My Summer Road Trip to Motorheaven: Discovering Epic Cars, Manufacturing Titans and Living Legends

This post is the summary of over 5,000 km, 300+ liters of high grade gasoline and countless beautiful views. And you won’t need to move an inch to travel and enjoy this unusual trip with me.

I’m not just traveling across some of the most beautiful parts of Europe, I’m also exploring the failure of the biggest Italian tech company, enjoying Germany’s excellence in luxury car making and meeting some crazy artisans that produce one-of-a-kind objects and experiences.

My first stop is the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart.

Over-photoshopped corporate shot, but you get the idea

Visiting this museum is enough to feel overwhelmed by the legacy of the company that invented modern day automobiles. The grandeur of Mercedes-Benz is expressed not only by the architecture of the Museum (by far the largest such building I’ve ever seen from a private brand), but also by how the history of Germany and the world intertwines with the cars in the exhibit. You can tell that Mercedes feels like a fundamental piece of Germany and is happy to show it off.

More speeeeed…

To my surprise the exhibit ends in the lobby with a number of classic cars directly for sale. This giant showpiece isn’t just a celebration. It’s also a business opportunity. I am more than tempted by a mint W126 series S class that is quoted at an “affordable” price: just under 100K Euros. Unfortunately I have no time for a factory tour and need to move on.

Fast shapes in beautiful colors

Porsche, on the other side of the same town, offers instead a small and neat exhibit showing how racing and street cars evolved hand in hand over the past 70 years. For those who love these rear engined beauties the exhibition is so aesthetically pleasing that it inspires a meditative state. The earlier street models together with the “impossible” racing cars catch your eye and your heart. The new cars fit well at the end of the exhibit: a Mission E stands on the highest podium of the montée de marche.

Yours truly trying to imitate the facial expression of a 356

Once outside, the next logical step is to cross the street and enter the dealer where a selection of new and used cars await me. Just like at Mercedes, the fascination with history can be immediately expressed in the purchase of a vehicle. Yes, there is also a gift shop with mugs, models and swag, but the historical retrospective is deeply linked with current affairs: selling sports-cars and SUVs to the widest demographic. Starting from the “affordable” 60K Euro Boxster all the way to the aspirational RS 911 models. The factory is officially closed, though, for the summer holidays.

Me smiling in front of the historic Olivetti factory in Ivrea

I take a detour from cars as I reach into Italy and arrive in Ivrea, a town that is deeply linked with the history of Olivetti, the perma-failing Italian tech company. The historical factory buildings where the first Italian typewriters were made may now be UNESCO Heritage, but there is no official museum linked to the company. The visitor to Ivrea will need to match this map to Google Maps and follow it around, looking at the architecture that this company has left behind.

Olivetti Programma 101: the first personal computer

There is a museum, tucked in on the second floor of an elementary school. It’s not an official Olivetti museum, rather it was born out of the Natale Capellaro foundation. The tiny exhibition does a great job showing the technological craftsmanship, pioneering electronics and groundbreaking design of Olivetti. It’s truly a marvel to be shown around by retired Olivetti managers that explain how the Programma 101 in 1962 foreshadowed the personal computer and ingeniously solved so many of the technological issues that we take for granted today, like having a keyboard for input and a screen to see what we’re doing.

Great as the exhibit may be, there is no reference to the main attraction of Olivetti: the genius corporate culture that led the company to build schools, introduce poetry to factory workers, shoot movies, build innovative housing for employees, and fund the development of the city of Ivrea.

Channeling Jony Ive and lusting after the super stylish Divisumma 18

Looking at the Divisumma from 1973 you can tell that the company was at the forefront of engineering and design. Jony Ive would lust inside this small wondrous museum. In the seventies Olivetti was what Apple is today.

Dear Fondazione Adriano Olivetti: do you want to work together on building a real Olivetti museum, one where products and corporate culture are displayed hand in hand? One of the many purposes of this post is to articulate this wish.

Ivrea is a stone’s throw away from Torino: the industrial heart of Italy and the Italian city of the automobile. I arrive the day after the death of Marchionne, one of FIAT’s most beloved CEO’s. The flags at FCA headquarters are at half mast.

Cisitalia 202 from 1948 – I can’t believe that this car is not better known: best Italian design ever

I ask around if there’s the possibility of a factory tour. After calling and then writing an email, I discover that there are no factory tours, at least at the Turin plants. Bummer. Fortunately Torino is full of great attractions: the museum of Cinema alone is worth the visit. If you add the automobile museum then you might be completely satisfied. I wasn’t. After being denied a factory tour of Mirafiori I still had an itch to scratch: visiting the Lingotto building.

 

Lingotto rooftop track

This historical FIAT factory, now fully converted into a mall, office spaces and a small art museum, has captured my imagination since I was a kid because of the test track on the roof, complete with two parabolic corners. Getting to the track is “vietato” (“forbidden”), but… if you ride up the elevator of the Fondazione Agnelli to the museum entrance, you can open an unlocked door (that says “vietato”) and there you are.

This was an emotional moment for me

Even under the scorching sun in 40 degree heat, I felt that I was part of a moment in time, part of the great industrial history of my country, and I imagined myself careening around that historical track in my first car (a Fiat 500), just like the cars in this video.

In Ivrea and in Torino, if you look closely, you can find the industrial heritage of the boom years. But in stark contrast to the clarity of the narration at Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, here in Torino you’re the historian and the researcher. There is no corporate narrative to follow. You have the freedom to find your own point of view and the thrill of finding your own way up to the Lingotto test track. On the other hand, a random tourist has no immediate access to all of this beautiful history (Lingotto, Olivetti) and will not realize what is going on today at Mirafiori (FCA).

Is this a tale of the well organized German and the ragged Italian, all “genio e sregolatezza” (genius and recklessness)? Not at all. Follow me to the province of Modena, also known as Motor Valley. My experience here has been threefold, and with three very distinct nuances.

Do I like orange cars? Do I like mid-engined supercars? Do I like classic cars? I have so much love for this Lamborghini Miura

First stop is at the Lamborghini museum and factory in S. Agata Bolognese. The small museum is simple and inspiring, juxtaposing new and historical models. At the factory we see the final assembly of both the Huracan and the Aventador, with some sneaky Nürburgring-record-holding SVJs still discreetly covered under wraps. The tour focuses on the unique work done here in S. Agata Bolognese, although you can see VW group part bins everywhere, which I’m familiar with from my visit to Audi in Ingolstadt. Lean manufacturing systems are in place and each station shows green on the displays: no drama anywhere. There are very few robots as most of the robotics work is done to press and weld the bodies offsite in VW factories. Our guide stresses the work that is done locally, for instance, the engines or the quality control and fitting of the leather for the interiors and the seats.

Ferruccio Lamborghini’s photo is the gateway from the museum to the factory floor. He represents the timely reminder of what is missing in today’s Lamborghini: the flare of a crazy founder that set out to build machines like the Miura. And while I am happy that the brand is alive and far from the financial struggles that have punctuated this company’s past, there is something about its new positioning that is at odds with the purity of Lamoborghini’s historical models. Lambo’s new place is among today’s influencers and musicians as a faster, smaller version of a Rolls Royce, which is a far cry from the early models that were all about innovation and performance.

At the exit there is no dealer. You need to go into Bologna to buy yourself a prancing bull. At the museum you can just get the usual swag.

The contrast between the poetry of heritage and the serial nature of today’s business-as-usual couldn’t be stronger at Maranello.

Here, on the way to one of the two official Ferrari museums, you’re greeted by a strip mall of car rental companies offering you a ride in the latest Ferraris, all in the iconic rosso corsa red.

Imagine driving this during the Mille Miglia…

The ubiquity of the Ferrari brand can be felt nowhere as strongly as at the museum, where the prancing horse greets you in all forms for all kinds of photo and selfie opportunities. Inside you can find some stunning works of art: Mille Miglia winners, Enzo Ferrari’s personal cars, and Pininfarina’s best designs. The new cars are somewhat different. They need to follow both the customers’ tastes and the world’s safety regulations. Apart from the new 488 Pista with its crazy aerodynamics, the new cars look bulky and uninspired compared to the historical ones.

Immortal shape of an era of excellence

Again there is no dealer in sight. In the case I want to impulse buy a prancing horse, I can indulge in the company’s luggage, shoes and sportswear.

I am very pleased with my trip thus far, but I still need to visit the highlight of this petrolhead mecca: Pagani.

The picture I am most proud of from my trip: my own sportscar in front of my favorite supercar factory

Pagani is a niche carmaker with around 26 ultra expensive hyper-cars coming out of the atelier each year. It’s usually compared with the Swedish Koenigsegg. Pagani came onto the scene in 1999 when the Zonda C12 was introduced at the Geneva motorshow.

That signature

Just like Ferrari is named after Enzo and Lamborghini after Ferruccio, Pagani is named after Horacio, the charismatic founder. He is at once the living, acting heartbeat of the factory and the memorialized subject of the Horacio Pagani Museum. The museum, which contains the childhood toys, clothing and letters of Horacio, sprinkles a bit of unneeded cult of personality inside a project that would otherwise deserve pure praise.

Companies should invest locally. Government should set clear rules and get out of the way. Good idea for a tattoo

But let me play devil’s advocate: Horacio came from Argentina to Motor Valley with the dream of creating the best supercar in the world. And succeeded. His creations are not just cars, they look otherworldly. No comparison with series production vehicles is possible. The Zonda and the Huayra look more like dynamic art pieces than vehicles. The attention to detail, the research in materials, the daring design: everything sets Pagani apart. The pursuit of excellence is the objective, and Horacio also has a particular talent for building a sustaining business around these hyper-objects. I think the guy deserves all the praise he can get.

Art and Science: Horacio and his renaissance manifesto

You enter the factory through a door decorated with Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and the words “Arte e Scienza” (Art & Science). Horacio establishes his allegiance to the renaissance and his kinship with the vision of Leonardo who, more than any other, melded engineering and art. The ultra modern atelier is accessed directly from the museum. The “Arte e Scienza” door leads to a small corridor finished with classic bricks and a volta. Then it opens up to the piazza, the factory square complete with cobblestones and a tower clock.

The first thing I notice is that the customer spaces, like the concierge and the museum, have the same air conditioning we find in the factory floor. That’s not the case with the huge structures I visited before, although they are located in a part of the world where 40 degrees celsius is normal. It’s a small thing, but democratizing AC is notable.

The atelier is silent and busy. Three unfinished Huayra’s stand in the middle of the room. There is no production line. Elegant trays that look like they came out of an Apple Store display the beautiful components that Pagani sources from other vendors.

The Pagani Zonda, unlike anything else in this world…

The atelier is built around one material: carbon fiber. This is the bespoke element that is crafted internally, each piece by hand. And nothing like carbon fiber highlights the design ability of Horacio Pagani.

As I walk with my group, led by the most caring tour guide, I start thinking that I really want to work there. That I want to make art under Horacio’s direction.

We don’t see his beauties in motion, unfortunately. And obviously there is no strip mall of cheap rentals trying to get you into one. At a base price of over 2 million euros you can give a 30% deposit to enter the club and do a test drive. But you won’t be in for a Huayra, you’ll be blindly ordering Horacio’s next creations. If I had the money I would.

It’s hard to top an experience such as getting close to the Zonda Cinque, the R, the La Nonna, or the Huayra. That’s why my journey ends in an “impossible” place: Miataland.

The rare Mazdaspeed NB: the only factory turbo Miata. A beautifully balanced raw machine

Andrea is a collector obsessed with the Mazda Miata. Over the years he has accumulated around 40 cars. Most of them are limited edition Mx-5s from Japan (called Eunos Roadsters there). He even owns some of the ultra limited M2s, products created by Mazda in the attempt to bring their brand upmarket.

This little roadster has a cult following and a production run of over 1 million cars. As you may have noticed from the pictures sprinkled throughout this post, I shamelessly count myself amongst them.

Me trying to imitate the facial expression of an original NA Miata

Unlike museum pieces, Andrea’s cars get driven regularly. But not only by him. Miataland is a one-of-a-kind resort where booking a room entails some driving time in the Miata of your choice. This all happens in a stunning part of Umbria. In short, staying at Andrea’s is a dream.

He’s a sort of Willy Wonka who dispenses the keys of his factory not only to young Charlie, but to every guest of his hotel. I can tell he enjoys our reactions: the joy of driving a US/Japan only Mazdaspeed Turbo, or the raw pleasure of driving around the Umbrian hills in a stripped down original Miata, or the transformative experience of finding your footing with the inverted controls of a right-handed car.

We’ve come to the end of my journey. I wanted to share all the steps with you first, so my conclusions would make more sense.

This is what I learned this summer (and now you can learn too, saving 5,900.4 km).

Surviving your charismatic founders is hard
Pagani has it “easy”. It’s charismatic founder is alive and his best work is still ahead of him. Keeping the heritage alive once your charismatic founders are gone is the real challenge that companies like Ferrari and Lamborghini (and Apple!) struggle with.

Show me how you make your magic
Watching the hands that create objects of cult, meeting the crazy Miata collector and driving his cars, touching the raw carbon fiber that makes a Pagani — these are enthralling experiences that create bonds between people and companies. If you can, show me your magic like Pagani and Lamborghini, don’t be like FCA and Ferrari. Speaking of FCA: please transform Lingotto in a museum dedicated to your great brands. And bring back the track on the roof.

Show me your culture, alongside your products
The most important asset that Olivetti holds today is intangible: the innovative corporate culture that once was. Unfortunately this is now just historicized in books and documentaries, but nowhere to be found, to be touched, to be shared. If you have a corporate culture, show it to me.

Don’t gloat, even if you deserve all the praise
Try to be modest, factual and concrete in the way you present your brand. Even if you invented the whole automobile thing like Mercedes, even if you deserve all the praise in the world like Pagani.

Choose carefully what you’re going to sell me
When I interact with your brand, you decide what my experience will be. You can sell me a baseball cap and a t-shirt like Ferrari and Lamborghini, but why don’t you sell me a car if you can. Mercedes and Porsche have it all figured out. They have the t-shirts and baseball caps, alongside new, used and classic cars ready for me to drive away from the showroom.

Thanks for reading this far. Especially if your name is Horacio. More than anything, this is a love letter to you. It would be a dream to sit down and talk cars, design, innovation and corporate culture together. La Fabbrica della Realtà is at your service anytime!

A proud father. Immense thanks to Livia Patta for the wonderful portrait. Your photos rock 🤟🏻

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