If you're a fan of automobiles, there is at least one Italian car you just absolutely love.
When it comes to looking back at the innovation of the automobile, the history of Italian cars might seem less important in the bigger picture. The car, or more accurately, the internal combustion engine, was invented in the late 19th century by two German engineers. American and Japanese car companies alike innovated in design and marketing, selling their cars across the globe. But the Italian contribution to the car business cannot be overlooked, nor can its importance be ignored. In fact, you might even be able to argue that the first car (of a sort) was designed and created by Italians.
We know the names today: Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Lamborghini, Maserati, and Fiat. These brands are associated in the globe’s mind with two things: speed and luxury. However, in most cases, there were people behind those names. People who used their creativity and gumption to move the art and science of automobile making forward. To this day, even though some of the players have changed and some haven’t, the Italian contribution to luxury cars, specifically sports cars, is as important today as it ever was.
The Earliest Beginnings - Da Vinci’s Cars
We may think of Leonardo Da Vinci as a great artist, known for the wry nature of the Mona Lisa’s smile. However, he was a much more complex individual than that. First and foremost, Da Vinci was a scholar. He studied science, mechanics, and anatomy in great depth and kept very detailed notes. He also invented, at least conceptually, a number of machines ahead of their time, such as a flying machine and a car. While it’s not a car like we think of today, Da Vinci designed a machine that used gears and springs to propel itself forward. He even devised a method for programmable steering.
A number of people have taken Da Vinci’s designs and realized his vision. One group of engineers in Florence, Italy’s Museum of the History of Science built a life-sized version of the car. At first they thought it might be too dangerous, specifically because it takes a long time for the brake to take effect. However, Da Vinci never intended for this to be a people-mover. Rather, he wanted this car to be a kind of automated whirling dervish zipping around festivals and other social events. It was meant to inspire wonder about the potential of technology. One has to wonder what Da Vinci might think if he knew machines like this line the roadways of the world today?
The True History of Italian Cars Begins: The Combustion Engine
Whatever we think of cars, they aren’t much different today than they were back at the turn of the 20th century. Those cars weren’t much different than the horse-drawn carriages people used for travel in the centuries preceding the automobile. The real history of the car doesn’t begin with the inventor of the carriage or even good, old Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s the guys who invented what goes under the hood who get the honor of “inventing” the modern car. Yet, while Nikolaus Otto in Germany developed his combustion engine, so Nicolo “Eugenio” Barsanti, an Italian priest and engineer, worked on his own version. Barsanti studied the physics of pistols, developing his own engine using hydrogen and air in 1853.
By 1870, the gasoline combustion engine rendered the Barsanti-Matteucci engine obsolete. However, the company fell much earlier than that. Barsanti, the real genius behind the engine, fell ill in the spring of 1864 with typhoid fever. His sudden demise left his partner, Felix Matteucci, to pioneer their fledgling engine company, but he wasn’t able to do it without Eugenio. By 1864, their dream was over. However, once Otto successfully patented his engine, Matteucci tried to sue him, unsuccessfully. The Otto engine served as a four-stroke atmospheric engine, while the Barsanti-Matteucci engine a two-stroke one.
Italian Automakers Shape the History of Italian Cars
With the groundwork laid by way of combustion engines, Italian dreamers only needed make a vessel to hold it. Luckily, several companies emerged to craft what looks more like the cars we know today. The following are undoubtedly essential for the longevity of the history of Italian cars.
Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino
When you’re talking about the history of Italian cars, the story truly begins and ends with Fiat. Originally an acronym but later changed, Fiat is the largest Italian automaker in the world. Almost all of the other automakers listed below are now a part of Fiat, with only 10 percent of Italian cars not under its umbrella. Founded in 1899 by a group of investors led by Giovanni Agnelli, Fiat started small went on to produce cars popular all across Europe. Exactly 110 years after its founding, Chrysler and Fiat merged into a global conglomerate.
For most of the 20th century, Agnelli and later his son, Gianni, led Fiat towards its reputation as a powerhouse. Dozens of other automakers, such as Diatto, Lancia, Aquila Italiana, and others all rose to challenge Fiat’s dominance in the industry. However, they just couldn’t compete. In the 1970s, with oil prices skyrocketing and the global economy on a downturn, many automakers were wiped out. Fiat struggled, but perhaps because of their longevity, they were forward thinking enough to buy up other companies, including competitors. By the 1990s, they were the 3rd most successful automaker in the world. While the cars that bear their name are not as flashy as some, it’s the real giant on the road.
From its inception, Fiat’s owners wanted it to be a successful car company. However, the Italian street racing scene is just as important to the history of Italian cars. Unlike Fiat, the first Alfa Romeo cars were not for driving on the streets. Founded in 1910 as just Alfa, they entered their first cars in the Targa Florio racing event. When World War I broke out, Alfa fell under the control of Nicola Romeo, who guided the company to producing military vehicles. For 20 years, the newly-branded Alfa Romeo was a fixture on the racing circuit, and in 1941, Benito Mussolini took control of the company. Instead of military hardware, Il Duce wanted them to produce cars for the rich.
After World War II, Alfa Romeo was no longer the racing powerhouse it once was. Still, they knew how to make fine luxury cars. In 1954, the company introduced the Alfa Romeo Twin Cam engine, their signature product until the 1980s. Caught up in the economic trouble of the era, Alfa Romeo almost entered into a merger with Ford Motor Company. However, Fiat swooped in and offered a better deal. Today, Alfa Romeo is under the Fiat umbrella and is more a luxury car than the sports roadster of other brands, like Ferrari.
Enzio and Scuderia Ferrari
Enzio Ferrari grew up in Italy and, after seeing a race in 1908 at the age of ten, wanted to become a race car driver. After being discharged from the Italian Army in 1918 following World War I, Ferrari went to Fiat for a job. They turned him down. Still, he raced whatever he could get his hands on, finally landing on the Alfa Romeo racing team in 1920. Eventually racing lost its appeal to Ferrari after the death of a friend, so he wanted to retire from the team. He convinced Alfa Romeo to privatize the team, renamed Scuderia Ferrari, in 1929. Enzio oversaw construction of the cars and selection of the team of drivers. A necklace given to Enzio by a friend in the service and later killed in action, became the iconic Ferrari prancing horse emblem.
Enzio Ferrari remained active in the racing component of the Ferrari business until his death in 1988 at the age of 90. However, in 1949, Ferrari started selling road cars, rather than just building complex and not-street-legal machines. But by the end of the 1960s, Enzio wanted nothing to do with road cars. So, he sought a merger with Ford Motor Company. Yet Ford would not agree to his demand to be left in charge of racing. Therefore, he went back to the company where he sought his first job: Fiat. First they were in with Enzio 50/50, but by 1988, they owned 90 percent. Today, on and off the race track, Ferrari is known as one of the most important figures in the history of Italian cars.
The Brothers Maserati
Five Maserati brothers (Alfieri, Bindo, Carlo, Ettore, and Ernesto) all worked for other Italian car manufacturers in the early 20th century. In 1926, after three of the five brothers lost their jobs with Diatto, they started their own eponymous company. Using a trident logo based on the Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza Maggiore of Bologna, Italy, they built cars that won races. Alfieri died in 1932, and the brothers continued for about five more years. Eventually, they sold the company to Adolfo Orsi, who built the headquarters in Modena, where it remains to this day. They disbanded their own racing team after a horrible crash in 1957, but continued to make cars for private racing teams.
Another Alfieri, Giulio Alfieri the chief engineer, turned their racing engines into road cars. The company then shifted their focus to making luxury touring cars. However, their vehicles still had plenty of power under the hood. From the late 1960s to the 1990s, Maserti had a number of owners, including Citroën and the Italian government. In 1989, Fiat entered a joint venture with the current owners and eventually purchased the rest of the company in 1993. Fiat then combined Maserati with its rival Ferrari, making the former the luxury line of the latter’s company. In 2005, Fiat reorganized its brands so that Maserati, Alfa Romeo, and another brand were all under the same umbrella. Since then Maserati has become one of the best-selling Italian car brands.
A driver for Fiat’s racing team named Vincenzo Lancia broke off from the company and formed his own company with friend, Claudio Fogolin. While they performed well in races, their road cars are what make them important to the history of Italian cars. The Tipo 51 model, sold from 1907 to 1908, was a popular road car. Lancia cars featured many innovations making them one of the first luxury cars worth their price. In 1913, Lancia changed the history of Italian cars by making complete electrical systems standard equipment in their cars -- the first company to do so. Additionally, they were the first cars to try unibody or monocoque construction, where the outer skin of the vehicle supports the car. They also had the first independent suspension, first five-speed gearbox, first V4 and V8 engines, and the first rear trans-axles.
Of course, innovation is always expensive, and it is the innovators who pay the cost. By 1969, Lancia faced steep financial trouble. Like with all the brands above, Fiat stepped in to rescue them from the brink of collapse. Fiat kept the brand name, both for road cars and for racing and rally teams. Since Fiat and Chrysler merged, many of the Chrysler models have been rebranded as Lancia cars in Europe. Lancia’s right-hand drive cars, for markets like the United Kingdom, are branded as Chrysler's. Once a storied innovator in the automotive arts, Lancia is now just another trophy in Fiat’s large case and a key to the history of Italian cars.
In 1963, Ferruccio Lamborghini wanted to make a car to compete with the likes of Maserati and Ferrari in the grand touring market. The new kid on the block, at least in terms of the history of Italian cars, the Lamborghini saw success. They were innovative, beautiful, and fast without sacrificing control. For a decade, they were on their way to becoming the biggest non-Fiat brand in the country. Then, in 1973, the economic downturn and oil crisis crippled the company. It passed through the hands of many owners over the next 13 years. In fact, the closest Lamborghini ever came to being part of Fiat was when it was sold to Chrysler in 1987. Seven years later, the company again went through many owners' hands until it finally fell to the Volkswagen group in 1998.
Despite shifting ownership, the Lamborghini boasts some of the greatest sports cars in the world and in the history of Italian cars. The Diablo, a model made while the company was in the hands of Chrysler, was the first road car capable of attaining a top speed of 200 miles-per-hour. Interestingly, Ferruccio never saw much value in professional racing. Still, because Lamborghini’s designers wanted to build race cars, they melded the two arts in this vehicle. Thereby, the Lamborghini engine found its way into many race cars over the decades. Eventually they started fielding their own teams, yet it wasn’t until 2010 that Lamborgini won its first international racing victory. It’s also the only brand in our overview of the history of Italian cars not owned by Fiat.
The history of Italian cars is a story of people fascinated by the then-new technology of automobiles, and how one company bought out almost all of its competitors.
The history of Italian cars is also the history of the automobile and the history of the world, with both World Wars having a huge impact. People enamored with this new technology had big ideas for how it would change the world. Some, like Ferrari, focused on speed, racing, and making the fastest cars in the world. Others, like those in charge of Fiat, focused on building a sustainable business to survive good times and bad. The drivers? Well, they get to pilot some of the finest automobiles ever made.
Whether you like the fastest American cars or only care about innovation in convenience and comfort, the history of Italian cars played some role in it. While we only focused on Italy, these automakers are part of a larger global industry that brought the world closer together.
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