Ripping it up in a Radbourne Abarth. The Radbourne Abarth wasn’t a success in period, but it’s an absolute hoot now Those sleek Italian lines, that Scorpion badge all scream Abarth at you – but this bred-to-race little gem was born in Fulham not Turin. Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Charlie Magee. Built for speed Made in Turin, tweaked in Fulham – we drive a Radbourne Abarth.
BUILT FOR SPEED
Our hero is gesturing wildly with one hand while cradling his drink with the other. He then voices his approval before turning on his heels and stumbling back into the pub; the same one I’ve been sitting opposite for the past five minutes as traffic threatens to set like concrete. So far I’ve made one mile in crippling heat and I’m currently gasping for air behind an ancient Range Rover – at exhaust level. With the benefit of hindsight, attempting to drive a peaky Italian road-racer through London on the hottest day of the year to date wasn’t an inspired one.
Except this beguiling little GT is rather better behaved than you might imagine. It isn’t quite the strung-out, borderline legal competition tool the visuals might suggest. It’s positively civilised, all things being relative. To the untutored eye it’s patently an Abarth, but it was made in Fulham rather than Turin, and is currently taking the testy conditions in its stride. Unlike its occupant. This is the Radbourne Abarth 1300, a car which in period received plenty of media coverage. Alas, its maker, Radbourne Racing, never quite profited from all the positive ink. It wasn’t for the lack of trying, mind.
While stationary, there is at least time to soak up my surroundings. Make no mistake, this car is tiny, and the cockpit is snug but in no way claustrophobic. There’s reasonable head and shoulder room so I’m not obliged to tilt my head to an unnatural cant to see out. The packaging is quite remarkable. That said, there are one or two ergonomic quirks, not least the small matter of the intrusive wheel-wells and the correspondingly offset pedal arrangement. It’s to be expected, and you soon acclimatise, even if the clutch is on the stiff side of unyielding. The seats are a bit thin in the cushion department, but have generous reach adjustment and offer decent lateral support, and there’s even a useful luggage deck behind them. That’s just as well because there’s virtually no room inside the front bonnet, which conceals the spare wheel, heater unit, battery and master cylinders.
Once onto something approaching open road, the 1300’s true character emerges. The basis for the car is a Simca 1000 platform, complete with transverse leaf spring front suspension and a trailing arm set-up out back, with double-jointed half-shafts to minimise wheel tuck-in when cornering hard. To this, the egg-shaped, aluminium bodywork by Carrozzeria Beccaris was grafted. The fun bit is the engine – Radbourne embraced a pushrod Fiat 124 unit rather than the usual competition twin-cams found in ostensibly similar Abarths, but with displacement enlarged from 1197 to 1280cc. With a high-compression cylinder head up from 8.8:1 to 9.2:1 power was raised from 60 to 75bhp. The car is currently running twin Weber 40DCOEs rather than the original single downdraught carb and has gained a few other tweaks along the way, so the current 0-60mph time is somewhere in the region of 7.5sec rather than the originally quoted 10.2sec.
You approach this car expecting it to be a frenetic little buzzbomb, one which won’t be happy unless its revving off its axis. That simply isn’t the case, however. There’s something approaching actual torque here, which means you’re not kept waiting for it to come on cam. It’s only at relatively high revs that noise gets a bit raucous. Even then, this fanfare is hardly intrusive. Addictive is perhaps closer to the truth. It will willingly spin its way up to around 6750rpm, but all too soon I’m mired in congestion once again so there isn’t an opportunity to really stretch its legs.
What is abundantly clear, even when steered somewhere south of ten-tenths, is that the Radbourne Abarth is easier to drive than preconceptions might have you believe. The rear engine/gearbox overhangs the back by so much that it’s easy to envisage the tail wagging the dog, but no. The alleged rearwards weight bias of 60/40 isn’t particularly extreme, and it doesn’t appear to have any bearing on handling behaviour. Without trying particularly hard it tucks into corners crisply and there’s molten traction on exit. The Fiat-sourced worm-and-roller steering is pleasantly light, if perhaps not as precise as the rack-and-pinion set-up found in many period rivals.
It’s worth noting that in period the media gushed over this beautiful tiddler. Roger Bell wrote in Motor that, ‘The 1300 handles as well as it goes. On public roads, you never seem to reach its limits – not even in the wet when the car can still be thrown around with real confidence under power.’
Mike Twite concluded in Car that ‘the Abarth is one of those cars you just seem to wish around bends… You point the steering wheel in the general direction of the corner without conscious effort at setting the car up, and seconds later it emerges at very high speed with no fuss at all… The disc/drum brake set-up copes with the performance extremely well – in fact, too well at times, for the fronts will lock up under really heavy pedal pressure. Despite this, we really did like the Radbourne Abarth 1300 an awful lot.’
Which rather begs the question – why didn’t it sell in greater numbers? That, and how did a London dealership end up making its own take on the Abarth theme, and with factory blessing?
The owner of this car, Radbourne Racing co-founder Lincoln Small, provides the back story. ‘I’ve been interested in cars ever since I was a boy. By the time I was about 15 years old I recognised that what I really lusted after were Italian cars and when I was old enough I bought a Fiat 600 from Jack Barclay of Berkeley Square. It was well known as a major Rolls-Royce and Bentley specialist but it also had the Fiat concession at that time.’
He formed Radbourne Racing not long after that with brothers Geoff and John Anstead. It initially operated solely as a Fiat dealership. ‘That was in September 1965. I was 21,’ recalls Small. ‘We were based in Isleworth, initially, but then moved to Holland Park where we had a showroom and a workshop.’ Opportunity then came a-knocking. ‘Abarth had fallen out of love with Tony Crook who’d had the concession previously. Abarth was only interested in competition and Tony was solely interested in road cars which I found strange because he had been such a successful racer himself. It was only much, much later in our relationship that I learned why Abarth was so keen that we ran a racing car – Abarth had an agreement with Fiat whereby it was paid a sum of lira every time a Fiat-powered Abarth won a motor sport event.
‘We were knocking our brains out in the British Saloon Car Championship and were lucky if we got a telegram from the factory. Around this time there was a guy called Wally Pratt, a nice old boy who had a Fiat 600 with some Abarth bits on it. He’d enter a Sevenoaks and District sprint and win the 850cc class and then maybe do the same at a Woburn Park hill climb. Wally would receive bottles of wine, presents – you name it. They loved him because nobody in Italy knew or cared what the event was, only that an Abarth had won something. The deal with Fiat represented a major part of Abarth’s income.
‘At the very start we took a Fiat 2100 estate and trailer over to Turin and negotiated the concession. We met Carlo Abarth – well, we did after he kept us waiting for three hours – and managed to get a 1000 Berlina Corsa for Geoff and John to race, hence the trailer. We also ran an 850TC and contested the 500-kilometre European Touring Car Championship round at Snetterton in 1966 as part of the works effort. We won our class. We also ran 595s, 695s and more in various other championships. It was in interesting time.’ If not necessarily a profitable one.
‘Abarth was always on at us, demanding ‘Why don’t you sell racing cars?’ Abarth sport-racers were hideously expensive, but we sold a few. We also brought various secondhand ones from Enzo Osella. He was an Abarth dealer before he became a constructor in his own right. From our point of view racing cars didn’t make a profit but motor sport gave us lots of publicity, which we needed. Ultimately, we reached an agreement whereby we would build Abarths under licence – 595s, 695s, 850 OTs, 1000 OT coupés and the rest. We priced them at £1 per 1cc – £595 for a 595 and so on.’
Suitably bolstered, Radbourne Racing then took a turn for the ambitious – it would become a car manufacturer. During a visit to Abarth’s Corso Marche factory Small noticed a batch of incomplete Abarth-Simcas built in 1962-1964.
Seizing the moment, he negotiated a deal with Abarth managing director Renzo Avidano for 30 bodyshells.
‘Everyone seemed to love the shape of that car, including me,’ Small recalls, ‘so we had this crazy idea that we could build them with pushrod engines rather than the expensive twin-cams. No problem. No problem other than it very nearly bankrupted us!
‘Geoff took control of building the car and deserves credit for effectively designing the thing. It took 15 months of development. We didn’t just stick in an engine from a Fiat 124 either. For starters, the engine was back-to-front relative to the saloon donor car so that had to be worked out.’
The solution turned out to be a special bellhousing that mated the Fiat engine to a Fiat 850 gearbox featuring a higher final drive ratio. The prototype was completed in mid-1968. ‘Abarth had done something similar with the 1300 OT, which was essentially a Fiat 850 with a 124-based engine, but we really did go through the whole car and re-engineer it. Geoff built each one with two mechanics, one Italian, the other Portuguese.
‘They were made at 8 Bramber Road, London W14. Penthouse magazine was based next door and there were often lots of scantily-clad ladies milling about, which may explain why it took so long to build each car! I should point out that the £1350 price, which was the only one ever quoted, was for a car in kit form. Basically, we followed the Colin Chapman business model by offering a kit to circumvent purchase tax. The thing is, we also offered a completion service and each customer opted for it…’
While some period reports talked up the possibility of Radbourne opting for glassfibre bodyshells instead of aluminium, Lincoln admits it wasn’t seriously considered. ‘There were various versions of Abarth-Simca, and later 2-litre cars had longer glassfibre noses and also rear engine lids. In fact we had some partially glassfibre ’shells, but doing our own bodies wasn’t on the agenda.’ As for the annual production figure of 125 cars quoted in Radbourne’s PR bumf, Lincoln laughs before admitting, ‘Well, that was a bit optimistic, especially given the number of bodies we had. But we wanted to homologate the car for racing so we massaged the numbers a little.’
Warming to the theme, he adds, ‘While we were keen to race it, the 1300 was tractable, comfortable and fun to drive. It was meant to be. It still is all of those things, too, although these days London isn’t the best place to drive this sort of car. You wouldn’t want to park it anywhere because the nose and tail are vulnerable without bumpers, but the point is we made something special. It’s just that we spent a lot of money developing the 1300 and then had the bank manager breathing down our neck. Something had to give and it did. It was heartrending when we had to pull the plug on the business.
‘By the end of the Sixties we were desperate for money and couldn’t give away the last of the nine cars made. It was painted blue and looked amazing. I ended up taking it to a regular car auction and bidding stopped at £750, roughly half the asking price. I drove it home and eventually managed to offload it. We ended up selling the unused bodyshells too. They went all over the world.
‘The funny thing is, the moment we stopped making 1300s and concentrated instead on other things we started getting requests from people who wanted them. Isn’t that always the way with these things?’
Small acquired his car in 1984 and is unlikely to part with it anytime soon. ‘There are three in the UK, including mine which was the third built, and another is currently for sale in Japan. In this instance I can honestly say that the value of my car doesn’t really come into it. Obviously there’s a lot of personal history invested in it and I still think it’s an incredibly pretty little car, so it’s definitely a keeper.’
Think of it as love at first sight and every sight thereafter and you’ll be pretty much on the right track.
Thanks to: Lincoln Small, Peter Milazzo and Peter Dolphin
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1968 Radbourne Abarth 1300
Engine 1280cc four-cylinder, ohc, single Solex C32PHH carburettor, five-bearing, crank
Power and torque 75bhp @ 6750rpm; 72lb ft @ 3400rpm / DIN
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front: independent, transverse leaf spring, upper wishbones, telescopic dampers. Rear: semi-trailing arms, wishbones, telescopic dampers Brakes Discs front, drums rear
Weight 635kg (1400lb)
Performance Top speed: 115mph; 0-60mph: 10.2sec (as built)
Fuel consumption 40mpg
Cost new £1350 (1968 UK)
Values now £130k-£150k (2018 UK)
‘We made something special – but we spent a lot of money and had the bank breathing down our neck’
‘Without trying particularly hard it tucks into corners crisply and there’s molten traction on exit’
‘We were keen to race it but it was also tractable, comfortable and fun’
RADBOURNE’S NEXT STEP
Radbourne’s ModSports Fiat X1/9
Radbourne Racing bounced back after the 1300’s demise. ‘We were pretty well connected because we also had the Weber concession,’ says Small. ‘We had UK rights to Cromodora, Borrani and so on. We had Nardi and Giannini for a while and bought in a Fiat 500-based off-roader called the Ferves Ranger.’
Nor was Radbourne done with hotting-up Fiats. ‘By the early Seventies the 124 coupés were selling well and we were importing Fiat Dinos. We then got a bit distracted doing special cars – our twin-cam 124SS saloon was copied wholesale by Fiat for what became the 124 Special T. We also did some fast 128s, which were inspired by what Scuderia Filipinetti was doing. A bit later the X1/9 came along and we converted them to right-hand drive. It also allowed us another opportunity to get back into racing. We chatted to Gian Paolo Dallara about buying one of his lovely racing X1/9s and ran it in ModSports using our own engines. Later we did our own car which wasn’t as pretty but proved more aerodynamic.’
What’s more, Radbourne’s principal driver was future touring car colossus Steve Soper.