BBC Autos

Icons and Innovators

Lingotto: The factory that launched a million Fiats

HIDE CAPTION

The year is 1969, and Michael Caine and his ne'er-do-well gang are scampering across Turin, Italy, in a trio of Mini Coopers, with the carabinieri hot on their tailpipes.

Each specially reinforced Cooper carries a heavy, illicit cargo of gold bullion, and each is having trouble giving the police-liveried Alfa Romeo Giulias the slip.

Bursting out from a tunnel, the red, white and blue Minis are chased across the roof of a building. Yet this is no ordinary rooftop; the lads of The Italian Job have stumbled onto the four-storey-high racetrack atop the most famous structure in Turin. Three abreast, they loop through the steeply banked turns, switching position to keep the police from overtaking as the skyline of the city is laid out below.

“Now as you go around, watch for that bloody exit,” Caine's Charlie Croker tells his driver. “We can't go around here all night.” The Minis spin up their buzzy little engines and make for the edge, leaving the Pista Lingotto in a triple jump across a yawning gap. The pursuing Alfa skids to a stop on the parapet, foiled by the aerial Brits:

Pure fiction of course, but if there was one structure the cinematographers could ill afford to omit from their crime caper, it was Fiat’s Lingotto factory. Though obsolescence was only a few years away, the structure was then, and remains now, among the most important buildings in Europe.

A reminder of its importance came in July 2014, when Fiat announced it would relocate its corporate headquarters from nearby the Lingotto factory to an interim office in Slough, England, with plans to open a London base shortly thereafter. It is a historic break with tradition, spurred by the conglomerate’s recent full merger with Chrysler Group.

For all the news attending the move, the fact remains that Fiat is Turin and Turin is Fiat. The carmaker’s massive output is a symbol of the city's industrial wealth – never more so than during the early 20th Century, when the coffers of Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino overflowed with wealth earned from producing materiel for World War I. Fiat's patriarch, Giovanni Agnelli, made astute political alliances, and his son Gianni had recently returned from a trip to the US, impressed by the mass production lines of the Ford Motor Company. Given there was no facility in Italy that could house such operations, a purpose-built automobile factory was conceived, with building commencing in 1916.

By 1923, Benito Mussolini was in power, and the Lingotto factory opened its doors for the first time. The architecture was the handiwork of Giacomo Mattè Trucco, and it would be his magnum opus. The largest automotive factory in Europe and the first one constructed with the sole purpose of producing cars, it embodied the relatively new philosophies of Futurism and Modernism. It was simply massive, a half-kilometre of reinforced concrete four stories high, looming on the horizon like a colossal multi-windowed ark.

At the inauguration, King Victor Emmanuel III toured the facility, though it could be said that the black-clad Duce was more aligned with the school of thought behind the project. This gargantuan building was a Modernist rejection of the baroque, a break from the past and a celebration of an industrialised future. Its test track sat like an emperor's laurels, a sky-high celebration of the automobile, speed and power above all else.

Even so, and despite all that concrete, it was beautiful. The twin ramps leading down from either end of the rooftop resembled lily pads from below. Taken in its entirely, the structure was a honeycomb of activity, with something of Dante's Paradiso in the way the cars progressed from base materials at the ground level to fully functioning machines by the time they emerged from the hive.

An owner of a Fiat Spider, 124 or similar from the period before the late 1970s would have every reason to believe that the first few miles put on the odometer would have come high above Turin, as every car leaving the factory was so tested. While the banked sections are impossibly tight, rumours persist that concepts and racing engines were also tested here, including the one-off 1954 Turbina, with its projected 160mph top speed.

However, the Lingotto factory built fewer cars than expected, putting out an average of 200 daily when Ford's lines were producing several thousand. It was soon caught and eclipsed by another Fiat factory, the Mirafiori plant, which sped its obsolescence. The last car Lingotto produced was a 1979 Lancia Delta.

In 1982, the factory was officially shuttered, eventually to be converted into a combination hotel, convention centre and shopping facility. The conversion was master-planned by Renzo Piano, architect of “The Shard” in London, as well as the headquarters of The New York Times in Manhattan. So indelible was the building’s mark on the city that discussions containing the word “demolition” never gained a broad audience.

The Lingotto factory remains, as does the imprint of Fiat on the Italian consciousness, colossal. Michael Caine’s band of thieves may have made off with the gold on screen, but for generations of torinese, the treasure remained behind.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Autos, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.