Values – Italy

How does one define Italy’s relationship to the motor car? One might start by attempting to define the country itself.

Passionate pragmatism. 1981 Maserati Biturbo by Pierangelo Andreani. (c) carinpicture

[Editor’s note: This piece is a re-run of an article originally published in May 2016, as part of DTW’s Values theme.]

As anyone has read a few books on Italian history will know, it’s a great bunch of countries. Only foreigners lump it all together as one nation. That gives us a bit of a head start in understanding how Italy’s values translate into the broad array of markedly different car companies being stifled under one management.

As recently as the 1950s you could still find people in the deep south of Italy who didn’t know what Italy was. While outsiders consider Italy to have been unified, many Italians still see the event as a take-over of the south by the conservative north. As much as the United States is characterised by sharp contrasts and deep differences so too is Italy.

Image: oldcar and vehicle

This translates into a country that simultaneously sells €8,000 cars such as the 500 and €180,000 cars such as Ferrari’s upper-echelon GTs. The middle ground is a bit sparse, perhaps: Maseratis have only recently begun to sell in the BMW 5-series price range and then that’s a quirk of history unique to Italy. This is the slow deflation of the nobility of brands such as Alfa Romeo and Lancia; Maserati is really only taking up the position these marques once occupied before being destroyed by bad management and a nation’s commitment to having a nice time of it.

Italy is at once home to thinkers and artists of matchless brilliance. Umberto Eco, for example, is a man that only Italy could have brought forth (I am sorry he died recently). Rabarama is an artist of a particular Italian style working today. Morandi is among the 20th century’s great painters. There’s also considerable social deprivation and labour rates in Italy are still notably lower than in northern Europe.

It’s as if Italy is a partial mix of north-European sensibility and Mediterranean sensibility. Individuals can apply deep thinking and rigorous focus to their activities but in concert, things don’t work quite so well. In this light it makes sense to see the imagination and flair of the great engineers and designers confounded by inability to repeat the idea in series production.

Almost forty years ago, the 1977 Alfa Giulietta was already showing AR´s key traits of frailty and lack of overall competence. Still a lovely car, if you like rust and iffy plastics.
Almost forty years ago, the 1977 Alfa Giulietta was already showing AR’s key traits of frailty and lack of overall competence. Still a lovely car, if you like rust and iffy plastics.

This is dramatically less true today than it was thirty years ago. However, much damage was done to Italy’s automotive culture, leaving the path open for single figures to wield power that in more orderly countries would have been divided managerially. This leaves Fiat as an heir to a dead noble brand, an at-risk noble brand, an at-risk noble brand and Ferrari who by dint of their great expense have been able to insulate themselves to a large degree from the turbulence of the labour market and individuals’ wish not to try too hard on the production line.

The cars themselves: often a mix of Piedmont conservatism and Latin charisma. We find the sober-suited sport saloons of Bertone’s Alfas, the practical simplicity of the 132s, Regatas and Tipos or the passionate rationalism of the best Lancias.

Lancia Flavia 2000. pinterest

Only a romantic would have tried to build cars as serious as those of Vincenzo Lancia. And only a practical man like Agnelli would have tolerated the fragile but cheap compromises of 127s and the original 500s. That soul is still there in the latest cars. The latter wanted to makes cars people could afford even if they weren’t all that good and the former wanted to make cars to be proud of and was prepared to defer the gratification of profit in so doing. Fiat was expediency and Lancia was about idealism.

The long run of the Italian industry seems to be the clash of these two values. I suspect even the fanciful Fiats were born of expediency more than passion. We’ll see how that plays out in the coming years. Under one firm Italy is unified. Like the national unification it has really been about take-overs with that underlying pragmatism trumping the idiosyncrasy of the parts absorbed.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

3 thoughts on “Values – Italy”

  1. An interesting and thoughtful piece, thank you Richard. It is a tragedy that the distinctive and diverse character of the different Italian marques has largely been lost through neglect and mismanagement under Fiat.

    Volkswagen group had to build new marque identities the hard way, virtually from scratch: Audi was a quirky left-field choice for those who couldn’t run to a Mercedes Benz. Skoda was (unfairly) regarded as a joke. Seat had no identity outside Spain other than as a builder of Fiats.

    Imagine if the starting points had instead been Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Maserati, and you begin to realise the scale of Fiat’s ineptitude. It’s no consolation that the Fiat marque has suffered similar neglect and mismanagement. The automotive landscape is hugely impoverished by the loss of these great Italian marques.

    Incidentally, that Flavia coupé is just lovely and deserves another photo:

  2. Hmmmn.

    It isn’t so much that I disagree with the assertions in this piece taken individually, but I wonder to what extent they really define Italy specifically. For instance, the notion that ‘Individuals can apply deep thinking and rigorous focus to their activities but in concert, things don’t work quite so well’ is a sentence that would fit very comfortably at AROnline, as indeed would the observation on differences geographic. The same could easily be said of a number of Italy’s near-neighbours such as Spain or Greece, or even France to an extent.

    Equally, I am not sure about the following assertion: “However, much damage was done to Italy’s automotive culture, leaving the path open for single figures to wield power that in more orderly countries would have been divided managerially.” I would counter that a case can be made that some of the most iconic names in Italian automotive history – Jano, Giacosa, Lampredi, Hruska, Forghieri, Ghidella, Pininfarina, Bertone, Gandini, Giugiaro – exemplify the deep thinking/rigorous focus at an individual level referred to above. Notwithstanding that each worked as part of a larger team, it is also true that they left their stamp on their work in a way that clearly defines their legacies, in a way that is arguably not nearly as widespread in other countries’ carmakers. There are surely exceptions, of course – Greek Al at BMC, Lyons at Jaguar, or Bruno Sacco at Mercedes, but in many ways the history of Italian carmaking, more than most, is the history of strong-willed individuals imposing their preferences over and above the process deficiencies of a more corporate-managerial approach.

    It’s all too easy to fall into the lazy journalistic trope of Italian cars being defined by ‘passion’ – although I myself admit it is an easy one to fall for, because they do have an undeniable ‘something’ that makes them feel different as a whole. Nonetheless, for me, the real question is to what extent the dead hand of Fiat (as Italians would call it) is fundamental to the company and to what extent it is a relatively newfound phenomenon. Some years back, when the rumours of Fiat selling Alfa to VAG were at their height, a colleague in Fiat’s press office not lacking on the dry wit scale said to me, “I’m looking forward to it, it will be a novel experience working for a real company…” My personal view is that for all its faults, which are many and of which discussion shouldn’t be backed away from, Fiat has been a significantly less cynical enterprise over the years than, say, a Ford of Europe.

    “Only a romantic would have tried to build cars as serious as those of Vincenzo Lancia. And only a practical man like Agnelli would have tolerated the fragile but cheap compromises of 127s and the original 500s. That soul is still there in the latest cars. The latter wanted to makes cars people could afford even if they weren’t all that good and the former wanted to make cars to be proud of and was prepared to defer the gratification of profit in so doing. Fiat was expediency and Lancia was about idealism.”

    For me this assertion underplays both the value and competence of the small Fiats. One observation I read many years ago that rang true is that Fiat placed emphasis on making even a bottom-of-the-range car something acceptable, livable and worth owning, which is definitely not something you could say of every manufacturer, even ones that equally make their living at that end of the automotive food chain. Likewise, a cars like the 130 or Dino were very far from expedient – very expensively engineered and extremely competent, thanks in no small part to the efforts of some of the individuals nominated above.

    In some ways, I feel like the story of the X1/9 gets to the core of all this. The baby of Nuccio Bertone, pushed through in large part by his force of will against doubtful and somewhat-recalcitrant Fiat management. Very safe for the time, impeccably packaged, a joy to drive and affordably-priced, for mine, it is one of the Italian industry’s most impressive achievements. But as per above, it existed largely due to the vision and persistence of individuals outside the stifling Fiat bureaucracy. Perhaps one factor in the decline of Fiat and Italian industry in general can be traced to the increasing complexity and general emphasis on managerialism involved in carmaking – not because Italy per se is any less capable technically than Germany or Japan or the US, but that such a model leaves rather less room for individuals to ‘do their thing’ when surrounded by a team of hundreds and necessarily constrained in their ability to dictate terms.

  3. As the erstwhile owner of a 2000HF, the final iteration of the Flavia 2000, it was a lovely, well-engineered car, and complicated rust-trap for which the factory had few panels in stock.

    On your interesting diagnosis of Italy’s postwar automotive problems, remember the country, unlike Germany and Britain, had little prewar hinterland to draw on. I remember only the pleasant Balilla.

    I’ll return to this, but my first coffee of the day is getting cold.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.