you might go in Florence, it seems, the FIAT brand is there. Its
presence is marked by the old navy blue logo and the new red one on
cars and advertisements, an indicator of both the company’s success
and the brand’s popularity in its home country. Indeed, the FIAT
name is iconic in Italian culture, notable today for its luxury
sports cars as well as its recent takeover of the American giant,
Chrysler. But here in Italy, the company extends well beyond
automobile production. The corporation has played a significant role
in Italian life, business and culture, acting as the most prominent
driving force behind its social and industrial progress for over a
all began with an idea for a ‘horseless carriage’ in the late
nineteenth century, a project by Count Emanuele Bricherasio di
Cacherano, who wanted to manufacture and mass-produce this new
vehicle. On July 11, 1899, his vision became reality as investors met
to sign a contract to establish the Societa Anonima Fabbrica Italiana
Automobili Torino, later shortened to FIAT.
1900, the company opened its first automobile factory, in Carso
Dante, with a staff of 150 working the production lines. In its first
year, the factory manufactured 24 automobiles. Among these was the
company’s original model, the 3/12 HP, a small automobile that
could reach 35km/hr but had no reverse gear. This model established
the FIAT name, and its design was the base for notable cars such as
the Balilla (1934) and the 500 Topolino (1936), two of the company’s
most successful and iconic models.
1902, investors named Giovanni Agnelli managing director of the FIAT
group. He brought to the position instinct and business acumen,
combined with his passion and determination to make the company a
success. Under his leadership, FIAT prioritized expansion and mass
production, and its products became popular with Italian consumers.
On the wave of this success, FIAT expanded operations overseas,
establishing the US FIAT Automobile Company in 1908, an impressive
feat after only eight years of being in business.
pioneer in Italian industrialism, the company spearheaded new
manufacturing practices and constantly strove to improve its
mass-production processes. Turin’s Lingotto factory, established in
1922, is a symbolic structure of Italian industrialism. The factory,
five stories high with a racetrack on the roof, made unique use of
architecture to modernize the assembly line. Raw materials entered at
the ground floor, making their way up the five stories of the
building and emerging on the roof as a finished car. There, on the
racetrack, each automobile was put through a series of test-drives to
ensure its quality. The Lingotto factory was considered an exemplary
structure in Italian automobile industry, producing 80 different
models well into the 1970s. In 1937, FIAT’s Mirafiori plant, also
in Turin, brought improvements as well, further improving the
company’s manufacturing methods and streamlining production. FIAT
brought new concepts of mass production and assembly to Italy,
leading businesses to reorganize their own production practices and
improving the country’s industry overall.
brought enormous success for FIAT. Through contracts with the Italian
government, its factories manufactured weapons, airplanes, and
military vehicles, producing the highest ratio of exports among all
carmakers. To meet higher production demands, FIAT needed a larger
workforce, and a new generation of workers migrated from the south
and the rural areas of Italy to cities in the north-Milan, Genoa
and Turin-a population shift that worsened the already wide
economic gap between northern and southern Italy.
success continued after World War II, during Italy’s economic boom
of the 1950s. Increases in average incomes changed consumer habits,
and Italians began to strive for the new and exciting ‘American
lifestyle’ of expensive cars and summer vacations they saw in
Hollywood films and celebrity visits to Italy. Films such as William
Holiday and Frederico Fellini’s La
dolce vita document these fabulous years in which FIAT cars, both utilitarian
and luxury models, became Italian icons and status symbols, causing
sales to skyrocket. During this period, FIAT created the FIAT 600 in
1955 and began production of the celebrated new model of the FIAT 500
in 1957, followed in 1960 by the Giardinetta version, a precursor of
the station wagon style. Consumers appreciated FIAT for its small
size and luxury status.
its success following the war, FIAT worked to unite Italy
geographically through the construction of the Autostrada del Sole
(also known as the A1), the first four-lane, two-direction motorway
that stretched 220km from Naples to Rome. In partnership with Italian
industrial companies ENI, Pirelli and Italcementi, FIAT helped to
establish SISI (Develop Initiatives Italian Road), a collaboration
that designed this Autostrada and donated the plans to the state.
Construction began in 1956 and was completed in 1964.
Autostrada del Sole was a huge achievement for Italy, improving
delivery of goods and connecting the long-divided North and South,
thus fostering tourism and trade. Italians could now explore their
country with relative ease. The highway not only united the country
but increased automobile sales as well. In 1969, the Automobile Club
of Italia reported the 731,182 cars in Italy, a 55 percent increase
from the year before.
however, brought difficult times for the automobile industry.
Although the severe oil crisis and a series of poor product designs
contributed to decreased sales and tarnished FIAT’s reputation,
other automobile companies were suffering as well and FIAT took
advantage of the situation, absorbing the then-struggling Lancia,
Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati, as it would Chrysler in 2009.
name synonymous with Italy, FIAT has weathered change and fostered
social and economic improvement. Though the FIAT logos may become a
blur on city streets, they are a reminder that a company can be much
more than its products: it can make history.
sky’s the limit?
2009, under the guidance of Italian-Canadian businessman and CEO
Sergio Marchionne, FIAT began negotiating a lucrative partnership
with Chrysler, then on the brink of bankruptcy. Through bailout loans
by the U.S. government, Chrysler has almost paid back its 8 billion
euro debt. How? It refinanced its debt with private investors, won
over by what many have called ‘the deal of the century’ with
FIAT. The deal with FIAT did not involve cash but was an accord,
according to Marchionne, that would pay off for both companies
because it was based on reciprocal interest. The reinvention of
Chrysler, however, is not yet complete, so it is far too soon to
declare the success of the transatlantic merger. Today, FIAT owns 46
percent of Chrysler and, thus its cars have made a return to the U.S.
market, their first appearance since 1983. With the showrooms of 128
dealerships marketing FIAT’s small-sized automobiles and sports
cars, this may be just another chapter in the Italian carmaker’s
grand tradition of historic industrial achievements.
celebrate 150 years of Italian unity, Centro Storico Fiat has opened
to the public for the first time. The Centro Storico Fiat is located
in a Liberty-style building at via Chiabrera 20, Turin, which was the
1907 site of the first expansion of FIAT workshops on Corso Dante,
the company’s first home. Until November 27, 2011, visitors can
admire (for free) the collection of FIAT automobiles, engines,
mementos, models and advertisements spanning the company’s history,
from the 31/2 Hp to the impressive Mefistofele, which in 1924 beat
the all-time world speed record. Visitors can also get a close-up
look at the one of the first automobile assembly lines and the
origins of one of Italy’s largest private industrial enterprises.
For more information, see www.fiatindustrial.com.