Italy forged its reputation in racing in the early 1900s, with creations like the monstrous 1729 cubic inch 4-cylinder “Beast of Turin,” which set a speed record of 116 mph all the way back in 1911. The Beast’s engine produced 300 horsepower, with innovations like pressure oiling, four valves per cylinder and overhead cams (well over a century ago). During the first half of the 20th century, many of Italy’s smaller manufacturers were absorbed by Fiat, while Ferrari and Maserati were specializing in hand-built, esoteric high-performance sports cars aimed at the enthusiasts’ market.
Ferrari in particular was zeroed in on the racing world, with the company manufacturing race cars and sponsoring drivers for the race circuit long before moving into street-legal vehicles. Ferrari introduced their first road car, the V12-powered 125S in 1947, followed soon by the 159S. The tiny V12 only displaced 1.9 liters, but produced 125 horsepower in a 1433-lb car. The 125S went on to win six of 14 races in ’47.
In the years to come, models like the Testarossa, 365 Daytona, 500 Superfast, 308 and 550 Maranello would soon set the bar for the rest of the world’s exotic cars, and became synonymous with high performance, exquisite design and true head-turning panache. Despite a spotty history that eventually led to ownership by Fiat, Maserati has produced many legendary cars over the years as well, with more emphasis on sedans and coupes rather than cabriolets. The Quattroporte luxury sedan, for instance, now features a 560 horsepower V8 and all-wheel drive, with interior room and amenities that rival competitors like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Lamborghini, on the other hand, has always specialized in high-priced exotic cars like the legendary 60s-era Miura. The Miura in particular set the pattern for mid-engine and rear-wheel-drive layouts for Italian high-performance cars. Unlike Maserati and Ferrari, Lamborghini started without much interest in motorsport and racing; the company didn’t engage in in factory-supported race teams or drivers until much later. Instead, Lamborghini has focused on driver-oriented exotics like the Islero, Urraco and Murcielago.
Today, Italy’s auto industry accounts for 8.5% of the country’s GDP, and Fiat/Lancia produces over 90% of the country’s automotive output; today, Fiat owns a 100% stake in American manufacturer Chrysler, giving the company leverage into markets that were previously closed. Despite ups and downs over the years, Italy’s auto industry seems to be on an uptick again, with Italian sensibilities for engineering, style, design and driver enthusiasm still intact.