This summer we did a 6 part series on US Auto Makers starting with July 4th. It’s time to continue with Italian car makers. Part A covered luxury sports car makers, but today lets cover members of the fifth largest car conglomerate in the world (by sales).
For those who don’t know, or have never heard of Stellantis, you are not alone. They’re new (16 January 2021) and we covered them under US makers since the core of the company is Chrysler. You can learn all about the parent company at this link. Italy accounts for five out of the 16 car brands managed by Stellantis from their headquarters in Amsterdam.
While a relatively new name to the US market, Abarth has been around since 1949, when it was founded by Italo-Austrian Carlo Abarth. While it is currently the Italian performance division of Stellantis making racing and road cars, it was not always so.
Italian soccer player, entrepreneur and racecar driver Piero Dusio, founded the Cisitalia racing team, but in 1948 Piero fled to Argentina leaving a man named Armando Scagliarini to pick up the pieces. Along with the other assets of the folded car company Scagliarini inherited it’s sporting director Carlo Abarth. Scagliarini decided to rebuild the business around Abarth, naming it after him and creating it’s emblem to honor Carlos Astrological sign Scorpio.
In 1951 Abarth moved it’s headquarters to Turin and started building a more formal relationship with Fiat. Abarth continued to win races due in part to their brilliant exhaust designs. Thanks to Fiat, they brought their exhaust systems to production cars.
Noteworthy: Believe it or not some Original Abarth LD exhausts are now valuable collectors’ items with some replica being made and stamped Abarth without permission from Fiat.
In 1971 Carlo sold Abarth to Fiat, who turned it into their racing division. Fiat didn’t do Hill Climb or Sport Prototype racing so the sold that off to Enzo Osella who found a great deal of success with it, and continued to race in the rally circuit.
Three things all the Zonda’s have in common: they max out around 215 MPH, they go 0-60 in less than 3.5 seconds, and they all look hot.
On 1 October 1981, Abarth & C. ceased to exist and was replaced by Fiat Auto Gestione Sportiva. In the 80s, the name was slapped onto some performance cars, and Fiat used the brand to designate a trim/model level in 2000s. 2007 Abarth was reborn as an an independent unit, controlled 100% by Fiat, to create and sell passenger cars and light commercial vehicles.
The first models launched were the Abarth Grande Punto, they went on to make 16 more car models that basically all looked alike, while the parent company changed it’s name a few times. In In 2017, Abarth collaborated with Yamaha to produce a limited-edition motorcycle, but it has otherwise been a solid small car maker with little to set it apart and no resemblance of it’s former racing glory.
Alfa Romeo (1910–present)
Founded 24 June 1910, Alpha Romeo is the old man of this group. Headquartered in Turin, Piedmont, Italy (the Detroit of Italy), AR sells cars world wide, with it’s main markets being the US, Canada, and Europe. Currently AR is known for luxury cars but they were best know for sport-oriented vehicles have been heavily involved in car racing since a year after they began.
We don’t really know who founded Alpha Romeo, probably a man named Ugo Stella and other investors because at the time of its birth AR was an “anonymous” company, which means the investors names weren’t public. In fact the “A” in Alpha stands the Italian word for anonymous, “Anonima.” The rest to the acronym stands for “Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili.” The founders built their first factory in Milan where they were able to snatch up manufacturing space from the Portello Factory which was closing up shop. AR continued to make cars at the Portello Factory until 1960.
Romeo came from engineer, entrepreneur, and politician Nicola Romeo, who took over the factory during WWI to make more important things for the war effort. When the war ended they went back to racing making Torpedo 20–30 HP in 1920. Alfa Romeo won the inaugural world championship for Grand Prix cars in 1925 and as an engine maker AR was favored by private race teams. In fact, Enzo Ferrari founded the Scuderia Ferrari racing team in 1929 as an Alfa Romeo racing team.
On the business side, Alpha Romeo has a complicated history that’s very much tied to the fortunes of Italy herself and the ways Italy chose to handle their economy after WWII. Italy has always been a bit more socialist than the US and as part of an extensive 1933 Italian state industrial bailout/ re-organization Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (IRI), and remained under government control until it was sold to Fiat in 1986.
Italian worker unrest and the government ownership caused a lot of trouble for AR, including building a factory in the south to make a new compact car in the 1970s. AR’s finances remained in the red much of their existence. They did, however, continue to build great racers and win a lot of races though to be fair the racing portion of AR was privatized.
When I see an Alfa Romeo go by, I tip my hat.Henry Ford talking with Ugo Gobbato in 1939
Things changed when Fiat took over.
Here’s what happened. In the early 80’s Alpha Romeo was suffering and draining money from the Italian government who’s main goal was jobs for Italian workers. They attempted a joint venture with Nissan, but the companies were simply not compatible.
Fiat was approached with a joint venture, but Ford offered a cash infusion in exchange for enough ownership and authority to restructure the company, which they couldn’t guarantee would allow current staff to retain their jobs. Fiat stepped up and took over A.R. which kept the Italian car maker entirely in Italian control. Fiat also guaranteed that all workers would stay in their jobs. The only sticky point was a desire by Alfa Romeo’s then-President Ettore Massacesi to never build an Alpha Romeo car with a Fiat engine. The deal was done by the end of 1986.
The resulting cars from the takeover retained AR’s avant-garde styling and sporting panache without losing Fiat’s understanding of economy and production efficiency. When Fiat bought Maserati back from Ferrari they created a luxury sports division.
In 2007 Fiat reorganized as Fiat Group with 4 divisions of which Alpha Romeo was one. In 2010 Alpha Romeo turned 100, however there was little cause to celebrate. International sales had been trending down since 2001 and they continued to decline until today, despite the merger with Chrysler and eventual formation of Stellantis Italy.
Fiat formed in 1899 when Giovanni Agnelli and 8 other investors decided to launch an automobile manufacturer in Turin. In fact the name Fiat is an acronym of Fabbrica Italiana Automobili di Torino or Turin Auto Factory.
Their 35 staff cranked out 24 Fiat 4 HP cars. From these humble beginnings Fiat would grow to be that largest car maker in Italy, then Europe, and third largest in the world for many decades. Fiat of the 1970’s employed more than 100,000 employees an pumped out 1.4 million cars a year.
Fiat has also produced Fiat has also manufactured railway engines, military vehicles, farm tractors, aircraft, and weapons such as their water-cooled machine gun for WWI & WWII, and won awards such as their nine European Car of the Year.
Noteworthy: In 1910 Fiat manufactured cars in Poughkeepsie, NY, which were sign of wealth among Americans at the time. In fact, a Fiat in 1918 would cost you $6,400 when you could buy a Ford Model T for $525.
Both WWI and WWII interrupted car production for the war effort (the American plant closed for good) and soon after WWI the sociality party took over the Fiat factory causing Agnelli to resign in protest. After WWII the Agnelli were again forced out of the company as a result of their ties to Benito Mussolini. Giovanni’s grandson, Gianni, took over again as general manager in 1963 (later chairman until 1996).
Of course Fiat would ultimately join with Chrysler to form FCA and then later with French car conglomerate PSA to form Stellantis. Fiat’s secret to success was knowing the home market and then expanding to nearby markets with similar needs for a similar product. Hence Fiat has always made “City Cars” for small urban drivers. See examples below…
If you look closely at the pictures above you’ll see that these are in fact two different cars.
Lancia is one of those car names that gets bounced around car talk circles but the average person has probably never seen one. Even in the UK and Ireland where Lancia’s were sold until 2015 (although these were technically rebadged Chryslers.)
Noteworthy: Lancia had a long tradition in rally racing, winning more manufacturers awards than any competitor until 1992 when they stopped racing. (They still hold more awards than any other brand, BTW).
If you live in Italy these days you definitely know Lancia, not only as the historic maker of cars they were but as the maker of the second best-selling car in Italy, the Lancia Ypsilon. This is currently Lancia’s only product.
Lancia’s founders were both race car drivers for Fiat. They created the “Tipo 51” which looked like an old time fire truck, but sold well enough. They also exported parts to an America assembler who sold the cars under the name SGV.
When Lancia died in 1910, his widow and son brought on designer Vittorio Jano who created some of their best selling models. What Lancia is best known for is innovation. They’re the first people to put a complete electrical system in a car (1913). They first used the monocoque or unibody chassis and the five speed gearbox. They also invented the ‘Sliding Pillar‘ independent front suspension that incorporated the spring and hydraulic damper into a single unit on their Lambda (produced from 1922 to 1931).
The down side of all this innovation, and there are more, is that each production model is unique. When your primary goal is invention instead of finding a market need to meet it’s difficult sell enough units to remain viable. What it does do is make you a target for acquisition as other car company’s want your patents.
In 1969 Fiat acquired Lancia but maintained the distinctive Lancia marque with models like the Stratos, Gamma and Beta, which made money for Fiat. In fact Fiat had just attained full control of Autobianchi which it put under the Lancia brand.
When Fiat reorganized to a group of four in 2007 Lancia became one of the four. It was the merger with Chrysler that proved to be Lancia’s demise. The brand was built on innovation and unique design. Producing rebadged Chryslers failed completely.
Will Stellantis prove to be the death blow for Lancia? It’s too soon to tell, but Stellantis has signaled its intentions to rebuild the brand by including it in a group with Alfa Romeo and DS Automobiles which are commissioned to create new models in 2024. The also appointed Luca Napolitano CEO, and Jean-Pierre Ploué its chief designer. The rumor is they will develop three new models, all EV’s – a replacement for their successful city car (Ypsilon), a cross over, and a hatchback.
Noteworthy: the documentary “Elegance on the Move,” celebrates Lancia’s 115th anniversary.
The Maserati brother all worked in auto manufacture and they founded the company that would bare their name in 1914 to produce race cars.
Maserati’s racing success was top of the range with wins against the German powerhouse , Auto Union and Mercedes on the European circuit and even an indie 500 win. Then in 1957 tragedy struck at the Mille Miglia race when a worn tire caused a wreck, killing Spanish driver Alfonso de Portago, his co-driver/navigator Edmund Nelson, and nine spectators 5 of whom were children.
Maserati quit racing as a team, but continued to make cars for independent racers. They chose to focus on road-going grand tourers from that point on. The 3500 GT became the marque’s first series-produced car designed from scratch which came out the same year as their racing tragedy. Available in two-door coupe and convertible, the 3500 GT took production from a few dozen to a few hundred cars annually.
Noteworthy: Mohamad Reza Pahlavi (aka the Shah of Persia) wanted a road going GT with one of Masarati’s racing engines so they built him the 5000 GT with a 450S racing engine. This was a popular redesign and they sold another 33 of them over the next few decades.
To understand what happened in 1968 we need to know a couple things. First is that Alfieri Maserati, the families primary driver for racing, died in 1932. His brothers ran the business for another five years, before selling to Adolfo Orsi and family. the brothers stayed on with their company as engineers for another 10 years. After moving the headquarters from Bologna to its modern location in Modena, Orsi brought on engineer Giulio Alfieri, who not only contributed to winning racecars before 1957 but also lead the team who created the 3500 GT which saved the car company from going under when they left racing.
Under Adolfo Orsi, in 1968, Maserati began a joint venture with Citroen to make engines for their new four-seat front-wheel-drive coupé called the SM. Citroen ended up in control of Maserati, but it wasn’t all bad. With stable Citroen financing and hydraulics and Maserati’s expertise and engines Alfieri was able to launch a series of ambitious designs.
This lead to four models, although the Quattroporte II with it’s more powerful engine, was never put into full production do to financial issues.
The Fuel Crisis of the early 70’s destroyed the market for large engine touring cars. Citroen it’s self went bankrupt and reformed with Peugeot into a conglomerate to survive. In 1975 Citroen, announced a plan to liquidate Maserati, which the Italian government along with many local politicians fought as best they could. The plan was halted when a buyer came forward, saving 800 jobs.
Alejandro de Tomaso was a racecar driver, turned industrialist, turned owner and designer of cars. He fired Alfieri on day one and produced at least three car models that relatively flopped. He finally had a win with the Biturbo, a compact front-engine, rear-drive coupé in the 1980’s. The Biturbo used a V6 designed by Alfieri of course, and it became the basis for all the models of Masirati going forward for 10 years. The cars got snazzier names and sleeker designs, updated performance enhancement, but were all based in the same framework.
By 1989 De Tomaso bought the Italian government out of their share of his company. De Tomaso also owned a share of an Italian car and scooter maker called Innocenti, but the two companies remained separate. Fiat began buying both Innocenti and Maserati stock beginning the transition to a single car maker under Italian control and the Maserati name.
On 19 May 1993, De Tomaso sold the last 51% of his shares to Fiat, who continued to build versions of the Biturbo for several years. Fiat had purchased majority control of Chrysler in 2011 as a result of their bankruptcy. So Chrysler was again in business with Maserati. As Citroën had joined PSA Peugeot Citroën this meant with the 2021 creation of Stellantis, Maserati was now entwined with nearly all it’s former partners save for De Tomaso. Maserati is the only company in the group to be quite so connected to all the partners independent of the final merger.
But first Ferrari?!?! Yep
Fiat pulled an interesting maneuver in 1997 selling 50% of Maserati to long-time rival Ferrari, which Fiat owned entirely. The result was a new factory to replace the 1940’s style factory and complete redesigns of each of their models. The new Maserati re-entered the American market which became it’s biggest cash cow. They also re-entered racing, winning the teams championship for world FIA GT championship three consecutive times in the early 2000’s.
In 2007 Fiat split Maserati away from Ferrari and joined them to Alpha Romeo, which finally started them making a profit. In 2010, Fiat through Abarth into the brand group but this didn’t result in shared technology or joint projects, although it did allow Maserati to focus on directly competing with Mercedes and BMW. As of 2014 Maserati had hit a market saturation point, where they would sell about 70,000 units a year. They decided to stay there, rather than create down-market versions of their cars to appeal to a lower price point.
What will be the fate of Maserati under Stellantis? There are are currently no big plans to change things, beyond of course creating EV versions of all their models.