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history of italian cars
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Italian cars history, part one

Guess who first thought about the automobile. You guessed it: Leonardo da Vinci.

history of italian cars

This is the history of Italian cars, from slow one-wheelers to the modern, manufacturers.

Inventing automobiles

Leonardo da Vinci ideated the predecessor of modern automobiles. He was the first to think in concrete terms of a modern-era automobile. Then in 1769, Nicolas-Joseph Cugno invented the steam dray. The invention of this steam machine was the beginning of the history of motorization. Three decades later in 1807, François Isaac de Rivaz presented the first prototype of an internal combustion engine.

Italian Cars History: 1908 Fiat Cyclone
Italian Cars History: 1908 Fiat Cyclone

But it wasn’t until the 1850s that the development of the modern car reached a turning point. Thanks to Nicolò Barsanti. He was an engineer, inventor, and Italian priest. Barsanti took advantage of the physical principles behind propulsion and he used it in the design of his engine.

In 1859, he succeeded in patenting their engines in England, France, Belgium, Prussia and Piedmont. Although Italy was not yet unified. So it could not guarantee the protection of an international patent. The construction began in 1860 at the mechanical workshops of Pietro Benini in Florence.

Italian Cars history: Fiat Targa Florio 1908
Italian Cars history: Fiat Targa Florio 1908

History of Italian cars

The birth of FIAT

FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) was born on July 11th, 1899. Its first model was the Fiat 3 ½ HP in 1899. The manufacturer produced just eight units. But at the end of 19th Century, the car was not a common good. Indeed, it was a luxury.

A few years later Fiat achieved the first of many victories in car racing. Thanks to Vincenzo Lancia, winning the Torino Sassi-Superga in 1902.

Italian Cars History : Aquila Italiana 1912
Italian Cars History : Aquila Italiana 1912

Aquila Italiana

In 1905 the “Aquila Italiana” (Italian Eagle) opened in Turin. The engineer Giulio Cesare Cappa mounted a new prototype of engine on an automobile.The prototype marked the evolution of future four wheel models. In fact, it was the first to adopt important engineering solutions, such as the use of ball bearings for surfaces subject to friction. Plus the piston alloy and the use of the pedal clutch to initiate the ignition.

Cappa collaborated with Pallavicino and Malvano. After their deaths, the company didn’t have a director or funding, so it was acquired by a creditor bank. The ultimate decline of the company began in 1914, when internal disagreements led to the firing of Cappa (subsequently recruited by FIAT), and then with the decision not to convert the plant to wartime production. Aquila Italiana was eventually absorbed by SPA (Società Piemontese Automobili).


Lancia was opened in Turin in 1906 by the famous Fiat driver Vincenzo Lancia, who, together with Claudio Fogolin, founded the company called Lancia & C. The company logo design was entrusted to Count Carlo Biscaretti di Ruffia, a big fan of the motorsports (who later founded the homonymous car museum). The first model produced was the Lancia 12HP in 1908. Vincenzo’s brother Giovanni suggested using Greek letters to name the different models, and the Lancia Alfa was born, selling 108 models. Able to reach speeds up to 90 kmh (56mph), the Alpha had a 28hp 2544cc engine with a shaft drive instead of the more popular chain, and without a doubt was a really attractive car.

Since its first years in the business, Lancia was very competitive in racing, though Vincenzo Lancia didn’t often occupy his cars’ drivers seat as he feared too much direct participation in racing might affect the management of  his company. But that didn’t mean he never raced, and on April 5, 1908, won first place in the straight section race at Padova-Bovolenta, and two years later earned “best performance in class”. Also in 1908 during its first year of racing activity, Lancia obtained two important victories in the U.S., thanks to William Hilliard. The first was placing third overall at the Meadowbrook Sweepstakes in Long Island on October the 10th; the second was on November the 25th , when Lancia won The International Light Car Race of the Automobile Club of America.

The Birth of Alfa Romeo

Alfa Romeo was founded on June 24, 1910 under the name A.L.F.A. (Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili). Like Lancia, the name again recalls the Greek alphabet, but this time Alfa wished to express the beginning of a new type of automobile, cars especially built to be sports cars.

From the first moment of Alfa’s inception, the company wanted to remember its link with its city of origin, Milan: on the left side of the company emblem appears a red cross with a white background, just as Milan coat of arms, and on the right, the famous “Biscione”, the insignia of the House of Visconti, which ruled Milan from the Middle-Ages until the Renaissance.

Read more at  Italian Cars History 2 .

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