Abarth Day at Coventry Transport Museum – February 2016

In Britain, the car enthusiast is spoiled for choice. There’s a vast number o events which take place, more or less all year around, at venues pretty much all over the country. All it takes is a few minutes online harnessing the search capabilities of Mr Google to discover what is on, how to get there, how to buy tickets and in many cases, to find all manner of reports and photos from the same event in previous years. Things do change from year to year, as the larger events, organised by professional organisations are motivated by trying to make a profit, and so things which lose popularity do suddenly disappear from the schedules, but new events constantly spring up as well. In many ways, the hardest part of producing your own events schedule is coping with too much choice and the inevitable diary clashes. Look at it through the eyes of a Car Club, and specifically, the Events Organiser, and it is not quite so straight-forward. There are always quite a few events which are being organised by others which are only too glad to gain some of their content from the various Car Clubs and indeed it is possible to build quite an extensive program of activities throughout a season by doing just this. And there’s no doubt that this will be popular both with the venue – who gets content that helps to make their event more attractive – and to the club members who often get preferential ticket prices and certainly get better parking than they would if just turning up as part of the paying public. But if that’s all you do, it’s not long before Club members get restless for something which is unique to the Club. On a small, local scale, this is easy to organise (though never believe it at times, when you watch weeks of endless debate, trying to please too many divergent requirements!) as all it takes is a few people to gather at a pub or local beauty spot by prior arrangement. But to do something on a larger scale is not something that happens by magic. There are precious few public places that lend themselves to a gathering of 30 or 40 or more cars, and certainly not with facilities like toilets and somewhere to get a drink and a bite to eat, so the Event Organiser has to look at private venues. Plenty, when approaches, see a Car Club as more trouble than it is worth, and it is quite a short conversation before you discover that they really are not interested. When you find one that is, then the next challenge is finding a date that has not already been booked by someone else. And that’s before anyone utters the dread words “Public Liability Insurance”, an essential in these litigious times  in which we live. It’s not impossible, and when I first bought my Abarth, back in 2010, there was talk of an exclusive event which had been held at Duxford, which had gone down well with all who attended, and it was not long before I started to read about plans for an special day at Ragley Hall, with Club dedicated parking, and a great success the event turned out to be. The following year I assumed some responsibilities for helping to operate Abarthisti, and gradually found myself as Events Manager. Enthused by what I thought could now be done, the proverbial rug was swept from under my feet when the whole venture was sold to AutoGuide, a Canadian operation who run many Car Club websites and forums (for profit), which then meant that we lost our Liability cover and had no easy means of generating income as they now held copyright and merchandising rights for everything Abarthisti, leaving us simply with a forum to run. For the next three years, Abarthisti was confined to “piggy-backing” off other events, and although this was well received, there was repeated demand for more. I got as far as a “Cunning Plan” to try to do something of our own, but using a large space as part of the Coventry Motoring Festival, which I thought could work. But before that came about, largely as a result of a growing frustrations of being controlled by a Canadian company who barely responded to requests, let alone provided encouragement, incentive, or money, the enterprising Bertie Bryant decided to try to launch an alternative, the Abarth Owners Club, an online based venture which would have complete control over everything it wanted to do. Unsure whether there was room for another Owners Club for a brand which only had 5000 cars in the UK, I was persuaded to help launch it, and to take on the events program. The Coventry Motoring Festival idea fell apart, as that particular event was cancelled when the city ran out of money, so in 2015, the events calendar was still largely populated with participating in events that others had organised, but even to do this, I had to tackle the Public Liability Cover issue. With that sorted, when I got an email from the Coventry Transport Museum, advising Car Clubs that the large open space, Millennium Place, in front of the museum could be booked for no charge (but proof of Liability Cover was required), I decided to test the water for an Abarth only event. You can never pick a date that will suit everyone, and my first choice, the weekend of Race Retro, which would have allowed people who were not local to make a weekend of things, failed when the museum realised that the space was needed to set up for the Coventry Half Marathon. I picked another weekend in February, as there is little else on the car enthusiasts’ diaries at this point in the year, and made announcements on the Abarth Owners Club and Abarthisti forums as well as the Abarth Owners Club Facebook page, unsure whether I would get a handful of responses or be overwhelmed., When someone pointed out that I had picked Valentine’s Day, I feared it might be the former. Happily, my apprehensions were wrong. When I went through the list of people who had said they were coming, just 2 days before, I got to 61 names, and my concern was now whether everyone would fit in the space. By this stage, the weather forecast had changed from rain, to snow, to a less ominous sounding “grey cloud”. Even this proved wrong as well, as on the day, dawn arrived with clear skies and a sharp frost, and as the sun rose in the sky, so the clouds gradually disappeared, leaving ever sunnier skies (and a rather biting wind – but then it was still only mid February, so not completely unseasonal!). All told, 45 cars came. They occupied less than half the available space, so I know for next time that a lot more cars can be accommodated. Most people arrived  soon after official opening time of 10am and stayed til mid afternoon, which gave everyone plenty of opportunity to catch up with old friends, meet people who they have interacted with online but never met in person, have a look at each others’ cars, and then, as I deduced when I turned around and saw the Place almost deserted, when the cold got a bit much, retreated into the Museum for a good look around. I never did this, but I did have a good inspection a few weeks prior to this event and a separate report on the 2015 revamp will be published here in due course. So, that leaves the cars.

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It was with the Abarth Grande Punto that the Scorpion brand was relaunched, when this car debuted at the 2007 Frankfurt IAA Show, going on sale in the UK in late summer of 2008. Offering 155 bhp from its 1.4 litre T-Jet engine, coupled to a six speed gearbox, and riding on 45 profile 17″ alloys, the standard car got rave reviews from the journalists when they first tried it, and they were even more impressed by the changes wrought by the optional Esseesse kit. This increased power to 177 bhp, brought 18″ OZ lower profile wheels, whilst new springs lowered the ride height by 15-20mm, and high-performance front brake pads and cross-drilled front disc brakes helped the car to stop more quickly. The most distinctive feature of the car were the white alloy wheels, though, as owners found, keeping these clean is not a job for the uncommitted, and many have a second set of wheels that they use fro grubbier conditions. Despite the positive press at launch, the car entered a very competitive sector of the market, and the combination of being relatively unknown, a limited number of dealers and the existence of established rivals from Renault and others meant that this always remained a left-field choice. The owners loved them, though, and they still do. The oldest cars have now had their 7th birthdays, and some have amassed relatively big mileages, but they are still a car for the cognoscenti. The example seen here was a late arrival to the event, but plenty of people headed over for a good look as soon as it was parked up.

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Following the Fiat update to the Grande Punto which created the Punto Evo, Abarth made a series of alterations to their version, meaning that the “AGP” became the “APE”, or Abarth Punto Evo, launching it at the 2010 Geneva Show, with the cars reaching UK buyers in the summer of that year. The visual alterations were the most obvious, with the car taking on the nose of the associated Fiat, but adapted to make it distinctively Abarth, and new rear lights as well as badging. But there was more to it than this, as under the bonnet, the T-Jet unit was swapped for the 1.4 litre Multi-Air, coupled to a 6 speed gearbox, which meant that the car now had 165 bhp at its disposal. Eventually, Abarth offered an Esseesse kit for these cars, though these are exceedingly rare. For those in the know – which never seemed to be that many people, this was a really capable and desirable car, and the owners love them, lamenting the fact that the model had quite a short production life and has not been replaced. Many of the owners bought them as a replacement for their earlier Grande Punto. Some, such as Robbo Minshall, whose Campovolo model was one of the ones here, strayed away from the brand for a while, but found themselves magically drawn back by the lure of the Scorpion.

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To create more interest in the model, in 2012 Abarth introduced a limited edition version called the SuperSport. Easily identified by the distinctive black bonnet, just 199 of these were built, of which around 120 are registered on UK roads. These cars had many of the options from the Punto Evo included as standard. Power came from the the 1.4-litre MultiAir turbo engine, tuned to produce 178bhp and 199lb ft of torque, up from 165 of the standard Punto Evo, giving the SuperSport  a 0-62 time of  7.5 seconds and a  top speed of over 132mph. To help put the power down, the SuperSport was fitted with wider 18″ wheels and optional Koni FSD dampers. Standard equipment included the Blue&Me infotainment system with steering wheel controls, automatic climate control and a popular option was ‘Abarth Corsa by Sabelt’ sports leather seats. Stuart Theobald brought along his SuperSport, a car which he had picked up less than 48 hours before the event, replacing his much loved Punto Evo. Its inclusion meant that the three most significant versions of the car that was deleted from Abarth’s range in 2014, were all present.

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I know that a certain amount of disappointment was expressed by both the Punto owners present and many of those who were not there that so few of these model were on display compared to the 500/595 cars. And yet, if you recall that when both Punto and 500 were on sale, and that the former sold in a ratio of approximately 10 units to every one Punto, then a ratio of 4 of the larger cars to 41 of the 500s is not so far from a reflection of the numbers that were initially sold. Add in the fact that the last new Puntos were sold in 2014 and that reckons that there are around 775 Abarth Puntos licensed and a handful more on SORN, as opposed to in excess of 8000 examples of the smaller car.  .

500 AND  595

When surveying the line of 500 based models, someone asked me if it is possible to tell which model you are looking at. Of course there are differences, but the honest answer is that with the exception of badging for 595, 695 and the Limited Edition cars, you really need to be a marque expert, and even then, it is hard to be sure at just a quick glance. It used to be relatively easy, when the model was first launched, as there was only version as shipped ex works called the 500. It had a 135 bhp 1.4 litre turbo-charged engine coupled to a five speed manual gearbox, with 16″ alloys as standard, and the option of 17″ wheels, and a colour palette comprising of two whites (BossaNova White, the standard colour, or the pearlescent Funk White), Red (Pasadoble), Pale Grey (Campovolo) or Black. If you wanted more power – 160 bhp – then you could order an Esseesse kit, which came in a large wooden crate, containing new wheels, springs, an ECU upgrade and badging. It was dealer fitted and could be applied at any time within the first 12 months or 10,000 miles from registration. Needless to say, it proved popular. As were many of the optional extras, with stickers for the sides, a large scorpion for the bonnet and even a chequered pattern for the roof among the personalisation options offered. Several of the original style of cars were here, including Salv Trapani’s much loved car with the chequered roof.

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Whilst a sliding glass sunroof (Skydome in Fiat/Abarth parlance) was an option from inception, fans of open air motoring had to wait until Geneva 2010 for the launch of the 500C models. For the first few months these cars only came with the robotised manual gearbox, which limited the appeal in the eyes of some, but they also introduced us to the “bi-colore”, a series of two tone cars, with upper and lower halves of the body painted in different colours. It took us a while to get used to this, as no other production road cars had been painted like this for some time, but now this is seen as yet another of those marque defining attributes, and (perhaps with the exception of the rarely seen Rally Beige and Officina Red combination that would come for 2014) in the eyes of many this distinctive look enhances the appeal of the cars still further.

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At the 2012 Geneva Show, Abarth dusted off the 595 name that had been used on the less powerful of the Nuova 500 based cars sold in the 1960s. Offered in two version, you could now buy a Turismo or a Competizione in either closed or open top C guise, with either the 5 speed manual or robotised automated gearshifts. Both models had the 160 bhp engine as standard. Effectively this was a replacement for the Esseesse kit, and it meant that the cars were produced complete at the factory, rather than needing the dealer to undertake the upgrade (and the associated paperwork), though Abarth did not withdraw the Esseesse kits from the market for some while. Turismo, as the name suggests was aimed slightly less extreme in intent, featuring standard leather upholstery, upgraded dampers and climate control, Xenon headlights and Alutex interior details. The sportier Abarth 595 Competizione replaced the leather seats with Sabelt cloth sport seats and Alutex with aluminium, while adding p-cross-drilled brakes and the Record Monza dual-mode exhaust.

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Some new colours were introduced, and very soon one of those, Record Grey, frequently combined with a tan interior became one of the most popular choices. Among the examples of this popular colour here were Ian Payne’s and Oliver Sormaz’ cars, and there is no denying that this combination suits the Abarth shape very well.

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Eyebrows were raised when a pale blue, or Legends Blue in Abarth speak was added to the range, but in fact this hue also works well on the model and there are now plenty of cars in this shade on our roads, with Leanne Williams’ example here being one of them.

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Rumours started to circulate towards the end of 2014 that Abarth were going to upgrade the Competizione model, so as better to bridge the gap between the Turismo and the 190 bhp 695 Biposto that had been added to the range earlier in the year. It was Geneva 2015 when the result was finally shown to an expectant fan base. Most exciting news was that thanks to a bigger Garrett Turbo, the engine had been tweaked to 180 bhp, and with reduced CO2 emissions. A standard spec that included Koni Dampers, Brembo brakes, Xenon lights, Sabelt seats, Climate Control, parking sensors as well as other refinements that had been added like the TFT instrument display all proved very compelling, so not long after the first cars reached the UK  in June of 2015, I found temptation too hard to resist, and as is well documented here, swapped my 2010 car for one of these. At the time I ordered it, Cordolo Red, a tri-coat pearlescent paint which shimmers in bright sunlight looked set to become one of the most popular colours of the lot, even though it is a cost option. Indeed, the Launch Edition models, of which Dave Quinn’s car is an example, were all offered either in this colour or Scorpion Black, with black wheels.

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A new colour was announced with the new Competizione cars, called Podium Blue, but it was not going to be immediately available, and there were no accurate representations of exactly what shade it would be. Rumours circulated on Abarth forums and Facebook Groups all summer, with lots of guessing and no real facts, although we had been assured that it was not the same as the Abu Dhabi Blue that had featured on a very small number of 695 Tributo Ferrari models in 2011. It was October when the first cars reached the UK and those who had taken the gamble could see for themselves whether they had got it right. Common consent is this is a stunning colour. A rich blue, it changes shade in different lights. I think it looks fantastic. Combined with yellow stickers, as at least Lake District resident, sadly not present here, has done, it looks even better. But long time Abarth owner and enthusiast, Ed Tan, now on his fourth example of the marque, did have his 595C Competizione available here for everyone to admire, and new owner Mark had a regular fixed roof car on show.

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Having spent all the time since the relaunch trying to get everyone to understand that Abarth is a separate brand, a separate company, even, within the Fiat empire, things got more complicated in late 2013 when at the Frankfurt Show, the then latest special model was revealed, as it came with Fiat badges on it. This is the Fiat-Abarth 595 50th Anniversary Edition, produced, as the name suggests, to celebrate 50 years since the introduction of the first of the Nuova 500-based 595 models. Mechanically identical to the 695 Tributo Ferrari and Edizione Maserati models (who said that the Italians don’t keep things complicated with their naming), this one boasted the 180 bhp version of the T-Jet engine under the bonnet, and the automated gearbox. The cars are easily distinguished by their matte white paint with red stripes, which looks fantastic when new and clean but which does require special care to make sure it stays looking that way, as well as special badging. Other items in the spec sheet included 17″  alloy wheels with 695 Magnesio Grey design embellished and a red liner, Brembo 305 mm floating brake discs, fixed four-piston caliper, special shock absorbers, the sonorous ‘Record Monza’ variable back-pressure dual mode exhaust,  Xenon headlights, red leather sports seats with white inserts and red stitching, an Abarth logo-ed black leather steering wheel with red inserts.  299 were built, of which 50 came to the UK. The car’s problem was its price: £29,850 was simply too much for most people to justify, and the cars remained available in the showroom well into 2015. This example belongs to Chris Scally and it was nice to see a privately owned one among the display.

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Far more affordable, and justifiable, is the 595 Yamaha Edition, which was launched in the autumn of 2015, so we were told, to celebrate the brand becoming an official sponsor and car supplier of the MotoGP championship. Developed in partnership with Yamaha, apparently, there are a number of  new design features and performance enhancements. Powered by the 160 bhp version of the T-Jet petrol engine, the specification also includes lowered suspension, a Record Monza exhaust system and Koni shock absorbers and visually you can identify one by its 17″ matt black alloy wheels, painted brake callipers, darkened windows and Yamaha badging. Inside there’s a flat-bottomed steering wheel, aluminium pedals and more Yamaha badging. As with all Abarth models, there is an options list for those who wish to personalise the car still further. Seen here was John Barrett’s newly acquired Yamaha Edition model in Podium Blue, which he had driven all the up from Kent, making probably the most distant person to have attended.

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Abarths are not for everyone. And that means that many owners are proud to own a car that is not just rare, but which not everyone “gets”. Inevitably that means that many want to personalise their cars even beyond what is offered as standard by the factory. Even back in the early days when there were few different variants and a limited colour palette, it was reckoned that no two cars at any Abarth Owners were quite the same, thanks to the options list including not just a choice of exterior and interior colour, but also several different wheel designs and an array of stickers for the side, roof and bonnet of the car. And that was before people applied their own creativity and personal touches. Many owners apply their own modifications, some purely in the interests of power, or handling or stance, but plenty also with aesthetics in mind. Some of the changes are quite subtle, and you need almost a trained eye to spot things like different centre caps for the wheels, or to wait until darkness to notice that the slightly yellowy glow of the lights has been changed for a purer white. Look carefully at the array of cars here and there were plenty that show ore or more subtle mods. Andy Newton’s beautiful bi-colore 595C is a case in point. Supplied ex works in a colour combination which is surprisingly rare, given how everyone seems to comment favourably on how good it looks, he has undertaken all manner of additional modifications to come up with a car that is absolutely unique.

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Some of the changes are more obvious, of course. No-one is going to miss Stephen Fletcher’s car, in bright green. I’d seen pictures of the wrap which he applied to what started out as a Campovolo Grey 500 Esseesse but this was the first time I saw it for real. And despite the fact that I am usually quite a purist, preferring originality, I have to say that this bold colour really suits the car much as was the case for Lee Birchall’s “Bumble Bee” (a yellow wrapped 500). It certainly proved quite a talking point during the day.

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if anything, even more of a car that intrigued everyone was Laura Croft’s 595. I’ve seen her car at Ace Cafe a few times in the last year and the livery is distinctive enough, with the orange colour swathes around the upper rear making the car stand out. but the object of everyone’s curiosity today was the air suspension that she has just had fitted. A small air tank and pump in the boot allow the car to rise up on its haunches when needed, but to sink down very low to the ground for display purposes. The pump was very busy all day as she demonstrated to a large number of intrigued owners and by-passers just how it worked. Whilst it is not something that I would have done on my own car, I have to admire the quality of the work done, and the pleasure that it is already bringing Laura is what matters more than anything else. An Abarth is a special enough car as it is, but the ability to make it totally personal just enhances the pride and delight of the ownership experience.

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That would seem a fitting way to conclude. Abarths are all about fun, and there is much cameraderie among the owners, even if occasionally there is what can be manifest almost as a sort of rivalry between the 500 and Punto enthusiasts, so a day like this was always likely to hit the spot. And judging by the size of the turn out, the comments on the day, the GigaBytes of photos that appeared on Facebook, Instagram and the various Forums during the event and in the days following, it is clear that this was a worthwhile venture which brightened up a rather grey and cold February weekend for a lot of people. It won’t be the last Abarth-specific event of 2016, that’s for sure.

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