The morning dog walks in our sleepy village outside of Zurich usually don’t bring much in car excitement, and after a premature summer left Switzerland after Good Friday and had changed into a rather grey and chilly morning on Saturday, I wasn’t expecting much of anything. But then there it was, the car which from afar looked like a Mini, but on closer scrutiny was the today very rare A112, and as I was to discover, even a perfectly kept / restored 70 hp Abarth! Some of you will know the A112 as an Autobianchi, an Italian brand from the 70-80’s. Today these lovely small cars have become unusual, especially in one of the early 70’s series as this one was. Back in the day however, (when 70 hp in a small car was still something worth bragging about), the A112 was a frequent sight on the roads especially in southern Europe, and Autobianchi was on the technical forefront of motor engineering, at least in the small car segment. So a bit unplanned as street finds tend to be, this week we’ll have a closer look at the racy A112 Abarth!
Autobianchi had its roots in Bianchi, an Italian manufacturer of bicycles (cycle enthusiasts will know it very well!) and motorcycles founded in 1886. 20 years later Bianchi started producing cars as well, but that was met with a moderate success and by the 50’s, the firm was close to bankruptcy. To try to save what could be saved, together with Fiat and Pirelli, the car business was separated into Autobianchi, initially co-owned by the three companies but taken over by Fiat in 1968. Fiat’s idea with Autobianchi was to position it as a more exclusive version of the “regular” Fiats and a brand under which technical innovations could be tested without risking Fiat’s reputation. The most notable of these included the relatively new concept of combining front-wheel drive with Fiat’s first transverse engine. Autobianchi’s first models had names such as Primula and Giardinera, more reminiscent of gardening than anything on four wheels, but then in the 60’s first the A111 and subsequently the A112 were introduced. The latter would be built during 17 years until 1985 in a total of 1.2 million cars, making it by far the most successful car in Autobianchi’s history.
With a total length of 323 cm, the A112 was based on a shortened Fiat 128 chassis. Marcello Gandini, the man behind cars such as the Lamborghini Miura, Countach and Diablo, was given the task to design the car, but it’s quite obvious that he took less inspiration from what he had done for Lamborghini and more from another car that had already illustrated how successful the small, front-wheel drive concept could be: the Mini. The A112’s original engine was the 0.9 litre four-cylinder from the Fiat 850 initially producing 42 hp, later increased to 48 hp. Already in 1971 however, the Torino-based car engineer Carlo Abarth, founder of the company of the same name, saw the potential in the small and light A112 and came up with a 107 hp prototype. This was considered far too much fun by Fiat, and also too expensive to put into production, and power was therefore reduced to 58 hp in the first Abarth versions, and then from 1975 increased to 70 hp. This was notably achieved thanks to a sports exhaust, bringing the additional benefit of a wonderful sound! Combined with the fact that the A112 Abarth was the first A112 version with a five-speed gearbox, it quickly became a favourite among drivers with ambition, of which according to the buying statistics, as many as 35% were women.
That takes us back to my morning discovery as what I had in front of me was indeed a 70 hp Abarth version from the mid-late 70’s. Having studied it a bit I’m pretty certain this was the third series of the car, meaning it was built between 1975-1977. 70 hp isn’t much these days, then again the car only weighs around 700 kg, almost half of a modern, small car. The nice, 70’s bucket seats looked perfect, as did he rest of the interior (sorry for the reflections int he picture). The Abarth drive is said to be sporty with a typical front-wheel understeering tendency, but notably the short wheelbase meant that the A112 could also switch to oversteering, making the whole thing slightly adventurous. In Italy there was a rally class champinoship for the A112 in the late 70’s – early 80’s, and more recently, fans of Gran Turismo will also know that it’s a car featured in the game. Undoubtedly, the fact that the cars were driven quite hard has had quite a severe effect on the numbers that remain today!
So what happened to Autobianchi? well, given Fiat also owned Lancia with a similar brand positioning, over time it became increasingly difficult to separate the two brands. The A112 was replaced by the Y10 in 1986, which was to become Autobianchi last model and was actually sold under the Lancia brand in some markets outside of Italy. Fiat officially discontinued Autobianchi in 1995, it has never had a rebirth since, and probably never will. That doesn’t change anything to the fact that the Abarth 70 hp is a really cool small city car of a kind that isn’t built anymore, and that provides lots of fun (including the sound!) until this day. Nice ones are around EUR 10′, perfect ones as the one I saw proabably around EUR 15′. Try to find another modern supercar with bucket seats, plenty of Abarth badges or a 70’s double exhaust pipe for that money!