MILAN. Fast: what word comes to mind when the theme of Italian automobile museums comes up at a cocktail party?
Ferrari. Of course. Or perhaps Maserati. Or maybe Lamborghini. But for the next thousand words or so, put those harsh answers aside. For now, let’s think out of the car museum box.
On a recent visit to northern Italy, I cruised between Milan and Turin in search of some automotive greatness beyond what is usually on the tourist agenda. I found it in “other” museums, one dedicated to the history of Alfa Romeo and the other at Fiat’s home in the true heart of the Italian car industry for over a century.
Do you want red cars? The Alfa has a rosso in over a few stunning hues. Technology? Let’s start with Leonardo da Vinci’s 1478 self-propelled vehicle. Not a time for a Porsche? Good. You won’t find anything here.
Here are a few destinations for enthusiasts and non-motorists alike, as well as a short stop at renowned Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli.
MUSEO STORICO ALFA ROMEO, Arese. Located in Arese, a suburb of Milan, Museo Storico is a romantic deep dive into 111 years of Italian history, told through the lens of one of the most interesting and enduring brands. While the themes of the museum’s layout – chronology, beauty and speed – offer an accurate and thoughtful assessment of the importance of Alfa to Italy and its industry, having so much gorgeous sheet metal in one building is enough to spark passion.
The company “realized early on that a museum could be an asset for marketing,” said Lorenzo Ardisio, director of the museum. It was originally opened in 1976 for guests and journalists only, but under the direction of Sergio Marchionne, the Storico was renovated and reopened in 2015 to present the Giulia sedan. Last year, Mr Marchionne orchestrated the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. (Fiat acquired Alfa in 1986.) FCA is now part of the Stellantis group. Yes. This is hard.
With regard to Storico, Mr. Ardisio said: “The idea was to create something that would attract a much wider audience, for people who might not be particularly interested in cars.” This is a recurring theme for most automotive museums.
All the usual high-tech advantages of 21st century display formats are collected here: multimedia panels, exotic lighting, a giant video wall that traces some of the elegiac performances of Alfa in motorsport. The small 1.5-liter Alfettas won the first Formula 1 World Championship in 1950, finishing first, second and third in this Grand Prix season. Second place went to Juan Manuel Fangio, who is considered one of the most brilliant riders of all time. The results were cause for joy in this race car-obsessed country, whose auto industry was destroyed in the mid-1940s by retreating Germans and advancing Allies.
It was the compact Giulietta coupe with a design inspired by Raymond Lowy that brought the Alfa back to the showrooms in 1954. Among the 70 cars on permanent display in the respective museum (there is also a “workshop” closed to the public with many historical Alphas), the neat Juliet is a very valuable sight. Thanks to its success, Ardisio said the company flourished after World War II, producing up to 1,000 vehicles a day, shortly after only 300 vehicles were produced a year.
Do you recognize that red convertible over there? Many moviegoers will: This is the 1600 spider duo that Dustin Hoffman rode across the bay bridge in The Graduate. According to our Storico guide, the encyclopedic Eleanor Ventura, a classic 1966 model designed by Pininfarina atelier, was “booked” – as well as green and white – on the deck of a luxury liner sailing from Genoa. to New York.
“The ship stopped in Cannes for the film festival and took on board several actors and VIPs who had the opportunity to drive them on deck during their trip to New York,” she said. This “Alpha” model, which has been produced for 28 years, has subsequently played “cameo roles” in a number of films.
It is worth noting that almost all the information displayed next to cars and in videos is presented in English. More than 130,000 visitors passed through Storico in 2020, according to Mr. Ardisio’s estimates.
NATIONAL AUTOMOTIVE MUSEUM, Turin… For American tourists visiting Italy, Turin is often overshadowed by the Rome-Florence-Milan-Venice routes overshadowed by it. But for car connoisseurs, Turin, the first capital of Italy before Rome, has a rich history: Lancia, IVECO, Pininfarina, Bertone, Giugiaro and Ghia, magical names in the Italian design tradition, were founded here, built around the home of Turin’s industrial megastar, Fiat.
Unsurprisingly, the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile is one of the largest dedicated to cars in the world. With such a rich heritage built from a collection of some 200 models from 1854, you can earn a Bachelor of History degree after spending a few stressful hours here. Founded in 1933, the museum was renovated in 2011 and attracts about 200,000 visitors annually, about half of them are foreigners, ”said our guide Felipe Vergara.
The museum combines science with sports. One of the exhibitions features Formula 1 cars driven by Fangio and Michael Schumacher; another illuminates Bordino’s steam carriage of 1854, which amazed the Turin people when it cruised without horsepower through the narrow streets of the city.
Mr. Vergara is also inspired by the particularly non-aerodynamic Italy, a 40-horsepower monster that took part in the infamous 1907 Beijing-Paris auto race. The vehicle on display, battered and torn by the war, is inspiring. There are removable mudguards for water crossings, oversized tanks for gasoline.
“The idea was, is it crazy enough to go from Beijing to Paris on a 16,000-kilometer trip?” asked Mr Vergara. “Five teams have arrived.”
The Gobi Desert and Siberia were just two obstacles the racers faced. The Italy was driven by Prince Scipione Borghese, a military man. He turned Italy to Paris in 61 days; the runner-up car arrived three weeks later. The news coverage was amazing; Those who saw the car as a whim were humiliated.
The museum is, for good reason, inextricably linked to Fiat (Fabbrica Italiana di Automobile Torino, not Fix It Again Tony) and its brilliant but politically divisive founder, Giovanni Agnelli. (At one point he was associated with Mussolini, and at another he was put on trial for fraud.)
Fiat has found itself on the brink of bankruptcy over the past 120 years – the brand is now virtually invisible in the United States – but its cars are ubiquitous in Turin and in this museum. Of particular note is the striking red and white Turbine from 1954, powered by a gas turbine. In other words, a jet engine. The concept never went into mass production, but it made an unforgettable nagging at car dealerships.
In general, the thoughtful layout of the museum – a chronological journey across several floors – offers a visual story about the car from the very beginning: the groovy, spring-loaded “car” of da Vinci and the touchstone of the Jaguars and Ferraris of our day.
“People come and say, ‘I was not interested in cars,” said Mr. Vergara, “and then they realize how interesting it is.”
PIRELLI FOUNDATION MUSEUM, Milan… Who knew tires could become a museum? But instead of sheet metal and fuel injection, the Fondazione Pirelli in the center of Milan relies on rubber.
An Italian institution, Pirelli has traced its influence over decades (it turns 150 next year) and not only in terms of tires, although motorsport fans are familiar with the brand because Pirellis are the only tires allowed in Formula 1 racing. The foundation’s exhibits, including paintings, films and a collection of cutting-edge Pirelli advertising posters, highlight the company’s efforts to promote art and culture among its employees. (In 2017, the Orchestra da Camera Italiana gave a concert at the Pirelli factory.)
It also has a place of honor for the notorious Pirelli calendar. The full-color, oversized calendars called “Cal” became iconic in the 1960s and 1970s, featuring glamorous women in varying degrees of nudity. When simple nudity later ceased to be popular, calendars became more artistic than Playboy.
There is also an extensive archive of historical documents and articles if you are interested in Pirelli more academically. Students and researchers are allowed access by agreement.