Story and color photos by Philippe H. Defechereux
Speed demons of America, beware! You are about to be left in the dust!
This deceptively cute little egg-shaped machine, which just landed on U.S. shores at summer’s end, can hold its own against much more powerful cars, including exotics, on any race track our great country offers for trained racing drivers. The two words “race track” in the preceding sentence offer you the only good news: it won’t shame your speeding illusions on public roads, as it is FIA-equipped and approved, and not street-legal. It’s a pure-bred racer.
So, if while you’re looking at the above photo, if it appears to you as one of those many modified Fiat Abarth 500 models, it’s not. It is actually a unique ball of fire straight out of hell for racing enthusiasts other than its owner-driver, for whom it feels simply god-created especially when, wearing a sardonic smile, he’ll be zipping by your more powerful car in a tight corner.
To lift any doubts you might have about this, let us put some key facts on the table right now about Mefistofele, its given name as you can see written above the main radiator – Italian spelling for the devil’s agent made famous by Dr. Faust.
The car as seen in the header photo is still essentially the size of the basic Fiat 500, only sporting a slightly longer and profiled front-end and a wider track – thanks to four 20 mm wheel spacers – and arched fenders. Its 1,368 cc engine, entirely reconfigured internally and featuring a Garrett turbo and Scara 73 intercooler, now delivers 325 HP at 6,400 rpm through a five-speed Alfa-Romeo manual transmission. That gives the 2,330-pound car at top speed of 178 mph in a straight line. And that’s just the beginning.
But before we reveal more of its recently-acquired secret superpowers, let’s keep the suspense going a bit and first explain how, after being born in the 2008 model year as a perfectly standard turbocharged 135 HP Fiat Abarth 500, this specific tiny automobile ended up on US shores thoroughly transformed into a “bat-out-of-hell” race car.
Naturally born in Italy, this Fiat 500 was first bought from a regular Fiat dealer by a senior gentleman in the eastern town of Jesi, 10 miles inland from the Adriatic port of Ancona, situated at a latitude roughly between Rome and Florence on the other side of the Italian peninsula. This first owner particularly liked his little “white devil,” as he called it, being both a perfect city-driving automobile, and a powerful tiny sprinter for weekend country rides.
The following year, a younger and wealthier racing enthusiast by the name of Gianni Monnati managed to acquire it from him with a plan in mind to turn it into a real speed monster. It so happens that the town of Jesi is also the home of “Area51 Motorsport,” a relatively large shop specializing in modifying Fiat Abarths for high-performance race track activities. The Fiat 500 Abarth is an affordable and fun racing car as popular today in Italy as the original Mini Cooper was throughout northern Europe in the 1960s. The joint owners of Area51 Motorsport, named Luca Buresti and Lorenzo Carletti, are friends of Gianni Monnati.
And so, while Area51 Motorsport began substantially upgrading his new acquisition, Gianni Monnati decided to give it his own moniker. Inspired by the nickname given it by its first owner, Monnati decided to re-baptize it Mefistofele, in memory of the amazing 21.7-liter, 316 HP airplane-engine-powered Fiat that won the world land speed record in 1924 (see below.) The namesake quickly proved an extra inspiration for both the performance shop and their team. Through two successive stages of upgrades, the car’s engine power was eventually raised to 250 HP, almost double the original and considerable thrust for a car weighing just above one ton – the back seats having been removed. The second job was completed in 2012.
And so for a few years, Signore Monnati enjoyed the higher performance of his little devil of a car, racing it in various events. But the Italian speed chaser from Jesi was still not satisfied. As a result, late in 2015, he went back to his friends at Area51 Motorsport, and demanded the ultimate of what was possible on the basis of the Fiat 500: to make Mefistofele the fastest Fiat Abarth ever made, possibly implying having the devil to pay if his ambitious goal was not met. Feeling the friendly heat, backed by an ample purse, the people of Area51 Motorsport then agreed to go all out, and they called on the best performance parts suppliers for help.
In came one key new partner: DNA Racing Components, from the town of Lissone, right next to Monza. They are the official representatives for Italy of Sweden’s famous Öhlins Suspension Components company. So, in order to meet their highly ambitious goals, the Area51 Motorsport people worked on significantly boosting engine power in close harmony with the suspension specialists, so that the newly transformed Mefistofele would be a perfectly balanced ultimate performer.
With a thoroughly redesigned and strengthened suspension and chassis, double-sided Brembo disk brakes, plus extra-large Federal SZ-201 semi-slick 235/40 R17 tires and a Koshi carbon-fiber rear spoiler, its cornering speeds would prove simply infernal for its race track competitors.
Signore Monnati was quite satisfied, but the tab for this extraordinary upgrade by now was nearing 100,000 Euros. And that’s when a certain Bob Zecca from the United States, a serious lover of Italian cars, of the Fiat 500 Abarth in particular, and owner of regular U.S.- spec unit, suddenly came into the picture.
Bob Zecca started his car-centered business career at age 21 in Morris County, NJ, the geographic center of northern NJ, a region extremely dense with a population of high-performance car lovers of all makes and countries of origin, but with a certain bias for Italian cars. He is most famous in the Northeast for having thought of and managed for nearly two decades the wonderful “Driving Impressions” motorsports retail store located in the infield of the historical Lime Rock race track.
His company is still called Driving Impressions, but this revamped retail and internet-based operation today is located in Dover, NJ, not far from Morristown. Zecca often attends races at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, in the southern part of the State. And that where, in 2015 and 2016, he formed the dream of getting back to racing his own car as he did in his younger years, until age 32, in SCCA events.
The first car Zecca acquired and drove was a Fiat 124 Sports Coupe. He admired the Abarth Company also, but they pulled out of the U.S. market before he could get an Abarth-modified Fiat for himself. Still, the dream remained alive.
In early 2016. Zecca, now in his early 60s and still actively managing his company, had recently switched back to suppliers situated in northern Italy, such as HRX for racing safety equipment. Since that part of Europe is a delightful place to also take his wife, in the spring of that year, he made his first trip back to Italy in quite a while. Before leaving the US, he had already heard of that satanic Fiat 500 Abarth and Gianni Monnati through a common friend from Emilia Romagna, the province whose capital is Bologna and most famous city Modena. His name is Angelo Antonelli, of E.R. Motorfest fame in Italy, now investing in the U.S. racing scene out of northern NJ.
Thus that old fantasy of his had been re-ignited and soon after arriving in Milan, Zecca contacted Gianni Monnati about buying his car. The first answer was negative but it seems that after some haggling, Bob managed to secure a purchase agreement shortly after his return to America. Since the car had been built in Italy, it could never be street-legal in the US without stupendous expenses of time and dollars.
So Zecca, whose sole purpose was to race the pocket missile anyway – he’s quite pleased driving his US-spec white 500 Abarth all over the Northeast – decided to have his new unique wonder modified by the Area51 Motorsport people so as to be FIA- and EPA- approved while it was still in Italy. So now Mefistofele acquired a few new items, such as a roll cage, Lexan windows and six-point seat belts for its HRX FIA seats.
Having received formal FIA and EPA approval at the end of August, the car was then shipped to Port Newark, NJ, where it arrived in early September. Zecca first raced it at NJMP two weeks later. That day, he and Mefistofele immediately caused a sensation both on and off the track, challenging much bigger and more powerful cars. A we write this piece, he is at it again, having the (well-deserved) time of his life.
The Once World’s Fastest Car: Fiat “Mephistopheles” (1924)
The Fiat 500 Abarth Mefistofele featured in our article has a quite original and distinguished ancestor, a Fiat through and through, called by the same nickname, but this one in its French spelling: “Mephistopheles.”
It was the creation of a maverick British aristocrat, Ernest Eldridge, scion of a wealthy London family whose father was successfully involved in London’s financial business.
Born in 1897, Eldrige developed a passion for airplanes and fast cars as soon as those two inventions came of age, that is, in Europe, essentially during World War I. During that conflict, he enlisted and apparently served as an ambulance driver for the British Red Cross.
He reappears after the conflict with an airplane pilot’s license, but also at the Brooklands race track. His idea for winning races there was a simple one, though a thick wallet was needed to put it into practice: use a pre-WW I Grand Prix car chassis, designed for race cars with long hoods, and install in front of the cockpit as its new power plant a big and powerful aircraft engine evolved in the course of the war. His first success came when he mated a 1907 Isotta-Fraschini chassis with 20-liter Maybach airplane engine developing 240 HP. He won his first race with that car at Brooklands in 1922 with an average speed of 101 mph; then sold the car to a wealthy Frenchman.
But what made Eldriges’s name remembered today was his 1924 “Formula Eldrige” creation. Conceived, built and put to the test in 1924, his new car mated a 1908 F.I.A.T. SB4 Grand Prix chassis to the monstrous but quite successful six-cylinder A.12 Fiat airplane engine – of which more than 13,000 were built. The engine came with slightly different displacement and power outputs, but Eldridge of course chose the most powerful: 21.7 liter, developing 316 HP! Its dimensions speak for themselves: length: 70”; width, 22”; Height: 44.5”; dry weight: 915 pounds…
Eldrige and his French connection decided to go for the World’s land speed record at a suburban countryside suburb of Paris called Arpajon. Its flat landscape lies in the direction of Chartres and, further south, Le Mans. There, on July 12, 1924, with his thoroughly Fiat racer, Ernest Eldridge officially broke the World’s land speed record, as written down by French officials: “clocking the flying kilometer at an average speed of 146,013 mph (234,985 km/h) on his giant 350 HP horse-power F.I.A.T.” They just rounded up the actual horsepower.
How did it acquire the word “Mephistopheles?” The giant engine was un-muffled, so its noise must have been, well, hellish. As a result, the French spectators quickly dubbed it “Mephistopheles” thinking it the name of the devil – in German lore, he’s actually the agent of Satan sent on earth to collect men’s soul, but close enough. Eldrige loved the name and adopted it. It stuck. And today, as his original giant “Mephistopheles” proudly sits in a Museum in Italy, while it’s little sister Mefistofeleis raising hell in America…
Ernest Eldrige spent the rest of his life in America and France toying with various other racing machines, and betting very big money in casinos. Ironically, he died at a the very young age of 40 in his bed in London, of pneumonia.