Curbside Classic: 1959 Fiat-Abarth 750 GT Coupé Zagato – Double The Bubble, Double The Fun

There isn’t a size limit to automotive royalty. The term conjures up the likes of Duesenberg, Hispano-Suiza or Maybach, but probably not a sub-1-litre ‘50s Fiat. Ah, but the Fiat bit is incidental – a mere vessel to motivate and support a work of sculptural beauty made by Zagato, the whackiest carrozzeria of the era. Plus, the Fiat bits were breathed over by Abarth, to add a little sting in this lovely car’s tail. Sheer doubly-bubbly bliss!

In the beginning was the Fiat 600. It was pretty revolutionary for the Italian conglomerate, in that it was their first mass-produced rear-engined model. Obviously, the likes of the VW Beetle or the Renault 4CV had shown the viability of the concept for popular cars, but Fiat scaled things down even more to create a really affordable four-seater.

Although the Fiat 500 later proved that smaller yet was also possible, the one that Italians (and quite a few foreigners) actually wanted was the 600. Its water-cooled 4-cyl. was far more user-friendly than the 500’s noisy parallel twin. As a result, the 600 became one of Fiat’s all-time greatest hits, both on the home market and in many others, as Fiat were setting up JVs in many places, from Argentina to Yugoslavia, to assemble 600s for the next two and a half decades. In the end, close to five million units were produced globally, half of which came out of Fiat’s own Turin factories between 1955 and 1969.

About 99% of that huge number were bog-standard two-door saloons, but sporty and/or special-bodied Fiat 600s were part of the plan from the very start. In those days, i.e. the “golden era” of Italian coachbuilding and car design, each Italian car model existed both as a factory-bodied saloon and as a rolling chassis for the various carrozzerie to practice their art.

Above: 600 specials sampler #1, clockwise from top left: Allemano, Ghia, Savio, Canta, PF, Viotti
Below: 600 specials sampler #2, from top left: Frua, Vignale, Monterosa, Lombardi, Motto, Bertone.

The very year of the 600’s debut in 1955, the standard two-door berlina was surrounded by a coterie of sexy specials by the usual great automotive couturiers. Fiat were only too happy to oblige and provided as many chassis as Italian coachbuilders could dress up – which in the ‘50s was quite a lot! This was particularly flourishing up to the early ‘60s, after which time the number of one-offs started to taper off, to every esthete’s eternal lament.

At the 1955 Turin Motor Show, the Fiat stand included a stunner of a lightweight fastback coupé by Zagato (top left). Although it did not yet bear the Abarth name, it was the very first iteration of our CC’s design. Zagato also made a handful of Abarth 750 roadsters (top right) and a few other Fiat-Abarths (at least one 500 (bottom left), as well as a few 1000s (bottom right) and 850s). They all took after the original design, as Zagato never bodied a front-engined Abarth.

At the 1956 Geneva Motor Show, the Zagato coupé, now painted in white, was part of the Abarth display. As we can see above, it still had a flat roof. But then the folks at Abarth figured that headroom in the Zagato design was less than optimal for anyone over about 5 feet tall, prompting the Milanese coachbuilder to create the famous bi-bulbous greenhouse.

At this point, we should perhaps introduce the other key player in this car’s story. Karl Abarth (1908-79) was an Austrian-born car racer, designer and entrepreneur who established his business in Italy in the ‘30s and eventually became a naturalized citizen, changing his first name to Carlo. He kept links to the old country – especially the Porsche family – while collaborating in the short-lived (but glorious) Cisitalia experiment. This was soon followed by the birth of the Abarth company proper in 1949.

Abarth’s main stock in trade was the production and distribution of high-performance parts for various carmakers, including Fiat, Lancia and Simca. But Abarth also produced small runs of racers and sports cars for wealthy enthusiasts, becoming the king of the ecterini – i.e. the multitude of Italian specialists who made sporty derivatives out of (mostly) Fiat bits. Abarth sold his company to Fiat in 1971, but the name and the scorpion emblem live on.

Back in 1955, the folks at Abarth were keen on working their magic on the new rear-engined Fiat 600, which was begging for a sporty derivazione. The first thing to do was to increase displacement to 747cc, covered by a new head with a high-performance cam and exhaust manifold (an Abarth specialty). A Weber 32 carb and, sometimes, a finned alloy oil sump were also included. The engine was mated to a 4-speed manual and the cars usually received improved aluminium brake drums front and rear. Some versions had a front-mounted radiator as well.

The Abarth 750, as it became known, was sold as a berlina with the Fiat body, as a convertible with gorgeous Allemano styling, or as the slippery lightweight Zagato coupé we’re looking at today. There were at least four states of tune available: Grand Touring (44bhp), Mille Miglia (45bhp), large valve Mille Miglia (46bhp), and Sprint (47bhp). Top speed for the Zagato in the lowest state of tune was clocked at 145 kph (90mph) – pretty impressive, all things considered, for such a tiny beast. Hence why Abarth could sell these for $3700 in 1959, which is only a few bucks short of a Corvette.

From early 1956 on, the Fiat-Abarth 750GT was pretty much set – as much as anything handmade in ‘50s Italy can be. Over the next five years, Zagato (and at least one subcontractor) was very busy forming sheets of aluminium into 500-600 bodies to clothe the Abarth-Fiat. Suffice to say, no two cars are exactly alike.

Some of these peculiarities were already clear to me due to my having found at least two other Zagato-bodied Abarth 750s in Tokyo. Our CC, for instance, does not have any bumperettes seen on quite a few other cars (there are just under 300 that have been documented), just like the blue one I photographed late last year.

Some were given a special “Corsa” spec, which I believe is the one I caught on the street earlier this year. Some Corsa 750 GTs have a distinctively altered rear styling, with a differently-shaped greenhouse and other peculiarities, but not all. Handmade cars are funny that way.

I haven’t had much luck in find out any tangible details about our feature car, sorry to say. No idea what kind of engine tune it has, for instance. The larger taillights and the “Campione Italaiano 1956-1957-1958” badge both suggest the year 1959, but nothing is definite. Production of the Zagato bodies stopped in late 1960.

The instrumentation is in English and the tach appears to be in MPH, so I’ll go out on a limb and hobble to the obvious conclusion that this LHD car was sold new in North America. Incidentally, the simplicity and beauty of this cabin adds another dimension of excellence to this Abarth 750 GT.

Zagato created a lot of one-offs and limited-run specials over the years. They were almost always focused on lightweight and aerodynamic bodies. They didn’t bother designing cars that everybody liked – they left that to Pininfarina. So there were more than a few Zagato bodies that ended up looking very weird. But sometimes, as in the present occasion, the wind-cheating shape also makes for a supremely graceful design.

Abarth kept on making heavily modified Fiat 600s throughout the ‘60s, but later ones were usually standard berlina bodies rather than coachbuilt gems like the Zagato 750 GT coupé. Other Abarth models took centre stage and received the attention of other carrozzerie, especially Ghia. But the mystique and prestige of the Z badge is hard to (bubble) top…

So with its bespoke sports suit, funny-looking dome and double-barreled name, is this automotive royalty, size and Fiat bones notwithstanding? Yes, 750 times yes.