Fiat is a storied Italian automobile manufacturer that was founded in 1899 by Giovanni Agnelli in the city of Turin, Italy. Fiat became the biggest automotive company in Italy in 1910 and retained that position ever since. Agnelli founded Fiat with a group of investors and continued to head the company throughout its first 45 years. Fiat helped propel Italy into the automotive age, producing early vehicles like the 3 and a half CV powered by a 697 cc horizontally opposed twin-cylinder engine. The company also started producing trucks as early as 1903 and began producing aircraft in 1908. Early in the 20th century, Fiats became widely used around Europe as taxis.
Fiat cars also dominated the European racing circuit in the early 20th century. The Fiat Topolino was an early commercial model that was popular throughout the 1930 and 1940s. However, during the 1950s, Fiat produced perhaps its most iconic vehicle: the Fiat 500, which was launched in 1957. Debuting as a compact, affordable car with a two-cylinder, air cooled 479 cc engine, the Fiat 500 was an instant icon and helped spawn the Italian economic resurgence. This soon transformed Italy from a poor, rural nation to a modern industrial power country throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
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Fiat in America
While the first Fiat was exported to the U.S. in 1908, the company enjoyed only moderate success stateside over the years. However, it’s certainly notable that the company was the first foreign automaker to set up production facilities in the U.S. when it licensed a manufacturing plant in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. in 1910. Fiats were a fairly exclusive, luxury item with the cost in the U.S. ranging from $3,600 to $8,600. In comparison, a Model T Ford was available for only $825.
During the mid-1960s, the Fiat 1500 became popular with some American motorists. In the early 1970s, cars like the Fiat 850 Spider also caught on with some younger American drivers, particularly college students. However, Fiat’s most successful model in the U.S. during those years was the 124 sports car. The 124 was a convertible model with a 2+2 seating arrangement that was produced between 1966 and 1979. The sporty two-seat roadster sold well in America and was updated and sold as the 2000 Spider from 1979 to 1982.
During the late 1970s, Fiat also tried to introduce its luxury brand, Lancia, to the U.S. market. But it failed to resonate with American drivers and the venture quickly fizzled out. While the company did enjoy a brief flutter of success in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s, Fiats acquired a reputation for being unreliable by the early 1980s. This reputation, coupled with the company’s seemingly inability or unwillingness to produce cars that were compliant with the increasingly strict emission regulations in the U.S. led Fiat to withdraw from the American market altogether in 1984.
However, Fiat’s American adventure didn’t end there. General Motors acquired a large share of Fiat in 2000 in an effort to create a new line of compact, affordable cars for the European market. When that arrangement failed, Fiat went with another partnership venture as it acquired a controlling interest in Chrysler when it went bankrupt in 2008. In 2011, Fiat introduced a new version of the Fiat 500 to the American market.
Fiat has created many iconic vehicles over the decades. The best-known in America is still likely the sporty Fiat 124 Spider. The convertibles were popular in the U.S. and Europe while being produced throughout the late 1960s until the early 1980s.
Currently, the new version of the Fiat 500 is also becoming increasingly popular with American drivers. Like the Volkswagen New Beetle and the Mini Cooper, the Fiat 500 features a retro-chic European look. The new Fiat 500 is also affordably priced and offers good fuel economy with better reliability.
Fiat Products and Technologies
While the Fiat 500 has only been available on the U.S. market for about a year, the car seems to be currently catching on with American drivers. Fiat used its money from the failed venture with General Motors to invest in developing new emissions technology. Therefore, the 500 offers the iconic Italian style of its predecessor but with the added benefits of fuel economy and minimal emissions.
Fiat also acquired other Italian car companies over the years including Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, and Maserati. As the biggest name in Italian cars for over 100 years, Fiat looks set to maintain that status as it continues to produce stylish, affordable, and iconic cars.