Last century, Fiat built cars symbolic of Italy’s economic boom. Now, it’s building cars to beat pandemics – with a little bit of help from U2’s Bono.
Back in the roaring 1920s, Fiat opened a futuristic factory in Turin and, in the late 1950s, midwifed a car for the people that got post-war Italy moving. Now, in the silent 2020s, Fiat is on an ambitious journey to recovery once again, using an emission-free auto-industrial road map to tackle health crises – both the planet’s and those of its poorest countries.
Fiat, or Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, was founded 122 years ago by pioneering industrialist Giovanni Agnelli. In 1923 it opened its iconic Lingotto headquarters, Agnelli having spied on what Henry Ford was doing with the Model T’s production facilities in Detroit’s Highland Park. The reinforced concrete Fiat factory was almost as large and considerably more stylish than its comparatively downmarket American rival’s. A century ago, this was a giant leap into the future.
Perhaps the most eye-catching element was the rooftop test track, five storeys up, comprised of two 500m-long straights and steep banking at either end. Below were the assembly lines and offices, and vehicles accessed the different levels via a pair of avant-garde helix ramps. Designed by Giacomo Matté-Trucco, Le Corbusier called it “one of the most impressive sights in industry”. To British eyes, its most famous pop culture appearance featured Austin Minis rather than Fiats courtesy of The Italian Job and the scene where Michael Caine’s gang run rings round the Polizia.
Eighty different models of car were produced in Lingotto, including the Cinquecento and its forebear, the Topolino, before the plant’s closure in 1982. Starchitect Renzo Piano was called in and turned the building into a shopping centre, hotel and, towering 34m above the test track, what looks like a crystal spaceship containing paintings from the Agnelli family’s art collection, which includes Renoir, Manet, Picasso and Modigliani.
The Casa 500 is a brand-new addition to the building’s rooftop, which celebrates Fiat’s smallest car in all its forms. One cannot understate the Cinquecento / 500’s importance to Italy. The Dante Giacosa-penned runabout, which was produced between 1957 and 1975, remains symbolic of the country’s post-war economic miracle and allowed millions to embrace La Dolce Vita. It is as engrained in the national psyche as pizza, Forza Azzurri and Sophia Loren.
One could argue that the third generation of 500, which was released this summer and is all-electric, is also a symbol of rebirth and recovery in the age of climate crisis and Covid-19.
The past century was spent establishing Fiat as intrinsic to Italian glamour and prosperity. But now it’s shifting gears. Like growing numbers of Fortune 500 corporations, its parent company Stellantis is channelling a new consumer focus on the environment, sustainability, health and other humanity-affecting issues.
With the all-new 500, Fiat boasts the sexiest small EV on the market; one which is packed with recycled materials. A reflection of Fiat’s new eco-mindset is the 40,000 flora and fauna it has planted on the Lingotto rooftop, which now makes for some tight and challenging chicanes. This is officially the longest hanging garden in Europe, something the founder’s sartorial son Gianni Agnelli (1921- 2003) would have been proud of. “He loved automobiles, art and nature,” his granddaughter Ginevra Elkann tells GQ. “He loved the mountains and his gardens. He loved beauty in general”. Given his dalliances with Rita Hayworth, Anita Ekberg and Jackie Kennedy, there’s no doubt of that. Life magazine described him once as having “the sculptured bearing of an exquisitely tailored Julius Caesar.”
The sky park – called La Pista 500 – has spaces designed for sculpture, fitness, meditation and yoga, and will be free and accessible to anyone who wants to come and smell the flowers and enjoy the view. As Fiat chief executive Olivier François says, “it’s only green when it’s green for everyone”. Pointing out the contrast between the century that separates the structure and the reimagined space, the CEO claims this is of symbolic value. “This is a place that, a hundred years ago, was by definition a home of pollution, with a test track that was once secret and inaccessible. It’s now a garden that is open to all the people of Turin. Our goal is not only to market cars; our new journey is also about care and attention to climate, community and culture.”
In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small gesture but one Ms Elkann (who chaired the project) claims is indicative of “a more conscious, more inclusive, more sustainable future and a constant dialogue between art and the environment. It’s a new way of looking at the world.”
Putting that in concrete terms – not just the concrete of Lingotto’s imposing edifice – Fiat wants to sell cars that will help save the planet and sort other urgent global problems. Enter (RED), the ethical capitalism movement co-founded by U2 frontman Bono in 2006 that partners with big business to raise funds to combat health injustices. Originally, the focus was AIDS in Africa, and it has expanded to tackle another pandemic – Covid – by helping to get vaccines, therapeutics and PPE to those in the world’s poorest countries. (RED) has raised nearly $700m in funds – money which has directly helped 220 million people – but Covid threatens years-worth of progress in the fight against AIDS. Fiat are joined in the partnership by Jeep and Ram in the US, which are also part of the Stellantis group. These three brands will deliver a minimum of $4m to (RED)’s Global Fund over three years. Other (RED) partners include Apple, Bank of America, Starbucks and Amazon. Until now, (RED) had never collaborated with a car company.
The (RED) edition of the 500 will be unlimited and, unsurprisingly, red – though grey, white and black will be available too. You can also have it with a red driver’s seat, while the passenger seats are black. The dash is red and so is the throttle pedal. It comes with the regular 500 power options and you can choose hard top or cabrio. UK pricing is yet to be announced, but the Italians are quoting 22,800 Euros, putting it in the middle of their line up between the Action and Icon specs.
Red was the most popular colour for the previous generation of car, but Fiat had held the primary shade back for the new model until now. “Red means fire. Fire means combustion. But the red you see here isn’t that of burning carbon, but burning ambition,” Mr François tells GQ. Red is also the colour of emergency, and there’s no dolce vita in a pandemic. “We took a commercial risk not launching this car in red from the beginning. Instead, we held it back so we could do it with purpose. The message is ethics and aesthetics. I think this is the best business decision we’ve made in years. Let me be blunt: I want to sell as many cars as I can.”
A special-edition of the Jeep Compass SUV and Ram 1500 Limited truck will each follow on the other side of the Atlantic.
The (RED) announcement was kept under wraps until the opening of the Casa 500 museum and La Pista 500 park on Wednesday. A group of just 50 dignitaries, executives, Agnelli family members (aka the Italian Kennedys) and media, including GQ, were invited to sit on Lingotto’s elevated helipad, below a cloudless sky and bathed in glorious early evening sunlight. The Fiat CEO made reference to it being a Beautiful Day, which tipped the wink that a certain Irish rock star would grace us with his presence. It turns out Bono’s first car was a Fiat. “It’s ironic, me being here, because no one I know will get in a car with me. My wife, if her arms were broken, she still wouldn’t let me drive. But I want you to know, and this is not a professional compliment; I love this company. My father drove a Fiat. My first car was a Fiat. I crashed it, actually. My next car will be this Fiat. It’s very romantic for me, this sexy, smart tangle of ideas and innovation we call the cinque-cento.”
Unlike any other celebrity who might drop by a car launch, Bono doesn’t make PR appearances like this in return for personal payment, a free car or his own self-importance. All of his corporate and political schmoozing has the sole goal of providing money and medicine to people who don’t have any and can’t get the healthcare they need. “I’m not here just to sell a remarkable red car,” he told us. “I’m here to sell an idea.”
Having the red accelerator pedal was Bono’s suggestion. “This partnership is a powerful shot in the arm for (RED)’s fight against pandemics and the complacency that fuels them,” said the singer. “It’s hard to believe that 15 years on from (RED)’s founding we are now fighting another virus, but it’s even harder to see the virus of injustice that marked the AIDS pandemic is alive and well during Covid. It’s upsetting that an act of geography, the postcode where you live, decides whether you live. Less than five percent of people in Africa are fully vaccinated, while vaccines are plentiful in Europe and America. We have to do more and fast to support the hundreds of millions of people who don’t yet have access to the vaccines, therapeutics or sufficient PPE. Because unless this pandemic is defeated everywhere, no one will be safe anywhere.
“I’m not just kissing the Fiat arse here. Great brands always have an emotional component. This company gave people jobs after the Second World War, which was to give life. Now you have this pioneering company saying they want to help drive Covid-19 off the face of the planet, and with the new (500)RED they won’t even need petrol to do it. Fiat wants to be as green as they can while they’re going (RED) and that’s a reason to punch the air.”
From the rooftop test track high above Turin, Bono gave Fiat’s Lingotto factory another Elevation.