Gran Torino

Fiat factory, Lingotto, Turin.

Turin stands on the banks of the River Po against a dramatic backdrop of the snowcapped Alps. Capital of Italy’s northwestern Piedmont region, it was also the country’s first national capital following Italy’s unification.

While many overlook it in favour of the more widely recognised attractions of Florence, Rome and Venice, Turin is a centre of both culture and industry and possesses enormous charm, with wonderful museums and fine architecture. Stately Baroque buildings and old cafes line its boulevards and grand squares. Yet the place is refreshingly un-touristy, with barely a postcard in sight, which is of course the best possible excuse for not sending one.

Home to the famous football teams of Juventus and Torino, the city is also where Fiat is based, and just to the south of its centre lies the district of Lingotto, Vatican City of the Italian motor industry, easily accessed via the modern underground railway system constructed as part of Turin’s preparations for the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Fiat factory, Lingotto, Turin.

Here, in 1923, Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino first began to produce motor cars in volume in an avant-garde new factory designed by the talented young Turinese architect Matte Trucco. What made the five-storey building particularly special was that components entered at ground floor level. Cars were then assembled on a production line spiralling up through the structure, with the finished vehicle emerging on the roof where it entered a test track.

After producing some eighty different Fiat models, most notably the Topolino of 1936, of which more than half a million were made, the Lingotto factory closed in 1982, by which time its facilities had become outdated. However, this iconic building, which Le Corbusier once described as “one of the most impressive sights in industry”, was not allowed to fall into decline. Sensitively and stylishly remodelled by leading Italian architect Renzo Piano, it now functions as a hotel, convention centre, concert hall, theatre, shopping arcade and the Automobile Engineering faculty of the Polytechnic University of Turin.

Best of all, the rooftop test track remains, can be accessed by the public and is simply spellbinding to walk around, high above the terracotta-tiled rooftops of Lingotto. Driving on it is not allowed, for perhaps obvious reasons. An over-optimistic entry speed into one of the four steeply banked corners could result in a trip into outer space. However, many will recognise this as the track where Charlie Croker and his gang, in their stolen gold bar laden Mini Coopers, were chased by the Carabinieri’s Alfa Romeo Guilia Supers in that 1969 classic The Italian Job.

Test track on roof of Fiat's Lingotto factory, Turin.

The Agnelli family, founders of Fiat, astutely recognised that a workforce passionate about football would be more amenable to cheerful hard graft if their beloved Juventus was winning, so in 1923 they bought the team and ensured its funding was such that world-class play was assured. As somebody who spent much of his working life in an office full of Geordies, I can only applaud such foresight, as many a Monday morning was sullied by sad little faces following a Newcastle United defeat. Perhaps, had Lord Stokes acquired Birmingham City and elevated it to a world footballing force, fewer dodgy Allegros would have been turned out by disgruntled Brummies.

Just a few streets away from the former Fiat factory lies the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile. Contained within a huge purpose-built 1960 hall, this splendid three-floor museum provides a captivating journey through the history of the automobile and motoring, with particular emphasis on Italian car design. Exhibits are imaginatively displayed in a manner that is both evocative and informative, making dramatic use of darkness, light and colour to create memorable settings.

BMW Concept Coupe Mille Miglia.

Exhibits range from the 1896 Bernardi, Italy’s first car, and an 1899 Fiat to a simply stunning BMW Concept Coupe Mille Miglia (pictured above). In between there is a mighty 1907 Italia racer, the vast Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A that starred in the film Sunset Boulevard, dainty Cistalia sports cars, including the 202 SMM that Nuvolari raced to second place in the 1947 Mille Miglia, and some 200 other cars that tell the story of how a simple means of transport became an object of worship, with particular reference to the proud tradition of Italian coachbuilding.

The automobile’s contribution to social history is brilliantly demonstrated by recreations of coach houses, workshops and street scenes. There is a Fiat 600 Multipla on a family picnic by the sea, a Trabant next to a Cold War Berlin Checkpoint Charlie, and Hollywood sets. Naturally, a section of the museum is dedicated to Italy’s not inconsiderable contribution to motorsport, with an extensive range of competition cars, mostly in Italian Racing Red.

Sadly, one of the most exciting machines ever to come out of the city, the flame-belching 1911 28.5-litre Fiat S76 known affectionately as “The Beast of Turin”, is not present. However, of some consolation is that it now resides in England with its restorer and intrepid pilote Duncan Pittaway, and can regularly be seen in action on British soil.

Fiat S76 "Beast of Turin".

Displays are routinely changed, although core exhibits remain, and the museum has its own restoration workshop where traditional skills are also taught. This too is soon to be open to the pubic, where it will be possible to observe wonderful old cars being painstakingly brought back to life. A comprehensive library, conference centre, shop and restaurant complement this fascinating museum.

Perhaps the highest praise for what Turin has to offer the motor enthusiast comes from the well-travelled Mrs H, not one easily impressed by motoring sites, who has in unguarded moments been overheard commending Lingotto to friends. Enough said.

But wait, there’s more. Since my last visit to Turin, limited access has been granted to Centro Storico Fiat. Based since 1963 in an Art Nouveau building on Corso Dante, the company’s first home, this facility contains Fiat’s official archives, with displays charting not only its better-known motor vehicle endeavours but also excursions into such as nautical engines, aeroplanes, locomotives, tractors, bicycles, cranes, refrigerators and washing machines. Indeed Fiat’s entire history is archived here, with original design blueprints, advertising material, photographs, films, books, magazines and many other significant corporate documents.

It is understood that this further fascinating motoring destination is at present open on Sundays. Just another reason to visit La Gran Torino.