Anyone less than 30 years old probably never has seen -- or at least doesn't remember seeing -- a Fiat automobile in the flesh.The occasional X1/9 two-seater may still make a public appearance, but you'd have to be lottery-winner lucky to spot it.
Far fewer people will remember that Fiat was building luxury cars in America long before Walter P. Chrysler started the Chrysler Corp. from the remnants of the Maxwell Motor Co. in June 1925. (Watch the history of Fiat.)
Likewise, most people weren't paying enough attention to the business of the automotive industry in the early 1990s to have known that General Motors owned 20 percent of the Italian company and was flirting with the idea of buying it outright.
The Fiat Type 3, 1899-1900
So who is this company that suddenly stepped up to provide the Obama administration with a viable automotive entity to help create a new owner partnership to bring Chrysler out of bankruptcy?
A snapshot look reveals that in 2008, Fiat S.p.A. employed more than 190,000 workers and sold approximately 2.15 million vehicles worldwide, according to Automotive News -- about a million more vehicles than Chrysler sold for the year. It had a net profit of 1.72 billion euros or about $2.43 billion USD at current exchange rates. The Fiat Group's business interests go beyond building cars. It has holdings in other industries, as well as in the area of finance. Companies in which it has partial or complete ownership cover a wide spectrum from publishing and insurance to steel production, commercial vehicles and farm machinery.
Fiats similar to this were built in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 1907-1908
Its origin was without fanfare as a group of investors gathered at Palazzo Bricherasio in Turin, Italy, on a hot July day in 1899 to sign the charter creating the first Italian car company.
"Fiat" is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Italian Car Factory of Turin). The group chose one of its own, Giovanni Agnelli, who championed innovation, to lead the fledgling company in its early days. Within a year, Fiat's first factory in Corso Dante opened its doors. The first Fiat assembled there was a Type 3, with 1 to 2 horsepower and it had no reverse gear. With the assembly line still several years in the future, the factory's 150 workers managed to roll 24 units out the door in 1900. Fiat was off to a flying start.
Fiat enjoyed the first in a long line of competitive victories in its legendary racing heritage when nine Fiats crossed the finish line at the first Car Tour of Italy that same year. A Fiat 24 HP won the Sassi-Superga uphill race in 1902 with Vincenzo Lancia at the wheel.
In 1902 Agnelli officially became managing director of the company. Fiat produced its first truck in 1903 and adopted its blue oval logo a year later. In 1908, the Fiat Automobile Co. was established in the United States and a plant in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., began producing Fiats a year later. American consumers looked on Fiats of the day as luxury cars. Pressures from WWI would lead to the plant's closure.
Begun before WWI and completed in 1922, the new state-of-the-art factory in the Lingotto district of Turin was the industrial marvel of its time. Raw materials came into the five-story building at the ground floor and the assembly line went up a winding ramp. Completed cars emerged at the rooftop level, where there was a test track.
About this same time, Fiat expanded into the steel and electricity industries and even opened a subsidiary in Russia. With the start of WWI, nearly all of Fiat's production switched to supplying the war effort.