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26 November 2021
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The vehicles conceived by great architects

Ponti, Le Corbusier, Fuller: famous designers and their cars.

From Gio Ponti's Linea Diamante and Le Corbusier's Voiture Minimum to Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion car and the iconic Citroën DS. Automobiles and architecture share a closer relationship than you might expect. To find out more, we spoke to Roberto Giolito, head of the Heritage department of Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Fiat e Abarth.

Architecture is a field in which the concept of design is instrumental. Are there any links between the worlds of automobiles and architecture? What is your experience in this regard?

The architectural sector has always been known as one of the most active fields in defining new scenarios and identifying new urban and social living environments in general. Take the example of the Dymaxion car, the working prototype designed by architect Buckminster Fuller in 1933 based on an aeroplane fuselage: this visionary American inventor was one of the first to propose the idea of reorganising the volumes of a car body, mainly with the aim of enlarging the passenger compartment to give its occupants greater freedom of movement. Besides this pioneering one-off project, the most prolific interactions between the architectural and automotive sectors date back to the 1970s, when car designers began to consult with experts in building design to understand if and how cars could also draw inspiration from architectural principles. They began to think pragmatically of the car as a living space, albeit one on wheels. As a result, automotive design became a search for the minimum conditions needed to envisage the passenger compartment as architecture in motion. That is to say, designers sensed an opportunity to build cars with a focus on their inhabitants, in the same way that houses are conceived in architecture. It is no coincidence that the first advanced design departments came about in the 1970s.

What is the role of Advanced Design centres?

Advanced Design Centres were invented to create scenarios and prototypes that can shape the future vision of an automotive company, and to give greater freedom to designers by enabling them to work without having to guarantee full feasibility in order to meet production standards. That is why, in these environments, it has always been easier to conceive more visionary creations. There, in conceptualising an entire vehicle, every single designer is given free reign within their own field of expertise. The mission of Advanced Design Centres is not to put a vehicle into production within a strict time-to-market, which is the window of time (usually three years) needed to turn a sketch (i.e. the car's conceptual design) into a saleable product. They are also places where working methods and interconnections with the outside world tend to more closely resemble those of architectural design studios. In my specific case, I have had many opportunities over the years to exchange ideas and collaborate with some of the most famous architects and designers in the world.

Are there any well-known architects who have supported and inspired you throughout your career?

During the years in which I was head of FIAT Group’s first Advanced Design Centre (from 2002 to 2006 - Ed.), I met numerous personalities from the world of design and architecture, in some cases working on real automotive metadesigns. The meetings and exchanges with Rodolfo Bonetto, Isao Hosoe, Richard Sapper, Michele De Lucchi, Mario Bellini and Jean Nouvel were particularly interesting and productive, because I had the privilege of discussing concrete projects with them and this enabled me to enter into a two-way exchange of approaches and expertise. For me it was essential to embrace the viewpoints of these professionals, who are not as far removed from the world of mobility as you might think. All of them confirmed some of my beliefs about the future of the car, in terms of it becoming a usable, habitable space in which to live.

Another of your collaborators was Gio Ponti. Can you tell us about your experience of working closely with the great Milanese architect and designer on his Linea Diamante project?

Gio Ponti represented the pinnacle of know-how culture: in him, product and architecture complemented each other in an amazing way through the control of aesthetics and the renewal of compositional styles and elements. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to coordinate a complex but immensely surprising and satisfying project: to build a 1: 1 scale model of the Linea Diamante (Diamond Line), a saloon that Gio Ponti—the man behind iconic creations such as the Pirelli Tower skyscraper in Milan and the 699 Superleggera chair—conceptualised in 1952 together with Alberto Rosselli. Careful analysis of the project inspired me to identify with the objectives of its creators, which was to devise a car for the masses that was full of innovative ideas and solutions. It took some time to sift through the various documentation and decipher sketches and studies. It was essential for me to share my work with a team of professionals who could reconcile the creative aspects with those related to industrial production. Transforming a car from a simple sketch to a full-size vehicle was a remarkable job, but it brought me into direct contact with a great mind from our past. This is also the ultimate aim behind Heritage, the department I head, which is tasked with studying, preserving and promoting the values of historical car models so that they provide a source of inspiration for future design.

Gio Ponti completed this project during a time of upheaval: Italy was deeply scarred by the experience of the Second World War, but there was a great desire for rebirth.

The 1950s were characterised by bold optimism and a firm belief in the future. In that period, new product strategies were implemented with the aim of defining a new modern lifestyle, far removed from the atrocities of the Second World War. In the field of automotive design, the Americans had already begun to move on from torpedo shapes and fully articulated fenders. However, by the 1950s, their cars had become much larger and heavier than in previous decades. In 1955 in France, Citroën was preparing to launch the revolutionary DS model, which represented a further step forward after the innovative Traction Avant. It was precisely during this period, when people were so open to new challenges, that Gio Ponti threw himself into his project, which prefigured some of the trends adopted by other designers some 20 years later.

What are the characteristics of this model that you consider to be most significant?

I believe that on the Diamante, the biggest break from tradition is concentrated on the thin section of the side panel with windows that were less inclined than was usual for the period, which allowed the designer to imagine a very low beltline and resize the window proportions from horizontal to vertical. In order to convey strength and a sense of protection from side impact, Gio Ponti also eliminated the "shoulder" on the belt point. In this way, Ponti was able to give an unconventional aesthetic value to the door lines and to other suspended parts. Almost like in a Tableau by the artist Mondrian, the observer's eye follows the divisions traced on the nearly flat surfaces by the lines of composition, and can appreciate the proportions of the volumes that make up the car. Even the bonnet of the Diamante is markedly sloping, which benefits driver visibility. It features a spine along the midline, from which both sides slope downwards. More importantly, the entire bonnet is sculpted onto the bodywork from a horizontal perimeter line that also takes with it a small portion of the fender. In this way, Gio Ponti created (at least on paper) one of the first shell-shaped bonnets in history, predating the FIAT 127 and the Saab 99 by 20 years: it was a major revolutionary innovation compared with the industry standard.

Talking about great architects, we know that Le Corbusier also tried his hand at automotive design with his Voiture Minimum.

With its simple and harmonious shape, the Voiture Minimum is another great example of the dialogue between the worlds of architecture and automotive design. Le Corbusier was a pioneer of what is now called modern architecture, one of the most influential and brilliant figures in 20th century design. But perhaps not everyone knows that he was also an avid car enthusiast. As evidence of his interest in cars, and with particular reference to FIAT, I like to remind people that Le Corbusier was so impressed by the functionality of the Lingotto building that he described it as “one of the most impressive sights in industry” in his 1923 essay collection Vers une architecture. In 1934, when the architect visited the building designed by engineer Giacomo Matté Trucco, he was struck most of all by the rooftop test track. On that 1.5 km circuit, which could accommodate up to 50 cars, the architect was able to take a test drive in the Fiat 508 S Balilla “Coppa d'Oro” and was thrilled by the performance of that wonderful car.

Two years later in 1936, along with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, he entered an automotive design competition sponsored by the French Society of Automotive Engineers (SIA). The tender was to design a simple car for mass production that would cost no more than 8000 francs. Le Corbusier submitted a blueprint for what he called “a minimalist vehicle for maximum functionality”. Even today, when we discuss automotive design with an architect, the discussion often turns to the subject of minimalism, or rather, how to make a vehicle with as few components as possible. Indeed in general, the issue of simplification—aimed at reducing waste during production without affecting final quality—is extremely complex. In the case of car manufacturing, it is even more complex due to the need to make the products increasingly safe and compliant with homologation standards that are constantly updated. Despite this, designing an economical car that is easy to assemble is always worthwhile, in order to encourage ideas and concepts for developing production processes and identifying new assembly functions.

The Swiss architect concentrated first on designing a comfortably habitable cabin, by making the side panels vertical and the floor flat. This way, he was able to create a smooth and linear surface on which to position and fix the seats. The roof covering, achieved by folding a sheet of waterproof canvas, was similar to the solution adopted for tents. Another very interesting solution from a design point of view is the absence of stiffening ribs which makes the supporting sides arch-shaped.

Le Corbusier did not win the competition and his project was never mass-produced. But this did not prevent his model from having a lasting impact on the world of design and, even today, architects and designers continue to study the solutions he proposed for this project. In 1987, Giorgetto Giugiaro commissioned a full-size wooden mock-up of Le Corbusier’s Voiture Minimum. Thus, after more than half a century, Le Corbusier's dream car was finally transformed from paper to reality. It is further testament to how design is a continuous exchange between past and present, and how studying the projects of the great designers who went before us is an inexhaustible source of motivation to continue designing the future.

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