Mario Andretti, one of only two racecar drivers who have won races in NASCAR, IndyCar, World Sportscar Championship, and Formula One said, “Desire is the key to motivation, but its dedication and commitment to an unrelenting pursuit of your goal – a commitment to excellence – that will enable you to attain the success you seek.”
People from Italy are passionate about life and every aspect they consider vital, whether it is the Mediterranean-style food they eat, the espresso-style coffee they drink, or the stylish cars they manufacture. And while they love to discuss their passions, they do more than talk about them. For automobiles, they demonstrate their commitment to excellence by racing them.
Many automobile companies got started in Italy by entering car competitions and most continue to participate in some form or another to develop and refine their cars built for the everyday driver. Driving in a country like Italy represents freedom and many drivers in the country genuinely believe they do it very well. For the observing visitor, though, they may appear to drive as though they are competing daily in a Formula One race.
This passion for the automobiles, inherent to the culture, is reflected in the vehicles they manufacture. As a result, their sports and luxury cars enjoy a reputation worldwide for design excellence and speed.
Although the history of automobiles is full of ups and downs, mergers and acquisitions, and successes and failures, Italy is now one of the world’s top five automobile manufacturing countries, with Fiat dominating the industry at more than 90% of all of the country's vehicle production. Here are 30 “then and now” pictures of that illustrious history.
Completed in 1963, the Alfa Romeo assembly plant at Arese, Italy, was built to replace the Portello factory. All the essential Alfa Romeo models were made there, including the Giulia, Alfetta, and the Nuova Giulietta. With much larger capacity, the plant grew until it employed 22,400 employees at its peak in 1974. A downturn in the mid-70s culminated in the access of Alfa Romeo by Fiat in 1986. The number of employees at Arese dropped to 6,000 by 1987.
The photo above shows part of the factory that was abandoned for 14 years. One of the largest shopping centers in Europe with restaurants, bars, and 205 shops, shown below, now occupies 120 thousand square meters of the former Alfa Romeo property covering 2 million square meters.
The Alfa Romeo Portello Plant was the car manufacturer’s main factory from 1908 to the 1960s before they moved most of the operations to the factory at Arese. The photo above shows the assembly line process typical of car manufacturers in the 1950s and 60s, with components mounted manually. The cars rest on carts that roll on tracks embedded in the factory floor to move from one station to the next.
The photo below shows the complexity of today’s assembly process using robotics for the all-new Alfa Romeo Giulia. Alfa Romeo worked with Comau SpA (Torino, Italy) to co-engineer a flexible Body-in-White (BIW) line with articulating robots and framing stations to handle advanced lightweight materials used in the Giulia’s framing.
Bianchina, the first car of the new company, Autobianchi, is shown in the photo above with co-founders from the left Alberto Pirelli (Pirelli Tire company), Vittorio Valletta (President of Fiat), Giuseppe Bianchi, and in the car, Gianni Agnelli (CEO of Fiat). The new venture was officially founded with initial capital of only three million lire ($1,800). Autobianchi produced only a few models during its short lifetime, almost exclusively small cars. Priced higher than similar sized Fiat models, the brand was used by Fiat to test new and state-of-the-art concepts including fiberglass bodies and front-wheel drive.
The photo below shows the Y10, made famous in 1985 by the commercial showing the car and a pneumatic female robot to emphasize the implementation of computerized engine controls and electronic navigation systems.
When it was completed in 1923, the Fiat Lingotto facility was one of the first buildings of its size with extensive use of reinforced concrete in the construction process Not only was it the largest automobile factory in Europe, but it was the only factory with a rooftop test track on a five-story building.
A simple loop, the track consumed a 1620-foot x 280-foot portion of rooftop and featured two banked turns both of which were constructed from a unique, intricate series of concrete ribs. Briefly featured in the film The Italian Job, the rooftop test track shown below is still intact and is used primarily for company events and car club meets, and as a tourist attraction.
The Lingotto manufacturing plant used a unique spiral assembly line. As each Fiat was assembled, it would move upwards through the building one story at a time. Each sequential floor specialized in a significant part of the process. Starting on the ground floor as raw materials and individual parts an operational Fiat car that spiraled its way to the top of the building exited to the rooftop.
Fiats that completed the climb through the 16,000,000 square foot factory were taken on to the roof for a test run around the banked race track. Cars that passed the test would return down to ground level using one of the two descending spiral ramps at either end of the test track. Today, the factory features a convention center, a theatre, shopping mall, and an upscale motel.
Although Fiat merged with Chrysler in 2014, forming FCA, the company had operations in the U.S. as early as 1909. Seeking to increase its share of the US market, Fiat built a factory at Poughkeepsie, New York. The Fiat cars made in Poughkeepsie were identical to those made in Turin, Italy. However, the Poughkeepsie produced Fiat's avoided payment of a 45% duty imposed on all imported autos. The savings resulted in lower prices for the consumer.
Other automobile manufacturers like Mercedes and Rolls-Royce followed suit, establishing domestic factories that helped make their cars more competitive with domestic models. In 1919, the Fiat plant closed. Western Publishing occupied the site until the 1980s, followed by a brief period as the Mid-Hudson Business Park, Marist College, and finally a Staple Store.
Gruppo Bertone was an Italian automobile company founded in 1912 that specialized in car designing, and coachbuilding until 2014. The critical break for the small automaker came in the early 50s when cash-strapped Alfa Romeo asked Bertone to design a sporty GT car for the 1954 Turin Auto Show. The result was the Giulietta Sprint prototype. When the show ended, Bertone had orders for several hundred vehicles. Over the next 11 years, it produced nearly 40,000 Giulietta Sprints, considered by many the best GT ever made.
The Bertone style is distinctive and recognizable across a wide range of badges. During its lifetime the company designed, modified, engineered, or built more than 90 models including the Alfa Romeo Bertone Pandion concept car that premiered at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show.
Ferruccio Lamborghini was an entrepreneur who created a successful tractor-manufacturing company in 1948. In the early 1960s, he decided to celebrate his fortune with the purchase of a Ferrari sports car. However, the clutch of his prized possession malfunctioned. Disappointed, Lamborghini asked his own company’s engineers to troubleshoot the problem and then requested a meeting with Ferrari to offer the technical solution.
The offended Enzo Ferrari was outraged that a mere tractor maker would have the audacity to tell him how to design his sports cars. He dismissed Lamborghini, telling him to focus on what he knew best: farm equipment. Instead, Lamborghini returned to Sant’Agata, outside Bologna, resolved to build superior sports cars to anything Ferrari had created. The rest is history, and the Huracan is one of the latest Lamborghini creations.
Although the Maserati brothers experienced early success with their first race car, winning the 1926 Targa Florio in 1926, by the early 1940s, they had sold their company. The brand continued to be successful in the racing circuit with the 8CTF that won two straight Indianapolis 500s, becoming the only manufacturer from Italy to have done so.
However, just as the company was starting to grow, Maserati was required to focus on vehicles for Italy during World War II. The company was even commissioned to produce a V16 town car for Benito Mussolini. However, the plan was ultimately thrown out. Maserati shipped nearly 51,000 vehicles worldwide in 2017. A 2019 Maserati Quattroporte generates over 500 horsepower and sells for more than $110,000.
In 1983, Horacio Pagani moved to Italy from Argentina and joined the team at Lamborghini. He built the Countach Evoluzione, the first car ever made with a carbon-fiber frame. When Lamborghini refused to buy an autoclave, which was required to cure composites such as carbon fiber, Pagani left the exotic car manufacturer.
In 1991, he started a consultancy firm called Modena Design which is still in operation today. The company focuses on the fabrication of carbon fiber composites for Formula One cars, with clients like Aprilia, Ferrari, and Daimler. One year later, he founded Pagani Automobili Modena. After seven full years, the Zonda was ready and, today the Pagani Huayra develops 700 horsepower and sells for over $1.4 million.
In the 1950s, Abarth & Company gained an enviable reputation in the international motorsport community designing and building race cars. The company created several endurance vehicles, but the most important came from a partnership between Abarth and Pininfarina. The partnership developed its first car in 1957: a 750 cc Monoposta (single seat). It set a Class H record when it maintained an average speed of 102.743 mph for 72 hours.
At the age of 57, Carlo Abarth also set an acceleration record with his Class G Fiat Abarth “1000 monoposta record” shown above. He followed a strict diet of only apples, losing 30 kg so he could climb into the cockpit. Abarth is currently a wholly owned subsidiary of FCA Italy S.p.A
Ghia was in the business of redesigning current production models and updating their styles when the company shared its first design for an experimental Coupe based on the Type 14 Ghia (above) with Volkswagen. Rejected by VW, Ghia created a different body style that complimented the new VW 1500 series currently being developed. The Karmann Ghia was the result.
Between 1953 and 1963, Ghia became the most influential proponent of the styling from Italy that defined automobile design trends worldwide. During the period, many foreign firms ordered Ghia designs, such as Ford (the Lincoln Futura concept car and later the Ghia Focus shown below), Chrysler, and Volvo. Ghia-designed bodies even showed up on Ferraris.
Covini Engineering was formed in 1978, the same year it introduced the T44 Soleado prototype at the Turin International Motor Show. It was a 4x4 off-road vehicle with the exterior body built entirely with flat, interchangeable panels and was powered by a turbocharged diesel engine. While the T44 never entered production, Covini developed several two-door sports cars with diesel engines that also remained prototypes, with the exception of the B24. The company produced only nine of the vehicles.
However, the company is best known for the Covini C6W. Drawing inspiration from the 1970s Tyrrell P34 Formula One car, the C6W is a six-wheeled sports car that has two axles (four wheels) at the front of the vehicle.
Designed as a city car capable of negotiating those narrow cobblestone streets and parking where no other car could fit, the original Fiat 500 was produced from 1957 to 1975. The inexpensive, rear-engine, four-seater shown above in the two-door body style measured only 2.97 meters long and was initially powered by a 479 cc, two-cylinder, air-cooled engine. With only 13 horsepower and a top speed of 85 km/h (52 mph), the 500 never set any land speed records.
But who needs speed in the city where a café bar and pizzeria are located on every corner? Fifty years after the launch of the original 500, Fiat introduced the model again. Below, Malanie Sykes sits on a modern Abarth version powerful enough to venture out of the city but still easy to park.
Although Ferrari has a long and successful history of racing, ironically, its founder, Enzo Ferrari, gave up racing for Alfa Romeo at an early age primarily for safety concerns. Just before leaving the driver’s seat forever in 1931 after the birth of his son, Dino, Enzo commented, “My son could count on a modest prosperity, the fruit of my complex activity. But my son has the right to expect something else from me.”
Safety standards make racing much safer today than in years past and it remains a crucial part of the Ferrari image and reputation. The website states, “We competed in more than 900 Grand Prix races and remain the only constructor to have taken part in every single edition of the Formula 1 World Championship since its launch.”
Sources: Hemmings, Jalopnik, WheelsAge, Maserati, and Car and Driver.