VINTAGE FRIDAY: Fiat’s Lingotto Factory And The Rooftop Test Track
The 1969 film The Italian Job holds a special place in the memory of car enthusiasts. Who can forget that opening scene where the gorgeous Miura tackles an Alpine pass before plunging down its rocky elevation?
The comedy caper follows Cockney criminal Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) and his mob pulling off the crime of the century; by manufacturing traffic chaos in Turin, they manage to steal $4 million in gold bullion and make their escape in a trio of Mini Coopers. Taking advantage of their nimble getaway cars, they make for the rooftops of Turin in an effort to bypass their artificial traffic jam. With the Polizia in pursuit (in a rather neat Alfa Romeo Giulia TI), our heroes find themselves suddenly on a rooftop racetrack.
Scene in question
This was in fact the test track of Fiat’s Lingotto factory, an incredibly unique building and an important one in the history of both the city of Turin and the motorcar. So many prominent cities in the world were founded on or around industry, having been built up around perhaps a mill, a port, or a factory, and while the city of Turin long predates the arrival of the motorcar, there is a saying: “Fiat is Turin and Turin is Fiat.”
Fiat was a defining element of Turin’s modern history, and it was physically represented with a unique factory. Construction of the Lingotto factory began in 1916 to the designs of a relatively unknown architect, Giacomo Mattè-Trucco. The famous Italian industrialist and man of many suits Giovanni Agnelli, head of Fiat at the time, desired a large American style auto plant, having been inspired by Henry Ford’s facilities in Detroit. However, while the stateside factories were functional and utilitarian, the ornate and rhythmic Lingotto building quickly became symbolic of the rising modernist movement in architecture. The structure was admired and lauded by the infamous architect Le Corbusier for instance (pictured below on the rooftop), and many of his peers.
It should be noted that Lingotto was built at a time when many car manufacturers were making the move to open greenfield sites where they could build large campuses for design and production with options to expand later on should needs arise. Volkswagen, for example, built an entire town—Wolfsburg is synonymous with the German marque, and the city was effectively founded by VW in 1938. The town was an urban planning experiment, designed as a utopia to keep workers happy and productive.
Fiat however, strove to keep production in an urban area, determined to be part of the fabric of the city and thus the heart of its population. They were successful in this regard, and the plant had a special place in the collective imagination of Turin’s population, with many of them working there or in supporting industries. It represented their city and their industry and opportunity for both. Many of them would also have driven the factory’s products back then, pottering around Santa Rita in their Topolino 500s. The famous urbanist Jane Jacobs once proclaimed that a city’s values are its byproducts, and indeed it is almost as though the Italian passion for the motorcar was informing urban planning strategies in Turin.
The factory was unique not only in the racetrack on its rooftop, but in its production line sequence. Raw materials were delivered to the ground floor of the building and cars were assembled on the upper floors in a ladder-like process; with each phase of production, the car would rise another floor within the building. Cars travelled between floors via spiraling ramps that have been beautifully cast in smooth concrete. By the time the car reached the top floor, it was complete and ready to be tested on the rooftop’s banked oval.
According to accounts, the rooftop circuit was a far cry from the high speed proving ground, which makes sense considering the era and the constant fact that this was taking place more than a few stories off the ground. Reportedly, any speed above 60km/h was good for a hair raising ride. The roof was never intended to be a racetrack after all, more of a quality control stage. Workers would take each completed car for a lap of the roof, with the extreme banking on either end of the elongated oval ensuring that any loose tie-rod ends or wheel nuts would be noticed before the cars were unleashed on the public.
Don’t let this mundane detail dampen the significance of the rooftop track though. Speed isn’t everything. It’s not Daytona in the skies, but the building embodied the excitement of the automotive age as it was taking hold of the population. It was a celebration of industry, and its rooftop auto-colosseum captured the imagination of the public. Lingotto inspired all sorts: architects, engineers, and above all, motorists.
Production eventually ceased at Lingotto in 1982, and it lay vacant for some years until a portion of the building was transformed into luxury residential units, an art gallery, and music venue by Italian starchitect Renzo Piano. The rest of the building was given over to the Automotive Engineering school at Turin Polytechnic, a fitting use we think you’ll agree. Though we’d still like a go on that oval…