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 bestsellingcarsblog.com – 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.