1965 Fiat-Abarth OTR 1000 Coupe Bertone
We drive a replica of the long-lost Abarth OTR 1000 Coupe –a handsome fastback version of Bertone’s Fiat 850 Spider.
FIAT-ABARTH OTR 1000Superb replica of Bertone’s Abarth prototype
Story by Chris Rees
Images by Michael Ward
Just look at it. Pocket-sized this sports coupe may be, but it has undeniable beauty. And a hint of the exotic, too – perhaps, if you squint, something of the Lamborghini Miura about it. OK, maybe it’s a cheeky stretch to compare what is fundamentally a Fiat to a Miura, but there are links. Both came out of Bertone’s sketchpad, and both have shared parts, such as the same Carello headlights, rear light clusters and push-button door locks.
So what exactly is this exotic Fiat? Well, it’s unique: a coachbuilt, Abarthised version of Bertone’s achingly pretty Fiat 850 Spider. Let’s kick off with that base Fiat raw material, a convertible designed with significant input from Giorgetto Giugiaro, and which debuted at the March 1965 Geneva Show. A mere eight months later, with production of the Spider well underway at Bertone’s factory in Grugliasco, the Turin Show was the stage for some new versions of the 850 Spider. Bertone launched its CL (Convertible Lusso) variant – essentially a more refined Spider with plusher details, new colours and improved interiors.
But the same November 1965 show also saw the covers come off the Fiat-Abarth OTR 1000. This was essentially an 850 Spider fitted with a new, fixed fastback roof (quite unlike the removable metal hardtop that was offered to 850 Spider customers) and a 1.0-litre Abarth ‘Radiale’ engine. Apparently two examples were displayed at the show: one with steel wheels on Bertone’s stand, plus another with alloys on Abarth’s. There was talk of a production run, with one Italian magazine quoting an estimated price of 1.5 million lire (about 50% more than the regular 850 Spider) but ultimately that never happened. Instead, the world would have to wait three years for Bertone to introduce the Racer with the same fastback roof on standard 850 Sport underpinnings (see separate panel).
“ People generally have no idea what it is, assuming it’s a Porsche because of its sloping headlamps and silver paint ”
So what was the fate of those original 1965 Abarth show cars? Nobody knows. Seemingly they simply vanished, never to be seen again. What you’re looking at on these pages is a painstaking replica of the lost Fiat-Abarth OTR 1000, owned by lifelong Fiat enthusiast, Fraser Whyte (who has previously had a 600, 850 saloon, 127, 128, X1/9 and 124 Coupe, and was one of the first UK owners of a new Abarth 500 esseesse).
He tells us: “This replica was built for Guy Moerenhout, who famously runs the Abarth Works Museum in Belgium. When he was looking through a book and saw the car, he immediately thought, ‘That would look great in my museum’. I saw the replica he’d built on Guy’s website in 2013. I loved the look of it, as well as the story behind it, so I decided I had to have it. I got in touch with Guy asking to buy it and he agreed to sell it to me.”
There’s no questioning the excellent work that went into creating this replica. Given the disappearance of the real thing, there had to be some supposition about replicating it, going entirely from photos. Fraser has been in touch with Abarth Classiche, but even they don’t have any information on the original 1965 car. The original plan had been to use a post-1968 Bertone Racer coupe as a basis and graft on an early Fiat 850 Spider front end, but in the end a 1966 Spider was used, with a Racer roof transplanted on. One issue with this was the side windows, which are different on the Spider and Racer versions, the latter having a 90-degree upper corner, while the Spider has a curved profile. Black fill-in pieces had been fitted to cover the gap, but Fraser succeeded in locating a very rare Racer window – but only one. For the other side, he approached several glass companies about making a new one, before selecting Hourglass of Havant. Because the window has compound curves, it couldn’t be made in safety glass so the new one had to be plain glass, now laminated with bulletproof film.
The interior was completely retrimmed, too, which was tricky because Fraser has yet to find any internal pictures of the original. You can just see that the 1965 headlining was light-coloured, which Fraser has replicated. Those beautiful seats, in leathercloth peppered with eyelets, are original items sold by Bertone, which Fraser describes as “rare as hen’s teeth”. As bought in 2013, the seats had non-standard headrests fixed with metal straps riveted to the glassfibre seat backs, which he duly removed.
When Abarth showed its OTR 1000 in 1965, it had the ‘Radiale’ engine installed in the back, complete with its complex cylinder head forming two intersecting hemispherical combustion chambers, plus twin Dell’Orto carbs. One problem with this engine was that it needed a front-mounted radiator. As a result, Bertone was tasked with modifying the 850 Spider’s front end, adding a horizontal opening above and below the bumper. Fraser’s replica may not have the full-spec OTR engine but it does have a front-mounted radiator, and therefore a replica front grille.
So what engine does this replica have? “It’s a 1.0-litre unit originally built by a Dutch engineer/racer called Ron Verzijlbergen to racing specification, with a hot road camshaft and high-compression pistons – in fact, too high compression, as it kept blowing head gaskets. Guy then fitted the eight-port cylinder head and twin Weber 40DCOEs to make the engine appear more like the Radiale. I took the engine to Tony Castle-Miller of Middle Barton Garage who rebuilt it using a new block, as the original had been skimmed so much. The exhaust is a period Abarth item, complete with dents and an original sticker.”
As bought, the car had Koni dampers but they were shot, so the suspension has been returned to standard 850 Spider. It also had a gearbox that crunched into second and whose gearing was way too low, so Fraser has fitted a four-speed ’box from an 850 Coupe which is much better. Another alteration concerned the fuel tank location. Fraser wasn’t happy about the lack of bulkhead between the engine and tank, so he’s had a new front-mounted tank made up by CompBrake. Approaching this car, it makes a great impression. The streamlined fastback’s swooping roof pillars extend elegantly back to the rear engine cover, but cleverly the rear window is recessed, avoiding the need to change the standard engine cover hinges. Ass Fraser says: “People generally have no idea what it is. A lot of people assume it’s a Porsche because of its sloping headlamps and silver paint.”
Stepping in over the evocative Carrozzeria Bertone kickplates is much easier than another Fiat 850-derived coachbuilt coupe that I drove back in the March 2018 issue: Tim Milnes’ Abarth Lombardi Grand Prix. Headroom is tight, though, and once ensconced in those gorgeous seats, your feet are offset well to the right to avoid the front wheel well.
The OTR replica drives in that entertaining fashion that all sporty Fiat 850 derivatives seem to. Straightline performance is way better than you have any right to expect, even ignoring the over-optimistic US speedo. The fast-road camshaft comes alive above 3500rpm and the engine will happily pull well over 6000rpm, at which point it’s singing like a soprano. If you’re prepared to abuse the clutch – as Fraser admits he did around Brands Hatch at Festival Italia in August – you can chirrup the rear tyres when changing gears, even into top. This is a very noisy beast, with induction roar, exhaust boom and wind noise aplenty – so Fraser rarely drives it more than 40 miles or so at a time, preferring to trailer it to further-flung shows.
Maxxis 155/70 R13 all-weather tyres are not the best in terms of delivering sharp handling but the little coupe bowls into corners willingly. Push hard mid-corner and understeer presents itself forcibly, something that Fraser hopes to resolve by changing the camber of the leaf-sprung front end. Weighing just 700kg or so, the car feels so light and agile on its feet – just watch out for the soft brake pedal! This is the sort of car that would undoubtedly be in its element on hillclimbs – and indeed, Fraser would love to take it to Italy for the Vernasca Silver Flag classic. Now that does sound like fun.
Driving position is very offset. Fraser enjoyed Festival Italia at Brands Hatch last year (above right).
Replica of the 1965 Abarth (inset) uses sloping ‘Miura’ headlights from Bertone’s early Fiat 850 Spider.
TECHNICAL DATA 1965 Fiat-Abarth OTR 1000 Coupe Bertone
- Car type Coupe
- Curb weight 700 kg (1543 lbs)
- Years built 1965 — 1965
- Origin country Italy
- Engine type Spark Ignition 4 stroke Inline 4
- Displacement 1.0 l (60 ci / 982 cc)
- Max Power 74 ps (73 bhp / 54 kw) @ 6500 rpm
- Max Torque 88 Nm (65 lb-ft) @ 4500 rpm
- Power / liter 75 ps (74 hp)
- Power / weight 106 ps (104 bhp) / t
- Torque / weight 126 Nm (93 lb-ft) / t
- Transmission 4 speed manual
- Layout front engine, rear wheel drive
FAST-FORWARD TO FASTBACK: THE BERTONE RACER
In March 1968, almost three years after the 1965 debut of the OTR 1000 Coupe, Bertone unveiled a brand new model for sale: the Racer. This essentially adopted the same fastback roof as the 1965 OTR 1000 prototype, although with the new front end treatment that Fiat had adopted for the 850 Sport Spider in 1968, plus a 903cc, 52hp Fiat 850 Sport engine. Like the OTR 1000, the roof was not removable, but it now had ‘Racer’ badges on the roof, which was finished in vinyl (black, ivory or green depending on main body colour).
The Racer was also available, exclusively for the European market, in Racer Team form, with a non-vinyl, painted hardtop and ‘Racer Team’ stickers, spotlights and upgraded interior trim. There was a convertible version of the Racer, too, and Bertone even entered three Racer Team coupes in the 1969 Monte Carlo Rally, complete with OTAS-tuned engines. Between 1968 and 1971, only 4404 Racers were made at the Bertone factory, 3641 of which were the berlinetta (2890 of which went to the USA) and 763 convertibles.