Giovanni Agnelli founded Fiat Car Manufacturing in 1899. His determination and international vision were the guiding forces behind Fiat’s exponential growth. Born in 1866 in Villar Perosa, Italy, Agnelli studied at the Collegio San Giuseppe in Turin. After graduation, he joined the military and served as a cavalry officer until 1893. It was around this time that Agnelli first heard of an invention called the “horseless carriage.” Sensing an opportunity to utilize his engineering and entrepreneurial skills, Agnelli joined a group of investors and co-founded Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino in 1899. The company later adopted a shortened version of this name and became known as Fiat.
Fiat’s first factory opened in 1900 and had just 35 employees. Though Agnelli was the junior member of the company’s three founders, serving as secretary to the board, he quickly gained a prominent position among the original investors and was made managing director in 1902. Under Agnelli’s guidance, Fiat became the largest carmaker in Italy by 1910. Agnelli was appointed chairman of the board of directors in 1920 and continued to help the company grow. After taking several trips to America, Agnelli began to plan what he called “a great new American-style factory.” The plant, which opened in 1923, was the first Fiat factory to use assembly lines, and allowed for a flurry of new products that helped establish Fiat as one of the top industrial companies in Italy.
Agnelli also was responsible for numerous philanthropic works and institutions of social welfare, such as employee health services, a school for young apprentices, a children’s retreat, and a hospital. Agnelli’s generosity and social responsibility continue to be guiding principles for Fiat today. Agnelli later served as a senator, and even as the mayor of his hometown. He remained the head of Fiat until his death in 1945. Because of his contributions, Fiat has become one of the oldest continually operating automobile manufacturers in the world.