Fabbirca Italiana Autombil Torino, or Fiat, may be known for its small cars but it’s a true industry giant. With production and partnerships around the world, Fiat is the market leader in Italy and Brazil, the 4th largest automaker in Europe and the 11th largest in the world.
But how did it become the giant that it is? OSV takes a look at the small car brand with a big history.
When did Fiat start making cars?
Founded in 1899 in Turin by Giovanni Angelli and a team of investors, the first Fiat was the 3 ½ CV, which resembled the Benz car of the day. Other early popular Fiats included light commercial trucks and taxicabs for several European markets.
In 1902, the Fiat 24 hp model won the Sassi-Superga uphill race and Angelli drove an 8hp Fiat in the second Italian Car Tour, setting a record.
It wasn’t long before Fiat opened the Fiat Automobile Company in the US, with Fiat becoming a luxury item across the pond. The company expanded even further and ventured into marine engines, commercial vehicles, trucks and trams.
Before the war broke out, Fiat won a number of international races and the first small displacement car, the Fiat Zero, is created.
What happened to Fiat during World War One?
During the First World War, Fiat helped the Allies, creating weapons, aircraft and vehicles. A more interesting client of Fiat was the British Post Office, using Fiat’s 1F van model, the first of its kind. Its more robust twin, the 2F, was widely used to transport materials and men during the war. It was so good it was supplied to the British Royal Navy.
Fiat closed their factory in the US in 1917, shortly after America joined the First World War. They would not return to the US until the 1950’s.
What happened to Fiat after World War One?
After the war, crisis hit and Fiat was briefly held by workers of the Italian Socialist Party. The crisis didn’t last long though and by 1923 Fiat were back to making cars and showing signs of growth. One of the cars they introduced was the four-seat 509. Their aim was to create industrial mass production in order to lower the cost of the cars.
This was also a time of great reform. Road tax and province-based license plates were abolished and in 1923 work started on the main road between Milan and the Lakes. This was the first road with a special lane for commercial vehicles.
It was also around this time that Fiat established specialised schools, sports clubs and a health care plan for its employees. By 1925, Fiat controlled 87% of the Italian auto market.
Mussolini and the domestic market
Fiat abandoned plans for its international presence shortly after Mussolini came to power. Instead, they focused on the domestic market, producing new technology and designs for commercial vehicles.
Two new cars were produced by Fiat in between the years 1934-1936, the Topolino and the Tariffa Minima, better known as the Balilla. The Topolino was the smallest utilitarian car in the world, and was produced right up until 1955.
It was also around this time that the first Fiat truck with a diesel engine was designed. This was specifically for freight transport.
What happened to Fiat during World War Two?
Of course, war broke out, and production of all cars ceased. Fiat turned their attention to the war effort, manufacturing commercial and military vehicles. They also produced weapons and machinery. During the war, many Fiat factories were destroyed.
Angelli died in 1945 and Vittorio Valletta became President of Fiat in the post-war period. Interestingly, Fiat did not stay in the Angelli family because they were prohibited to do so until 1963 by the Italian government. This was due to ties with Mussolini.
Reconstruction of the destroyed factories had begun in 1948 and profits had increased considerably.
Interestingly, the Fiat 2800 Berlinetta was used by Mussolini and his mistress when they tried to flee Italy. They failed, and the Fiat was pushed into a lake by the resistance, who considered the car to be a symbol of fascism. The car was retrieved and sold at an auction in the late nineties.
Fiat and Post-War Italy
Two new cars were produced, the 500 and 1400 and mass production included the installation of heating and ventilation systems. Fiat were also dedicated to research on marine and aircraft engines. That research paid off and in 1951 the G830 aircraft was born.
After the war, Fiat turned their attention onto small businesses, rather than large institutions. Rear wheel drive and diesel engines were introduced in passenger cars and Fiat eventually replaced the 600 Topolino with the 600 model. This model sold 1 million units.
Italy were experiencing an economic boom and Fiat were at the helm, with car ownership in Italy skyrocketing throughout the 1960s.
Trade Union Conflicts and the Return of Angelli
By the mid-1960s car ownership in Italy had gone from 1 in 96 to 1 in 28. Ready to take advantage of this, Fiat established a number of factories in the South of Italy.
In the 1960s production increased fourfold and Fiat doubled their number of employees.
In 1966 Fiat returned to the Angelli family. Remember when we said they were prohibited to own the company until 1963? Gianni Angelli, Grandson of Giovanni Angelli, was now in charge of the company. The company’s focus was innovation and increased automation in the process.
The first car to be released during these years was the 850. The 127 followed shortly after and was the first Fiat to have front wheel drive and won Car of the Year in 1971.
However, this was also the period of the trade union conflicts and by 1969, millions of production hours were lost across the country.
When did Fiat become Fiat S.p.A.?
Fiat was becoming an industrial and economic powerhouse. Perfecting their production line with the use of Robogate (a flexible robotics system), Fiat were ready to take on other brands.
The start of the 1980s saw the launch of the Fiat Panda and then the Uno. This featured a complete overhaul of the electronics and the choice of material. In 1989 the Tipo was released, a small family hatchback, and was named Car of the Year.
Other successes followed, including the Punto (also named Car of the Year in 1995) and the Bravo/Brava (Car of the Year 1996).
However, the 90s also brought crisis for Fiat, this time it was market competition. To deal with this crisis Fiat focused on the international market, becoming internationally known as the producer of affordable vehicles. Today, more than 60% of Fiat’s sales are outside Italy.
When was Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Founded?
Throughout the noughties Fiat saw continuing success, with the Multipla being featured in a modern art exhibit in New York and the Panda winning Car of the Year 2004.
Gianni Agnelli died in 2003 after 50 years of service. Currently, Sergio Marchionne is CEO of Fiat.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was founded in 2014 after Fiat S.p.A merged into a new holding company. Interestingly, this is incorporated in the Netherlands for tax purposes. They are currently operating through two main subsidiaries, FCA Italy and FCA US, previously Chrysler LLC.
Under FCA are the brands, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Maserati, Jeep and Ram. It previously owned Ferrari but the brand became independent in January this year (2016).
And that brings us to the present day. Fiat cars are still a common sight on British roads and FCA are currently the world’s seventh-largest auto maker. The Angelli family still have a stake in FCA through their investment group, Exor S.p.A.