Italian car museums offer more than Ferraris and Lamborghinis
MILAN – Quick now: What word comes to mind when the subject of Italian automobile museums is broached during a cocktail party?
Ferrari. Sure. Or maybe Maserati. Or maybe Lamborghini. But for the next thousand words, put those gut answers aside. For now, let’s get out of the car museum box.
On a recent visit to northern Italy, I commuted between Milan and Turin in search of some automotive grandeur beyond what is usually found on tourist diaries. Find it I have done, in the “other” museums, one celebrating the history of Alfa Romeo and the second at Fiat, at the heart of the Italian auto industry for over a century.
Do you want red cars? Alfa has rosso in more than a few amazing shades. Technology? Start with Leonardo da Vinci’s self-propelled car from 1478. No time for Porsches? Good. You won’t find any here.
Here’s a look at two destinations that enthusiasts and non-motorists alike can enjoy, plus a short stop at Pirelli, the iconic Italian tire manufacturer.
MUSEO STORICO ALFA ROMEO, Arese. Located in Arese, a suburb of Milan, the Museo Storico is a romantic dive into 111 years of Italian history, told through the prism of one of its most fascinating and enduring brands. While the themes of the museum’s layout – Chronology, Beauty and Speed - offer an accurate and thoughtful assessment of Alfa’s importance to Italy and its industry, the presence of so many magnificent sheet metal in one building is enough to arouse passions.
The company very early on “understood that a museum could be an asset for marketing,” said Lorenzo Ardizio, director of the museum. Initially, it was opened in 1976 only to guests and journalists, but under the leadership of Sergio Marchionne, Storico was renovated and reopened in 2015 for the introduction of the Giulia sedan. The previous year, Mr. Marchionne had organized the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. (Fiat took over Alfa in 1986.) FCA is now part of the Stellantis group. Yes, it gets complicated.
Regarding the Storico, Mr Ardizio said: “The idea was to create something to attract a much larger audience, for people who might not be particularly interested in automobiles. This is a recurring theme for most automotive museums.
All the usual high-tech goodies of 21st century display formats are here: multimedia panels, exotic lighting, a giant video wall that traces some of Alfa’s elegiac performances in motorsport. The small 1.5-liter Alfettas won the first Formula 1 World Championship in 1950, placing first, second and third in that Grand Prix season. Alfa’s second driver was Juan Manuel Fangio, considered one of the most successful racing drivers of all time. The results were reason to cheer on this mad race-car nation, whose auto industry had been decimated in the mid-1940s by retreating Germans and advancing Allies.
It was the compact Giulietta coupe, with a design influenced by Raymond Loewy, that relaunched Alfa in showrooms in 1954. Among the 70 cars on permanent display in the appropriate museum (there is also a “workshop” closed to the public with many many historic Alfas), the tidy Giulietta is a terribly valuable show-off. Driven by its success, Mr. Ardizio said, the company flourished after World War II, building up to 1,000 cars a day soon after it produced just 300 each year.
Do you recognize that red convertible over there? Many cinephiles will do it: it is the 1600 Spider Duetto that Dustin Hoffman drove on the Bay Bridge in “The Graduate”. According to our Storico guide, the encyclopedic Eleonora Ventura, the classic 1966 model, designed by Pininfarina’s studio, was “reserved” – in fact, a green and a white too – on the deck of a departing luxury liner. from Genoa to New York.
“The ship stopped in Cannes during the film festival and engaged actors and personalities who had the opportunity to lead them on deck on the trip to New York,” she said. This Alfa – a model that was produced for 28 years – has subsequently had “bit parts” in a number of movies.
It should be noted that almost all of the information displayed next to the cars and in the videos is in English. Mr. Ardizio estimates that more than 130,000 visitors passed through the Storico in 2020.
THE NATIONAL AUTOMOTIVE MUSEUM, Turin. For American visitors to Italy, Turin is often an afterthought, overshadowed by the heavy itineraries on Rome-Florence-Milan-Venice. But for automotive connoisseurs, Turin, the first capital of Italy before Rome, has a rich history: Lancia, IVECO, Pininfarina, Bertone, Giugiaro and Ghia, magical names in the tradition of Italian design, were all founded here, built around the house of Turin’s industrial megastar, Fiat.
Unsurprisingly, the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile is one of the largest in the world dedicated to the automobile. With such a rich heritage built around a collection of around 200 models dating back to 1854, one should earn a bachelor’s degree in history after spending a few intense hours there. Founded in 1933, the museum was renovated in 2011 and attracts around 200,000 visitors a year, about half of them from outside Italy, said our guide, Felipe Vergara.
Science meets sport at the museum. An exhibition showcases Formula 1 championship cars driven by Fangio and Michael Schumacher; another sheds light on the 1854 Bordino steam car that wowed Turinese as it sailed without horses through the narrow streets of the city.
Mr. Vergara is also animated about the Italia, particularly not very aerodynamic, a monster of 40 horses which took part in the famous Beijing-Paris motor race in 1907. The car on display, dented and torn by war, is inspiring . There are removable mudguards for water crossings, oversized tanks for gasoline.
“The idea was, is anyone crazy enough to go from Beijing to Paris, a 16,000 kilometer trip?” asked Mr. Vergara. “Five teams showed up.
The Gobi Desert and Siberia were just two of the obstacles pilots faced. Prince Scipione Borghese, a soldier, was at the wheel of the Italia. He drove the Italia to Paris after 61 days; the second-place car arrived three weeks later. The media coverage was overwhelming; those who rejected the automobile as a fad were humiliated.
The museum, for good reason, is inextricably linked to Fiat (Fabbrica Italiana di Automobile Torino, not “Fix it again, Tony”) and its brilliant but politically controversial founder, Giovanni Agnelli. (At one point he was aligned with Mussolini and at another time was tried for fraud.)
More than once in the past 120 years, Fiat has gone bankrupt – the brand is now virtually invisible in the United States – but its cars are ubiquitous in Turin and in this museum. Particularly noteworthy is the surprising red and white Turbina from 1954, powered by a gas turbine. In other words, a jet engine. The concept was never mass produced, but it made an unforgettable moan at auto shows.
Overall, the museum’s clever layout – a chronological journey over several floors – offers a visual narrative of the automobile, from the very beginning: the ascent of da Vinci, the spring-loaded “car” to the Jaguars and Ferraris. reference today.
“People come in and say, ‘I wasn’t interested in cars’ until I got here,” Vergara said, “and then they realize how interesting it gets.”
PIRELLI FOUNDATION MUSEUM, Milan. Who knew that tires could help a museum? But, rather than sheet metal and fuel injection, the Fondazione Pirelli in central Milan is backed by rubber.
An Italian institution, Pirelli traces its influence through decades (it will be 150 next year) and beyond tires, although motorsport fans know the brand because Pirellis are the only tires allowed in Formula 1. The foundation’s exhibits, including paintings, films and Pirelli’s collection of ultra-sophisticated advertising posters, highlight the company’s work to spread art and culture among its workforce. . (In 2017, the Orchestra da Camera Italiana gave a concert in a Pirelli factory.)
Here too, the famous Pirelli calendar is in the spotlight. Oversized full-color calendars – called “the Cal” – became cult items in the 1960s and 1970s, featuring glamorous women in various states of undress. When easy nudity later fell out of favor, calendars became more artistic and less Playboy.
There is also an extensive archive of historical documents and articles if your interest in Pirelli is more academic. Students and researchers are allowed to access it by appointment.