Italian cars, in particular sports cars and luxury cars, enjoy a reputation worldwide for design
and speed. The Italian automobile industry had its beginnings in 1884 when Enrico Bernardi built a tricycle
car that ran on petrol fuel. In 1896 the first actual Italian car was produced. Three years later, Giovanni
Agnelli and his partners founded Fiat and produced their first model. Italy is now one of the top five
automobile manufacturers in the world, and Fiat dominates the industry with over 90% of overall
The history of Italian car manufacturing reads somewhat like a soap opera, with tales of mergers and acquisitions
threatening to deflect attention from the designers. Yet despite the rocky financial backdrop, the industry still
consistently delivers a range of beautiful and powerful cars. Here are the current top six Italian car
manufacturers in alphabetical order:
1. Alfa RomeoIf you want to learn more about the Italian car industry, Wikipedia offers a number of articles on each of the Italian car
manufacturers, as well as the industry in general.
Alfa Romeo Automobiles was founded on June 24, 1910 in Milan. Initially named ALFA, the
company was an offshoot of Società Anonima Italiana Darracq (SAID), founded in 1906 by Frenchman Alexandre
Darracq and some Italian investors. ALFA produced its first car, the 24 HP, in 1910, and a year later
entered two cars in the Targa Florio motor racing event. This began a long association with motor
In 1915, Nicola Romeo took over as director, and the company halted car production to manufacture military
hardware. In 1920, the company name was changed to Alfa Romeo. Mussolini commandeered the company in 1941 to
build vehicles for the wealthy, and after the end of the war, Alfa Romeo reorganized and began mass-producing
small cars. In 1954, they developed the Alfa Romeo Twin Cam engine, which they manufactured for the next forty
years. Since its inception, the cpmpany has built a reputation for producing fine quality, expensive sports
Alfa Romeo has successfully competed in many different types of motor racing, including Formula One, Grand Prix
motor racing, sports car and touring car racing, and rallies. The company produced its first racing car in
1913, and won the inaugural Grand Prix world championship in 1925. When the Alfa Romeo racing team was
privatised, team leader Enzo Ferrari named it Scuderia Ferrari. During the 1960s and 1970s Alfa Romeo produced
a number of sports cars, but the brand was sold to the Fiat Group in 1986. Models currently in production
include the MiTo, Giulietta, 159, GT, Brera, Spider, and 8C Spider.
Ferrari was founded in 1929 by Enzo Ferrari under the name Scuderia Ferrari. Initially it
was the racing team for Alfa Romeo, until financial constraints forced Alfa to withdraw their cars in
1933. Ferrari manufactured racing cars and sponsored drivers before expanding into the road vehicles
market in 1947. This move was primarily to fund its racing ventures, especially in Formula One where it
was highly successful.
The first Ferrari race car was entered in the 1940 Mille Miglia race. Ferrari is the only team to have competed
in the Formula One World Championship continuously since it was founded in 1950. In 1973, Ferrari retired from
sports car racing to concentrate exclusively on Formula One. With Michael Schumacher on the team, Ferrari
dominated Formula One racing from 2000 through 2004. Scuderia Ferrari holds nearly every Formula One record.
According to Wikipedia, Ferrari's records include 15 World Drivers Championship titles, 16 World Constructors
Championship titles, 209 Grand Prix victories, 4925.27 points, 622 podium finishes, 203 pole positions, and 218
fastest laps in 776 Grands Prix contested.
Ferrari entered the road car market in 1947. Two years later, it entered the grand touring market, which still
accounts for the majority of Ferrari sales. In 1962 it entered the super car market, and later produced one-off
models for wealthy clients.
Ferrari licenses many products under its brand, including clothing, eyewear, perfume and cologne, watches,
bicycles and electronics. The Ferrari museum, Galleria Ferrari, features a variety of displays that document
the company's achievements.
Enzo Ferrari died in 1988, causing the value of both used and new model Ferraris to rise. In 1969 Fiat
purchased a 50% stake in Ferrari, as well as Alfa Romeo.
Fiat (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) was founded in 1899 by a group of investors which
included Giovanni Agnelli. The company grew quickly, and, 25 years later, dominated the Italian car
market. Fiat produces a range of cars including small road cars, sports cars, vans and trucks. Fiat has
won the European Car of the Year award twelve times.
Fiat also has a significant presence overseas. Since the 1950s, the company has worked to establish motor
industries in a number of countries. Fiat-based cars are constructed in Bulgaria, Poland, Russia, Spain,
Serbia, Turkey, Ethiopia, Egypt, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Korea.
Fiat has a history of buying up its competitors in the Italian car industry. In 1967, it purchased Autobianchi,
and, two years later, purchased controlling interests in Ferrari and Lancia. In 1986, Fiat acquired Alfa Romeo,
and in 1993, Maserati. Consequently, Fiat is now the largest Italian car manufacturer, and the world's sixth
In 1979, the company spun off its various businesses into separate entities and became a holding company. Fiat
is now a conglomerate, owning businesses in a wide variety of industries. Currently, it is Italy's largest
Automobili Lamborghini was founded in 1963 by manufacturing magnate Ferruccio Lamborghini. A
former mechanic during World War II, Lamborghini built a tractor business using leftover military
hardware. By 1955, his tractor company was one of Italy's largest farming equipment manufacturers. Finding
himself in a position to indulge his passion for luxury cars, Lamborghini began buying Alfa Romeos,
Lancias, Maseratis, and Ferarris. He decided to build the perfect grand touring car, and after several
years of working with top designers, the Lamborghini 350GTV was unveiled at the 1963 Turin Motor Show.
Lamborghini was now a player in the automobile manufacturing industry, and over the years the company gained
acclaim for their high-performance, stylish models, including the 350GT, 400GT, Miura, Espada, Islero, Jarama,
Urraco, and the Countach. But after a decade of impressive growth, the 1973 oil crisis had a devastating effect
on sales. In 1972, Lamborghini had sold his ailing tractor business to a rival company and offloaded 51% of
Automobili Lamborghini, although he continued working at the factory. Then in 1974, he sold his remaining
shares and walked away from the company he founded.
Bankruptcy in 1978 was followed by three changes in ownership – the Swiss Mimram Brothers (1984-87), the
Chrysler Corporation (1987-1994), and Indonesian company MegaTech (1994-1998). Lamborghini continued to falter
until it was acquired in 1998 by a subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group. Despite foreign ownership, Lamborghini
continued to employ Italian designers, launching the Silhouette, Jalpa, LM002, Diablo, Murciélago, Gallardo and
Reventón. The Lamborghini factory in Sant'Agata Bolognese still produces small runs of its four latest
Lancia Automobiles was founded in 1906 by racing drivers Vincenzo Lancia and Claudio
Fogolin. The company has a long history of producing distinctive cars and also performing well at motor
rallies. Upon Vincenzo's death in 1937, his wife and son took charge of the company. Lancia became famous
for its many innovations in the automobile industry. These include:
- the first complete electrical system as standard equipment (in 1913)
- the first car body that supported structural load by using the car's
exterior, rather than an internal frame or truss (in 1922)
- the first independent front suspension (in 1922)
- the first 5 speed gearbox fitted to a road car (in 1948)
- the first full-production V6 engine
- the first V4 engine
- the first rear trans-axles
Lancia always enjoyed a reputation as a high-end luxury car, but because of their stringent manufacturing
standards, production was ultimately not cost-effective. In 1969 Fiat purchased the company, but elected to
preserve the Lancia brand.
Maserati was founded in 1914, in Bologna by the Maserati brothers, Alfieri, Bindo, Carlo,
Ettore, and Ernesto. Three of the brothers had built Grand Prix cars for Diatto, and in 1926, they created
the first Maserati. One of their early models, driven by Alfieri Maserati, won the 1926 Targa Florio. In
1937, the brothers sold their shares to Adolfo Orsi, although they continued working for the company as
engineers. Ten years later, they finally left the company and founded a rival company, OSCA. After 1957,
Maserati began focusing on building road cars.
Like several other Italian car manufacturers, Maserati has a long history of takeovers and reinvention. In
1968, the French car manufacturer, Citroën, purchased the company. After Citroën went bankrupt in 1974, Italian
government funds kept the company afloat. In 1975 Argentinean Alessandro de Tomaso took over the company.
Later, Chrysler purchased part of Maserati, and, in 1993, it was sold to Fiat. Fiat later relinquished control
to Ferrari, also a Fiat-owned company, and Maserati cars regained the popularity they had lost in the
intervening years. In 2005 Fiat Auto regained control of Maserati and merged it with Alfa Romeo.
Maserati cars performed well at motor racing events in the 1940s and 50s. Maserati won the Indianapolis 500
twice, in 1939 and 1940, the only Italian car manufacturer to achieve this distinction. Racing victories in the
1950s included the world championship in 1957.
To read one of our readers' list of top 5 Italian cars, complete with videos, please click
on Italian Cars - Jay's Top Five.