Despite its long and storied history, the Abarth Osella PA1 is still formidable as a vintage racer. The result of a dream-team partnership between the legendary Carlo Abarth and Vincenzo Osella, the story of this iconic car is well worth exploring in more detail—so let’s dive in.
From Motor Thun to Porsche & Beyond: Meet Carlo Abarth
Carlo Abarth was born Karl Alberto Abarth in Vienna Austria on November 15, 1908. In his teens, it became evident that young Karl had a talent for engineering. He took an apprenticeship at Degan in Italy, designing bicycle and motorcycle frames.
He then moved back to Austria to work at Motor Thun Motorcycles. His job was to prepare race bikes for competition. This led to a position as a test rider. When a factory rider became ill and was unable to compete, young Karl was tapped as his replacement.
During testing, Abarth set the fastest lap times twice in a row. The team riders were none too happy with this. On race day Abarth’s mount was a replacement bike that suspiciously gave out midway through the race. Abarth presumed sabotage and parted ways with Thun.
Abarth got himself a used British bike and went to work on it. His first win was in Salzburg in 1928; he did this single-handedly. A year after that he built the first bike to wear his name. By his mid-twenties, he was the European champion five times over.
In 1930, a serious accident ended his solo motorcycle racing career, so he built a sidecar. He twice raced The Orient Express on the 1300 km stretch between Vienna and Osted; the outcome was tied both times. Another significant crash in 1939 put Abarth in the hospital for a year, ending all motorcycle activities. So he moved on to the safety of four wheels.
World War II had recently ended, so Karl returned to Italy and changed his name to Carlo. He renewed old friendships at Porsche and became the representative of the Porsche design studio. He also connected with Piero Dusio, an industrialist and the money man behind the Cisitalia company. The great Tazio Nuvolari had been doing battle with Cisitalia’s D46 racer against more sophisticated cars—and winning.
Carlo and ex-Porsche engineer Rudolf Hrushka were tasked with building an innovative single-seat racer based on designs created by Dr. Ferdinad Porsche. The Cisitalia 360 was a 300 hp mid-engine, twin-supercharged 12-cylinder racer with a seriously complex four-wheel-drive system.
The 360 became a drain on patron Dusio’s bank balance. The company went into receivership and Dusio headed to Argentina with the prototype, before it had a chance to turn a wheel in anger.
Carlo picked up the pieces and, in partnership with racer Guido Scagliarini, created Abarth & C. SrL in 1949. The company’s logo was a stylized version of Abarth’s astrological birth sign: the scorpion.
During the 50s, Abarth joined forces with Fiat and became a winning force in racing. Abarth created after-market speed equipment such as free-flow exhausts, camshafts, and pistons as well as complete “tuner” kits available to dealers and the general public.
Fiat acquired Abarth and Company in 1971. Abarth was now essentially Fiat’s competition department, but Fiat had no interest in continuing with racing, preferring instead to focus on rallying.
Enter Enzo: Meet Vincenzo Osella
Vincenzo “Enzo” Osella was born in 1939 in Volpiano, Italy. The family ran a grocery store and transport company in Volpiano.
After WWII ended, Enzo’s father took over a garage in the center of Turin. Enzo’s first job after leaving school was working in a sand pit; from there he moved on to his father’s garage. A client of the garage was an amateur rally driver who talked Enzo into being his navigator. He first tried his own hand as a rally driver in his sister’s Fiat 600. As a driver, he did not have much success. But as a team owner, better things were to come.
Named for its founder, Osella Squadra Corse started out racing Abarthsports cars in local and national races in Italy in the 1960s. In 1972, Fiat made a deal with Osella to take over the successful but expensive Abarth racing program.
Working with designer Antonio Tomaini, Osella updated the existing race car and created the Abarth-Osella SE-02. In that configuration, it won 5 of its next 10 races—clinching the European 2-Litre Sports Car Championship in 1972. 3 races won by Arturo Merzario also gave him the driver’s championship, plus one race each by Toine Hezemans and Derek Bell.
In 1973, Osella produced a new design: the Abarth-Osella PA1, short for “prototipo Alberto” and named in honor of a late Abarth Osella engineer who had been a close friend of Osella. 10 examples would be built.
Under the Hood: Key Specs for the Abarth Osella PA1
Power for the PA1 was handled by a purpose-built four-cylinder Abarth dry sump motor utilizing two overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, and Lucas mechanical fuel injection, with a displacement just shy of 2 liters. In that spec, the motor put out around 270 hp at 8,700 rpm.
All this ran through a Hewland FG400 5 speed manual gearbox. With a weight of 1,268 lbs, the car was a screamer.
The PA1’s fiberglass body was an evolution of the previous incarnation that had done so well the year before. It was built around a riveted sheet aluminum monocoque chassis with the double-wishbone suspension at the front bolted directly to the tub.
At the back, a tubular subframe was used to take the load of the multi-link suspension. Coil springs over dampers and ventilated discs were used on all four corners, and both the front and rear end used anti-roll bars.
The most obvious change was the rear wing. In ‘72, the SE-02 had a separate wing. The new design featured a full-width wing that was an integrated part of the bodywork.
At the hands of Vittorio Brambilla (and, once again, Arturo Mezario), the Osella PA1 took two victories in the European Championship—placing it third in the constructor’s standings behind Lola and Chevron. The Abarth Osella PA1 was the last in a line of sports racers to win a round in the European Championship carrying the Scorpion badge.
The following year, the new PA2 started with Abarth engines—but around mid-year, they were switched to BMW or Ford power. The company continues to this day producing Sports Racers powered by various motorcycle engines.
The PA1’s Enduring Legacy
The PA1 is now almost 50 years old, but the design still has a pure and very purposeful look, even by modern standards. Its clean aerodynamic lines speak of a different time, but they somehow still seem contemporary.
The pedigree runs deep in this machine—and now, as a vintage racer, it competes with (and conquers) machines of much larger displacement. Abarth and Osella were truly a match made in racing heaven.
The Abarth Osella’s driving position is optimal; you immediately feel comfortable. Everything from the pedals to the shifter is perfectly placed.
You very quickly forget how far forward you are in the car with your feet ahead of the front wheels—the car just forms itself around you.
A bit of raw fuel in the throttle bodies hits the switch, and the engine fires instantly. Throttle response is almost instantaneous; the power is perfect for the chassis. The Abarth is really quick and well-balanced, and it inspires confidence, it has the feeling of a high horsepower go-kart. All this combines to create comfort at high speed.
This is a sports racer in its purest form, and it still does today what it did almost half a century before: win.