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The secrets of Lingotto

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[Editor’s Note: This piece comes to us from journalist, author and long-time friend of Hemmings Myles Kornblatt.]

There is something both mythical and magical about Lingotto. Fiat didn’t just bring Detroit to Turin when this massive five-story factory was finished in 1922. They completed it with true Italian style by topping it off with a banked test track on the roof. It was like they were offering the gods the first crack at new Fiats, and mere mortals got the rejects.

Lingotto really needs to be seen from above to fully appreciate its design. It looks like a large rectangular box at ground level. The bird’s eye view reveals that production was housed in two parallel 507-meter skinny buildings with five connectors in-between. This nearly hollow center adds some bravery to the test track, because any driving error that went beyond the railing – on either side — would have been a fatal one.

What really makes the story so exciting is that we don’t just get to reminisce about the old days. Lingotto finished car production in 1982, but today it’s still used as a commercial hub. The rooftop test track is intact and accessible by car. Unfortunately, it’s not open to tourist drives. Thanks to the power of the press, and a direct loan from FCA of a new Alfa Romeo Giulia, we were granted special access for The Italian Job anniversary story.

Getting to the rooftop road is just as important as the track. There are spiral ramps at the ends of the factory used to bring the new cars down in mass. It was once just a practical part of a busy auto plant, and so it’s concealed behind walls and windows that look like any other pre-war factory. It’s a true hidden gem as the pillars and floor supports have the symmetry and crisp lines that are reminder we are in the land of da Vinci.

There’s a gritty and unrestored feeling driving up the helicoid, and once the sunlight comes through, there is an instant tingle. The dust from the room and the uneven light of old factory windows seems to make an instant connection to the thousands of freshly-minted Fiats and Lancias that once used this ramp. All are now classics, many long buried or recycled into refrigerator magnets.

The spiral ramp finishes behind the test track, and it demonstrates how the full layout is both simple and ingenious. The track is about six feet wider on both sides of the banked turn. It allows cars that are running at speed to continue on the inside with an uninterrupted oval.  Those accelerating or decelerating follow the outside and can make a clean in/out.

It also means entering the rooftop road is worthy of a Hollywood entrance. There’s a moment of goosebumps when the tall side walls of the oval taper away to unveil a clear view of Alps to the north, Turin to the south, and open asphalt for nearly five football fields ahead.

In a perfect world, this is where the rest of the experience is compared to the Nürburgring, where speed is only a balance of guts and brains. But that’s far from the truth. While the track is still complete, there are speed bumps, people, and other obstacles in the way to prevent these hijinks.

It’s still quite a bit of open asphalt, and so it wasn’t hard to spend plenty of time “repositioning” the Alfa for the Italian Job photoshoot. The kid, the adult, and the professional in me all agree that it was a fine decision to drive the turn, drop into the straightaway, turn around, head back through the turn, and repeat until all three of me were satisfied.

Driving this arc is steep but uneventful.  The Giulia is a modern low-slung sedan on fat Pirelli sport tires.  The experience has the same jollies as a tight interstate off-ramp, if it weren’t for the history… and that’s where the real epiphany is.

The heyday of the factory is the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.  Full swing car production ended at the top near the track, and factory workers did this same run in lighter, taller cars with skinny, hard tires. Those were the people who drove this every day, and they had guts.

Fiat’s turbine car was built only feet away from this track, and the jet-propelled prototype even made its first test run here in the spring of 1954.  If its wind-cheating design wasn’t aerodynamically sound, the high-banked turns could have been a launching pad off the fifth floor.

Most visitors won’t get to satisfy their inner Charlie Croker or watch light dance across the curves of a new Alfa through century-old glass. Still, there are many secrets of Lingotto that can be explored.

The factory employed nearly 13,000 people at its peak, and during its six decades of operation, neighborhoods and industry spouted up around it. Lingotto was understood to be too important as a symbol of Italy’s industry to simply disappear when production ended in 1982.

The next decade ushered in a full transformation. Industrial shops have been turned into a concert hall, convention center, and two hotels. It houses a campus of Polytechnic University of Turin, commercial business space, and an enormous shopping mall called Gallery 8. Lingotto was even a gathering point for the 2006 Winter Olympic games.

What was once the hub for work is now the community’s place to shop, learn, live, and entertain. Still, the transformation never lost its connection to the factory.

One of the best places to see that is at the Gallery 8 mall (near the movie cinemas.)  This is an end the other spiral ramp is located.  It doesn’t have the unrestored feeling of the off-limits one, but it still corkscrews its way past each level of the complex.  This ends right at the entrance to the test track.  No public rooftop access is allowed here, and those who want the full experience need to be art lovers.

There were two additions to the roof at Lingotto after car production stopped.  The first was a helipad with fishbowl-style conference center, and the other was The Scrigno (treasure chest).  This jewelry box is the home to Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli – an art collection started by true Fiat family royalty.

The gallery is worth a visit on its own simply because we should all be interested in more than just cars.  It’s a world-class exhibition with a permanent Matisse collection and currently has a special display of Michelangelo’s sketches.  The museum’s lobby looks out on the rooftop road, and the cost of admission also allows full pedestrian access to the legendary tarmac.  This is why there were already a few people on the track when the Giulia arrived.

Access is restricted to how far someone wants to walk (security makes sure the ramp is still off-limits). The turns are there for the daring. The best Italian loafers don’t have the traction to make it to the top of the steep slanted walls, but those who persevere are rewarded with a panoramic view that would inspire Michelangelo.

There is a true magic to this factory that goes beyond cold concrete. Lingotto was as big as Ford could build, and they topped it with a test track in the sky. It created a community, and when the time was right, the public returned the favor by preserving this quarter-mile of automotive history.