2009 Fall Auto Guide
auto
Fiat returns to US 100 years later

Fiat got by some post-war labor problems and by 1923 was once again expanding. Agnelli rose to the post of CEO. The introduction of mass production reduced production costs and the creation of a holding company -- enabling customers to buy Fiats on an installment plan -- stoked sales and profit growth.

Mussolini's rise to power in the 1920s forced Fiat to abandon its international intentions and concentrate on the domestic market. In 1937 the Mirafiori Plant opened, increasing Fiat's capacity.

The Fiat 1100E, 1949-1953

WWII once again turned production from passenger cars to war materials. Automobile production wasn't immediately resumed after the war because the majority of plants had been destroyed. It wasn't until 1948–49 that production levels began approaching prewar levels. Agnelli died in 1945 and Vittorio Valletta replaced him.

This was about the time the original Fiat 500 launched and it included the first heating and ventilation systems installed in a Fiat. Fiat's first diesel-powered car, the 1400, arrived in 1953.

Labor problems and strikes plagued Fiat in the late 1960s, slowing output and profit. In 1966, the grandson of Giovanni Agnelli, Gianni Agnelli rose to president of the company. Sharing his grandfather's passion for innovation, he furthered automation at the plants. It was under his watch that the Fiat 127 was released in 1971. Named European Car of the Year, it was the first Fiat to feature front-wheel drive. In 1996, Fiat's sales of $1.7 billion exceeded those of Volkswagen for the first time. Agnelli brought the Lancia brand into the Fiat family in 1969.

Fiat 127 European Car of the Year 1971

Robotics arrived in Fiat plants in 1978, increasing quality and lowering labor costs. The Alfa Romeo brand came into the Fiat fold in 1984, joined by Maserati in 1993.

Products worth noting in this era were the utilitarian Panda in 1980, the Uno in 1982 and the Tipo in 1989 that was voted European Car of the Year. The Coupe also launched about this time. Fiat put its first entry into the SUV arena when it introduced the Ulysse in 1994. In 1996 Agnelli became the honorary president of Fiat and Cesare Romiti held the office of CEO.

In 2000 Fiat entered into an alliance with General Motors ostensibly to exchange engine and transmission technology. Using its stock, GM purchased 20 percent of Fiat. There was also a provision in the agreement that GM would purchase the remainder of Fiat over the next several years or pay a penalty for failing to do so. Five years later GM paid Fiat $2 billion to end the marriage.

Sergio Marchionne

This was a troubled time for Fiat and it was failing fast. Agnelli's death in 2003 cleared the way for a radical change in leadership and Sergio Marchionne stepped into the CEO position as Fiat's fifth chief executive in five years.

Marchionne streamlined management and focused on profit. He turned the company around, putting it in a position to participate as one of the owners of the newly formed Chrysler Group earlier this year. The 56-year-old who brought Fiat back from the dead earlier this decade will try to repeat that success now as CEO of the newly formed Chrysler Group LLC.

Russ Heaps is a freelance writer based in South Carolina.

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