Abarth Day at Coventry Transport Museum – July 2016

With the Abarth Day at Coventry Transport Museum that was held in February 2016 being declared such a success by all those who attended, it was no surprise that the venue would be selected again for another meeting, this time in mid summer when the temperatures were likely to be significantly warmer than they had been earlier in the year. The first event was one that I conceived and organised, but this time, the decision to go ahead came from the Abarth Worldwide Facebook Group, who almost instantly decided that the event should be offered to all Abarth Owners, regardless of which Club or Facebook Group they belong to. That meant that apart from some help with publicity and promoting the meeting, I did not have to do any of the hard work, and was simply able to turn up and enjoy the day. And enjoy it I certainly did. The weather improved steadily from overcast to warm and sunny, and with nearly 60 cars present, there was an assembly of Owners new and old, people I know well and some I had never met before, and the organisers had laid on a few additional surprises to add further interest to the event.

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To emphasise the Abarth-ness of the event, the organisers had arranged with local dealer Research of Nuneaton not just that they would attend, but that they would bring along a trio of cars and one of the Abarth promotional trailers.

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Two of their display cars were the very latest Series 4 595 models. After rumours had circulated all winter following the launch of the facelifted Fiat 500 last year, Abarth finally unveiled the Series 4 at the end of May. Initially, we were told that the cars would not be available in the UK until September, but that seems to have come forward somewhat, with dealers all receiving demo cars a few days prior to this event, and the first customers likely to take delivery later in the month. That meant that for most people present, this was the first time they would have seen these cars in the metal as opposed to in various PR and launch photos and the myriad of pictures on various continental European websites  Three versions of both the closed car and the open-topped C will be available, all badged 595, and called Custom, Turismo and Competizione, as before. The most significant changes with the Series 4 are visual, with a couple of new colours, including the much asked for Modena Yellow and a different red, called Abarth Red, which replaces both the non-metallic Officina and – slightly surprisingly – the tri-coat pearlescent Cordolo Red. as well as styling changes front and rear. The jury is still out on these, with many, me included, remaining to be convinced. At the front, the new air intake does apparently allow around 15 – 20 % more air in and out, which will be welcome, as these cars do generate quite a lot of heat under the bonnet. Competizione models for the UK retain the old style headlights, as they have Xenon lights as standard, whereas the Custom and Turismo cars have reshaped units. At the back, there are new light clusters and a new rear bumper and diffuser. Inside, the most notable change is the replacement of the Blue & Me system with a more modern uConnect Audio set up, which brings a new colour screen to the dash. Mechanically, there is an additional 5 bhp on the Custom (now 145) and Turismo (now 165 bhp) and the option of a Limited Slip Diff for the Competizione, which is likely to prove a popular option. Details of the interior trim have changed, with a filled-in glovebox like the US market cars have always had, and electric windows switches that are like the US ones, as well as a part Alcantara trim to the steering wheel in Competizione cars. Certainly the new red colour looked good, and is expected to be a popular option. Needless to say, these cars created a lot of interest throughout the day.

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The third car that Research had brought was a Biposto. These cars are rare sightings, and usually command the most attention of any Abarth, but today this car had to play a sort of second fiddle to the Series 4 cars, though I suspect everyone did take some time to look at the car during the day, and probably not everyone would even have seen one before, as not every dealer has one on site, and there are only a couple that are registered on the various Abarth forums and Facebook groups in the UK.  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.

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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. Only a small number have been sold in the UK, and of these quite few were bought for export, so this is and is likely to remain a rare car.

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Not quite so rare, despite the protestations that are sometimes manifest from the owners are the Abarth Puntos. For a while it looked as if they would be totally elusive at this event, though, as there were something like 30 – 35 examples of the 500-based cars on site before the first Punto arrived. It was soon joined by a couple more. When new, Abarth sold approximately one Punto for every ten 500s, and with production having ceased a couple of years ago, and the monthly sales of 595s having increased notably in the UK in the last year or so, as a percentage of the total population of Abarths on UK roads, you would have to say that 3 Puntos and 54 (plus three dealer cars) of the 500/595s is not statistically the under-representation that some would complain about. Of course there are plenty of enthusiastic Punto owners known to us, so the fact that only three came is a bit of a disappointment, and it was a surprise that there were no examples of the earlier Grande Punto, the first of the line and indeed the first of the modern Abarth. What we got was a Punto Evo and a couple of Supersport models. The Punto Evo was launched at the 2010 Geneva Show, with the cars reaching UK buyers in the summer of that year, and it incorporated many of the changes which had been seen a few months earlier on the associated Fiat models, the visual alterations being the most obvious, with the car taking on the nose of the associated Fiat, but adapted to make it distinctively Abarth, new rear lights and new badging. There was more to it than this, though, 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.

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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 the  ‘Abarth Corsa by Sabelt’ sports leather seats. The SuperSport was available in the same colours as the regular Punto Evo, which means white, grey, black and red. The last of these is the rarest by some measure, so it was good to get one those as well as the Campovolo Grey car for the event.

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500 and 595

The vast majority of cars here were the 500-based models which have been sold in the UK since the spring of 2009. For the first few years, Abarth were selling around 100 a month, peaking slightly in those months when the registration plate changes. More recently, and no doubt helped by an increase in the number of dealers from the early days when only a dozen covered the whole country, including two in the Channel Islands and one in Northern Ireland, numbers sold have gone up. That means that there are now around 8000 of these cars on our roads, though you can still go several days between spottings. And when you do see one, although you will be no doubt that it is an Abarth as opposed to a Fiat, telling the different versions apart is difficult, to the point of impossible. There are differences that have come in as the model has evolved, but with the exception of badging for 595, 695 and the Limited Edition cars, you really need to be a marque expert to be sure exactly what you are looking at, 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, the Monza exhaust system 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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There have been a number of Limited Edition models over the years, not all of which have been offered in every market where the Abarth is sold. Among the earliest of these was the 695 Tributo Ferrari, which was unveiled at the 2009 Frankfurt Show, reaching the first customers during 2010. Developed in collaboration with engineers from Ferrari, the 695 Tributo Ferrari used the same 1.4 Turbo T-Jet 16v engine as the standard cars, but further developed and with a different Garrett turbocharger which raised power to 180 hp. It came with an MTA (Manual Transmission Automated) electromechanical transmission with paddles, unique to this version 17 inch alloy wheels with performance tyres, Brembo 11.2″ multi-section discs with fixed 4-piston calipers, “Record Monza” variable back-pressure “dual mode” exhaust,  Racing Grey wheels and rear air intakes, 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. This Tributo Ferrari was sold in four different colours: red, as seen here in this homage to the Tributo, Abu Dhabi Blue, yellow and grey. More red and yellow cars were made than the other two colours. It was expensive when new, and to get round homologation issues, the cars were initially “sold” in Italy, and treated as “pre-registered” on arrival in the UK which made the paperwork process complicated, and also meant that dealers could charge what they thought people would pay. Many of the cars have since been exported, so there are not many currently on our roads.

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Having used the legendary 695 badging from the 1960s on the Tributo cars, 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 of the same generation, and created two new versions which we should think of as Series 2 cars, the 595 Turismo and Competizione, both of which could be bought m 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 they were 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. There were several examples of this popular colour here 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 a number of examples on display here. Despite a growing popularity for the colour, it was phased out during late 2015, even though it was still offered on the related Fiat 500 model.

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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 were all offered either in this colour or Scorpion Black, with black wheels. Surprisingly, the colour has not been carried over to the Series 4 cars.

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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 among others, 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 recently acquired Yamaha Edition model in Podium Blue, which he had driven all the up from Kent, making him probably one of the most distant people 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 first saw this in person at the February meeting here, some months after his transformation of what started out as a Campovolo Grey 500 Esseesse. 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. Other distinctive livery changes including the Martini look given to Danny Booth’s car and the matt black upper body wrap on Roy Westwood’s otherwise red 595 Competizione.

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Other distinctive cars include Nico Vogli’s car which sports a number of visual changes which he has made himself, and the latest set of stickers on Oliver Sormaz’ car which he has recently changed from a red to a yellow theme as well as much loved Jack Slade’s “Black Betty”.

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No, it’s not officially an Abarth, but Dave Quinn’s Ducato van which he has owned for the last three years, which serves him during the week as he goes about his carpentry and joinery business is always quite a talking point on those occasions when he brings it to shows, and today was no exception.

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An inspired decision was to hold a “concours” competition and a raffle, as this encouraged most people to stay til mid afternoon, and also provided the opportunity to gather everyone together.

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The concours was only supposed to be a bit of fun, though as the judges walked around all the cars, with clipboards and scoring sheets in hand, it looked like they were taking their responsibilities very seriously. They produced a short list of 10 finalists, and the owners of these cars then moved them all into one line across the middle of the parking area. Then democracy took over, with everyone asked to go and stand by their favourite car. Owners were allowed to pick their own, and some, but not all, did so. To be honest, it was more or less an impossible decision, as by whatever criteria you chose, you could argue a case for any car, certainly the finalists, all of which passed muster in the cleanliness and detailed stakes. In the end, the three winners were declared to be Andrew Cunliffe with his white 500 Essesse, Ed Tan. whose Podium Blue 595C impressed everyone even before they saw the recently installed matching carbon fibre blue trim inserts inside it, and Adam Henry’s somewhat modified Record Grey 595. Each collected a detailing bag as their prize, and their cars were then moved around the site to allow for more photos to be taken.

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On arrival, everyone was given a raffle ticket, but to win a prize, the ticket holder had still to be on site when these were drawn. First name out of the hat went to Paul Hatton and then there were a series of tickets where the owners had already departed. Eventually, the right colour came to match mine, and for the first time in a very long time, the number matched and I won a prize as well. Winners of the raffle also received the detailing bag, so I guess I have no excuses now for presenting a car which has only had a quick wash!

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This was an excellent day. Even better than the one I organised, with more participants and hence more cars, and an even better sense of cameraderie among the owners, most of whom who stayed until well into the afternoon. Thanks go to Grant Kenyon, Chris Booth and Adam Henry for all their hard work in assembling the day, and sorting out the prizes, as well as Paul Hatton and Oliver Sormaz who were kept busy on the day registering everyone who attended.

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The next such Abarth meeting will take place at Duxford on 25th September, and this time I am back in the organiser’s chair.

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