There's a place in Italy that Abarth afficianados know that's not a museum, but has become a must-see for fans of Carlo Abarth's fast little automobiles. It's a parts store called Berni Motori, located about an hour south of Milano in a town called Maleo, and it's run by a British ex-pat named Tony Berni.
Tony came to Italy from South Wales back in 1979, when Ferrari offered him a job in Maranello. He'd been working in the family business back in Britain but didn't like it much; it had nothing to do with cars. So he jumped at Ferrari's offer and came to Italy, only to find that the position didn't suit him.
"I stuck it through for just a year and a half," he explained. "It was interesting because I was working in the racing department and I was in charge of finding parts from foreign suppliers. I also had daily contact with Enzo because I could speak English, so I did a lot of translating for him," he said. "But the atmosphere on the inside was uncomfortable--a lot of political stuff. So I left and went to work for Riva Boats; I did that for about a year. In the meantime, since I'd always been interested in Italian cars in general, I started a business on my own."
At first he traded British for Italian: Land Rover parts for Ferrari, Maserati or Alfa parts. The Abarth parts came when he made a large purchase from a Milanese racer. At the time, Tony didn't realize what he had. It was only by coincidence that Leo Aumuller of Germany, a serious Abarth collector, came to Tony to buy some of those parts. He invited Tony up to Germany. "He showed me his place: he has a beautiful collection of Abarths, all in perfect condition, ready to race. I fell in love with Abarths right there."
When Tony found his own first Abarth down in Genoa, "It was really in a bad state." It was a 1967 1000 TC Berlina Corsa, one of the Fiat-600-bodied racers, and when Tony went to restore it, he couldn't find the parts he needed anywhere. "That's when I decided to start remanufacturing, almost 20 years ago. The first thing I made was quite a complicated part really: the split oil pan in magnesium," explained Tony. Today, Berni Motori's inventory is about 90% remanufactured items, with the rest either used or new-old-stock. "There's very little left of anything original," Tony said. He sells through distributors in Japan, Germany, England and in the U. S.
Tony's second Abarth was a very rare 1955 207 Boano Spider. That was followed by a 750 Zagato, another project car. "It was just a body shell, nothing there, no engine, which suited me fine. It took me a few years to restore it, and when it was done, it was a nice looking car but, to be honest, I didn't really like it because it was too slow. I like a bit of brio," he said. So Tony found a Record Monza in Florida and had it shipped home to Italy. "That was a major restoration project because it was in awful condition--completely rusted. There was no floor at all, just a sheet of steel across the bottom to keep it together. The aluminum was in pretty good shape, but the steel was a disaster. It was a competition car with the original Abarth rollcage and big side fenders. I think it ran at Sebring."
Since 1995, Tony's added three serious Abarth racers to his collection. First, a sleek Abarth 1000 SP, then a Fiat-Abarth 1300 OT, and finally a 1000 TCR Berlina-a performance step-up from the TC he first owned long ago. "This car started life in south Italy, then went to Germany, then to the UK and finally I brought it back to Italy. I put one of PBS Engineering's replica Radiale heads in it and I run it in the Historic Italian Championships organized by CSAI," the Italian equivalent of the SCCA. "We're in the class with all the 1300 GTAs and the Mini-Coopers, so there's some serious competition," Tony said.
He also raced the 1000 SP and the 1300 OT. "The OT's body was designed by Mario Colucci, [Abarth's chief engineer], but it was built by one of the Turin coachbuilders, perhaps Sibona-Bassano. This is a 1965 or so, with no periscope. The later cars had one, and I think it would help a lot. It gets really hot and smelly inside, with fumes and the petrol smell. That's why they put the periscope on it."
Is it fast? "Oh yes, Abarth got 130 or 140 bhp out of this 1300cc twin-cam. But in this case it's not the speed. I think this is one of the most beautiful cars ever made in Italy. It's on my list of five or six favorite cars: the old Ferrari GTO, the P4 and P3 series, the Abarth 1000 SP and this one." Owning two out of your five all-time-favorites isn't too bad, but there's one more Abarth Tony wouldn't mind owning: "I'd like to buy the 2-liter four-headlight 2000 SP. That's the car I'd really like to add to my collection."
While he keeps his eyes and ears open for that one, Tony stays busy selling parts and racing. Stop by and see him when you're next over in taly.