The Abarth Biposto Barn Find

Abarth Biposto Barn Find

Today’s story is about one man’s encounter with a very special Abarth. It just proves that there are still important cars out there to be found and sometimes they are closer than we may think. The story was written by Rick Carey and wasoriginally published in The Cobra in the Barn, but is printed here with permission. If you enjoy the tale, you may want to pick up your own copy of the book through Motorbooks or Amazon. Also, be sure to keep sending in your own stories because one will make it into Tom’s next book!

Miles Morris, then head of Christie’s International Motor Cars Department, called in the late spring of 2003. “Rick,” he said, “I wonder if you’d do a little job for us?” I’d written auction catalog descriptions for Miles, his colleague Malcolm Welford, and their predecessor at Christie’s, David Gooding, so this wasn’t out of the ordinary—yet a little early for Christie’s next motor cars auction at Rockefeller Center in early June. “We’re consigning a car that’s been sitting for about thirty years in a barn up near you, and I wonder if you’d be willing to go over, air up the tires, push it outside, take some photos, and write the catalog description?”

Fortunately, the answer to my first question, “Do I get paid?,” was affirmative. So I said, “Sure. Where is it, and what’s the car?,” figuring it was something interesting but mundane, like a tired old XK120, early Corvette, or Bentley Mark VI. “Well,” Miles responded, “it’s in an estate and we don’t have all the papers signed yet so I can’t really tell you, but you’ll like it . . . a lot.”

Ten days later he called back. “The papers are signed and you can go see the car. Here’s the name of the neighbor who’s looking after the late owner’s house. He has keys, will give you directions, and can let you in. The car is pretty interesting.”

Tease.

“It’s a 1952 Abarth 1500 with one-off Bertone coachwork designed by Franco Scaglione that was displayed at the Turin Motor Show.”

Let’s see, that’s 1) a very early Abarth; 2) with one-off bodywork; 3) an auto show display car; and 4) designed by Franco Scaglione. Scaglione was a brilliant but low-profile designer, creator of the three Alfa Romeo BATs, extravagant aerodynamic experiments with pointed noses and curved fins that shocked the auto styling world in the mid-1950s. Franco Scaglione is one of my heroes.

I was up out of my chair in an instant, still on the phone but also pulling Abarth, Bertone, and coachwork reference books off the shelf. There it was, in each of the books, in period black-and-white shots from the Turin Auto Show, each with the same story: The first Scaglione design for Bertone, selected as the “Most Outstanding Car” at Turin in 1952, sold off the show stand to Packard and shipped to the states, subsequent history unknown.

This was no ordinary car. This was the answer to a half-century old mystery.

Moments after hanging up with Miles, I was talking with his contact and arranging to visit first thing the next morning to assess the Abarth’s condition. The rest of the evening was spent researching and wondering.

I found that Peter Vack, author of The Illustrated Abarth Buyer’s Guide, believes the Abarth 1500 Biposto is the first Fiat-based Abarth, the cornerstone of a long and illustrious collaboration between the Austrian-born Carlo Abarth and Fiat. Based on the short-lived Fiat 1400 platform and bearing typical Abarth tuning tweaks like free-flow exhaust and a pair of Weber Tipo 36 downdraft carburetors, its short-stroke four-cylinder engine was a much better basis for Scaglione’s aerodynamic interpretations than the tall, long stroke Alfa Romeo 1900s upon which the BATs were built.

Central headlight

It has all the elements of a BAT (the acronym stands for Berlina Aerodinamica Technica): large central headlight flanked by grilles and peaked front fenders with smaller headlights; light and graceful roof with raked windshield and side glass; central spline down the rear glass; cutaway wheel wells; and delicate, intricately sculpted rear fender fins that gently urge airflow back across the rear deck to merge with the flow over the roof.

Scaglione had no wind tunnel. His aerodynamics were intuitive, a visually pleasing expression of fluid flow around a solid object that had to include practical elements, such as wheels, radiators, occupants, and windows. They are sensual without being voluptuous, implicitly effective without artifice. The 1952 Abarth 1500 Bertone Biposto is one of the cornerstones of aerodynamic automobile design.

How could such a significant—and visually striking—car have simply disappeared for fifty years, yet survive in, I was told, sound, complete, and nearly original condition? Subsequent research, with invaluable help from the archivists at Fortune magazine, revealed the story.

Bill Graves, Packard’s engineering vice president, and Edward Macauley, its chief designer, had gone to Turin in 1952 looking for design ideas to freshen up Packard’s bulky postwar cars. They weren’t successful, but were so struck by the Abarth Biposto that they bought it and brought it back to the United States in hopes that it would provide some inspiration. Their quest didn’t succeed. However, in 1952 a young Fortune writer, Richard Austin Smith, came to Detroit to write a story about Packard’s prospects under its new president, James C. Nance, recently brought in from GE’s Hotpoint appliance division.

Smith saw the Abarth and was intrigued with it, even recounting its story in his article and using it as the setting for a photo of Packard executives in which Nance was quoted describing its style as “lunar asparagus.” During the visit, Smith also offered some suggestions for advertising slogans while meeting with Packard’s advertising VP. After they were picked up and used, Nance wrote to Smith, offering to pay him for his creativity. Smith responded that as a Fortune employee, he couldn’t accept payment from the subject of an article, whereupon Nance proposed to give him “the Abarth foreign car . . . to compensate you even though I know that the assistance you gave us was not done with this in mind.” He also reminded Smith that he’d have to pay taxes on the Abarth’s value on Packard’s books: $100. The original letters were in Richard Smith’s files. Nance’s letter offering to give the Abarth to Smith bore the approval initials of Fortune’s senior editors, along with a short note, “Enjoy the car.”

He apparently did, because he preserved it carefully even while driving it enough that its odometer showed 31,926 kilometers. His children remembered their father picking them up at school in the Abarth and being the center of attention when he did. Some years later, he and his wife retired to an eighteenth-century farmhouse on the eastern Connecticut shoreline. They built a new, tight three-car garage, and thirty years ago drove the Abarth Biposto into the center stall where it stayed until 2003.

We opened the garage door early on a cold and dreary New England April morning. There sat the Biposto, dusty and neglected, but miraculously complete. I think I entered a zone walking around it, translating the few photographic images into impressions of the real thing, the genuine article. Unseen by the world at large for a half-century, there it was, carefully and so obviously lovingly preserved by Richard Smith, a hundred-dollar car that was so much more. Richard Smith was no megabuck collector with a barn full of treasures. He wasn’t even a hoarder, buying up neglected hulks in the hope they’d someday fund a lavish retirement. He had two cars in his garage: the Abarth Biposto and a 1998 Ford Taurus.

Abarth outside

A few days later, we came back to take photos. The weather was still crummy, with snow lingering in the bushes and the ground sodden over a layer of frost. A cedar tree had grown up outside the garage and the Abarth’s brakes were stiff. Even four of us could barely push it outside and it was a tight fit between the cedar and the garage door. We didn’t even think to maneuver the Biposto into a more photogenic location. All we wanted was to take some documentary shots, then push it back inside and go get a cup of hot coffee, which we did.

Pushed onto a rollback in early June for the trip to New York and Christie’s auction, the Biposto got its first “wash” in a generation. A chill rain fell on Rockefeller Center for the preview and Miles Morris’ presentation of the Abarth to NBC’s The Today Show audience. At the preview on Wednesday evening, lubricated by complimentary Cosmopolitans swirling through ice sculptures, a pool developed. It was a buck a person; seventeen dollars was collected.

The dealers and collectors there for the Biposto were assiduous in their assessment: a hundred thousand dollars, give or take. They were voting with their pocketbooks, not their aspirations, hoping to buy for a buck and sell for a buck-twenty-five. Others were more enthusiastic, or perhaps more Cosmopolitan. The top estimate? It was $275,000 against Christie’s high estimate of $120,000.

The dealers never got their hands out of their pocketbooks because the Biposto surged right through Christie’s estimate in a heartbeat and eventually sold to a phone bidder from England for a hammer bid of $260,000, a final price of $293,500 with Christie’s buyer’s commission. It wasn’t the top sale of the evening—a Delage D8120 Cabriolet Grand Sport at $656,500 took those honors—but it was definitely the star of the show.

100 Dollar Abarth

Now being restored in England, the Abarth 1500 Bertone Biposto is on anyone’s list of the great barn finds of the first decade of this century, and it demonstrates that there really are great, wonderful, important, and beautiful cars out there waiting to be discovered.

This one was in a garage in Groton, Connecticut, only about three miles from my home.

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Comments

  1. David

    That is just fascinating, and so intriguing. It’s chilling that it was only 3 miles from your house.

  2. Don Andreina

    Wish I was picked up from school in this. Great story full of goodwill all round.

  3. junkman Member

    I look every minute of every day for anything even one tenth the rarity of this. Love these stories, keep ’em comin’
    Jeff

  4. Costas Karfitsas

    Very surprised it only brought $260k, in my opinion it is worth a lot more.
    I’m sure the british buyer is extremely happy with his purchase.

    • Dolphin Dolphin Member

      Costas, from Sports Car Market in 2003:

      “This Abarth 1500 Biposto Coupe sold for $296,500, including buyer’s premium, at the Christie’s Rockefeller Center auction on June 5, 2003.”
      http://www.sportscarmarket.com/car-reviews/classic-and-collector-cars/etceterini/1280-1952-abarth-1500-biposto-coupe

      That price was from 10 years ago. I wouldn’t be too surprised if ten times that price was possible today.

    • Jim-Bob

      If I read the story correctly, it was sold in 2003-10 years ago. Were it to go on the block today I would venture to guess that a six or seven figure price tag would be attached to it. I only wish they would have left it original instead of restoring it.

  5. Dolphin Dolphin Member

    The story of this showcar is amazing, since many showcars from the ’50s simply got broken up after they served their purpose. It took a string of unlikely but lucky events to save this one: bought by an established ‘foreign’ (relative to Italy) carmaker for ideas, but unused and given away to someone who used it for simple pleasure drives for years, then brought to a high end auction and sold way over the estimate.

    Scaglione was one of the most creative designers of the ’50s & ’60s and I think his designs are some of the best ever on any car. They influenced Italian design for decades. This car was pictured in Abarth brochures for years after it “disappeared”, so it’s great that it still exists. A terrific story all around.

  6. Bob in Bexley Member

    Seems a whole bunch of Ferrari in the shape of those door windows, what a great story ! Thanks for sharing !

  7. Charles

    That’s an interesting car. Lucky it was saved.

  8. wxbug1

    .. found this great link with the story and the final award-winning restoration.. great car..
    enjoy! http://www.ultimatecarpage.com/car/4612/Abarth-1500-Bertone-Biposto.html

  9. jim s

    great car and another great story. keeps me looking. thanks

  10. Rene

    I like the body-design. I like everything about it.

  11. Chris A.

    What a lovely car. Look at the wonderful integration of the center windshield into the flow of the design. Like others I see a lot of later Ferrari in the wheel well cut outs you see on the early Ferrari sports racers. The 1953 Buick Skylark convertible also had the cutouts. As I recall there were three BAT Alfas. I read that the last BAT was eventually bought off a used car lot, I think in Texas, by a teen age kid who put a lot of effort into restoring it as best he could. Not as extreme as the first two, but still a unique design. Packard’s Jim Nance might have know how to make washing machines and toasters, but was clueless when it came to car design. For me, the last good looking Packard production car was the 1941 Clipper series.

  12. Mark E

    This is my dream barn-find! Like the writer, I’ve always been an admirer from afar of the BAT Alfas. To actually find one kept in a suburban garage under a layer of dust is…amazing!

  13. Jamie Wallhauser

    Wonderful story, would love to see it today.

  14. Kevin W

    It’s the bastard child of the 1950 Studebaker designed by Raymond Lowey!

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