The Italian car brands are associated with sophistication and flair – beautiful lines which… not always have much in common with usefulness. However, the automotive industry in Italy is incredibly diverse, from the Piaggio micro cars to the Ferrari racing cars.
The beginnings of the Italian automotive industry
The automotive industry currently accounts for 8% of the Italian GDP. In 2006, nearly a quarter of million people were employed in this industry. It’s no wonder – there’re plenty of the Italian cars being produced, and they are popular not only on the Apennine Peninsula, but also in other countries, such as Poland.
The history of the Italian automotive industry reaches back to the 80s of the 19th century. In 1884, Enrico Bernardi constructed the first Italian three-wheeler powered by a gasoline engine, however, two years later, the Stefanini-Martina company was founded, which is considered to the the oldest Italian car brand. In 1898, another company was founded – Isotta-Fraschini – and a year later, the one which for many years was shaping the automotive industry in Italy: Fiat S.p.A.
Giovanni Agnelli – one f the most important characters in the history of the Italian automotive industry – was born in 1866, and in 1892 became the mayor of Villar Perosa. Seven years later – in 1899 – Agnelli belong to the group of businessmen which founded the Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, F.I.A.T. in short (the “periods” were removed from the name in 1906). Still that same year the company was founded, the first model was released – developed by Aristide Faccioli, who later became Fiat’s main engineer.
Other popular Italian car brands which have long history are i.a.:
- Lancia (since 1906)
- Alfa Romeo (since 1910)
- Maserati (since 1914)
- Ferrari (since 1947)
- Lamborghini (since 1963)
What are the characteristics of the Italian cars?
How to tell that a car is an Italian one? First of all, by the aesthetics, for which the Italian brands are worldwide famous. Still before the outbreak of the Second World War, the most stylistically impressive constructions were developed in France, and Paris was the place which everybody looked up to. Only that after the war, the French leftist politicians set a goal to revenge on the upper class and were deliberately sabotaging the automotive industry in France.
At the same time, the Italian politics worked in definitely more pragmatic way. It was considered that such kinda of plays wouldn’t be profitable for anyone – unlike dynamically prospering Italian car brands. It is said that the period of 1945-1975 was the golden age of the Italian car design, but in the following decades there were also beautiful projects developed.
Ghia and Vignale are terms nowadays associated with Ford, but in the past these were independently functioning Italian design studios. Carrozzeria Pininfarina has been operating since 1930 – currently, the Indian Mahindra & Mahindra group is its owner. The Bertone studio already in the 20s cooperated with Fiat and Alfa Romeo, but it also has developed many successful projects for other brands. Admittedly, the future of Bertone is unclear, after in 2014 it declared bankruptcy, but one may still hope that the company hasn’t had it’s very last word.
The design of the Italian cars has always been the most important – reliability and other utility characteristics were secondary. If anybody was looking for a trouble-free car, they could choose a car from Germany. As for sustainability, the Japanese cars would be considered the best. Still, when considering the aesthetics, none of these could top the Italian brands.
Popular Italian car brands
The characteristic of the most popular Italian car brands is that they don’t need to be introduced – they speak for themselves. Is there anyone who has never heard about Ferrari or Lamborghini? And finally, is there anyone who has never dealt with a car with the Fiat logo on its hood? Just to make sure, let’s take a look at the particular manufacturers and their history.
The sports cars with the characteristic black horse int heir logo have been manufactured in Maranello since 1947, although the company itself had been founded a bit earlier. It was founded in 1938 by Enzo Ferrari – an Italian racing driver, who in the past represented the Alfa Romeo team. The first Ferrari car was definitely not the prettiest one. The 125 S model was equipped with a V12 engine with a capacity of… only 1.5 liters and the 120 HP power. The car could reach up to 155 km/h.
The following cars of this Italian brand looked much better – thanks to i.a. the cooperation with the Scaglietti, Bertone and Vignale design studios. The impressive style has always been accompanied with the performance successes of the V8 and V12 cars. Ferrari is also associated with the red colour, although the brand offers cars in other colours as well. The Italian manufacturer – which for years belonged to the Fiat group – has released many fantastic models. These are i.a.: Ferrari 275 GTB, Testarossa, F50 and F550 Maranello.
The history of this brands crosses its paths with another Italian manufacturer –. the defunct Isotta Fraschini. It is this company that the four Maserati brothers worked for (the fifth brother was employed at that time by Fiat). At the end of 1914, the siblings founded together a car workshop, and soon after that also a company called Società Anonima Officine Alfieri Maserati. The brothers for some time had been constructing racing cars for the Diatto brand, and finally the first cars with the Maserati logo were released. These were – you guessed it – cars destined for racing. Already in the first production year, Alfieri Maserati won a race with his own car, the Maserati Tipo 26.
Incredibly impressive projects, massive engines and sports successes – this is what the Maserati history looked like in the following years. At the end of the 50s, the company decided to focus mainly on the road cars, although a dose of the racing aspirations was also present in these cars. Today, the Maserati company is part of the Stellantis group. It manufactures the luxurious Ghibli and the Quattroporte sedans, the Levante SUVs, suited to the expectations of the contemporary market, and the referring to the racing traditions of the Italian brand – the MC20 model.
The history of Lamborghini begins with with one of the “I won’t make it? Watch me.” The brand, founded in 1947, at the beginning it dealt with manufacturing tractors, which were very successful. Its founder, Ferruccio Lamborghini was also a sports cars enthusiast. He owned i.a. a copy of a Ferrari car which he wasn’t entirely satisfied with – so he suggested a few enhancements. Enzo Ferrari was outraged at these suggestions, and cockily announced that some tractor driver wouldn’t be telling him how he should have produced his cars and… the rest – as the proverb has it – is history.
That tractor driver had stated then, that he would construct his own car. And this how the Italian car brands welcomed another representative of the highest tier. It all started from arrogance of one person, and it has ended on models such as the Lamborghini Miura, the Countach, the Diablo, the Murciélago and for example – from the most current history – the Aventador. The brand also offers an SUV – the Lamborghini Urus, equipped with a supercharged 641-HP engine. The part of the company which deals with the sports cars manufacturing has changed its owner several times. For some time, it was handles by Chrysler, and even the Indonesian Megatech. Currently – i.e. since 1998 – 100% of the Lamborghini Automobili S.p.A. shares is held by Audi AG, which is part of the Volkswagen Group.
The Pagani brand, compared to its famous competitors, stands out for its young age – it was founded only in 1992, at which time the biggest Italian car brands had already had several dozens of years of experience each. As it turns out, it didn’t really matter, as the Pagani debut car – the Zonda model – was downright successful. The founder of the company, Horacio Pagani, a businessman born in Argentina, had worked before for Lamborghini, which – already as Pagani Composite Research – he was still involved in cooperation with.
The Pagani cars used the 12-cylinder engine known from the Mercedes AMG cars. At first, the brands offered the Zonda 12 model, later, other performance car models (known under the same name, only accompanied with an “extension”), which were by the way… extremely expensive. Today, the Pagani brand manufactures the Huayra model in a few versions – with and without a roof. Under its hood, behind the drivers back, to be exact, the same supercharged V12 engine is installed, in various horsepower versions.
Vincenzo Lancia founded the company named by his surname at the end of November of 1906 in Turin. Its purpose right from the beginning was to manufacture the passenger cars, and already after the first several months, the Tipo 51 or 12 HP model was produced, better known as the Lancia Alpha. The company has reached at least a few milestones in its history. The Lancia Theta from 1913 already equipped with full electric equipment, the Lambda from 1922 had a unibody and an independent suspension at the front, and in 1933 it was the Lambda Augusta which became the first sedan in the world which had hydraulic brakes.
The company was developing dynamically, even after the founder’s death (Vincenzo Lancia died in 1937). The cars of this brand participated in rallies and races, and the D50 model was even chosen to take part in the Formula 1 competitions. The financial problems did not allow Lancia to continue working in this sphere of the business. In 1969, Lancia was taken over by Fiat, and a bit later the legendary Lancia Stratos and the Delta were created, as well as the more civil models – the Beta and the Thema. And although in the following years the company offered many interesting solutions, still many of them encountered serious problems in finding clients. The current situation of Lancia is quite surprising – as the brand has in its offer only one model, the Ypsilon. What’s more, the small car based on the platform of the Fiat 500 is available only in Italy and… in 2019 it was the second best-selling car in this country.
Alfa Romeo is one the oldest brands manufacturing Italian sports cars. It’s a brand which arouses surprisingly many emotions around the world – and they are ambivalent, by the way. Some don’t like it too much, others are willing to forgive its cars any faults. Let’s now take a look at its history from the beginning. It all started already in 1906, when Alexandre Darracq founded his company near Milan. At first, he sold only cars, and after a few years he also started to construct cars of his own brand. However, he encountered financial problems which forced him to sell his company. In 1910, it was purchased by a group of businessmen who had founded the Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili company, which was… Alfa, in short. We know now about the first part of the company name – what about the other? It was created at the end of the First World War, when Nicola Romeo became the manager of the institution.
In 1933, the company was purchased by a state organisation, however, the Alfa Romeo representatives preserved full autonomy. Even when compared to other Italian car brands, Alfa would strongly stand out – i.a. due to the boxer engines usage (it’s an engine nowadays mainly known thanks to Porsche and Subaru). In 1986, Alfa Romeo along with its state owner was taken over by the Fiat group. It was doing pretty well – however, below the expectations. It still delighted with its appearance – the bodywork was taken care of primarily by the Carrozzeria Pininfarina studio. There are a few interesting models in the history of this brand. It’s for example the Alfa Romeo Giulia – both the one manufactured during 1962-1978, as well as the one manufactured nowadays, which can compete with cars of the e.g. German brands. Alfa Romeo currently also produces two SUVs – the Stelvio and the Tonale.
When Giovanni Agnelli in 1899 along with other businessmen founded the company, they must’ve had big ambitions. But did they expect Fiat to be such a brilliant success? Pretty unlikely, although – as everything – possible. The company’s history was dynamic – the same year the company was founded, the first Fiat was manufactured – the 3.5 HP model – and already after four years, the company was listed. The end of the expansion? Certainly not. Fiat opened many branches, one for example in New York. Still before the outbreak of the First World War, the world representatives of the company decided to have two factories built – in Lingotto and Mirafiori.
The following years were a period of an impressively fast development of Fiat, which to which i.a. numerous partnerships contributed. Under the Italian brand license, the cars were also manufactured in other countries, in the Soviet Union, and also – let us not forget – in Poland. If it hadn’t been for Fiat, the Polish automotive industry history would’ve developed completely differently. In 1969, Fiat became the owner of Ferrari and Lancia, ten years later it created a holding company – Fiat S.p.A. – which consisted of, aside from the three already mentioned brands, Autobianchi and Abarth. Nowadays, the Fiat group is one of the two pillars of the Stellantis group, which brings together a whole bunch of car brands from Italy and France.
Which car of this Italian brand should be particularly forgotten? It’s impossible to choose one, as there are many of them – the 125 and the 126, the Cinquecento and the Seicento, but also the sports Fiat X1/9 and the especially extravagant Fiat Multipla, which seems to have been designed and manufactured to spite the people who have eyes. Let’s put these comment aside – as Fiat has in its offer a lot of passenger and utility vehicles, there’s also a compact and a convertible, and even cars with the four-wheel drive.
Another interesting Italian car brand is Abarth, which can be recognised by the characteristic scorpion in its logo. Why the scorpion exactly? Because the founder of the company – Carlo Abarth – was born under the horoscope of the Scorpio. The company was founded in 1949, and for most of the time it dealt with modifying Italian cars – by Fiat and Alfa Romeo – and French ones – by Renault and Simca – creating their faster and stronger versions.
Abarth in its history was the most closely connected with Fiat, and in 1971, it became part of this Italian group. Abarth was responsible for preparing Fiat rally cars and the brand did an excellent job – although, when Lancia Delta had its moment of fame, Abarth was closed. However, it wasn’t the end of this brand – at the beginning of the 21st century, Abarth came back, marking its return with the release of the Seicento model, and later the Stilo. It cannot be said that either of these models was particularly successful. Unlike the later released one – the Abarth Grande Punto and the Abarth 500. It is the smallest Fiat model which is now the core offer of the Abarth car brand.
The Iveco brand is nowadays primarily associated with popular cargo cars, but its offer is not limited to these only. In its portfolio, there are also Italian trucks and military cars, as well as drive units manufactured for other manufacturers, and buses. The Iveco group itself was founded in 1975 as the result of the separation and connection of truck departments of a few companies – i.a. Fiat Veicoli Industriali, Lancia Veicoli Industriali, OM, Unic and the Alfa Romeo section. Iveco did not stop there, however, as it gradually took over other companies and their factories (e.g. the British plant manufacturing the Ford trucks). Iveco took over i.a. the Czech Karosa and the Indian Ashok Leyland.
The Daily has been the most popular Iveco model for years, whose competitor or the equivalent – in the same group – is the Fiat Ducato. The company possess in sum collectively over 40 manufacturing plants in several countries, primarily in Italy, and also in Germany, Spain and Ukraine. The Iveco cars were also manufactured in Poland – the already mentioned Daily model, and the Iveco Eurocargo were for some time manufactured in Poznań.
All of the above brands manufacture Italian cars – so why is the Piaggio group placed among them, which is mainly associated with scooters? It has an extremely long history, and at the same time it is an important element of the Italian automotive industry history. The company was founded already in 1884, although a lot time had have to pass until until the company started to typically deal with the automotive industry. Rinaldo Piaggio had produced for years locomotives and wagons, and even… wooden craftworks and nets. The outbreak of the First World War made the company focus on the aviation industry – it extended to the interwar period, as well as the Second World War.
When the war ended, the company could seriously start to rebuild. It is then when it was decided that the company would enter the automotive industry. This is how the Vespa scooters and the Ciao motorcycles were created. What about the vehicle manufacturing? These also were manufactured – i.a. the three-wheel Piaggio Ape of the cargo character, and the Piaggio Porter, a microvan which was only 319.5 cm long. Interestingly, the latter in its original form was produced until 2021. The current – 2nd generation – is bigger. It’s at least 4-meters long, which is still considered small for a cargo vehicle, but it’s not as small as it used to be. Piaggio & Co. S.p.A. is a separate group, based in Pontedera, it brings together a few popular brands manufacturing two-wheelers, thanks to which it’s one of the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.
Defunct Italian car brands
The currently active Italian car brands are well-known and recognised all over the world. What about the Italian car brands which have been defunct for some time already? These deserve remembrance as well, as they also contributed to the Italian automotive industry history.
O.S.C.A. – Officine Specializzate Costruzione Automobili – was a company which existed in 1947-1967. Founded by the Maserati brothers – yes, the same ones who were associated with the main, still operative sports and luxurious car brand. O.S.C.A. was created after the war, when the brothers left Maserati after it was taken over, and started their own business.
They manufactured small sports cars, i.a. with the view to the Formula 2. They aspired to the Formula 1, but they weren’t able to compete with Ferrari and Alfa Romeo with their not sufficient financial means. The changing conditions in the motor sports were also not in favour of the Maserati brothers, who eventually decided to retire. O.S.C.A. was then taken over by the MV Augusta business.
The Italian car brands which prospered the longest are know the best – what about the ones which existed the shortest time? It’s difficult to say what’s the record, however, when it comes to the Italian cars manufactured for the shortest period of time, the Qvale brand has set the bar high. It manufactured only ne car – and only for two years. The business existed in 2000-2002, founded by the Qvale family, who earlier had dealt with car trade in USA.
At the end of the 20th century, the family decided to conduct an experiment, and purchased the license from De Tomaso, under which the two-door Qvale Mangusta was manufactured. Around 280 copies of it were manufactured, most of which were sold in USA. However, already in 2002, the brand was taken over by the MG Rover Group, and Qvale ceased to exist.
Fissore – or Carrozzeria Fissore – is an excellent example of how the paths of the manufacturers cross, and how the Italian car brands cooperate with one another. The Fissore business was founded in 1919. At first, it dealt with the horse vehicles manufacturing, with time, the company also started manufacturing passenger cars and trucks.
The actual car manufacturing was only part of the business activities, which for years was mainly providing bodyworks for other manufacturers – Fiat, O.S.C.A., the Swiss Monteverdi, and the famous De Tomaso, as well as TVR. The business management, however, left much to be desired, which translated into the financial situation of the company. It eventually – under changed names – survived until 2000.
Isotta Fraschini was in its prime in the 20s and the 30s of the previous century, when the luxurious cars of this Italian manufacturer were purchased by the greatest stars. And in fact, the company was famous all over the world – its reputation could be compared to the one of i.a. Rolls-Royce. Founded in 1900 in Milan, the company dealt with constructing and selling the Renault vehicles, then the company decided to sell cars of its own brand – these were incredibly impressive, such as the Tipo D sports car equipped with a engine of a capacity of… 17 liters.
The racing cars were soon joined the luxury ones, and the fame of the Isotta Fraschini brand was massive. A great crisis and WWII stood in its way, and Isotta ceased to manufacture passenger cars. There were many attempts to reactivate the company in various ways, but it was all in vain, and in 1999, the company responsible for the Isotta Fraschini brand declared bankruptcy.
The Innocenti company was founded in 1933 in Milan and yet before the outbreak of the Second World War it became an important spot on the map of the Italian industry. As a result of the military operations, the factory was bombed, which… turned out to only a temporary obstacle. After the war, Innocenti started to work on scooters – and also small cars under the British license. This is how the Innocenti A40 and the Innocenti Mini were created.
In the 70s, the Innocenti brand was purchased by the British Leyland, from which in turn – due to the financial problems – it was purchased by De Tomaso. The following years brought more changes – and when Mazda showed interest in purchasing Innocenti, Fiat made an offer they couldn’t refuse. This is how the brand joined the empire of the Agnelli family. Innocenti ended its car manufacturing in 1990 – although for some more years, certain slightly remade Fiat models were sold with the Innocenti logo on their hoods.
Popularity of the Italian car brands in other countries
The Italian cars are well known not only on the Apennine Peninsula. The are valued by the automotive enthusiasts in the rest of the European countries, as well as overseas. The Ferrari or the Lamborghini cars can be seen almost everywhere – anywhere where people holding millions-worth fortunes can be found, ready to pay a lot for the Italian supercars.
Of course, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati are the selected, very particular Italian cars which – although incredibly popular – in the sales volume consist of only a margin (which is nothing wrong). Fiat has the best results, selling – nationally and abroad – affordable cars, available for almost everyone. In addition, they are economic, and have a simple construction. It’s no wonder that they work well anywhere, where the car is simply supposed to drive.
Other Italian car brands also work hard for their position. The representative of Alfa Romeo decided to keep up with the times, and introduce SUVs into their offer, which are essential in the contemporary Europe or USA. Is this going to continue – time will tell. As well as what consequences will be brought by the recent creation of the Stellantis group. The giant which brings together the biggest French and Italian car brands disposes of a massive market share, and whose decisions will surely strongly influence the future of the world automotive industry – not only the Italian one.
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