At launch, the Abarth 500 was available in several different levels of trim. The conversion included a Jaeger instrument pack, leather wheel, suspension improvements and wide-rimmed wheels with larger Pirelli tires. Problem is, not all Abarths left the factory that way, so if you chance across one that does not have ALL the equipment you would expect, this does not mean you are not looking at one!
One problem however is that they became so desirable that the lesser 500's were often modified to at least "look" like an Abarth, with the exterior stripe and driving lights the usual inclusions. As for determining the real thing, we invite readers to share their experiences in the Reader Reviews section at the bottom of this article.
The first Abarth iteration appeared in 1963, with an engine derived from the 500 D and a power delivery of 30 bhp. It was a bullet, totally re-engineered compared to the basic version, and could be ordered as a ready assembled car or as a kit for an extra 145,000 lire. Several evolutions of the 595 appeared in 1964, the 595 SS convertible saloon, the 695, and the 695 SS in 1965 and 1966.
The first thing that most Abarth owners noticed was that the modified engine showed a reluctance to rev above about 5,500 r.p.m. without becoming rough, unlike the standard 500 which ran to 6,000 smoothly. This had the knock-on effect of lowering maximum speeds in the gears, and the top speed of the car was only 69 m.p.h on a model WITHOUT the larger Pirelli's fitted.
So far it doesn't sound all too flattering - but hold your horses there laddy. The Abarth shaved a startling 20 seconds off the 0 to 50 m.p.h. time of the 500 F Berlina
, making it appreciably quicker than the Mini and miles ahead of any "micro" car then on the market.
Option the Pirelli's and the top speed was improved over 16 m.p.h. to 75 mph and the little engine ran happpily like a sewing machine at the legal limit on highways. One of the small but effective modifications was an extension to the oil pump pick-up pipe which drew its supply from the bottom of the deep finned sump where temperatures were lower.
Both the oil gauges would remain steady when cruising around 70 m.p.h. for long periods. The special instrument pack made by Jaeger was, as mentioned above, an option in some markets. For the UK market, it added £46 10s. The Jaeger pack contained matching rev counter and speedometer, with oil pressure and temperature gauges in-between, which looked the biz and, in our opinion, made the Abarth look more a surgical instrument for not too much added cost, at least for those lucky enough to be in the drivers seat.
The tiny padded leather steering wheel matched the instrument binnacle and made the steering feel even more direct. Suspension modifications (which cost an extra £15 fitted in the UK) lowered the Abarth by a couple of inches and gave the back wheels slight negative camber unladen. The result was a considerable improvement in roadholding, and any tendency there might have been before for skitishness when cornering fast was completely eliminated. The small degree of body roll present in the standard 500
on fast bends disappeared and the Abarth cornered completely flat with all wheels planted firmly on the ground.
Because of its entertainment value and surprise character, owners were always trying to exploit the most of the Abarth's performance, and as often as possible. Given the boot, wringing its neck and needling the redline would, suprisingly, only reduce the miserly fuel consumption to around 33 m.p.g. On the down side, the compression ratio of 9·2 to 1 meant that premium grade petrol was essential; the 500 Berlina
being happy with regular 90-octane.
The Abarth was also no noisier than the 500, despite the two very large diameter tail pipes of the special exhaust system. Most lucky enough to own one found the Abarth conversion made an already good car "great", just as reliable, incredibly nimble, more agile and with the Italian flair for knowing what a driver enjoys. In a word - Brilliant.