On this day in 1921, Giovanni “Gianni” Agnelli, the glamorous, powerful Italian business tycoon who turned Fiat, his family’s car company, into an international conglomerate, is born in Turin, Italy. Agnelli was named for his grandfather, who founded Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, later known as Fiat, in 1899.
As a young man Agnelli, who had a privileged upbringing, received a law degree and fought in World War II. He also earned a reputation as a playboy, dating Hollywood actresses and enjoying yachts and fast cars. In the late 1930s, Agnelli traveled to Detroit to study the American auto industry; his grandfather reportedly had been friendly with Henry Ford. In 1966, Agnelli, then in his mid-40s, became head of Fiat. Under his leadership, the company grew into one of Europe’s leading car makers and expanded internationally. Fiat also took stakes in such Italian auto manufacturers as Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Maserati. Additionally, Fiat branched out into other industries, including construction, finance and telecommunications. The company became Italy’s biggest private-sector employer and Agnelli, who was referred to as the country’s uncrowned king, at one point controlled more than 25 percent of the companies on the Milan stock exchange.
According to his 2003 obituary by the United Press International (UPI), Agnelli pursued several unconventional strategies as chairman of Fiat, including turning to Libya’s autocratic Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi for financial assistance during the oil crisis of the 1970s and, after the end of the Cold War, becoming “the first Western carmaker to make an aggressive move into former Warsaw Pact countries, opening plants in Poland and Russia.”
Nicknamed L’Avvocato (The Lawyer), Agnelli amassed a multi-billion-dollar fortune, hobnobbed with world leaders and was known for his sartorial flair, which included wearing his wristwatch over his shirt cuff. He was also an avid soccer fan and owned the Italian team Juventus.
Agnelli resigned as head of Fiat in 1996, although he remained honorary chairman until his death on January 25, 2003, at the age of 81 from prostate cancer. In April 2009, American Big Three automaker Chrysler filed for bankruptcy and announced it was entering a partnership with Fiat.