Turn the clock back to 1899, the dawn of the automobile. At the time, cars catered to the select few who could afford such a novelty. But a group of entrepreneurs with a passion for the very latest in engineering technology decided to create an automobile company on a grand scale with the clear objective of bringing the automobile to the people.
The Early Years
Società Anonima Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili was born on July 11, 1889 at Palazzo Bricherasio, in Turin, with a start-up capital of 800,000 lire and the plan to build a factory on Corso Dante. The scale of the project made it a very different proposition from the dusty workshops operated by the many pioneers of this new mode of locomotion. Shortly after, Torino was added to Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili, giving rise to the trade name F.I.A.T. Among the signatories of the company’s “birth certificate” were Lodovico Scarfiotti, Giovanni Agnelli and Vicenzo Lancia. The Agnelli family is still the major shareholder of Fiat while Lancia went on to create his own company, now owned by Fiat.
The first car produced was the 4 HP. Eight vehicles were built by the end of 1899 and a further 18 were produced later. Four of these cars remain, one at the Ford Museum in Dearborn (Michigan), and another at the Fiat Historical Centre, on Corso Dante, in Turin.
By 1914 and the start of World War I, Fiat had 4,000 employees, a number which mushroomed to 40,000 by 1918, in good part due to the war effort. By then, Fiat produced cars, trucks, aircraft, a variety of engines, ammunitions, armoured vehicles and even boots and uniforms for the military. Meanwhile, construction began on the Lingotto factory. This giant five story complex – today classified as a historical monument – was built to allow assembly-line production. It was completed in 1922 and became Europe’s largest factory, thus confirming Italy’s place among the major industrial nations.
Topolino (Mickey Mouse)
Henry Ford’s Model T is credited by historians for being the first “people’s car.” In Italy, this title goes to the Fiat 500. Designed by brilliant aeronautical engineer Dante Giacosa, the Cinquecento was built to the tune of half a million units from 1936 to 1955. Powered by a 4-cylinder 569 cc engine located in the front, this very small car (3.22 metres long) could still hold four occupants, a true marvel of packaging. It quickly acquired the surname Topolino (little mouse) due to its resemblance to Disney’s Mickey Mouse.
While expanding rapidly at home, Fiat launched a “globalization” strategy (well before the term became fashionable), building production facilities in many countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia. But war was looming again in Europe and Fiat, with its 55,000 employees, was asked to convert some of its capabilities to heavy industry. After the war, due to severe bombing damage, automobile production only came back to full capacity in the 1950’s, helped by the reconstruction of Fiat’s Mirafiori factory that had been inaugurated in 1939.
The Italian Miracle
Hoping to help Europe rise from the ashes of World War II, the US launched the Marshall Plan, paving the way to new Fiat products, starting in 1955 with a small car designed to replace the beloved but aging Topolino. The Fiat 600 hit the market in 1955 and spread all over Europe. Only two years later, the Seicento was followed by another even smaller car, the Nuova Cinquecento (the New 500), a loveable “city mouse” again designed by Dante Giacosa, and powered by a 2-cylinder 500 cc air-cooled engine located in the rear. Success was immediate and this latest Cinquecento took the streets by storm, often replacing scooters and bicycles as preferred mode of transport of the working class. Just like the founders of the company had imagined on 1899, Fiat became synonymous with affordable personal transportation.
In all, more than 8 million Fiat 600 and 500 were built from 1955 to 1975, spearheading what became known as the Italian Miracle and confirming Fiat as the “king of small cars.”
Marriage Italian Style
In the 1964 movie Marriage Italian Style, when handsome Marcello Mastroianni first meets the sexy young Sophia Loren in Naples, he is instantly smitten. Flash forward to the 21st century; when brilliant Fiat executive, Italian-Canadian Sergio Marchionne, hears of the opportunity to “save” the Chrysler Corporation, he is also instantly smitten. Marchionne convinces the Obama Administration to bless the marriage between the “king of small cars” and Chrysler. Five years later, in 2014, a new baby is born: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Today, 116 years after the birth of Turin’s and Italy’s automobile company, the founders of Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino can proudly claim: missione compiuta.
Designed by architect Giacomo Mattè Trucco, construction on the 500-metre long building started in 1916. Called Lingotto because of its rectangular shape, it was the largest factory in Europe when completed in 1922. On top of its five storey structure is an oval track with two sharply inclined turns at each end for testing the cars completed on the fifth floor.
Designed as a one long, uninterrupted production line, Lingotto was comprised of five winding floors in an oval shape. Raw materials would enter on the first floor, and slowly make their way up from station-to-station until finally emerging on the facility’s rooftop, where a banked, looping test track was built to shakedown these factory-fresh Fiats. It was an elegant and incredibly novel way of doing things, and earned both Fiat and its designer, a young Matté Trucco, the admiration of the world, with Modernist great Le Corbusier calling it “one of the most impressive sights in industry”.
Over 80 different models were built at Lingotto over its near-sixty-year operating history, among them tiny, iconic Topolino. Fiat eventually retired the factory in 1982, the ever-growing complexity of cars necessitating more modern facilities. Long a treasured historical and cultural icon by that point, the 16,000,000-square-foot site was turned into a commerce and entertainment complex in 1989, and now features a shopping mall, a concert hall, a theatre, a convention center, hotels, and quite appropriately, the Automotive Engineering program of Turin Polytechnic’s headquarters. The best part? Its track was retained, and on the rare occasion still hosts parade events where cars are run.
Originally Published: 2016/01/06 - Written by Alain Raymond Panoram Italia Magazine