Gianni Agnelli: Patriarch of Fiat, King of Italy

by James Kraus

Gianni Agnelli

Gianni Agnelli, 1921-2003

I have before me a generous pour of Château Margaux 1993, a fine claret from one of the original four Premier Crus named in the Bordeaux Classification of 1885. But more on that in due course.

Many men fantasize about living the life of James Bond. I would be more than happy to have lived the life of Gianni Agnelli. But for being less physically demanding and lacking a Walther PPK as constant companion, it is quite similar. Except for the fact that Gianni had a finer wardrobe and drove more exotic automobiles. While Bond was depicted in pages and frames driving standard issue 4½-litre Bentleys (fitted with Amherest Villiers superchargers) or Aston Martin DB Mark III’s and DB5’s (suitably modified by Q Branch), Gianni drove bespoke Ferraris, built to his personal specifications. In the end, he effectively owned Ferrari.

Ferrari 375 Agnelli Speciale, 1955

Grandson of Giovanni Agnelli, one of the founders and first chairman of Fiat, Gianni was born into the company. During World War II, Agnelli spent the early years fighting with Italian forces under Mussolini on the eastern front, twice receiving minor wounds in battle. Later he switched sides, joining Allied forces.

Needing to unwind after the rigors of war, Gianni bought a villa on the French Riviera, La Leopolda, for the then-princely sum of 100,000 USD. It last changed hands for 545 million USD. Once ensconced at the villa, Agnelli proceeded to live la dolce vita in earnest. He spent much of the next two decades developing and refining his passions for sailing, skiing, jet-setting, high stakes gambling, fast cars, and beautiful women. Among his early cohorts were Prince Ranier of Monaco, Prince Raimondo Lanza di Trabi of Sicily and Ferrari Grand Prix driver and Olympic bobsled bronze medallist Alfonso de Portago of Spain.

Possibly inspired by Italian Grand Prix driver Count Carlo Felice Trossi, who in turn may have picked it up from WWII fighter pilots (who routinely wore their pilot and navigator watches outside the sleeves of their leather flight jackets), Gianni began his habit of wearing his wristwatch on the outside of his shirt sleeve, just above the cuff. Other Agnelli satirical flourishes included wearing button-down dress shirts with the collar flaps unbuttoned and occasionally wearing high-top suede boots with his hand-tailored bespoke suits. In 1967, Life magazine compared him to “an exquisitely tailored Julius Ceaser.”

Anita Ekberg in the film "La Dolce Vita," 1960

Anita Ekberg, directed by Frederico Fellini in “La Dolce Vita,” 1960

Gianni’s style and good looks and adventuresome lifestyle were not overlooked by women. He was at various times involved with Anita Ekberg, Rita Hayworth, Linda Christian, Danielle Darrieux and Jacqueline Kennedy. He once said, ‘Men fall into two categories: men who talk about women and men who talk to women. In my case, I talk to them’. Agnelli lived his personal life in the old-world upper-class European manner: a resolute wife and occasional mistresses.

Gianni at the test track atop the Lingotto building at Fiat headquarters, Torino, 1967. Behind him are the latest Fiat production models including the 125 Berlina, Dino Coupé and 850 Coupé Sport. Photo: Magnum

In 1966, he became president and became chairman of Fiat. Soon thereafter, he acquired Autobianchi and Lancia, and purchased an interest in Ferrari. Later Gianni would purchase Alfa Romeo, Maserati and full ownership of Ferrari. His biggest impact at Fiat was diversifying the company beyond the Fiat brand and outside the borders of Europe into an international conglomerate. Working with Vittorio Valletta, he was instrumental in establishing the Russian AutoVAS factory to build the Lada version of the Fiat 124.

Forty-two years later, AutoVas is still manufacturing the Lada Riva which, underneath its mildly restyled exterior, lies the chassis and powertrain of the 1967 Fiat 124. That makes the 124 the third-longest lasting automotive platform of all time, right behind the Morris Oxford/Hindustan Ambassador and the Volkswagen Beetle. More Fiat factories followed in Poland and other Eastern Bloc outposts.

Agnelli also oversaw the creation the Iveco truck division and the Mecchine Movimento Terra division which eventually took control of Sperry New Holland, Case and Kobelco. He purchased Autobianchi, Lancia, and a stake in Ferrari. Later he added Alfa Romeo, rescuing it from an attempted Ford takeover, and assumed full ownership of Ferrari. At the peak of his tenure, Fiat accounted for over 4% of Italy’s GNP and Agnelli controlled over 25% of the companies traded on the Milan stock exchange.

Easily driven to boredom at the office, he would occasionally travel by helicopter from headquarters in Torino back to the French Riviera to sail his yacht, the Agneta, for a few hours and fly back in time for dinner.

SY Agneta

He owned seven homes including villas in Torino and in the Italian Alps, a converted monastery in the backcountry of Corsica and an apartment on the Piazza del Quirinale in Rome, each containing treasures of design, art and antiquity. These object were not just trophies collected by a rich dilettante; Agnelli was a true Renaissance man who had a keen eye and wide-ranging knowledge of history, design, art and architecture.

Gianni cared greatly about Italy, and his employees in particular. He purchased Alfa Romeo solely to keep it out of Ford’s hands. He bemoaned the fact that Britain’s Rolls Royce and Rover had come under German ownership and he did want the same fate to befall Italy’s auto companies. When suggestions were made to sell Fiat to outsiders, Gianni always demurred, once stating to Henry Kissinger, “We are a national army; I can’t bring myself to turn it into a foreign legion.” To some shareholders chagrin, he would rarely shutter a plant or furlough workers. Accordingly, employees hailed Agnelli as Lo Scudo; the shield who watched over them. Gianni was beloved and respected by the overwhelming majority of his workers.

During the height of labour unrest that swept Italy in the 1970’s, a Fiat plant had been on strike for 35 days while Agnelli stood firm. In protest, 40,000 Fiat workers took to the streets in support of management and against the union leadership. The strike was broken.

Agnelli stepped down as head of Fiat in 1996 at age 75, though he retained the title of honorary chairman until his death.

In addition to the celebrities, politicians and Formula One champions that arrived in Turin in January of 2003 for Gianni’s funeral at the Duomo di San Giovanni Battista, thousands of Fiat workers came from far away as Sicily and waited in line for up to two and a half hours to pay their respects. For those unable to attend, the services were broadcast live throughout Italy on state-owned Radiotelevisione Italiana.

Ferrari F2003-GA

Ferrari F2003-GA

In memoriam, Ferrari chairman Luca Di Montezemolo christened the 2003 Ferrari Formula One car the F2003-GA. It went on to win the Manufacturer’s Championship.

My Château Margaux?  Gianni owned the Château.

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13 thoughts on “Gianni Agnelli: Patriarch of Fiat, King of Italy

  1. Quite an attractive group of women; I enjoyed perusing the photographs. Not only was Agnelli a business man; he was quite the casanova.

    And that two-tone Ferrari is stunning.

    I admire this man. He didn’t just live the life – he clearly enjoyed, appreciated and relished it. God bless him.

  2. A great piece! I enjoyed all the links.

    There will never be another automobile executive as intelligent, colorful and worldly as Gianni.

    Here are two more of his custom Ferrari’s, although they do not measure up to the 375 linked to in your article:

    1967 365 P Speciale: mid-engined V12 with three-abreast seating and central steering wheel. Gianni could drive in the middle and have beautiful woman sitting to either side:

    1986 Testarossa Spider- the only “factory” Testarossa Spider ever built:

  3. That 1955 Ferrari 375 is flat-out gorgeous – without doubt one of the more beautiful cars ever built. The instruments alone are works of art.

    Not only was the wrap-around windshield widely emulated as the article states; the electric rear window was picked up by Mercury for the 1957 Turnpike Cruiser.

  4. It took me a while to finish reading this piece, as I became distracted by the photo of Anita Ekberg – I had forgotten how beautiful she was. A lucky man!

    • You’re right J Kraus, he lived better than James Bond. Better food, cars, women and homes, without risking his life day-in and day-out. Can I have a sip of your C. Margaux?

      • Indeed; we shall decant a fresh bottle and drink to the memory of Gianni, to beautiful women, fine automobiles and the pleasures of the grape…

  5. Oh, to have lived the life…

    In Italy, we all miss Gianni. Sergio Marchionne is OK, but he is no Gianni.

  6. I never thought I’d be attracted to a green Ferrari, much less green and red; but these pictures have changed my mind!

    That 375 is a work of art – without doubt the most impressive of his special Ferrari’s.

  7. That 82′ yacht is indeed a stunner. The teak and mahogany is magnificent, and I really like those terracotta-colored sails – a nice compliment to the wood of the hull. A gorgeous boat.

  8. I need to get a pair of those chairs. They look ideal for relaxing with a cigar and a glass of Cognac!

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