FIAT has always played a protective role over the Italian automotive industry. Something perfectly seen during the sixties. When Ford was on the hunt for transalpine brands with sporting prestige in order to enter the world of racing. A checkbook in hand approach to which Ferrari and Lancia were about to succumb. In need of capital and, therefore, inclined to listen to the siren songs coming from the United States. However, pressure from the Italian government made both brands remain under the protection of FIAT in 1969. In this way, they could continue to exist without the need to be under a hypothetical foreign management.
In addition, FIAT has provided relief to other national brands even without having to absorb them. In this sense, perhaps the best example is that of the 127 Rustic. Assembled since 1979 at the Lamborghini facility, thus promoting a salutary injection of liquidity for the Sant'Agata Bolognese factory. In fact, given the circumstances, its closure would have been more than likely if this work had not been completed under the mediation of the legendary Giulio Alfieri. Likewise, from Boano to Moretti multitude of small coachbuilders owed their existence to the chassis and mechanics provided by FIAT.
And that's not to mention Siata or Abarth. With especially successful sports cars thanks to the improvement that they made of everything supplied by the Turin house. That's the way it is, FIAT's history is inevitably intertwined with that of a multitude of designers, generalist brands and even high-performance manufacturers. However, this benefactor role has also had its dark pages. For this reason, it is fair to recognize how FIAT has played its political and business influence in order to eliminate possible competitors in the Italian market.
In this regard, possibly the most striking case is that of the Renault R4 manufactured by Alfa Romeo in Pomigliano d'Arco. Seen as a competitor for the FIAT 850, Agnelli pulled his strings in the Italian government in order to change the tax legislation in 1962. In this way, the automobile purchase tax would no longer be calculated based on the cylinder capacity. But in relation to the extension of the bodywork. Thanks to that, the R4 was in a more expensive tax bracket than that enjoyed by the 850. Due to this trick, the Renault was unable to be particularly competitive at dealerships. Fact that put an end to the association between Alfa Romeo and the French manufacturer in 1964.
Without a doubt, a story that tells us about the enormous influence handled by FIAT. Even more so if we take into account the state character of Alfa Romeo at that time. Moreover, in some cases the influence of the Agnellis in the Christian Democratic Party was not even necessary. far from it, a simple business threat could rid the company of potential competitors on its home turf. Exactly the situation related to the birth of the Vespa 400. A design that radiates Italian character on all four sides although, paradoxically, it was manufactured in France as well as marketed anywhere other than Italy.
VESPA 400, WHEN A GOOD IDEA IS NOT ENOUGH
By 1943, even Mussolini's most ardent supporters were acknowledging his imminent defeat under the advancing Allies. Placed in this situation, numerous manufacturers dedicated to the fascist war effort began to envision their necessary reconversion in times of peace. Consequently, Piaggio abandoned aeronautics in 1944 to begin the development of what would become his Vespa scooter.. Compact, practical and reliable, it achieved enormous sales success when in 1950 it was already selling 60.000 units a year in Italy alone.
An excellent cover letter that made it land in other markets. Being manufactured under license in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and even Spain since the early fifties. Thanks to this, the Piaggio headquarters seriously considered the possibility of building not only more evolutions of the Vespa, but even a small car with a two-stroke engine. Thus, In 1957 the Vespa 400 was presented with the intention of offering a simple and economical urban vehicle in the style of the Iso Isetta or Goggomobil.. However, there was a problem. A very serious problem, since the launch of the FIAT Nuova 500 was scheduled for that same year.
Powered by a two-cylinder engine and 479 cubic centimeters, this was an even cheaper option than that represented by the 600 of 1955. That is, FIAT had launched it with the idea of dominating the dwindling but still existing segment of the cars. microcars in Italy. Likewise, she was willing to defend her idea even with arguments that went beyond mechanical excellence or a wide network of dealers. At this point, FIAT threatened Piaggio with launching its own scooter if the Vespa 400 were made in Italy. A serious órdago because, not in vain, the Turin giant had the capacity for it.
Thus, taking advantage of the fact that the French ACMA manufactured the Vespa under license, the production of the new microcar was transferred to France. A fact that was followed by its commercialization, with France being the main market for it. In fact, even the suspensions and the monocoque of the Vespa 400 adapted their design to the requirements of pavé. Still very present not only in cities, but also on small interurban roads with a rural character. Regarding the engine, Piaggio mounted a two-cylinder with 393 cubic centimeters and 14 CV of power to take the 350 kilos of this microcar up to 90 kilometers per hour.
All this with reduced consumption. Something really attractive for a country where microcars had not experienced the development experienced in Italy. In addition, the mechanics were taken care of with refinements such as the installation in the carburettor inlet in the casing itself in a similar way to a rotary valve. Nevertheless, many customers complained about the need to mix oil and gasoline. Something on the other hand usual in a vehicle with a two-stroke engine, although uncomfortable when talking about a car from the late fifties.
Likewise, despite its attractive design and a promotional campaign in which Juan Manuel Fangio himself participated, the Vespa 400 was tiring over long distances due to its lack of soundproofing. If to all this we add the appearance in 1959 of the Austin Mini, as well as the progressive access of the new middle classes to models such as the 600 or the Dauphine, it is easy to see how the Vespa 400 was born with an early end under its arm. However, curiously, it achieved feats such as selling almost 2.000 units in the US market. And it is that, like more or less, these microcars are full of anecdotes and incredible stories.
Photographs: Piaggio / RM Sotheby's