Blog : Italian Leyland

William Meek

Fiat 500 Gucci

Don’t get excited, this blog isn’t about the Innocenti Regent or Mini de Tomaso. It’s actually about the situation the Italian car industry finds itself in right now. Imagine the scene. Recession, low economic growth, government corruption, a car production line idle, a striking workforce, a hardnosed boss, a slow-selling product line that once sold well domestically but is losing out to imports.

The cars that they do make might be delayed due to car transporter strikes. Strikes are suspended such that strikes can occur after finding out that they’re all laid off anyway.

BL of the ’70s? No. Fiat in the 21st century.

The company is not finding it easy. Once the default choice of domestic buyers, a drive in Italy was often in a Fiat hire car, mixing it up in traffic with Unos, Cinquecentos, Autobianchis, Lancias. Yet nowadays the traffic might just as easily contain VWs, Fords or Peugeots as local produce.

Factor in a long worldwide economic slowdown, in which car buyers are making do with not buying new and domestic sales will suffer. (See – sales have suffered, car sales from last August are lowest since 1962 – 50 years ago).

In terms of export sales, for Fiat these were traditionally secondary. (As per BL – some models such as the Ambassador and Acclaim were domestic only models!). They obtained an unfortunate reputation for rust (which they sorted in the late 80s) and reliability (some would say unjustified since the 1990s).

Like BL, Fiat has tried to trim its model range. The Croma was a slow seller as nobody quite knew what it was. Executive hatch? MPV? Estate? Almost a modern day Maxi. The large Alfa Romeos were pruned, as was the Lancia Thesis.

The 500 is a success story, emulating the trendy small car market which the MINI seemed to kick-start. Some parallels with the Mini of old, which, despite BL, was a steady seller. Although while BL did not make their profits on the Mini, Fiat produces the 500 outside of Italy – Poland and Serbia for the 500L (the latter somewhat out of desperation due to striking domestic workers!)

Just as BL realised that they couldn’t go it alone – Fiat came to the realisation that they needed a partner in an ever competitive platform-sharing industry. Chrysler in the US had its own problems. A messy divorce with Mercedes-Benz, the recession, domestic sales. Yet they had a large car platform but were missing small cars. It became Fiat’s Honda. The 300 and Voyager became something of an Acclaim (the model, not awards…), rebadged as Lancias in LHD European markets.

For RHD markets, the Ypsilon and Delta became Crossroad/Concerto TD-like, purely rebadged as Chrysler – yet getting around the rust and reliability tags that had been (unfairly in recent years) applied to Lancia.

Platform sharing will enable the new ‘big’ Alfas, but, unlike the Honda-Rover tie up, it is something of a two way street – the tidily-styled Dodge Dart being based on the Guilietta and giving Fiat a foothold in the important Chinese saloon market.

Just as BL/AR tried to crack the US market with the SD1 and XX, Fiat is having a go. However, unlike its British counterparts, it has an established dealer network in Chrysler and seems to have the right car for the times – the 500 – just as the US is downsizing. The MINI’s popularity stateside and the reintroduction of the Ford Fiesta show that US tastes are changing.

Fiat’s plan is to reintroduce Alfa Romeo, once the 4C and the 159/166 replacement are ready. The brand still has romantic connotations, thanks, in part, to the likes of appearances in ever popular classic movie The Graduate, but also in modern video games series such as Gran Turismo, Forza, Need For Speed, Driver:SF.

But what does the future hold?

In 20-30 years time, will Tata own Lancia and Ferrari and the dormant Fiat brand? Will Mercedes-Benz own ’500′? Will Alfa Romeo be a Chinese brand, selling Italian-built Fiewes? Will Chrysler-Fiat be another Chrysler Europe/Daimler-Chrysler?

Or has Fiat been canny? With the move of 500L production to Serbia, will this send a message to unions that jobs are at stake if prolonged strikes are continued? Will the Chrysler tie-up really bear fruit, with US sales, Chinese sales and platform sharing allowing Alfa Romeo and Lancia to really challenge the Germans?

These are interesting times – I’m sure the lessons of BL aren’t lost on Sergio Marchionne, the boss of Fiat.

Keith Adams


  1. My local ex Rover dealer took on the Fiat franchise for three years but withdrew last year due to customers complaining about the small print in their supposed five year warranty and also due to the poor quality of the cars, which could damage the garage’s reputation. I’m never surprised when Fiat and Alfa come last in customer surveys.

  2. Just a little detail, The acclaim was not a domestic only model, you could buy it in other european countries too (they just didn’t sell very well) OBVIOUSLY, why would you want to buy a bri’ish build Honda? It was as wrong as an Alfa-Romeo Arna was… (in that they did it the wrong way around, the Alfa would have been brilliant if it was designed by Alfa and build by Nissan…)

    As for the quality reputation of AR being unjustified in the 90’s… Have you forgotten the K-Series engine?

  3. Agree with Antigoon about the ARNA/Nissan Cherry Europe. I heard that Nissan dealers selling the Italian built Cherry’s were aghast at the amount of PDI remedial work they had to do. I gather the build quality wasn’t as good as a Japanese built Cherry. The Alfa Boxer engine was a redeeeming factor – but not enough.

    Sometimes’s I fancy buying a Fiat for a change, but reading articles like this makes me reconsider that!

  4. Hmmm…there’s a lot of parallels there…don’t want to think about anything happening Alfa Romeo 🙁

    If think if push came to shove, Lancia would be the first to go.

  5. Interesting. Horners in Blackburn, Burnley & Eccles sold Fiats & MG Rovers. As for FIAT making a return to the US, the last cars they sold out there, the 131 & Strada, owned by my family in the late 70s & early 80s & never rusted in the wet North West which is more than can be said for the Datsun Bluebird we had!

  6. Nah, it would be a tie between Alfa, Lancia, and maybe Chrysler or Dodge on who is first to go. Ferrari and Maserati are both turning profits, Fiat has the 500 to save their life, and Jeep and Ram are good at what they do. Plus SRT has the Viper and other cars on the way.

    So it would really come down to these four:
    Alfa Romeo

  7. Yes, the deal with Honda was that the Acclaim could be marketed within the EU, which it was despite an attempt by the French and Italian gov’ts to have it classified as a Japanese import. That would have restricted sales considerably as sales of Japanese cars were severely restricted within those two countries at that time.
    I remember the Acclaim as having an excellent reliability record and representing a turning point as regards quality and reliability of BL cars.
    At that time I went Italian and bought a Strada followed by a Uno and a succession of Lancias. They all had problems but offered good value for money second hand and that certain Italian spirit which marked them out as a more interesting buy than the standard fare.

  8. £20 odd billion in debt or not i cant see Fiat going under,its an industrial powerhouse into everything from turbines,parts,newspapers you name it.Some of the industrial stuff has been de-merged but so what?

    I hope Lancia does not fall, even seeing Lancia badges on Chrysler convertibles saddens me.

  9. Fiat will end up with just the 500 and 500L. All the other Fiat models sold and made in Italy will be gone. Fine for Fiat but disaster for Italy. No first world country can survive without a car industry. On the other hand Lancia, Alfa and Maserati are being morphed into a JLR competitor as Fiat group looks enviously at the £2 billion profits of JLR. Will it work? Possibly, but beating the German premium brands is very hard to pull off. Remember that 70% of JLR sales and most profits come out of Land Rover not Jaguar

  10. I’ve just been to Rome and was amazed at how few 500s there were on the roads. Instead, I noticed lots of MINIs of all breeds (but especially the countryman). Most of the MINIs I saw were very well specced up too.

  11. Apparently, there are much in common between the defunct BL and current Fiat, but there are many differences as well.

    First, Italians maybe are temperamental people, and many of them have bashing Fiat as their favourite hobby just like bashing BL was in 70s Britain, but you know at the end they are just not such suicidal as British people seems to be. No BBC there I guess…

    Second, and now seriously, until now Fiat don’t sold IVECO (true italian Leyland) or closed factories abroad, like BL did. Despite their dramatic sales downfall in their own national market – from above 50% in early 90s to the current 30%- Fiat leads in huge markets abroad like Brazil, bought Case New Holland and turned it in a italian JCB ( just MUCH bigger ) and bought Chrysler. Even more, they are trying to enter in China and India even if late and slowly. Instead some genious gave up on Innocenti, Authi, Seneffe and South Africa, for not saying that my much admired Auntie Maggie had the awful idea to divide Leyland in smaller companies, or another genious that she appointed made disapear the Austin brand, and etc, etc. Nobody had ever suggested seriously to delete Fiat name for instance.

    Third, for good but often for worse, Fiat have a real owner, the Agnelli family. Much of it’s glory and of its downfalls lies to the decisions of this family- like the Peugeot in PSA- but until now they are quite comitted with Fiat, like the Peugeot by the way. Sadly, nobody in Britain had the same compromise with BL and you can see the result.

  12. Actually, Fiat Industrial was separated from the automobile division a few years ago to protect it from the volatile and loss making car division. The Italian government and the Agnelli family cares about Fiat Industrial’s future, which produces tractors, trucks, construction equipment, jet engines and much more and employs tens of thousands. Fiat Automobile may already be seen as a lost cause.

  13. Thanks all. I stand corrected re: Acclaim.

    For some reason I was getting it mixed up with the potential rebadging of the Renault 9…

    Alfa Romeo’s model expansion seems to be getting pushed back and pushed back, now the plan is for RWD 159 and 166 replacements in 2015, while axing the slow selling Guilletta and MiTo.

    @Rodrigo makes a good point. Iveco, which in the 80s bought Ford trucks, does seem to be performing reasonably well. And they are relying on foreign factories (such as for the 500) rather than closing them.

  14. @colin clarke

    Iveco vans aren’t usually seen driven by tradesmen / those “in the know”, but usually as fleets such as Initial Citylink, Tescos etc.

  15. A little more research required. Fiat Group is hugely profitable and successful. Fiat Auto is in reasonable shape and actually it owns Chrysler, not the other way around. Its not and never was a partnership. Contrary to public oppinion, Fiat build a great car in both the Panda and 500. Both have proved supremely reliable on a fleet I manage and as I have said before are far superior than most premium German brands.

  16. I’m currently on my 8th Fiat. I’ve had no more or no less issue with any of them compared to other marques (Austin Rover and VAG).
    The Local dealer is excellent too, a local family owned concern who currently hold Fiat and Citroen franchises and did hold a Rover one when it existed.
    I know there is still a great deal of “baggage” when it comes to Fiat, all the “fix it again tony” jokes, etc, but for me you get a nice car that doesn’t bore you for a reasonable price.

  17. I would like to quote the words of the last & real Fiat Manager, last taking over day-by-day management in the owners’ family, Mr. Gianni Agnelli. He said more or less: “Fiat is a green and grassy garden, quite healthy. The car division, anyway, is just like a “dry branch” we need to cut”. It was at the end of 90’s and it Gianni’s words seem the sole guidelines driving managers to the present day strategy. As you British know well, Re-badging is a short-term-low-income solution; if threats about moving production to other sites (mr. Marchionne seems to have definitely made up his mind about) will prove to be reliable, then Fiat brands destiny is already written (to lie along BL, to say the least). At this stage – maybe – Marchionne itention to leave might look “unfair” to the most, leaving Italy after having “burned” such a huge amount of public money used to build “modern plants”…. Of course this is not referred to Ferrari or to Maserati, while the death of “Alfa Romeo” and “Lancia” brands has already been decided a few years ago. Bad cars so? no, definitely not. I drive a Fiat Croma which proves to be reliable and clever family carrier, no more than that. Alfa 159 featuring my car same weight and powertrain (150 bhp out of JTD Diesel engine) isn’t just a sports car – but sold as that. IN a few words (this is my final opinion) Fiat way should be re-invented starting from the place it does deserve now: a low-cost brand!

  18. Lancia seems doomed to rebadging Chryslers, for the large models at least.

    I do hope Alfa sees a resurgence, if the rumours are correct ( could see them aiming at BMW with RWD drivers cars, albeit more of a niche product.

    The original plan too was to emulate Jaguar-Land Rover’s stateside success by pairing Alfa Romeo with Jeep.
    Not sure how that’ll work out, seems a little arbitrary – like matching Bruno Tolioni with Chuck Norris…

  19. I wonder if Fiat will just be reduced to producing the 500 snd the Panda in foreign factories and the Italian part being moved upmarket by concentrating on Alfa Romeo and Lancia. I’ve always wanted to buy an Alfa, but the reliability issues have put me off, but if they made a reliable car, they could really do well.

  20. I run an Alfa 159 which has done silly mileage and has been trouble free for three years (2008 model).
    Like a 75 or ZT it costs nothing to buy as everyone thinks they’re rubbish, looks better than average, is well finished and built and is infitely preferable to drab colourless rep mobiles (literally. Why are nearly all German makes grey or black). Don’t know why Fiat gets slagged off when people seem to buy poor quality French cars in their droves.
    Also, Phil, good to recall Horners in Burnley, alas a builders merchants now

  21. Alfa in the last 10 years has been a series of optimstic comments about how they were going to increase sales and take on BMW etc, but with little to show for it.

    The 159, 166, Brera etc were all allowed to due without replacements, so all they currently produce is 2 hatchbacks. This mythical Guilia saloon keeps being pushed back.

    The 4C is nice, but a halo car, rather than one to drive sales forward.

  22. We had one of the first 500s in the UK.. it was a fun thing to drive, and nice looking.. but bits of trim would drop off and there were worrying things going on the the engine management. The onboard computer (Windows Automotive) wasn’t really as good as you would hope.. and remember the platform that the 500 is based on is a 2003 Fiat Panda, so there’s a danger of it becoming long in the tooth.

    Fiat really need to be working on the 500’s replacement. But are they? They can’t go on relying on one model for ever..

  23. @Glenn Aylett

    Makes sense to produce ‘cheaper’ cars such as the 500 series and Panda to be produced in factories outside of Europe.
    Italian factories can produce the Chrysler-Lancias, the RWD Alfas, Maseratis (who were to be paired with Alfa), Ferraris.
    Possibly Jeeps, future downsized ‘crossover’ Jeeps/Fiats.

    This is the strategy Nissan takes, Pixo is imported from India while the Qashcow is built in Washington Sunderland.

    My only Alfa experience was the GTV. Great car, fun to drive, felt and looked like a mini Ferrari.
    Reliability wise wasn’t too bad, it burnt through a fusebox and had an appetite for suspension bushes. Wasn’t the worst car I’ve ever owned by any stretch though (that is reserved for the horrible German built Orion).
    Getting parts could be time consuming though. I put that down to the relative rareness.

    The 2 Alfa owners I currently know have both been bitten by the timing belt snap, even though they’d changed them on the 30k interval.

    I worked briefly in Italy, installing and monitoring software as part of a telecoms contract. Very demanding people, very stylish people (the bosses stereotypically looked straight out of The Godfather), but getting a contract signed seemed to take forever. I can see why the big Alfas keep getting delayed.

  24. @David + @Mikey C:

    I can witness recent Fiats (and Lancia and Alfa Romeo) are really mechanically reliable. As an example JTD engine (1.9 litres turboD) has gained a good reputation about high mileages. It was under the boonet of 99% of the european GM range, such as Opel/Vauxhall (Vectra, Astra, zafira..) Suzuki (SX4, Vitara) Saab (9-3, 9-5) Cadillac (BLS) but indeed was not known for being a refined engine. Main question on italian market is that Alfas and Lancias (as well as higher-class Fiats like Croma or Ulysse) were advertized as “top-of-the-range” and cosequently priced. Alfa 159, though, was advertised also as “sports” car (due to its heritage), needless to say it is too heavy and slow to be a such. BMW series 3, on the other hand, were really powerful, road efficient and less expensive to run (mean gasoil consumption)… and even priced not so much more…

  25. Our current family car is a FIAT Panda 100HP and so far it’s been bulletproof (touch wood). Had to replace a rear damper which seems to be a common fault at 40000 miles but at £30 wasn’t a big deal. As well as being a hoot to drive (although a bit firm) it’s very well specced for such a small car, has tinted windows, digital climate control, sports seats, MP3 player and Bluetooth. Although the Bluetooth only speaks Italian, they never bothered to translate it into another language. Hey, it’s Italian, you have to expect a few quirks 🙂

  26. @23 What fell off? Seriously. My 500 is as well screwed together as anything German I’ve touched. Yes the trim is light, but I haven’t lost any in two years of ownership.

    Blue & Me is fine at v6.0 of the software.

    @26, download the English language pack from the website. Copy to a FAT32 formatted USB stick, put in slot, turn ignition on. Let it install..

  27. @23, The 500/KA/Panda platform is fine,this car is a core model for Fiat in any case,its a strong platform as well.

    The VXR8 platform can trace is ancestry back to the 70’s V car programme.

    The 500 really is a superb car, far truer to the original than a MINI i would dare say too.

  28. The Lancia / Chrysler Ypsilon is also based on the 500/KA/Panda platform, any plans for an Alfa version?

  29. Strange days indeed…….it was Italian cars more than any other that made me a petrol-head all those years ago. I’ve owned 3 Italian cars, driven many more, and lusted after even more than that. I’m gutted that Lancia wasn’t brought back, and bitterly disappointed with the FIAT range (500 Abarth aside) these days. Alfa Romeo is a mere shadow of its former 147/156/Spider/GTV era self, and sadly the Giulietta, whilst looking fabulous from the outside, feels like an Astra inside. I’d have a MiTo, but only because there’s nothing else that feels remotely special about Alfa Romeos (8C and 4C aside) anymore. The future of Alfa, based on Mazda and Dodge chassis fills me with dread I’m afraid….

  30. I have in recent years owned a Alfa 159 and two Panda’s, not a warranty claim and excellent dealer support.

    Interestingly my boss laughed when I bought the 159, saying that it would all end in a cloud of steam by the side of the road. However the 3 Series he bought at about the same time ending up living in the dealership with a succession of electrical problems.

  31. Some stuff 11. Rodrigo says I agree with, but I guess the real problem for Fiat Auto Group lies within the same cultural differences between the ex-individual makers like back in the Leyland days.
    Even our famous Red Robbo admitted he always was and has been an Austin-Longbridge man, this while the Austin-Morris merger to establish BMC had taken place back in the fifties

    If you look at the Italian history, you’ll see that Alfa’s most famous Giulia saloon was attacked by Fiat’s 125 and 125 Special series, and even the high end 124 Special and Special-T were meant to give an answer to Alfa’s successfull saloon.

    Furthermore, in Northern Europe the reputationof Italian cars was severely damaged by the corrosion devil, the best example being the poorly built but brilliantly eingineered AlfaSud.
    At the time of the AfaSud, Alfa were state owned and the idea appeared to build a brandnew factory near Naples, where unemployment was high.
    However, Napolitani were not used to work in factories, being locked up all day long and had no industrail background nor any interest in their jobs.
    A similar mistake was made by Triumph at Speke

    Then today I believe the cutlure within Alfa, Lancia and FIAT are still similar to when they were competitors.
    Alfa men, are Alfa men, Lancia men are Lancia men, as simple as that.

    But the biggest trap the Non-German auto industry falls for is that they are trying to imitate ‘ze Germans’
    All but Renault.
    Alfa cannot build a BMW as much as BMW cannot build an ALfa.
    I strongly believe that one of the major causes of PSA (Peugeot Citroen) problems is that French people try to build a Passat, while they should build a BX successor and a 504 successor.

    The only way for FIAT autogroup and PSA to survive is to back to their roots and build something from their own strength.
    And leave’ze Germans’ where they are.

    I drive a 159 JTDm Diesel and it is simply a good car, it is not as light hearted to drive as the old Alfa’s ( I have always been a Giulia Sallon fan my Dolomite is a British Giulia) were but that is the problem every company is faced with Euro rules rule !

    Oh and our 7.5Ton 1994 Iveco Eurocargo truck is the most loyal and reliable commercial vehicle we ever had !

  32. @27 the side rubbing strips peeled off, the rear view mirror dropped off, and the badge at the front suffered from some sort of badge rot. Minor things you would think, but the rubbing strips required several trips to the dealer to fix.

    @26 alas, the 100HP engine seems to have dropped out of the range. It was a huge amount of fun in the 500 and I can see that it would be great in the Panda too. Perhaps they should do an Abarth Panda 😉

  33. Ah… Italia governmente bailing outta Fiata….

    Not a stuffing chance… They cant afford it now that the tentacles of Merkel are in the case…

    Chances are that Keith’s scenario could play out to the maximum…

  34. I traded in my Fiat Panda diesel after three years of fault-free, fun motoring for a Lancia Delta diesel, which in 4 years has been completely reliable. Cruises all day at motorway max uncomplainingly, economically and comfortably. No trim or rust problems with either car. My next car will certainly be from the FIAT group

  35. Fiat have a long way to go. Fair enough, they beat the rust devil in the eighties when they started to galvanise their cars, the 500 has proven to be a success and the quirky Panda has a following, but they have nothing in the Focus class and Alfa Romeo is a cult item, even in Italy. They really need to concentrate on producing an innovative car in the Focus class and concentrate on getting the quality right at Alfa and taking on BMW with a new model.

  36. I loathe these, and especially the noise of that multiair, which sounds like a Petter hit’n’miss with emphysema at idle.
    Oh god, and the Abarth striped bright red one that was bearable until it started up.. A diesel that sounded like it came from a 1990s volvo…
    There is nothing redeeming about them, and they get worse as time goes on.. The 500L, there are nation states smaller than that abomination.
    But your right about the gearboxes and it’s not just Fiat – my Accent (not my choice) is basically a 4 speed because 4th might as well not exist, and the ratios seem to have been picked by handing a box of possibles to a dyslexic chimpanzee and engineering in whatever he chose..

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