When the Italian automaker Alfa Romeo made its grand debut of the new Giulia sedan in July, the choice to have tenor Andrea Bocelli give an emotional rendition of classic aria Nessun Dorma as the car drove onto the stage was especially apt. The operatic hero of Puccini's Turandot is putting his life on the line. "Vincero. Vincero. Vincero!" he sings, "I will win. I will win. I will win!" even as he agrees to a seemingly hopeless task. What Alfa is up against is equally risky—and, in some ways, far more costly, a $6 billion campaign to save the once proud brand that begins when the new Giulia rolls into showrooms around the world next year. Seven more Alfa models are set to follow before the end of the decade.
Those Americans at all familiar with Alfa Romeo are likely to remember the Spider version that Dustin Hoffman drove in the 1967 film, The Graduate. After years of declining sales, the Italian maker ultimately pulled out of the American market two decades ago and has struggled to survive in Europe ever since. Several previous attempts to return to the U.S. have fallen as flat as a tenor missing his high note. So, Alfa's parent, the recently merged Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), may be putting its own survival on the line as it launches the hoped-for comeback of not just one but two Italian marques. The other is Maserati, the even more up-market brand having spent much of its own 101-year history on life support.
There are plenty of skeptics who question the logic of investing in Alfa and Maserati. But the Fiat Chrysler chief executive officer Sergio Marchionne isn't rolling the dice randomly. The trans-Atlantic automaker's third luxury marque is Ferrari, arguably one of the most successful and recognized brands in the auto industry. Products like the new Ferrari 488 GTB have a massively loyal following—and waiting lists of up to three years. The question is, can FCA now repeat that formula with Alfa and Maserati.
While he doesn't think it will be easy, Ken Gross, a veteran auto journalist and archivist, believes the two Italian brands have a serious shot at success. For one thing, he says, "I wonder if, at some point, people are going to get tired of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz," the three German brands that dominate the global luxury market. But why Alfa and Maserati? For much the same reason that Ferrari has become such a hit, contends Gross, who is putting together an exhibit, "Bellisima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance, 1946-1975," at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, set to run from May to September next year. There is something unique about Italian automobiles, he insists. "They're expressive. They're exciting. They make all the right noises. They're fun to drive. The fundamental elements of a culture are embedded in the cars a country makes. They are the best of Italy."
That passion for bending metal into beautiful art traces back to ancient Rome. By the time of the Renaissance, Italian artisans were producing some of the most highly prized suits of armor-valued as much for their design as their functionality.
While Germany can lay claim to having built the first true automobile, pioneering Italian manufacturers exploited the opportunity to add grace and charm to those early, smoke-belching contraptions. Francophiles might debate that point but it's intriguing to consider that the most sought after French automobiles, those carrying the badge of Bugatti, were crafted by a band of Italian brothers. Company founder Ettore Bugatti considered himself an artist as much as a constructor. "They were cars of beauty and grace. And they were incredibly fast," said former journalist, photographer and race driver Denise McCluggage, shortly before her passing this spring.
Like the rest of Europe's auto industry, Italian manufacturers struggled to rebuild in the years after World War II, but, if anything, the country emerged as an even more influential force in automotive design, especially in the luxury market. Credit the houses of Bertone, Ghia and Pininfarina. The ashes had barely cooled when, in 1946, Battista Pininfarina brought the stunning Alfa 6C 2500 concept to the first postwar Paris Motor Show. "The French wouldn't let him into the exhibit hall because the Italians had been the enemy," noted Gross, adding that the designer wasn't about to head home. Pininfarina found a small space near the conference center and staged his own mini-exhibition, drawing huge crowds. By the next Paris show, he was formally invited to return.
Giuseppe "Nuccio" Bertone, recently ranked one of the "25 Greatest Automotive Designers" by Automobile Magazine, repeatedly raised the bar with striking trendsetters like the 1954 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint and the 1966 Lamborghini Miura. But Giacinto Ghia's Carrozzeria Ghia may have been one of the most influential design houses of them all, especially in the 1950's and '60s. When Hollywood legend Rita Hayworth set her eye on a 1953 Cadillac Series 62, she wasn't shopping for the same coupe found at her local Caddy dealership. Her then-husband, Prince Aly Khan, turned to Ghia to acquire one of two unique coupes for which it had crafted the bodywork. Its distinctive design had quad headlights and just the hint of the tailfins that would become a Cadillac signature by the end of the decade.
Men like Sergio Scaglietti, who became the chief stylist for Ferrari, "weren't as much designers as metalworkers," says former auto stylist and author Robert Cumberford. Scaglietti might have sketched out his basic ideas on paper, but he would then formalize a design by pounding sheet metal over bags of sand.
The Italian design houses were quite secular. Pininfarina worked its magic for a wide range of manufacturers, from Ferrari to Nash. Ghia worked with a number of American manufacturers, including both Ford and Chrysler. The stunning Norseman concept it crafted for Chrysler was on its way to the U.S. aboard the ill-fated Andrea Doria when the ship sank off the coast of Massachusetts, in July 1956. While the concept car was never shown to the public, there are several photos that reveal its design, including the unusual cantilevered roof.
Anyone who has followed Ferrari and Lamborghini knows that the era of extreme Italian design is far from a thing of the past. Products like the La Ferrari and the recent Lamborghini Urus concept continue to redefine la bella macchina. Of course, those two marques also deliver benchmark levels of performance, their latest offerings able to race from 0 to 60 in less than three seconds, with top speeds pushing well above the 200 mph mark.
Purists might quibble about whether Lambo still can wrap itself in the Italian flag. Founded in 1963 by industrial magnate Ferruccio Lamborghini to challenge the already well-established Ferrari, the maker produced some jaw-dropping products, such as the Bertone-designed Miura. But heavy debt led him to sell the company off a decade later. It then passed through a variety of hands—even Chrysler operated the supercar maker from 1987 to 1994. Today, as the crown of the Volkswagen empire, Lamborghini is easily the most exotic and among the most revered of the 13 separate brands the German maker operates.
While Lamborghini has received an infusion of much-needed cash and plenty of technical know-how, it still takes a central role in designing and engineering new products, such as the 607-horsepower Huracán, CEO Stephan Winkelmann emphasizes. And production remains centered in Sant'Agata Bolognese, a suburb of Modena.
Once primarily known for its delicate balsamic vinegars, Modena has become Italy's "Speed Central," the home of most of the country's high-performance manufacturers, including not only Lamborghini, but Ferrari and Maserati. The Ducati motorcycle brand, meanwhile, is based a mere hour away, in Bologna, while Alfa is just a two-hour run—less if you can race past the carabinieri—from Modena to Milan.
Plenty of competing notions explain why Modena became an automotive magnet. Its location at the confluence of two navigable rivers, as well as the Naviglio Canal, certainly helped. Plenty of artists and artisans were drawn to the region. Its successful agricultural base required machinery to till the soil and then bring in the crops. Both Ferrari and Lamborghini have both produced tractors at one time or another.
Of course, the "prancing pony," chosen as his logo by the legendary company founder Enzo Ferrari, is far more likely to be seen today on street and racing cars. The maker has been a fearsome force on the grueling Formula One circuit for more than half a century, though it has been struggling to regain its lead for several years. Most auto manufacturers like to boast that they transfer technology from their racing programs to the street, but few can do so as honestly as Ferrari. Breakthroughs on the F1 circuit today likely will be found in its showrooms in short order.
And that's doubly true of Maserati, Ferrari's only slightly down-market sibling. Like Bugatti, it was originally a family affair, in this case one founded by brothers Alfieri, Bindo, Carlo, Ettore, Ernesto and Mario. Like Enzo Ferrari, the Maserati brothers' first love was racing. Building cars for the street was almost an afterthought and largely meant to fund their track efforts.
The company actually was founded in Bologna—the city's renowned Fountain of Neptune served as the model for Maserati's trident logo. After Alfieri's death in 1932, the surviving brothers soon sold out and the company moved to Modena, where it has continued to operate—just barely—ever since. Like Lamborghini, it went through a series of owners, some moderately successful, others not. In the late 1960s, it was taken over by France's Citroën and turned out some of its most famous models, like the mid-engined 1971 Maserati Bora. But when the first Mideast oil crisis shook the automotive world, Maserati seemed destined to become just another vaguely remembered brand on the automotive rust heap. In 1975, Citroën put its Italian subsidiary in liquidation, all but giving it away to the notorious Argentine race driver—and sometime revolutionary—Alejandro de Tomaso.
To be fair, the company did have some notable moments under de Tomaso, including the introduction of the groundbreaking Biturbo—or twin turbo—model. But he also led the company into a disastrous partnership with Chrysler that produced the TC by Maserati, a bastard child that both companies quickly disowned. In 1993, de Tomaso sold out, this time turning control of Maserati over to Italy's mainstream automaker, Fiat. Operational control was effectively put in the hands of Ferrari, Maserati's long-time rival.
Like Alfa Romeo and Fiat, Maserati had abandoned the U.S. market after years of declining sales. It made its return in 2002, the States quickly becoming the luxury brand's No. 1 market. But for the next decade it could hardly be considered a success story, when Maserati sales were barely an asterisk on the global sales charts. But a series of critical product moves have set the brand afire. Most notable have been the launch of a second-generation Quattroporte—in Italian, "four-door"—and the new, smaller Ghibli.
In keeping with its focus on design, Maserati recently entered into an unusual alliance with fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna. Recognizing that luxury buyers have come to consider traditional woods and leather almost mundane, the clothing and fabric maker proposed using silk, instead. The Maserati CEO Harald Wester recalls when the fashion house's Chairman Paolo Zegna first approached the car company with the idea: "I was skeptical. My immediate reaction was ‘this guy is nuts.' " Traditional cloth didn't last through Maserati's test, but a new type of silk, many times heavier than normal has proved as durable as conventional seating and interior materials, and the Zegna fabric will be launched as a high-line option on several Maserati model lines late this year.
Two critical new products are set to follow. They include a production version of the wildly popular Maserati Alfieri concept coupe that debuted at the 2014 Geneva Motor Show. The goal is to have it ready for market sometime next year, said Marchionne. That would follow only shortly after the launch of the new Maserati Levante, the brand's first sport-utility vehicle. When debuted in concept form—as the oddly named Kubang—critics were skeptical, to say the least. But these days, a utility vehicle is a must in every luxury brand's portfolio. The Cayenne is Porsche's best-seller, and Aston Martin, Bentley and Rolls-Royce are readying utes of their own. Marchionne is betting that the Levante could single-handedly double Maserati's worldwide sales.
If one utility vehicle can manage that, why not add several? And, indeed, Alfa Romeo is expected to have at least two utes in the lineup by the time it completes the current product program announced in May 2014 by Marchionne and Wester. The latter heads both Maserati and Alfa.
Alfa staged a relatively quiet return to the U.S. market last year with the long-delayed debut of the little 4C sports car. The two-door coupe, with its ultralight, carbon-fiber body, was joined recently by a convertible version and the Giulia revealed in Milan will be next in the growing lineup. With a mix of powertrains including the 510-horsepower Giulia Quadrifoglio version, it will be one of the most powerful offerings in a segment that includes such dominant mainstays as the BMW M3 and Mercedes C63 AMG.
All told, FCA plans to invest 5 billion Euro, or nearly $6 billion, in its bid to increase Alfa's global sales by an astounding 550 percent—to 400,000 units annually—by 2018. That would be one of the most dramatic turnarounds in automotive history, and there are plenty of doubters. "Brand rebuilding easily can take 15 to 20 years, and there are no indications that Alfa Romeo has any advantage for short-circuiting the process," cautioned a recent report from consultancy IHS Automotive.
Seeking a way to speed up the traditionally long and arduous rebuilding process, Alfa has already made a few missteps. The launch of the 4C was repeatedly postponed. Marchionne explained the delay was due to the need to develop a powertrain that had the performance and sound one would expect out of an Italian sports car.
To regain what Marchionne describes as the basic DNA of the 105-year-old brand, Alfa took an unusual approach to pulling the Giulia together. It borrowed a page from the legendary Skunk Works operation at aerospace manufacturer Lockheed. It set up a secret development team scattered across Italy that will eventually grow to 600 to 700 designers and engineers as they move on to the next series of Alfa products. "There's nothing about the brand that needed to change. We needed to change ourselves," suggested Wester during the Giulia's introduction.
One thing that will have to change is the reputation for poor quality Italian brands have long suffered—or, more precisely, owners have suffered with. Fiat hasn't helped. Since staging its return to the U.S. it has lagged at the back of surveys such as the influential J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. Fixing that problem could be even more important than finding an engine that makes more horsepower and a better exhaust note, company officials concede.
As in Puccini's Turandot, Alfa Romeo and Maserati face challenges before they can declare "Vincero." But with a heritage of dramatic design, great performance and exclusivity, they have a fighting chance.
Paul A. Eisenstein, a longtime contributor to Cigar Aficionado, is publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com.