By Joyce Venezia Suss
Italy’s reputation for fabulous food and magnificent art dates back many centuries, but in the past 100 years, Italy has also earned a respected reputation for creating some of the world’s most evocative automobiles.
Italy’s famed automobile designers and manufacturers have designed and engineered top-class four-wheeled machines. “The passion for fast and beautiful cars runs very deep among Italians,” said Michael Pucciarelli, Vice Chairman of Casa Belvedere’s Board of Directors. He has owned many Italian sports cars over the years, including 11 Ferraris, an Alfa Romeo, a Maserati, and three Fiats; he currently has a Ferrari Maranello and a Fiat 500.
“To Italians, cars are no different than fashion, food, art, women or architecture,” Pucciarelli said. “It is all part of our culture. It expresses a deep passion for perfection, beauty, timeless elegance, and exquisite quality.”
Italian cars are perfect examples of the “Made in Italy” brand, incorporating both elegance and tradition. Every year in Italy, numerous car exhibitions, fairs, and markets focus on the figure of some of the most important Italian designers, who continuously conceive some of the most unique and breathtaking examples of cars the world has to offer.
How do they do it? What is the mystical connection between Italian engineers and the automobile? It started in 1899, when the first small-but-whizzy Italian car was invented by Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino – familiarly known as Fiat (although that later became the alleged acronym of “Fix It Again, Toni.”)
Since then, Lancia, Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Lamborghini, Maserati, and pre-eminently Ferrari have set the gold standard of car design – a combination of sleekly beautiful lines and sublime attention to detail. In 1925, the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio compared the Fiat 509 to a beautiful woman for its grace, slenderness, and its ability “to pass with ease every roughness.”
“It’s pretty much pointless to compare Italian and American sports cars”, Pucciarelli said, noting “It is like comparing hamburgers to a proper Pasta Bolognese. They will both fill you up, but one is fast food and the other is a dining experience.”
The American Corvette is arguably fine and fast, but it lacks the mystique of Italian sports cars that are produced in limited numbers. American sports cars generally weigh more and perform racing in large tracks; Italian sports cars are lighter and hug curves much better. Italian sports cars are crafted by artisans who fine-tune the technical details, compared to American sports cars honed by engineers.
The fast side of Italian culture – and cars
The lifestyle in Italy is relaxed, which comes as a shock to many foreigners. There’s no rush at lunch; course after course of delicious fresh food shows up at your table. In the afternoons, all the shops and restaurants close down, and everyone goes home to sleep before going back for the second half of the day.
This slow and easy life has one huge exception: Italian cars. Italian drivers love speed. It’s not unusual for cab drivers to instruct tourists new to Italy that “stop signs and red lights are only suggestions!” It’s also no coincidence that the majority of the five most popular car companies in Italy right now are known for their speed.
When Italian sports cars are driven on American roads, they command stares. Unlike heavy American power cars, low-slung Italian sports cars hug the road, roar with mega horsepower, and boast curvy, sexy aerodynamic designs.
The most legendary Italian automobiles
The Alfa Romeo automobile company started in 1910 and is still going strong today. Years ago, there was a rich history of auto racing in Italy, which was followed by a break in 1915 for the manufacturing of military hardware during World War I. In 1941, Benito Mussolini actually commandeered the Alfa Romeo company for the sole purpose of building cars for the wealthy. Several years later, after World War II was over, Alfa Romeo was reorganized and began mass-producing small cars.
The company has participated in several types of racing including Formula One and the Inaugural Grand Prix World Championship in 1925 – which they won. More recently, Alfa Romeos were featured in several Super Bowl ads in 2017.
The Ferrari is probably the most well-known Italian sports car. Ferrari began as Alfa Romeo’s racing cars before they broke off on their own in the 1930s. The cars were very successful in Formula One racing, and they only began manufacturing road vehicles in order to financially support the racing venture.
Currently, the Grand Touring market makes up most of Ferrari’s sales; they have produced a large number of unique cars for specialty clients. The brand now sells all sorts of non-automobile products under the Ferrari license.
Fiat is growing more popular in the United States, where more consumers are seeking smaller cars. The tiny Fiat has been a familiar site in Italy for many years. Although Fiat is not known for winning racing trophies, it is known for developing a smart business.
The Fiat has been named the European Car of the Year 12 times and has a huge presence in several countries outside of Italy. Fiat has earned a reputation for purchasing their competitors and is the largest industrial organization in Italy.
Ironically, the luxurious Lamborghini was created by a former World War II mechanic who founded a successful tractor building company. Ferruccio Lamborghini eventually found himself wealthy enough to buy luxury automobiles like some of the other brands mentioned here. Later, he wanted to build the perfect grand touring automobile, and the Lamborghini 350GTV was born.
The Lamborghini motor company eventually faced a financial crisis and was purchased by multiple foreign companies, but the vehicles are still proudly made in Italy.
Maserati is another namesake Italian car company founded by three Maserati brothers, whose workshop first built only race cars. The company eventually began manufacturing road cars as well. The company has been bought and sold several times, once even to Chrysler, and more than once to Fiat.
Maserati has won the Indianapolis 500 twice over the years and is the only Italian car to have ever done so. Supermodel Heidi Klum posed with Maseratis for a now-famous Sports Illustrated shoot in 2014.
Italian car craftsmanship
Italians consistently take pride in their attention to detail and mastery of craft – and that includes high-performance automobiles.
“Italian cars are designed to provide an experience every time you drive the car, rather than provide mundane transportation,” Pucciarelli said. “Everything is considered: from the curve of the fender to the fit of the leather, to the hinge on the gas cap, it all must create an emotion.”
Click here to read “Two Pedal Blues” in Forza Magazine: “Although Mike Pucciarelli liked his 575M, he wasn’t a fan of its F1 transmission—so he had the car converted to a stick-shift.”
Want to learn more? Click here for a special video presentation on this subject!
The Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere is a not-for-profit organization that celebrates everything Italian by sharing stories such as this, and offering exceptional public programs: Language and cooking classes; art and photo exhibits; film festivals; opera luncheons and casino nights; Italian car shows and fashion shows; live concerts and theatrical performances; guest chef experiences and wine tastings; bocce and bingo (tombola); and much more. Casa Belvedere (house with a beautiful view) has established itself as a vibrant and buzzing cultural center in New York City. For more information, visit casa-belvedere.org.