Those Pesky Porsche-Abarths

The story of who really built the GTLs

May 15, 2014
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Among the many riddles the author had to solve in the updating of Porsche: Excellence Was Expected was the identity of the makers of the Porsche-Abarth bodies. This led him on a very merry chase.

In 1960, when the Abarth-bodied Porsche Carrera came to life, I was the editor of Car and Driver at Number One Park Avenue, New York. I received a brief report and photos of the new model from my friend and colleague Edward Eves. We printed verbatim his information that the bodies were being made to Abarth’s design by Milan coachbuilder Zagato. When I wrote my history of Porsche, I said the same thing. This got me in a lot of trouble.

As researchers dug into the story of these cars, the Zagato attribution looked more and more fragile. For example, Zagato denied having anything to do with them—kind of a clue there. Other coachbuilders started to be mentioned. It looked like I had some work to do for the updated version of Excellence.

It’s time for a bit of back story. The motivation for improving the Carrera wasn’t to improve its racing performance in the 1,600cc GT class. The MG Twin-Cam had proved less than a menace. But competition between Lotus Elites and Alfa Romeo Giuliettas in the 1,300cc GT class was so intense that they were gaining on the Carrera’s lap times. To avoid the embarrassment of being overtaken by these small fries, Porsche moved to improve its Carrera for 1960.

The FIA’s GT-class rules allowed a different body, as long as the car’s weight remained above the homologated figure—an invitingly low 1,712 pounds In the summer of 1959, Porsche asked two suppliers for bids on the manufacture of 20 special lightweight bodies for the 356B chassis: Wendler, the nearby maker of Spyder bodies, and our prime suspect, Zagato.

As so often happens in Italy, news of a new project spread quickly. During the rest of 1959, past and present friends of Porsche got in touch to inquire about this body-building opportunity. Among them was Karl “Carlo” Abarth. In 1958 and ’59, Abarth and his aide Renzo Avidano were successfully building and selling small-displacement Fiat-based rear-engine sports-racers that were, indeed, bodied by Milan’s Zagato. Dirk-Michael Conradt’s research tells us that Abarth journeyed to Frankfurt for the auto show in September 1959. At the Frankfurter Hof hotel, he met on the 18th with the top men of Porsche: Ferry Porsche, sales chief Walter Schmidt, and technical boss Klaus von Rücker.

For one million lire each, said Abarth, he would body 20 Carreras—this price to include his tooling. The bodies were to be “as light as possible.” The cautious Ferry agreed in principle, but asked that Abarth start by building one such body as a sample. October 21 was set as a deadline for Abarth to inform Porsche about the kind of body he would build and for Schmidt’s department to confirm its sales objective and likely pricing.

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