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