Prior to the 2020 Covid-19 crisis, Italy was one of the top five car manufacturing nations on Earth. At the time of writing it still remains to be seen how automobile industries world-wide and in the hard-hit Italy recover from this catastrophic event. However, the breakdown of Italian car brands should remain more or less the same for a number of years. We have some charts here representing the registrations of domestic cars in Italy at the end of 2019. It needs to be noted that Jeep has to be included in this chart because after the Chrysler-Fiat merger (or an acquisition of Chrysler by Fiat, really) this popular brand with production facilities in Italy technically became a domestic Italian brand.
One will immediately notice that there are only four brands that are responsible for the vast majority of domestic brand sales in Italy: Fiat, Jeep, Lancia and Alfa Romeo. All of these brands are actually part of FCA (the Fiat-Chrysler mega-corporation). Ferrari was also a part of this group until being spun off in 2006. There are strong indicators that another merger is looming, as FCA seeks to merge with the French automakers Groupe PSA. The only remaining major brand on the list, Lamborghini, barely escaped being under the FCA umbrella, because Chrysler owned this sports car outfit for about half a decade, starting in 1987.
Let’s briefly discuss each one of the Italian car brands, omitting Jeep which only got swept into the list as a result of corporate games. We will do so in a historic order.
The company traces its roots to 1899 when Giovanni Agnelli, along with a group of investors, created an enterprise called Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino (Italian Automobile factory in Turin). ‘Fiat 4 HP’ was the first model produced by the new firm. The north of Italy has traditionally been the area where most of Italian manufacturers have been located, and the work force there was highly skilled even at the end of the 19th century. The name FIAT can also be interpreted as a form of the Latin verb to be, meaning “let it be,” as in Fiat Lux (“let there be light”), representing God’s intention to create light described in the beginning of the book of Genesis. This ambitions project was successful from the start, and Geovanni Agnelli remained at the helm of the company for forty-six years until his death in 1945. From the start, Fiat showed ability and desire to branch out into new areas of manufacturing (such as trucks and aircraft engines), as well as foreign markets. As you have already guessed, Fiat’s impact on the industry was also carried out by purchasing competitors. Eventually it made sense to spin manufacturing units off and in 1979 the Fiat holding company was created, owning dozens of highly prized brands around the world. Still, most of the conglomerates automobiles are still produced under the Fiat name, including such popular vehicles as Punto, the Grande Punto, Panda, Uno and Bravo. Many of the company’s models are designed “for the masses,” so a typical Fiat that one imagines is a small, practical car, often the first car that a consumer purchases in their lifetime. Fiat has been of the top car manufacturers in Europe for decades and it also ranks high on the list automobile makers world wide.
Vincenzo Lancia (1881 – 1937) was a race car driver, engineer and entrepreneur. Lancia’s first steps in the automobile industry happened when he worked as a test driver for Fiat. His skills and enthusiasm prompted Fiat’s leadership to allow him to defend the company’s colors by participating in races. With engineering being another passion of his, it was only a matter of time before Lancia started his own brand. He founded the namesake company in 1906, releasing his first vehicle in 1907. For a long time, Lancia maintained a reputation of superb production standards and innovation. In particular, the company was a pioneer in electrical components and engine design. By 1969, the costs of manufacturing modern cars while maintaining high quality standards became prohibitive and Fiat was quick to scoop up the company founded by their former employee. It remains a strong performer today, although Fiat discontinued many of Lancia’s product lines, especially within the commercial vehicle segment. One tradition continues, however: it has always been common to see Lancia car models named after Greek alphabet letters. Lancia Ypsilon is the principal model in production right now. It is a super-mini car, very popular in Italy and abroad. Ypsilon is a far cry from Vincenzo Lancia’s speedy innovative vehicles, but at least the story of the brand continues.
This Italian car brand was actually started by a French national by the name of Alexandre Darracq (1855 – 1931). It was founded as an Italian company and received the name Società Anonima Italiana Darracq (SAID). In 1910 the name was changed to “[Società] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili“, which spells ALFA. Nicola Romeo (1876 – 1938), an Italian engineer and entrepreneur too over Alfa’s leadership in 1915 and his name was added to the official title plate of the business. For most of its history, Alfa Romeo specialized in high-end vehicles, but it also gained a reputation in car racing. This included Formula 1, hugely popular in Europe. Technical innovations have always been been in Alfa Romeo’s DNA, but the company also heavily invested in body design. Many prominent Italian design firms have established connections to this brand: Bertone ,Giorgetto Giugiaro, Pininfarina and Zagato. Alfa Romeo concept cars typically went into production after some alterations. In the 1980s the inevitable happened: Fiat took over Alfa Romeo. The company currently produces luxury consumer vehicles, such as Alfa Rome Giulia (a compact executive car), Alfa Romeo Stelvio (high-end crossover), as well as small family cars like Giulietta and 4C.
Established by the five Maserati brothers in 1914, this company for many years was primarily involved in automobile sports. In the late 1950s and 60s, the brand distanced itself from racing, especially following the tragedy in Guidizzolo. Alfonso de Portago and his copilot died in a horrific accident (Alfonso’s body was found in two segments and his colleague was crushed under their vehicle). 10 spectators were killed, including 5 children. This event shook the racing world. Although de Portago was driving a Ferrari, the repercussions were felt throughout the industry. Maserati concentrated on grand luxury automobiles, such as the iconic Vignale 3500 GT Convertible. Beginning in the late 1960s, hard financial times started a series of takeovers of the Maserati brand. Most famously, after owning Maserati for a few years, Citroën filed for bankruptcy. The Italian government subsidized the locally based business. After much corporate tug and pull, Maserati is now owned by FIAT Chrysler, but operates as a single entity with Alfa Romeo. As a result, the Maserati part of this outfit concentrates on larger automobiles, like the Maserati GranTurismo and mid-size models like Maserati Ghibli.
Enzo Ferrari (1898 – 1988), an Italian car race driver and entrepreneur, started his career as a test driver for C.M.N. (Costruzioni Meccaniche Nazionali). His racing career was mostly connected with Alfa Romeo, although by his own admission Ferrari became less interested in racing after the tragic death of another Alfa driver, Antonio Ascari, in 1925. After a disagreement with Alfa Romeo, Enzo Ferrari founded his own company Auto-Avio Costruzioni in 1939, mostly supplying parts to manufacturers. Only after the World War II was over Ferrari finally decided to build his own cars, branding them with his last name. The first model released under this name was Ferrari 125 S (only two vehicles were ever manufactured). In 1948 Ferrari entered a different kind of race, producing the first automobile for the consumer market: Ferrari 166 Inter. Touring cars have remained the staple of this brand’s image. The prancing horse (Cavallino Rampante) became one of the world’s most recognizable logos. The status factor allowed Ferrari to release many products bearing the brand’s insignia: clothing, accessories, sunglasses, perfume, time-keeping devices, bicycles and electronics. The company was also a notable manufacturer of custom-built exclusive cars for those customers who could afford them. Fiat purchased 90% of the company’s shares in 1969.
Ferruccio Lamborghini (1916 – 1993) started his company Lamborghini Trattori in 1947. Using his expertise as a mechanic, he was able to use post-war opportunities and the demand for farming equipment to his advantage. By the end of the 1950s he owned a great deal of Italy’s tractor manufacturing facilities. With money all of sudden no object, Lamborghini treated himself to every luxury sports vehicle around. The story goes that he did not completely like the cars that he was buying. In an attempt to address the situation, Ferruccio Lamborghini header straight to Maranello where he supposedly had a heated discussion with Enzo Ferrari. Pointing out, as an example, that the size of the clutch was too small, he was hoping to see improvements in new models. Instead, Enzo exclaimed that the problem was not with the car, but with the driver: “You don’t know how to drive a Ferrari!” Lamborghini took this very personally (as one should). He immediately vowed never to buy another Ferrari and, while he was at it, to start manufacturing his own cars. The quest to build “the perfect car” began. Perhaps in a response to the prancing horse, the emblem of the new car manufacturer was became the raging bull: both as a nod to agricultural background and Lamborghini’s obsession with bullfighting. Despite some initial success, in the 1970s the demand for Lamborghini cars sharply declined. A series of ownership changes followed, although foreign companies were careful to preserve the brand’s Italian identity, continuing to hire Italian designers and engineers. Today, Lamborghini operates within the VW conglomerate. It is the only major Italian brand currently not owned by Fiat.
MINOR ITALIAN CAR BRANDS
There are close to two hundred domestic cars sold in Italy that are not manufactured by the main brands. Some of them have retained independence, but many are controlled by Fiat. One would expect that in a country known for car design and production many people will start their career at some of the major companies and then decided to try their own luck.
The manufacturer of mini-cars for racing and the road.
Specializes in body design and styling. Has worked closely with leading luxury brands.
Commercial and utility vehicles.
Currently operating out of Munich, a luxury brand.
Scooters and mopeds.
Motor racing car manufacturer.
Specializes in adding Italian design to foreign made cars.
High performing automobiles
Racing and road cars.
There are also many defunct brands of Italian cars, mostly of interest for collectors and historians. The most complete list of these is maintained by Wikipedia.