In the summer of 2017, we held a Summer Barbecue event for Abarth Owners Club members at the legendary Sharnbrook Hotel just north of Bedford, knowing full well that the car-mad proprietor, Ciro Ciampi, would welcome the arrival of a large number of Scorpion badged cars to his premises. Sadly, the weather was not on our side, and although it started off rather overcast but dry, which at least meant that over 50 cars decided to come, as the clock got near to lunchtime, the heavens opened. Fortunately, there was enough cover that we did not get that wet and it was possible for the chefs to cook the food for us. When the rain stopped, some people went over to their cars to dry them off, only for the clouds to burst again. It was such a shame, but the reality of the British climate is that wet like this is a risk at any point in the year. Thinking that we would unlucky to have the same experience two years running, when Ciro offered to host a barbecue for us again in 2018, it was not hard to accept his offer. To add a little variety and to fill more of the space which he has available, he suggested inviting a “Guest Club”, with some very contrasting cars to join in. And this time, the weather gods were definitely on side. There was barely a cloud sight during most of the morning, and although some white did appear in the sky as the day progressed, this was such a contrast from 2017. What was no different was the atmosphere at the event, with plenty of attendees, some making their first appearance at an Abarth event and others meeting up with people they’ve known for years. There was a great turnout, with over 50 cars in attendance. Here is what was on show.
A lot of the Abarths were from the 500 family, as you might expect. If you know Abarths, you will also know that even when a large number are gathered together, you never get two that are exactly the same, and that was certainly the case here, with example of the different models offered since its arrival in the UK in February 2009. Some of those early cars are still on their first owner, and although they are now heading towards their tenth birthdays, thanks to the way they are pampered by an owner who still loves them as much as when they first got them, they look factory fresh. Salv Trapani’s car with its distinctive chequered roof (an option that relatively few people specified) and Paul Feldman’s Esseesse come in this category.
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.
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 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.
Over the years there have been a bewildering array of limited edition models. One of the very nicest of these was the 695 Edizione Maserati and the one belonging to Neil Potter (“Curly”) was present here. Unveiled at the 2012 Geneva Show, the Edizione Maserati was limited to 499 vehicles and was a version of the Abarth 500C with 1.4 Turbo T-Jet 16v engine rated at 180 bhp, a 5-speed electrically operated manual Abarth Competizione gearbox with steering wheel controls, Maserati “Neptune” 17″ alloy wheels with performance tyres, Brembo 305 mm brake discs with fixed four-piston caliper and special shock absorbers, Record Modena variable back-pressure “dual mode” exhaust, Pontevecchio Bordeaux body colour, Xenon headlights with dipped and driving light functions, sand beige Poltrona Frau leather seats with containment strips featuring single-layer padding and the pista grey contrasting electro-welding, black leather steering wheel, aluminium pedal unit and sill plate, carbon fibre kick plate, boosted hi-fi audio system. Around 20 of them came to the UK, so you don’t see them very often.
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. Some of the other new ones proved to be more of an acquired taste. Legends Blue, a very pale colour was moderately successful, though there were a couple of cars in that shade present on this occasion, and they do look rather nice. Rally Beige, a sort of weak cappuccino colour remained one that few selected, and that was also unrepresented here. The standard “no charge” colour has changed over the years, from Bossa Nova White to Campovolo Grey, to Pasadoble Red and now Circuit Grey, and this does also have an impact on which colours become more or less popular.
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.
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, and many clearly agreed, as in 2016. it became the most popular colour. Long time Abarth owner and enthusiast, Ed Tan, clearly thought so, as when he ordered his fourth example of the marque, he selected this colour for his 595C Competizione, which was here for everyone to admire and there were several other cars also looking at their very best in the sunshine.
What is known as the Series 4 version of the familiar 595 reached the UK in the middle of 2016 and it was with the launch of this, along with some attractive finance deals which saw sales increase significantly. At launch, three versions of both the closed car and the open-topped C were 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.
Available soon after the arrival of the Series 4 cars was the limited production 695 XSR Yamaha Edition. The Yamaha connection is perhaps not obvious, til you remember that in 2017, for the third year running, Abarth were 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.
A more recent addition to the range is the 695 Rivale. This is the latest celebration of Fiat’s partnership with Riva, which has already seen a special Riva version of the 500,. Described as being “the most sophisticated Abarth ever”, it is available either as a hatch or a cabriolet, with both of them featuring a two-tone Riva Sera Blue and Shark Grey paintwork. The Rivale is adorned with an aquamarine double stripe, satin chrome finish on the door handles and satin chrome moulding on the tailgate, various aesthetic elements inspired by the Riva 56 Rivale yachts and ‘695 Rivale’ logos, joined by Brembo Brakes, Koni suspension, and 17-inch Supersport alloy wheels. Enhancing the nautical theme the new 695 Rivale features either a carbon fibre or mahogany dashboard, black mats with blue inserts, blue leather seats and door panels, carbon fibre kick plates, special steering wheel wrapped in blue and black leather and with a mahogany badge, blue leather instrument panel cover, and mahogany gear lever knob and kick plate. These are joined by the standard Uconnect infotainment with a 7-inch display, which is compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and there is also a hand-written numbered plate that can be customised with the mane of the customer’s yacht on request. Powering the 695 Rivale is the same 1.4-litre turbocharged engine that makes 180PS (177hp) and 184lb/ft of torque, that features in the 595 Competizione, allowing it to go from rest to 100km/h (62mph) in 6.7 seconds and up to a top speed of 225km/h (140mph). This is a regular model in the range, but confusingly, there is also the Abarth 695 Rivale 175 Anniversary, created to celebrate 175 years of the Riva brand. Just 350 of these were produced, half of them the hatch and the other half cabriolets. These featured 17-inch alloy wheels with a special pattern, celebratory badge on the outside, hand-crafted details such as the two-tone colour – blue and black hand-stitched leather seats with a celebratory logo stitched onto the headrest, carbon dashboard silk screen printed with special logo, numbered plate. Standard Rivale cars arrived in the UK in April 2018, and quite a few have been sold. They always attract lots of interest when they do appear.
As well as the cars which are, or at least look “standard”, there are plenty of modified Abarths out there, some more obviously so than others. Whilst many owners focus on extracting more performance from their cars, others concentrate on the visuals. These are not mutually exclusive, of course. Chris Betts’ car might look relatively standard, but under the bonnet, there is around 300 bhp. Nico Vogli’s car certainly does not hide the fact that it has been personalised to the specific tastes of its owner.
There were a few examples of the Abarth Punto here. The first model offered, the Grande Punto, was conspicuous by its absence, but there were a number of its successor, the Evo in attendance. 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.
Also here was an example of the Punto SuperSport, with James King’s car to represent what ended up as a run out model. Just 199 of these SuperSport versions 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.
We also amassed a few of the latest 124 Spider cars. Eagerly awaited, the 124 Spider went on sale in September 2016. A quick reminder as to what this car is: The Abarth 124 Spider was developed in parallel with the Fiat model. It does cost a lot more, and there are those who think you don’t get enough extra for your money, but those who have driven it will tell you otherwise. You certainly get more power. The 1.4 MultiAir turbo unit jumps up from 138bhp to 168bhp, while torque also increases by a modest 10Nm to 250Nm, which gives it a 0-62mph time of 6.8 seconds, which is half a second quicker than the 2.0-litre Mazda MX-5. The top speed is 143mph. It weighs just 1060kg meaning a power-to-weight ratio of 158bhp-per-tonne, and with the new Record Monza exhaust system it sounds great even at idle. The Abarth version gets a stiffer suspension setup than the regular Fiat 124 Spider, with Bilstein dampers and beefed-up anti-roll bars. Bigger Brembo brakes also feature, with aluminium calipers. It can be had with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission with paddles, and the latter gets a Sport mode for quicker shifts. Many of the UK cars sport the ‘Heritage Look’ pack, which is a no-cost option. It brings a matt black bonnet and bootlid, plus red exterior trim detailing and has proved popular. The £29,565 starting price gets you standard equipment such as cruise control, climate control, Bluetooth, a DAB radio and satnav, plus Alcantara black and red (or pure black) seat trim. The automatic gearbox is a £2,035 extra, while an optional visibility pack brings LED DRLs, auto lights and wipers and rear parking sensors. UK sales continue at a steady rate, and there are now around 1000 of them on UK roads, meaning that this car outnumbers the Punto.
Particularly distinctive is this car, belonging to Carlo Cacciavelli. Although this amazing machine has the form of a classic Nuova 500, don’t be too taken in by that. The car is actually built on a chassis that has its origins in the Abarth Osella 2000SP sports racing car, with double wishbone suspension and disc brakes front and rear. Sitting in the back is a fuel injected 1.5 litre Alfa Romeo “boxer” engine of the type originally found in the front of the Alfa Romeo ‘Sud, Sprint 33 and even the Nissan Arna GTi. It is coupled to an Alfa 5-speed gearbox. Carlo’s coachwork company built the special extra wide body, which is all steel. The car was first registered in the UK on the 28th July 2000 and it has been seen at a great variety of events ever since. It never fails to pull the crowds wherever it its taken.
This splendid Vignale 750 Coupe belongs to Mike Kason, an enthusiast who over the years has owned all manner of interesting and rare Italian classics. He still has his Abarth 1000 TCR, but this time he had brought his latest acquisition for everyone to enjoy. And this is even rarer than the Abarth. The introduction of the Fiat 600 in 1955 meant the start of the era of Italian mass mobility. For the first time in their lives many Italians could afford to have their own motor car. Vignale was eager to produce their own interpretations on the Fiat 600 right from its introduction and it was with their Fiat 600 based Coupe and Spider that the name of Vignale became famous with the Italian public. Clothing the standard Fiat mechanicals in all-new pretty bodies, these cars provided a more desirable product at a modest price. In 1960 Fiat offered the 600 in a variant with an engine enlarged to 750 cc. Vignale offered three new models dubbed the 750 Berlinetta, 750 Coupe and 750 Spider. The cars were produced until 1964. They are rare now, so when I saw this one, I assumed that it was the same as the one which had been brought to the Ace Cafe in August 2016. Mike told me that that particular car was in a far from healthy state, despite what it looked like, and is believe to be uneconomic to restore, whereas his car is in much better order.
And now we come to the other theme of the day: the Ford Mustang. I had been unsure how many of these might turn out, as responsibility for promoting the event to their owners lay solely with Ciro. In the end there were fewer than ten and they were all examples of the very latest model, the first to be sold in the UK in right hand drive form. It has proved even more popular than expected, with more sales going for the full-bore 5 litre GT V8 model than the fiscally more appealing Ecoboost 4 cylinder model. Joining this display of the American sports car was a lone example of the Chevrolet Corvette.
There was also one modern British sports car here, a McLaren 570GT. This one belongs to our host, and is part of Ciro’s extensive fleet of cars. The 570GT was presented at the 2016 Geneva Motor Show, as another addition to the Sport Series and 570 line up. The 570GT is the less track focused, and more road trip worthy version of the 570S. The 570GT sports a side opening cargo hatch above the mid-mounted engine for additional cargo space in place of the engine cover of the 570S, slightly softer suspension settings and improved sound insulation. It has not sold in the same quantity as the more focused 570S.
Once everyone was fed, it was time to prepare for the Drive Out. The plan was that, apart from anyone who needed to make an early exit, we would do as we had in 2017, and would make the short drive north and east to St Neots. It takes quite a long time to get everyone back to their cars and ready for the off, but finally we were ready. The route was the same as last year, so there were no excuses for people going wrong like they did last year, and indeed we did manage to keep more of the cars together. More of a challenge was when we came up against slow moving vehicles, as getting more than one car past proved difficult, and did seem to encourage a few people to take more risks than was perhaps prudent. As the weather was still nice, it was perhaps not a surprise that when we got to the parking area in St Neots, it was quite full, so we had to park our cars where there was space, rather than together as a group. As spaces became available, people could not resist moving them around, though.
Although it was tempting to linger here, the reality that it would take me more than three hours to get back home meant that I did not stay that long before getting in the car and heading away. There was no doubt that the weather does make a big difference to events like this, as although the ingredients were much as they had been in 2017, the fact that it stayed dry made this one all the more enjoyable. A great day out, for sure.