Book Reviews, June 1974, June 1974

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“Fiat” by Michael Sedgwick. 352 pp. 84 in x 54 in. (B. T. Batsford Limited, 4, Fitzhardinge Street, London, WIH °All. L5.00).

The gaps in one-make history are gradually being filled-in, so that the serious student of motoring history has at his or her command a very comprehensive reference source. It is perhaps astonishing that such an industrial giant as Fiat has only very recently been the subject of such a book. Fiat themselves, as befits an Industrial complex the origins of which date back to 1899 and which has absorbed so many of the smaller Italian motor manufacturers and has produced such a wide and complicated variety of catalogue and competition cars over the years, many of them possessing noted individuality, are history conscious. Their inimitable Centro Stork° in Turin emphasises that and no-one has a better grasp of Fiat history that the Curator, Dr. Augusto Costantino. Consequently, it was both surprising and disappointing that past books issued by Fiat, while lavish and beautifully produced, neither entirely filled the bill, nor were completely accurate, a matter partially of the frailties of an English translation. Thus an independent book about the Fiat colossus, with its far-reaching ramifications, and its many subsidiary products apart from fast and slow cars and commercial vehicles, was overdue. It is such a complex subject that I am not surprised that even those writers avid to climb on the motor-publishing bandwagon shunned it. Only Michael Sedgwick, that industrious and erudite historian who has a distinct Fiat-flair and has for years contributed deep data to the Fiat Register magazine, was fitted for the task.

Now his book is here, how to assess it ? It is a more modest tome, size-wise and pictorially, than I had expected. But the wealth of information it contains is formidable indeed. Sedgwick covers the whole evolution of Fiat, comparing its many models with those of rival manufacturers and with each other, quoting those endless production-run statistics, not only for Fiats but for other makes, which have only recently been available for inclusion in the historian’s repertoire. He cites the political winds which have affected the Fiat picture; he does not flinch from expounding their mistakes, both as he sees them from Fiats he has driven and in terms of technical hindsight. He touches on the great racing days of Fiat, both before and after the first World War. Fiat aero-engines, Fiat aeroplanes, Fiat commercial and military vehicles, tractors, marine engines and the rest, all get a mention. To cover such a vast field in one comparatively small book must have been a mammoth undertaking. It is reflected in the fact that

this is not an easy book to read. It is essentially for Fiat fanatics and serious researchers. Sedgwick tends to dodge about to some extent with the many different models, so that recourse to the copious Index does not always take you directly to what you seek. A chronological order is, however, maintained and “Fiat”

concludes with a very useful table of nearly 100 production models, well documented. The page-size cramps the pictures, so that while they are an adequate selection they hardly stand out as dramatic portrayals of what were dramatic cars. One becomes a little tired of certain “Sedgwickisms” as the reading proceeds, notably the number of “cryptos” with which he sprinkles the text, and although contemporary Press reports usually bear repeating in such a work, the interpretation is not always as intended. Thus Sedgwick suggests that I “obviously found much to commend” in the Fiat 2300 because I concluded my MOTOR SPORT report with the words “When I get older and enjoy straights more than corners I shall have nothing but praise for this Fiat”. But it is surely more obvious that I thought the 2300 handled abominably !

It is flattering that the author thinks racing and trials successes had a definite influence on Fiat’s falling or rising sales, and in view of the subject of our last month’s Editorial it is interesting to be reminded that in 1929 the RACI demanded that those members owning foreign cars should quote their reasons for such unpatriotic behaviour!

Sedgwick has done a good job in packing so much important and fascinating Fiat history into one book and, what is more, making such history of real value to the seekers after the truth. He is not writing solely for enthusiasts; his artistry covers a broader canvas. This may at times make him a little sparing of depth in detailed descriptions of the various models but definitely there is sufficient about each to enable the enthusiast to enjoy the book, while not deflecting the attention of industrialist readers. I had, however, one or two disappointments. Sedgwick has been unable to carry the great Fiat mysteries any further than the rest of us—why Sir George Abercromby sued D’Arcy Baker in 1908 over a racing Fiat, what caused the blown 14-litre cars to fail so early in the 1923 200 Mile Race— which momentarily had even the Centro Storico stunned when I raised it with them (I regard the author’s proferred explanation that they “just shook to pieces” as weak) or how “Mephistopheles” was made to reverse in 1924. However, the very fact that Sedgwick has not shirked these topics indicates the coverage of Fiat to be expected from his book. Indeed, it reveals much that was new to me— Fiat’s experimental production-type straighteight, absorbing facets of Fiat in this country when raced by amateurs, and much, much more besides. I was disappointed that the reasons for Dante Giacosa using air-cooling for the second-generation Fiat 500s are not given, nor is there an elaboration on the matter of whether Sir Alec Issigonis or Dr. Giacosa was first with an East-to-West front-drive layout.

That, however, is carping, because this is a great book, which cannot fail to be referred to whenever Fiat matters are under discussion. If the Fiat-orientated enthusiast is prepared to wade through it and is not choked by statistics he or she will find every Fiat model, favourite or otherwise, put into sales and technical perspective, no mean achievement in itself. But “Fiat” goes further. It is the first book with out factory prompting to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about one of the World’s most significant industrial colossus—how it came into being, how it evolved, what it has achieved, to the extent that, if the fable that Fiat owns Italy is untrue, it is

only just wide of the mark. Only Sedgwick, as a Fiat-ophile who is also an honest historian, possessed the energy required to compile this all-embracing work. The pictures, if small, are clear, printing errors are, for these days, . minimal, and the only item to make me raise a reviewer’s eyebrow is whether Rodwell Banks was ever with Castrol (wasn’t it Esso ?).

Whether your love lies with 501, 509, Milecento, Balilla, the Edwardian giants, Fiat’s remarkable last-fling GP car, the Topolino or later Turin-inspired baby cars, Michael Sedgwick’s painstaking book covers them all, not to mention the many models in between or coming after, each of which, the author maintains, was “unmistakably a Fiat”.—W.B.

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