21.03.2011 VITTORIO GHIDELLA 1931-2011


Ghidella was a talented engineer who thrived on innovation and engineering solutions. He was known for his hands on input into projects and is remembered by many for being seen driving (or pushing) prototype cars at Mirafiori during every stage of developed programmes.


Amongst the many successful models that were introduced during Vittorio Ghidella's stint as Fiat Auto Managing Director were the Lancia Y10 (top), Fiat Uno (middle) and Fiat Tipo (bottom).

The news of the death of Vittorio Ghidella – one of the Fiat Group’s most successful CEOs whose decade in charge of Fiat Auto was quite simply transformational – has been greeted with much sadness across the Italian car industry and by enthusiasts worldwide. “Brilliant” is the word used by many to describe Ghidella, who passed away on March 15 at the age of 80. In almost a decade at the reins of Fiat’s car division, he oversaw the birth of cars such as the Fiat Uno, Tipo and Croma, as well as the Lancia Thema and Y10, and Alfa Romeo 155.

After graduating with honours from the Politecnico di Torino, Ghidella joined a graduate programme with wheel bearing manufacturer SKF. He then moved onto New Holland and a successful stint took him to the United States. In 1979, Gianni Agnelli recalled him to Turin to take the helm of Fiat Auto, which faced waning fortunes after a torrid few years in the late 1970s, battered by union disputes and terrorism.

Ghidella’s first task was to assist the drive of a fightback against the power of the unions, which was crippling the carmaker with overstaffing and rampant absenteeism. In the autumn of 1980, Fiat Group boss Cesare Romiti laid off 23,000 workers as part of a daring restructuring strategy and the company was plunged into a 35-day-long general strike. However a counter-protest by 40,000 workers and managers marching through the streets of Turin to demand the right to return to work broke the unions, and began their gradual erosion of power.

That set the stage for Ghidella to revive Fiat Auto's ailing fortunes through the arrival of a string of new models that achieved much success in the showrooms, including the phenomenally popular Fiat Uno. Arriving in 1983 as a replacement for the aged 127, this model won rave reviews, along with a slate of awards including the title of 1984 European Car of the Year, and put Fiat firmly back on a course to the top. Interestingly, only last year did Ghidella reveal in more detail, in an interview to Quattroruote magazine, how the Uno had begun life as a Lancia project to replace the Autobianchi A112 but, with the input of Agnelli, was born as a Fiat.

Other huge success stories for Ghidella included the innovative first-generation Lancia/Autobianchi Y10, which eventually wound up replacing another elderly car, the A112; and the ‘Type 4’ project, which spawned the Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema, as well as the Alfa Romeo 164 – launched shortly after Fiat’s takeover of the brand – and Saab 9000.

In addition to being a talented engineer who thrived on innovation and engineering solutions, Ghidella was well aware of the power of motorsport in improving the image of Fiat’s brands, and approved significant spending on competition programs. In particular, Fiat’s efforts at this juncture centered on rallying and sportscar efforts for Lancia, which yielded much success and helped the brand recover from the Beta rust debacle at the turn of the decade.

A characteristic which made Ghidella popular amongst Fiat workers was his hands-on input into projects, and he is remembered by many being seen driving (or pushing) prototype cars at Mirafiori during every stage of development programmes. Aside from the model Ferraris on his desk – which highlighted his passion for the products of his chosen industry – his office was sparsely-furnished, and frequently empty; workers often noted he seemed to be “born” on the assembly line floor.

His final major project was another key model, the Tipo, which replaced the Ritmo and was built on a new platform using all-galvanised body panels and impressive interior packaging. Like the Uno, it also won the European Car of the Year title, and formed the basis for more than a decade of Fiat product development, spawning an entire family of models across the Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo brands, ranging from family hatchbacks to sedans, estates, coupes, convertibles and MPVs. In so doing, it established the industry standard for ‘platform sharing’ which forms the basis of modern carmaking. Notably, following the takeover of Alfa Romeo in 1986, Ghidella also approved the Tipo-based, I.DE.A-styled replacement for the 75, the 155, as well as ‘Progetto 916’, which would eventually emerge in 1994 as the GTV/Spider twins.

However, it was his legendary clashes with Fiat Group Managing Director Cesare Romiti that eventually brought about Ghidella’s downfall. Romiti, who had previously been at state airline Alitalia, had been brought into the fold to put the industrial conglomerate on a sounder financial footing and in the early 1980s, while Ghidella focused on new automobile products to boost the company’s profitability, the pair were forced to work closely together to combat the unions’ might. They famously fell out over the proposals in 1985 to merge Fiat Auto and Ford Europe, plans that eventually were shelved after disagreements over who should run the merged entity. While Romiti wanted the Group to diversify, Ghidella wanted to focus on the Auto division, which by the time he departed had risen to being neck-and-neck with VW as Europe’s number one carmaker, was churning out strong profits, and had also bought back the stake it had been forced to sell to Libya’s leader Colonel Gaddafi at the end of the previous decade. In 1987, the bitter argument seemed to have been resolved in Ghidella’s favour, as he and Gianni Agnelli’s brother Umberto were anointed the successors. However Romiti, a very shrewd and ruthless businessman, would soon bounce back, and a year later Gianni swung behind Romiti, with Ghidella resigning – his post taken by Paolo Cantarella.

After departing from Fiat, Ghidella, who always lived quietly with his family and avoided the Turin social scene, successfully focused on other businesses, including Saurer. Many regard Ghidella as being the last Fiat CEO who properly understood the car industry and the need for class-leading products above all other factors, and one of the few CEOs who didn’t take their foot right off the gas when the carmaker’s fortunes went into an upward curve – an age-old complacency trap that was fallen into by his successors, Cantarella and Sergio Marchionne.

© 2011 Interfuture Media/Italiaspeed