How Fascism Built the Italian Car Culture that we Know and Love Today

By: Fernando Escobar

Benito Mussolini sitting in an Alfa Romeo race car

If you ask any car enthusiast today to mention three things about Italy and cars, chances are they will mention Ferrari, Monza, and the infamous Tifosi. The Italian auto Industry is known around the world, not only for its technological advancements but for the passion of the industry. Legendary names like Maserati and Ferrari are remembered for their contributions to the industry for both road cars and racing cars, but what is not mentioned enough, is their connection to the fascist regime.

Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, a time when the French, and Americans ruled the world of racing, and the market of affordable cars. There had been great Italian cars before Mussolini, but they were extremely expensive, and nothing in comparison to what other countries were producing. For decades, the Italian auto Industry did not have enough money to build larger and more efficient factories, that could build cars that could compete with the rest of the world. Mussolini wanted Italy to climb to the top of the ranks in racing and build cars that everyone could afford. So, he made it a priority to build an auto industry that could compete with the best that the world had to offer. As part of his plan to build up the country, he wanted Italy to build great racing cars and great affordable cars that any Italian family could own. Mussolini invested public funds into the existing car companies so that they could build larger factories and develop better cars. He also built infrastructure on a large scale. Mussolini’s infrastructure was the most advanced in the world. His regime invented the highway with the infamous autostrada, which he built all over the country connecting major cities. The autostrada was so ahead of its day, that it took Germany a decade to copy it with their autobahn. It took the United States until the mid-1950s when the Eisenhower interstates were built. However, Mussolini not only built highways, but he also built racetracks, the most famous of which is still used for racing today. The legendary Autodromo Nazionale Monza, a place so iconic, that it is now referred to as the Temple of Speed was built by Mussolini’s regime.

The Autodromo Nazionale Monza

Mussolini was determined to develop an affordable car for the Italian people because he thought that it would contribute to making his regime a success. In the mid-1930s, Fiat came out with a revolutionary car which was called the 500. The 500 was revolutionary in its design because of its compact size yet efficient use of space. It was also cheap to build, reliable, and easy to work on. The 500 was so loved that the people nicknamed it “Topolino” which translates to baby mouse. Italy came out with its car of the people and because Hitler and Mussolini were on the same page for a lot of their ideas, Germany also came out with its people’s car in the late 1930s. Comparing the German Volkswagen and the Italian Topolino is a great way to see the culture of the countries that they came from. The Volkswagen was dull, not very pretty, did not drive well, and slow, were as the Topolino was beautifully styled, fun to drive, and well-received by the public. Today, the Volkswagen is remembered more because they built more than 21 million of them. In contrast, the Topolino was built until the mid-50s, and the production numbers were about half a million in total. The Topolino was refreshed three times and had different variants like the jardiniere for rural customers. The Topolino cost 5000 lire when it came out which meant that middle-class families throughout Italy could afford to buy it. This boosted Mussolini’s image with his people because, without him, the Topolino would have not been built. The irony that the Topolino has was by design because it gave Italians the freedom of personal transportation, yet it was a product of a totalitarian fascist regime. The Topolino cemented itself as part of the Italian identity, and as a material piece of culture for the Italian individuals that owned one. This stylish tool to get them from point a to point b gave these people a sense of pride and a feeling of success. The Topolino, a product of fascism, is remembered not by its origins, but by how the Italian people loved it. Daniel Miller, a Cambridge University scholar, writes about how cars like the Topolino, have an impact on the people that makes them remember their cars in a good way despite their history. “Even within social history, the emphasis tends to be on the consequences of the car rather than an empathetic account of car consumption in particular cultural contexts.” Mussolini today is remembered as anything but a great leader, yet the Topolino, a product of his regime, is remembered very dearly by Italians and people the world over.

Fiat Topolino

Mussolini invested heavily in motor racing during the 1920s and 1930s. Sport is a great way to build pride in a nation because it is competing against other nations for the sake of competition. The ideas that the race car drivers were the bravest men and that the engineers were the smartest that Italy had to offer were ideas that could be found in propaganda at the time, and when success came, the idea that the best of Italy defeated the best in the world helped Mussolini with his goal of building a strong nationalist identity. One man stood out from the rest because he was the best at both driving and engineering. Enzo Ferrari was a ruthless race car driver, and a genius engineer that dominated the world of motorsports in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. Enzo started working for Alfa Romeo in the mid-1920s as a young engineer. Soon, he started to run their racing team, which he called Scuderia Ferrari. The dark red Alfa Romeos that featured a prancing horse on their side, started to dominate the racing world, which meant that the Italian people started to go crazy for Ferrari. The prancing horse was borrowed from the coat of arms of Francesco Baracca. He was the best Italian pilot in WWI which meant that the Italian public was already familiar with the prancing horse. Baracca’s prancing horse associated the Ferrari race cars with both war and greatness. Paolo Aversa, a Cambridge University scholar, writes about how the rebranding of the prancing horse had such an impactful result on the Italian public “Cultural branding identifies a general approach to the creation, establishment, and development of brands that are derived from and empowered by powerful cultural associations. Strategic repurposing presents a specific process within cultural branding from which it borrows some of the traditional concepts and assumptions.” This rebranding of the prancing horse was key to building a legacy that has now become one of the most powerful brands in the world regardless of industry. Enzo was a member of the fascist party and yet his legacy is one that is not tied to fascism at all. This building of Ferrari as a brand in the 1920s and 30s can be looked at as the work of geniuses because they managed to build a brand with fascist resources, that is remembered with all the glory, but without any of the darkness of Mussolini’s regime.

Alfa Romeo race cars featuring the infamous prancing horse

Benito Mussolini is remembered today as a man who took over a country and led it down the wrong path. Yet some of his most influential work is not even attached to his name. His regime was incredibly good at propaganda and promoting the work that they were doing, that to this day, a century later, that work is still not tied to the fascist regime. Mussolini’s regime invented and built the highway, an invention that we all benefit from today. He built Monza, one of the most famous racetracks in the world. A place that is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of Italians every summer, when the Italian Grand Prix is held there. Ferrari, one of the most recognizable words regardless of the language, was a product of his regime. Ferrari’s impact on the automotive industry and the general public was so influential, and has continued to be so strong, that Enzo Ferrari once said “ask a child to draw a car, and certainly he will draw it red.” Ferrari’s impact on the world as aspiration can only be described as a cultural phenomenon. But Ferrari was not the only thing that Mussolini had an impact on. Mussolini also financed the infrastructure that some of these companies still use. Fiat, built factories, buildings, testing facilities, and other infrastructure that allowed them to build millions of cars for decades and decades after the regime had seized. Not to mention the number of jobs that these investments created. Thousands of construction workers, assembly line workers, researchers, engineers, etc. The cultural impact that working for Fiat assembling cars, and then going out and buying one for yourself is an impact that cannot be understated. The influence that Mussolini’s regime had on the Italian people through the platform of automobiles, can only be described as the work of geniuses. The regime ended up failing, but that does not mean that it did not achieve some of its goals along the way. They achieved their goal of building a culture of people that feel great pride in the cars that they own, and also the ones that compete around the world under their flag. This culture continues to this day, and it is so powerful that it is not limited by borders. For decades now Millions and millions of Ferrari fans around the world gather around their televisions on Sundays, with the hope that the Ferrari driver stands on the top step of the podium at the end of the day, which is a cultural phenomenon that would not exist without the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.

The podium celebrations at the 2019 Italian Grand Prix at Monza when A Ferrari Driver won

Citations

Aversa, P., Schreiter, K., & Guerrini, F. (2021). The Birth of a Business Icon through Cultural Branding: Ferrari and the Prancing Horse, 1923–1947. Enterprise & Society, 1-31. doi:10.1017/eso.2021.22

Ucl. “Driven Societies.” UCL Anthropology, 7 July 2021, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/people/academic-and-teaching-staff/daniel-miller/driven-societies.

Moraglio, Massimo. Driving Modernity. Berghahn Books, 2017.

Storie. Follie Di Corse e Motori Tra Mussolini, Enzo … – Barbadillo. https://www.barbadillo.it/67311-storie-follie-di-corse-e-motori-tra-mussolini-enzo-ferrari-e-tazio-nuvolari/.

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