Once upon a time, Fiat’s most famous plant was the 16-million-square-foot Lingotto complex in Turin, Italy. The iconic building was patterned after Ford’s Highland Park plant in Detroit. But, unlike its American cousin, where operators started assembling automobiles on the fourth floor and finished on the ground floor—thanks to an assortment of gravity-fed chutes and slides—production flow at Lingotto worked backwards.
The assembly line ended on the top floor of the six-story building. That’s because finished cars were driven onto the roof, which contained a 3,000-foot-long banked test track. If you’ve ever watched the original Italian Job movie (the one made in 1969, not the 2003 remake), you’ve seen the Lingotto plant. Ironically, the star cars are red, white and blue Austin Mini-Coopers, not Fiats! But, the Turin street scenes are littered with the ubiquitous Italian cars.
“The general movement of work in process [at the Lingotto plant] was upward, from the ground floor to the testing track on the roof,” says Stefano Musso, who wrote a chapter entitled “Production Methods and Industrial Relations at Fiat (1930-90)” in Fordism Transformed (Oxford University Press). “On the top floor were two assembly lines for engines (one for four-cylinder motors, one for six-cylinder motors), as well as two corresponding final assembly lines.”
The floors below were devoted to producing a wide variety of parts and components, such as axles and transmissions. The massive building consisted of two 1,800-foot-long sections that were connected by five crosspieces so that material could flow between both halves of the factory.
“At Lingotto, the layout of machinery was designed according to process in production flow (linear layout),” Musso points out. “The plant was subdivided into units corresponding to subassemblies of component parts. Each department was equipped with the necessary machine tools, benches, assembly lines and testing rooms so that it could furnish its component of the car (diversified for the various models) ready for further assembly.
“The pace of work flow at Lingotto was quite slow in comparison to American standards, not only because of smaller production volumes and more frequent set-up of machines, but also because the subdivision of work tasks continued to be less,” adds Musso. “The shortest cycle time (for the smallest models) on the moving, mixed assembly line was 3.5 minutes.”
Fiat realized the inefficiencies of the Lingotto plant soon after production ramped up. It built a new, one-story manufacturing complex at Mirafiori in the mid-1930s that was patterned after Ford’s River Rouge factory. But, the Lingotto plant continued to produce cars for another 50 years. The last model built there was the 1979 Lancia Delta.
Today, the Lingotto building still stands. It has been converted into a Turin tourist attraction that features retail shops, a hotel and a concert hall. Part of the historic structure also serves as Fiat’s corporate headquarters.