Always in the Fast Lane

JEREMY CLARKSON meets the man behind Italy’s supercar industry.

Clarkson
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeremy Clarkson is a journalist, author, and television presenter. He writes columns for The Sunday Times and The Sun. He is best known for his work presenting Top Gear (U.K.) for the BBC. He primarily specializes in automotive journalism with his interviews and car reviews. Clarkson has gained notoriety for his crude, yet eloquent writing style which has garnered him fans and controversy. He currently writes for and presents The Grand Tour on Amazon’s streaming service.


Sep. 1994  |  By Jeremy Clarkson


Giovanni
Giovanni Agnelli in front of a Fiat production factory. Photo credit, David Lees, 1967. Image courtesy of Esquire.

Two years ago, while speeding in a Fiat press car in Italy, I was stopped by the police, who
said I must pay a 9,000 billion lire fine (approx. $4.8 billion). As I was carrying no money, they said the car would be impounded. Brusquely, they snatched the papers from the glove box, then, not quite so brusquely, handed them back again. They saluted as they walked backwards, in reverential silence, bowing slightly. Then they climbed into their car and saluted once more as they drove away.

Puzzled by the abrupt change of heart, I studied the aforementioned papers, only to discover that the car was listed as being the property of one Giovanni Agnelli. This guy is not simply above the law. He is the law.

I needed to meet this guy.

Now aged 73, he presides over the eighth largest private company in Europe. He owns, personally, Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Masserati, and the only reason he does not have Bugatti and Lamborghini, too, is that he does not want them. Yet he is rather more than the boss of a car firm.

Agnelli owns the Sestriere ski resort, Juventus football club and a national newspaper (La Stampa). His tentacles spread far beyond Italy. In Britain alone, he employs 8,500 people producing tractors and lorries and heart pacemakers. He is a remarkable businessman, so remarkable, in fact, that even when a deal goes badly wrong, he walks away odour-free and much, much richer.

Today, the only drawback in Agnelli’s comfortable life is that he is chauffeured to and from work in a Fiat Croma – though he has a Ferrari 456 for private trips to and from Monaco and Gstaad or wherever he feels like going that day.

Giovanni, or Gianni as he is known to friends, has been a man on the move since 1945 when his grandfather, the founder of the Fiat empire, told him to go out into the world and have some fun. To ensure that he would have a lot of fun, his allowance was set at $1m a year, which meant that our hero became a one-man jet set.

time cover
Giovanni Agnelli on the cover of Time magazine, 1969. Image courtesy of Time.

For two decades, until he took control of Fiat in the mid-60’s, Agnelli was the wildest hell-raiser on the Continent. Time magazine was to comment that “he had a full career in the gossip columns long before he reached the financial pages”.

His war with boredom goes on even today. In his book, Agnelli And The Network of Italian Power, Alan Friedman quotes one of Agnelli’s friends: “He was always restless. And he is still the same. He told me to come and visit at St Moritz this summer but he is never there. He is up at 6 am, then he takes the helicopter and goes to have a swim at Cap Ferrat. He jumps on board the yacht, then takes the jet and flies to Paris to have a look at a house. Then he returns to St Moritz for dinner.”

That was in 1987: Agnelli was 66.

He is a deeply tanned man with a face like Utah. The hair is white and the eyes are impossibly blue. It’s hard to stop looking at them, but you manage it when you notice that one of the world’s most powerful men is wearing his wristwatch on the outside of his cuff.

We talked, essentially, about Italy and its love affair with the car and I learned that Agnelli no fan of the Swiss. “Here,” he said, “if a car flashes its headlights at you, it means there is a speed trap ahead. In Switzerland, if they flash their lights, it is to tell you to slow down.” He does not like to drive in Switzerland much.

Agnelli talks of the recent drive to clamp down on speeding in Italy but says it hasn’t worked. Italians like to drive fast and won’t be told they can’t, he adds. Does he like to drive fast?

“I am an Italian,” he says.

He agrees that Italy, more than anywhere else in the world, is in love with the motor car – five of the world’s eight supercar makers are based in Modena – and says the honeymoon is only just beginning.

But what, I ask, in a high-pitched, squeaky, I’m nervous, sort of voice, about the environment? Surely the car will be the death of us all? Italians must understand that? There then followed a small lecture on all that Fiat is doing to help save the planet.

Agnelli argues that Fiat makes small cars which are more eco-compatible than larger ones, which is true. But then, he also makes Ferrari’s, which are about as environmentally friendly as dropping some plutonium in the reservoirs at Staines. And anyway, how can he justify making supercars in an area of Italy which, until very recently, was something of a communist outpost. Oh, says Agnelli, people in Italy like their cars more than their politics.

That hard, inner shell only surfaced once in our comfy little chat; But I spotted it. Throughout the interview, he had reeled off dates and facts like some kind of computer – he even knows how many people work for the BBC – but he was stuck on a small point about the Fiat Uno. The camera was turning but without looking away, he simply pointed at his PR man and clicked his fingers, and I just know that if the poor soul had not known the answer, or even if he’d just fumbled a bit, he’d have been on the street inside a week, flogging copies of The Big Issue.

Absolute power. It made my buttocks wobble.


This posting is a re-mediation of the original article published in The Sunday Times of India. The original can be read here.

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