The forgotten 356 Carrera GTL was an exquisite Italian Porsche developed by Abarth
Born in Vienna during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Karl Albert Abarth was fascinated by anything that had wheels from an early age. As a teenager, he traveled to Milan in Italy, where he joined the Castagna coachbuilders and began to design frames for motorcycles and bicycles. He returned to Austria a few years later, learned about motorcycle racing and became five times European champion.
A serious accident would end his racing career, so he chose to return to Italy where he eventually obtained citizenship and changed his name to Carlo Alberto. During these years, Abarth befriended the famous Italian racing driver Tazio Nuvolari, through which he met fellow Austrians Anton Piëch, son-in-law of Ferdinand Porsche and future president of Volkswagen, as well as Ferdinand Jr ., better known as the Porsche Ferry.
These relationships led him to get involved in the automotive industry, and after a short period as the sporting director of the Cisitalia racing team, he founded Abarth in 1949. Although the core business of the business was to manufacture performance parts for several Italian brands, a large part of the profits went into the Squadra Abarth racing team. With a field that included talented drivers such as Nuvolari, Franco Cortese or Piero Taruffi, the team were successful from the start, which sparked the interest of Fiat. So, in 1951, the company moved to Turin, and the legendary collaboration began.
Still, the close bond with the Porsche family endured, and in 1959 Ferry Porsche commissioned Abarth to upgrade the 356 racing cars that were beginning to compete with the more agile Alfa Romeo or Lotus. That year, the FIA instituted a new rule allowing manufacturers to modify the bodies of their riders as long as the overall weight was not considerably less; exactly what the boxer-engined 356 needed to be competitive again.
Initially, a 356B chassis was sent to Turin where it was stripped of its original bodywork. Carlo Abarth analyzed the flaws of the old structure and decided that it needed to be completely redesigned. Rather than creating a bodywork himself, Abarth called on former Bertone stylist Franco Scaglione, renowned for his aerodynamically efficient Alfa Romeo concepts.
After several designs were reviewed by Abarth and Porsche, a final design was chosen. Lower than the original 356, it had a narrower frontal area, inlaid door handles and an adjustable scoop mounted on the engine cover, features that lowered the drag coefficient from 0.398 Cd to 0.365 Cd. , all panels would be constructed of aluminum, resulting in an estimated weight reduction of approximately 99 lbs. (45kg).
The first prototype ordered by Porsche was fitted with a bodywork handcrafted by a small Turin coachbuilder named Viarenzo & Filliponi. When he arrived in Stuttgart in 1960, engineers were appalled at the poor quality of the work. Nevertheless, with the track testing showing great promise, this imperfect Carrera GTL was sent back to Italy, where it competed in the famous Targa Florio race. Led by Paul Sträle, it managed to cross the finish line at the head of the 1600cc category, persuading the German manufacturer to order twenty more units.
Abarth pulled some strings and got a bigger company called Rocco Motto to produce the rest of the bodies. Although they are still handcrafted resulting in minor differences from unit to unit, the overall quality improves dramatically.
In 1961, Porsche introduced a new version of the Carrera engine called the 692 / 3a. With larger main bearings, more aggressive intake cam profiles, a smaller flywheel, or bigger Solex carbs, it was able to deliver up to 165 hp. Several GTLs were fitted with this powertrain and in the years that followed these Italian-bodied machines achieved class victories in many iconic races including the 1000 km Nürburgring, the 12 Hours of Sebring (twice) or the Daytona Continental. The GTL has also won its class at Le Mans three times in a row (1960-1963).
Porsche stopped racing this model after the 1963 season, but several privateers continued to use it in various national, continental and international competitions. That year, the company unveiled the successor to the 356 at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Originally called 901, but eventually renamed 911, the design of the new car is inspired by the redesigned GTL. To date, there is no official confirmation that the two designs were related, but as you can see in the video below posted to YouTube by Lyon Air Museum, the similarities between them are undeniable.