Abarth Owners Club Summer BBQ and Drive Out – July 2017

There are so many great car events scheduled from Spring to Autumn across the UK, that Car Club organisers struggle to find a free-enough date when members are likely to support their Club event and not be tempted to go to something else. And when you have found a date, you need a venue – again not always that easy, as popular ones tend to be well-booked up, and the less popular ones are usually less-popular for a reason. These were challenges that I, as Events Manager for the Abarth Owners Club, was facing when thinking about holding a Summer Barbecue event for the Club. And then I had a moment of inspiration, when I realised that if I picked the right venue I made be able to get them to do the hard work around the barbeque as well. and as I thought about it some more, I realised that I had been to the perfect candidate place, and that I knew the owner, if only he were to be up for it. That person is Ciro Ciampi, who runs the Sharnbrook Hotel, in a lovely setting with plenty of space, which is to be found alongside the A6 just north of Bedford, and so relatively accessible to a lot of Abarth Owners who live across and area stretching from the Midlands to the Home Counties. And Ciro hosts car events, with great enthusiast, most of which pack in far more car than I imagined we would assemble. An email exchange quickly proved that  Ciro was not just up for the idea, but really keen on adding another Italian  Car Club to the list of those who participate in his Petrolheadonism program during the course of the year. And pleasingly, he had availability on the date I had in mind. So, the deal was that he would sort the site and handle the catering, and Abarth Owners Club just had to supply the cars and the people. And the weather – something you also need to be favourable for a barbecue event, – well, the contingency plan was to say that this site had the advantage of a hotel to fall back on if we were to get really unlucky. Publicity produced, I got a significant number of people who said that they would come, and even when the forecast for the chosen day changed to suggest we could get rain, I was still confident of a good turn out. Abarth Owners are a hardy bunch, not generally deterred by bad weather.I’d actually been in Coventry the evening before this event, so did not have quite the early start I would have, had I been coming from home, so it was not too hard to set out early enough to try to ensure that I would manage to beat the arrival of even the keenest of other Abarth owners. I managed it and was the first Abarth person on site. But mine was not the first Abarth, as became obvious when I moved my car from the first place where I stopped, by the hotel reception area, so I could meet our host for the day, the ebullient Ciro Ciampi, as when I moved the car to where it would be parked, I was able to park it next to Ciro’s own Abarth. There was no likelihood of anyone wondering whose car it was, as he has emblazened his Abarth with a number of distinctive stickers which promote both the hotel business and his Petrolheadonism car events.

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Needless to say, a car enthusiast who has ample space to store more than a couple of vehicles does indeed have quite a fleet of cars. Indeed, when I asked, Ciro was not completely sure how many cars he currently owns. He justified this by saying that he is constantly acquiring, and sometimes moving on vehicles when something that catches his eye. He listed around 12 very varied things in the current fleet and pointed at this one, a Mercedes 450SLC as being one of his.

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It was not long before there was a steady stream of Abarths arriving, and parking up. Needless to say, the majority of them were 500-based cars, and as is always the case these days, although the basic silhouette of all the cars is the same, there are lots of detailed differences between  the first cars of 2009 and the latest Series 4 models which went on sale in the middle of 2016, and there were examples of models from the car’s history, ranging from early 500 and Esseesse cars, the first of the 595 Turismo and Competizione cars which came out in 2012, a number of the Series 3 cars, including  my own.

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Abarth sales have increased very significantly in the last year or so. This has more or less coincided  with the launch of the S4 cars, though the reality is that a significant increase in the number of dealers (more than double the number there used to be) and the availability of attractive finance deals are really the more likely reasons why the car is now selling better than ever before. Series 4 cars are easy to tell apart from the earlier models, as there were changes to the bumpers and lights, and the rear splitter, as well as alterations inside and the availability of some new colours. There were plenty of examples of the Series 4 models here, with a number of them in the colour which has turned out to be the most popular, Modena Yellow.

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The first of the Bicolore cars were made available when the 595 Turismo and Competizione (the Series 2 cars) were launched in 2012. At the time, they were quite different from any other two tone cars, where the second colour was generally confined to the roof. There have been a number of different colour combinations offered since then, on both the hatch and the Cabrio models, and there were several of them here. Most unusual of them was a car whose upper half was finished in Rally Beige (rare as a complete colour, too) with the lower in Pasadoble Red. It’s a combination that I’ve not seen before, and will not appeal to everyone, but then that’s not the point. The car’s owner, a young guy called Ash, said that it was part of the appeal when he was looking for something to replace an elderly Honda CR-V.

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One of the special cars here was the immaculately presented 695 XSR Yamaha Limited Edition. belonging to Jen Butler. She and her fiance Andy Peckham are enthusiasts of the brand – this is her third Abarth – and Abarth events and were delighted to learn of this one, as it is right on their door step, Though as they would find out, we were later going to go almost directly to their door step, with the drive-out, but before we get to that, there is more to say about the cars. The Yamaha connection is perhaps not obvious, til you remember that in 2017,  for the third year running, Abarth are the Official Sponsor and Official Car Supplier of the Yamaha Factory Racing Team which is competing in the 2017 FIM MotoGP World Championship. So following on from the Abarth 595 Yamaha Factory Racing and the 695 biposto Yamaha Factory Racing Editions that they have already made, there was another limited edition car, the Abarth 695 XSR Yamaha Limited Edition, available exclusively in Pista Grey. Just 695 hatches and 695 convertibles were made, to celebrate the Yamaha XSR900 Abarth, along with the first exclusive motorcycle to spring from the collaboration between the two brands and which sported the same grey livery with red trim as the 695 XSR, as well as sharing many of its features. The special series made extensive use of carbon fibre to demonstrate its affinity with the front fairing, front mudguard and saddle cover of the two-wheel Yamaha. The Abarth 695 XSR and the Yamaha XSR900 Abarth also share Akrapovič ultralight exhaust developed in the racing world to boost the personality, sound and performance of both vehicles. On the Abarth car, the carbon fibre tailpipes enhance the looks and technology of the exhaust system. The XSR logo on the tailgate distinguishes the Abarth 695 XSR, while an aluminium badge identifies the sequential number of 695 units for each body type. Other carbon fibre details, in addition to the mirror caps and Akrapovič tailpipes, are available as optional equipment, such as dashboard fascia, pedal covers, gear knob and kick plate. A 1.4 T-Jet engine delivering 165 HP sits beneath the bonnet. Equipment on this special series includes Koni rear suspension and Eibach springs, 17” Supersport alloy rims with Matt Black finish, Satin Chrome accents on handles and badge supports, red details on bumpers and mirrors, red brake callipers and a braking system with perforated discs. This version can be customised even further using the tuning kit to increase the power to 180 HP, improve handling by fitting a Koni front suspension with FSD (Frequency Selective Damping) valve and make braking even prompter with 305x28mm perforated and self-ventilating Brembo floating front discs with high-performance Ferodo HP 1000/1 front brake pads. It also features the UconnectTM 7″ HD LIVE system integrated with Apple CarPlay allows iPhone users to access contents such as Apple Maps, Messages, telephone calls, Apple Music, also with Siri voice assistance. These cars have proved popular among Abarth Owners Club members and it is not unusual to see several of them at the same event.

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Also badged 695 is the Biposto, the top of the range, and Jerry Rigden brought his car along, one of around 35 examples that are in the UK. In case the standard 190 bhp Biposto is not quite fast enough, you can boost the available power, like Jerry has done, with his now putting out around 250 bhp. He has also fitted the CAE short shifter gear chance. From a distance, the car could still pass, visually, as “just another 500”, but get closer and you can see the wider wheel arches and you will realise that the Matt Performance Grey paint is different to the grey shades offered on 500 and 595 cars.

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Many Abarths get modified by their enthusiastic owners. Some make changes which are not immediately obvious, as they concentrate under the bonnet, whilst other modifications are very visual, with different wheels, spoilers, splitters, and other addenda. There are a number of established suppliers of some of these parts, but others go the bespoke route. That’s certainly the case with Nico Vogli’s car, which has a number of cosmetic changes which Nico fashioned himself.

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The first 124 Spider models were delivered in September 2016, with the very first customer car going to AOC Chairman, Bertie Bryant. That was over 9 months ago, and whilst sales have been steady they have been copious (and indeed no-one ever expected that they would be), so it was perhaps not a surprise that Bertie’s car was the only example of the 124 here.

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There were only a couple of Punto models here, both of them the Punto Evo, the revised version of what had been the first of the modern Abarth 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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Complementing what amounted to around 50 modern Abarths was just one older, “classic” Abarth model. This was a 595SS, based on the lovable Nuova 500. For the 595 SS, Abarth increased the engine capacity to 594 cc, just under the limit for the European 600cc racing sedan class. High compression 10:1 pistons were used together with a special camshaft, a specific alloy sump, Abarth valve covers and air filter, propped up engine lid and wheels were fitted and of course the exhaust system was a special in house model. This package together with lowered suspension, flared arches and 10 inch rims amounted to what was known as the Assetto Corsa SS model. These cars have become very rare as many were crashed in competition or simply rotted away due to bad rust protection in the 70s  A number of recreations have been built, and these are two such. So, not original, but still nice and still a lot of fun.

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Having spent the morning looking at this impressible assembly of cars, and talking to the owners, it was time for some food. And right on cue, just as the burgers were going on the barbecue, the heavens opened. For 20 minutes, it absolutely chucked it down. Luckily, the combination of the AOC gazebo and other structures already on site meant that there was ample cover for everyone, so no-one needed to get wet, although we could see huge puddles forming in the gravelled areas, so were a little fearful as to whether the grass would end up equally soggy. It was while contemplating this that another car arrived. This is not an Abarth, though conceptually, it absolutely was produced to the same philosophy, it is just that when the 127 Sport was launched in October 1978, the marque had been quiesced. The 127 Sport was based on the regular and huge-selling Fiat 127 which had been around since 1971. It had a 70 bhp 1300cc engine under the bonnet, and a number of styling tweaks to give the car a sporting performance and appearance – a sort of hot hatch, though several years before the cars we now think of as being from this genre had been conceived. It enjoyed modest success when new, but sadly rust and old age have claimed almost all of them, so these cars are now very rare. This example, in a very attractive bright orange colour was in splendid condition. It was my Star Car of the Day.

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The rain did stop. Some of the owners headed out and almost immediately started to dry their cars off. This proved to be something of an exercise in optimum, as even before they had finished the task, the rain returned, and we got a second deluge. It proved relatively short-lived, and before long, people were back around their cars, and a couple of our Italians, Salvo and Nicola, appeared to be celebrating with their own little dance routine!

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By mid-afternoon, it was time to prepare for the second part of the day, the “Drive-Out”. This was the chance for our host, Ciro, and AOC Chairman, Bertie Bryant, to take to the microphone, and to explain what we would do next. The idea was a drive of about 20 minutes or so, along the A6 and then down a less-traffic-ed B road to St Neots, where we would find a large car park, with tea rooms and ice-cream parlour. Directions sheets were handed out, as the likelihood of being able to keep more than a few cars together in any form of convoy seemed slight. But first, everyone had to get lined up, ready to leave, and this took quite a while, presenting plenty of opportunities for some more photos.

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Once we were off, the cars did get separated quite quickly. And the inevitable happened. Someone takes a very wrong turning, and several more follow the person who got it wrong, so it was not long before Abarths were to be seen heading in any direction. But eventually, most people did arrive at the target car park in St Neots. The inclement weather had probably deterred a lot of people who would otherwise have filled it, so when we arrived, there were sufficient spaces for everyone to park up. And as other visitors departed, plenty took advantage of spaces that were now adjacent to other Abarths so were able to group many of the cars together.

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Caught up on conversation, and fortified by ice-cream, it was time to go. And for me, that meant a long journey home. St Neots had added a further 25 miles and 25 minutes or so to what was already 130 miles and around 3 hours, so it was going to be into the evening before I would get home, having enjoyed a trip across the middle of the country, only a small proportion of which was actually on a motorway, not something you can say very often these days unless you are in very rural and remote parts. Whilst the weather had been a disappointment, it had only been for a relatively small part of the day, and the rest of it was just as good as I had hoped it would be when the event was conceived.  Fingers are crossed that the 2018 Abarth Owners BBQ will not be that event that gets the bad weather!

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