by James Kraus
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.