In the United States, the automobile is synonymous with one name, Ford. In the rest of the world, that name is Agnelli. Rather than spend this week discussing the latest supercar, or who won at Pebble Beach, I am going to focus on an Italian iconoclast, Giovanni (Gianni) Agnelli.
Agnelli was the namesake to Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of Fiat S.p.A. and heir to the Fiat fortune. Fiat is an Italian conglomerate, founded in 1899. Besides being the carmaker who bought us the 500, the iconic Italian mini car, they are (or have been) the owners of brands like Maserati, Ferrari, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, Abarth, Chrysler, Autobianchi, Innocenti, Piaggio, Vespa, Simca, SEAT, and Iveco trucks. In addition to vehicles, Fiat owns companies as diverse as Case Tractors, Alitalia, the newspaper La Stampa, Olivetti, and a slew of other companies making everything from weapons to pharmaceuticals, and from railcars to aircraft. At one time, Fiat owned substantial shares of Edison, Rockefeller Center, Chase, and even Club Med.
Fiat, which is older than Ford by 4 years, was a major force in both European and Italian markets. At one time Fiat employed over 500,000 people, and controlled 4.4% of Italys GDP, 3.1% of its industrial workforce and a massive 16.5% of its industrial investment in research. He was the richest man in modern Italian history. At one time, Agnelli controlled more than one-quarter of the Italian stock exchange, a control unparalleled on any world stock market. It is amazing to me how much power can come from just making cars.
Agnellis life was one of finance and hedonistic fantasy, with himself as the company chairman, and the Italian playboy. Married to a half-American, half-Neapolitan noblewoman, he was known for his pursuit of beautiful women and sports cars. His affairs included actresses Rita Hayworth, Hedy Lamarr, La Dolce Vita star Anita Eckberg, among others. One of the more salacious stories is of an affair with Jacqueline Kennedy, before she married Aristotle Onassis. The rumor includes the allegation that John F. Kennedy Jr. was actually his illegitimate son.
Agnelli was also a major trendsetter in fashion. Esquire magazine named him as one of the five best dressed men in the history of the world. He was famous for introducing the spread collar shirt, and the loosened off-kilter tie. He wore exquisite Italian suits with hiking boots, and had a peculiar habit of wearing his watch over his wrist cuff. His nickname was The Rake of the Riviera and was popular enough to inspire a classic menswear magazine called The Rake. His love of fast cars almost killed him twice. Once he drove his Ferrari into a tree and wrecked his legs, then he drove it into the rear of a meat truck.
Fiat and its other entities moved the world. The company built a huge plant in the former Soviet Union which became the linchpin of Soviet auto production. He once sold 10% of the company to Libya, making Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi a partner in the business. This move forced Libya to spend money it would have used for weapons, and also strengthened the failing Soviet leadership with Libyan investments.
Agnelli also changed Fiat over the years. He admired the American automakers modern methods of manufacturing, and copied them at Fiat plants. He built better and larger cars for the European market, and overtook Volkswagen as the continents largest seller of cars. He improved on quality, and reversed Fiats reputation of Fix it again, Tony. Agnelli diversified Fiat, a move that saved the business more than once. He linked Fiat with General Motors in 2000 with the provision that GM buy out Fiat by 2004. It was a move eventually cost GM $2.9 billion to escape.
Over the years Agnelli developed a close group of friends that included the Kennedys, Fords and the royal houses of Europe and members of the Politburo. Other friends were a diverse group, and included Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, the Clintons, Fidel Castro, Nixon, Reagan, de Gaulle, Onassis, and Winston Churchill.
He also partnered on many US ventures. He was on the board of General Electric and Chase Bank, and owned a major part of Rockefeller Center in New York. He was also a member of the Bilderberg Group, the shadowy secret society that supposedly runs the world. Gianni Agnellis life and death was like a Puccini opera. He died in 2003 at age 81, on the same day that his family was to gather to argue about his will and legacy. He was a symbol of Italys postwar renaissance, a country where the rule was Agnelli is Fiat, Fiat is Turin; and Turin is Italy.
What does this have to do with cars? Everything. The history of the automobile is not just cars; its also the people behind the scenes the designers, the owners, the marketing people. Agnelli is an icon who accomplished great things, and his life is interesting to anyone who loves history. For the gearhead, his life story should be required reading, because of his connection to some of the greatest marques in history, and also because it shows how one little car company changed the world.
Article Courtesy of Chris Raymond
Photos Courtesy of Classicandperformancecar.com, bigpower.co.uk, autoham.ru, moteverdiclub.com, zcoches.com, cargurus.com, pistonheads.com, casa.mitula.it