter, unique to this version 17 inch alloy wheels with performance tyres, Brembo multi-section discs with fixed 4-piston calipers, “Record Monza” variable back-pressure “dual mode” exhaust, Magneti Marelli Automotive Lighting xenon headlights, “Abarth Corsa by Sabelt” seats in black leather upholstery with carbon fibre shell and seat base, black leather steering wheel with red leather inserts and a tricolour hub, Jaeger instrument panel, non-slip aluminium foot wells, Scorpion racing pedals, special kick plates and a plate bearing the vehicle series number. The Tributo Ferrari was unveiled at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show, with deliveries starting in 2010. Four colours were offered: grey, Abu Dhabi Blue, Scuderia Red and finally Yellow like Bailey’s car. Of these the red and yellow cars were more numerous, but the car remained rare as it was fearsomely expensive. Just how expensive depended on the dealer, as in a move that only the Italians could make, they were all first registered in Italy and so technically were used cars by the time these right hand drive machines arrived on UK soil, which mean that the dealers could charge what they wanted. Most aimed somewhere between £32 and £36,000, a lot for a car of this size. Nevertheless, they all sold, though many ended up on another boat, off to right hand drive Asian markets, which is why they are a rare sight these days.

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And then Pete Dyer’s recently acquired 50th Anniversary Edition car was called forward. This was unveiled at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show, as a limited production car of which just 299 vehicles would be made commemorating the 50th anniversary of the original Fiat-Abarth 595. As that original car had been badged a Fiat, so was this one, which confused everyone who had been trying to explain how Abarth is a separate company. The UK cars listed at around £29,000 so not cheap, but for that money you got the 180 PS 1.4 T-Jet engine, Abarth Competizione gearbox, 17-inch alloy wheels with 695 Magnesio Grey design embellished and red liner, Brembo 305 mm floating brake discs, fixed four-piston caliper, special shock absorbers, ‘Record Monza’ variable back-pressure dual mode exhaust, matt three-layer white body colour, Xenon headlights with dipped and driving light functions, red leather sports seats with white inserts and red stitching, Abarth logo at black leather steering wheel with red inserts and finder and the kick plate.

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Now it was my turn., with my 595 Competizione, the top of the regular range. The 595 name reappeared in 2012 with the launch of Turismo and Competizione versions which effectively replaced the Esseesse upgrade. The differences between the two were initially around the standard spec, as both were mechanically the same. That change in 2015, though, by which time all the models were being referred to as Series 3 with minor spec changes including the adoption of a new TFT-based instrument display. I bought my car in September 2015 to replace my 2010 model standard car, tempted by the upgrades that Abarth had made earlier in the year, which had included more power, now up to 180 bhp thanks to the different turbo as well as other items which had been included in the Competizione spec since its launch in 2012. Of these the Monza exhaust is a particular highlight, and I also love the Sabelt seats, though these are quite tight fitting, so those larger in the body may find that not that viable, which is why it remains a no-cost option to swap them out for the standard items.

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And finally, the 695 Biposto. First shown at the 2014 Geneva Show, this 2 seater (that’s what Biposto means in Italian) is nothing other than a road legal version of the 695 Assetto Corse Racing car, a vehicle which has its own race series in Europe. Although the car is road legal, it was envisaged that the majority of people who buy one of these cars will use it on the track and quite frequently. So it was conceived accordingly. That means upgrades to all the important bits – engine, brakes, suspension, gearbox – and some fairly drastic measures to save weight which resulted in a car which generates 190 bhp and 199 lb/ft or 250 Nm of torque with a kerb weight of just 997kg. That’s enough to give a 0 – 60 time that is under 6 seconds, and a top speed of 143 mph. Those are supercar figures produced by a city car. There’s more to it than that, though, as the changes that go to make a Biposto are extensive, and they have been well thought through, so this is a long-way from being a hastily conceived or tuned up special. Ignoring the limited edition cars which arrived during 2015, the “regular” Biposto is only offered in Matt Performance Grey paint, and the car is visually distinctive, with a new front bumper, rear diffuser, wider arches, new skirts and bigger roof spoiler. Although the engine is still the same 1.4 T-jet that features in the lesser 500 and 595 cars, it has been reworked here, with a new Garrett turbocharger, larger intercooler, altered fuel rail and an Akrapovic exhaust system. Buyers can choose between the standard five speed gearbox or an optional race-bred dog-ring unit mated to a mechanical limited slip diff. The standard car’s MacPherson strut and torsion beam suspension has been reworked, too, with altered springs, wider tracks adjustable ride height and dampers with more resilient bushings, using Extreme Shox technology shock absorbers. The brakes are upgraded in line with the extra power, featuring 305mm Brembo discs and four pot calipers up front and 240mm discs with single pot calipers at the rear. The wheels are lightened 18″ OZ and attached via a titanium hub, shod with bespoke 215/35 Goodyear tyres. In the interest of weight saving, a number of standard trim items are removed, including the regular door trims, air conditioning, the rear seats and some of the sound deadening material. Even the standard air vents have been changed so they are covered by a simple mesh. In their place is plenty of polished carbon fibre, a titanium strut brace, racing seats and harness, as well as special trim features such as new pedals, tread plates and a race inspired digital display on the dash where the radio usually sits. This car has been on Abarth UK’s press fleet for some time now. It has most of the available options, including the dog-ring gearbox, something which was only fitted to a few of the 33 cars that are on UK roads.

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At this point, we were done. It had taken about 3 hours, and Michael had amassed several thousand photos and editor Chris had a few pages of notes which would be used for the finished article. This appeared in the September 2019 edition of the Auto Italia magazine, having been previewed with a nice picture in the previous edition. It covers seven pages and there are lots of photos from the day. A great reminder of a fun way to spend a Friday!

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