Car industry owners series - Fiat has been stirring motoring passion for over a century
Few mainstream vehicle manufacturers fire up the motoring passions like Fiat, which has been responsible for such classic cars as the tiny Fiat 500, the stylish 124 Sport, the Dino 2000 Coupe and the quirky X1/9.
Somehow Chrysler doesn’t seem to stir quite the same passions outside America, but nevertheless the merged Italian-American Fiat Chrysler Automobiles group is now the seventh largest automaker in the world, owning not just Fiat and Chrysler, but Alfa Romeo, Dodge and Jeep. It may not be the largest automaker, but it’s arguably the “sexiest” – it also owns such famous motoring exotica as Lancia, Maserati and Ferrari. There are even rumours that it’s interested in acquiring the legendary Italian motorcycle MV Agusta.
Fiat’s history stretches way back into the very beginnings of motoring, when the Società Anonima Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino – F.I.A.T. was formed in 1899.
Mass production was a long way off and by 1900 production was a modest 24 cars a year. However by 1906 sales had grown to 8 million lire from 8 models and the company had started producing trucks, buses, trams and marine engines.
Two years later and Fiat had even branched out into aircraft engines and by 1922 was producing biplanes.
Fiat’s motor sport credentials were forged in the early 1900s with wins in the American Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and others. By 1919 the burgeoning Italian giant was also producing tractors and had interests in steel and railways. Always an innovator, Fiat was using aluminium cylinder heads on its production cars as early as 1928.
The Second World War saw the big Italian switching to military production of trucks, armoured vehicles, aircraft and marine engines, but the thirst for breaking speed records continued. In 1940 a Fiat locomotive broke the world speed record for a diesel train. A Fiat-engined seaplane had previously set a world speed record that still stands today.
Fiat’s post-war boom
By 1949 had emerged from the war strong and growing, with 71,000 employees. It was poised to enter its golden years with the Italian economy booming throughout the 50s and 60s, with car production growing more than six-fold. In 1969 Fiat bought Lancia and acquired a 50 per cent stake in Ferrari.
The Fiat group’s sporting credentials really got a boost in the 70s when Lancia won the World Rally Constructors’ Championship four times, with Fiat winning it twice. Ferrari also won the Formula 1 World Championship three times.
Fiat expanded in the 80s with the acquisition of Alfa Romeo while dabbling in electric and natural gas vehicles. Never a company to rest on its laurels, Fiat then purchased Maserati in 1993.
Chrysler crashes and burns
A brief flirtation with General Motors in the form of an industrial alliance ended in 2005. But Fiat’s American interests didn’t end there. When Chrysler crashed and burnt following the Global Financial Crisis it filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and was then owned by a combination of the United Auto Workers pension fund, Fiat and the US and Canadian governments. By 2014 Fiat had bought out the other owners, making the former American giant a wholly owned subsidiary of Fiat in the newly named Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Chrysler has an even longer history than its new owner, with roots dating back to the late 1800s and the production of the first Rambler, Nash and Dodge cars.
The Chrysler Corporation was founded by Walter Chrysler and emerged from the remains of the Maxwell Motor Company in 1925. In 1928 it bought Dodge while also selling Plymouth and DeSoto brands.
By the 1960s it had moved into Europe by buying a number of French, British and Spanish companies but difficult times were ahead and by the late 70s it was almost bankrupt and retreating from Europe. Salvation came in the form of new CEO Lee Iacocca, who restored it to financial health in the 80s and by 1987 Chrysler had bought out American Motors Corporation, the owner of the Jeep brand.
It 1998 it merged with Daimler-Benz to form DaimlerChrysler, but the marriage was short lived, with corporate divorce following in 2007 when Chrysler was sold to Cerberus Capital Management. A year later it plunged into crisis with the rest of the American auto industry to be rescued by the US and Canadian governments, and, ultimately, Fiat.
The newly merged group has great ambitions for the future of its Jeep brand, which enjoys great global visibility and a strong footing in the growing SUV market.
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