Origin Story: Alfa-Romeo – Part II

05. © Alfa-Romeo Portello Factory - Donga Tshabalala - ENLISTED by Donga Tshabalala
The Alfa-Romeo Portello factory carries great significance in being the first ever Alfa-Romeo manufacturing facility.

In the two years succeeding the start of The Great Depression, Pierre Alexandre Darracq – the man who established the ground on which Alfa-Romeo was built – passed away in Monte Carlo. His death marked the year 1931, and it was during the time of the passing of Pierre Alexandre Darracq that Alfa-Romeo became faced with the perilous financial difficulties that it had almost become synonymous with. Italy had now entered the era of fascism, and The Fascist Regime – as it was known – appeared in the form of a man by the name of Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini. 1933 then saw the establishment of the Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (IRI) – Institute for Industrial Reconversion (IRI) under the leadership of The Fascist Regime. The financial chaos caused by The Great Depression prompted The Fascist Regime to curtail the need for the Italian public to enter civil unrest, which would have been caused by mass dismissals as a result of businesses that would have not been able to secure the financing they needed in the form of bank loans. As such, when The Fascist Regime began its process of appropriating shares in the major Italian industrial corporations (shares which had initially been held by Italian banks), the Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (IRI) – Institute for Industrial Reconversion (IRI) initiated the procedure of financing, rescuing and restructuring the companies that went bankrupt during The Great Depression – companies which included Alfa-Romeo. In the case of Alfa-Romeo, the Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (IRI) – Institute for Industrial Reconversion (IRI) decided to delegate the responsibility of restructuring Alfa-Romeo to an Italian man who had recently returned to Italy after completing the construction of a Russian factory for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, more commonly known as FIAT. The man in question was an engineer by the name of Ugo Gobbato, and his entry into Alfa-Romeo initiated a new era in the management of the Italian company – a company where he had been appointed as the managing director on December 1, 1933.

06. © Ugo Gobbato - Donga Tshabalala - ENLISTED by Donga Tshabalala
Ugo Gobbato was appointed as the managing director of Alfa-Romeo on December 1, 1933.

The entry of Ugo Gobbato into a management role in Alfa-Romeo highlighted the aeronautical capacity of the Italian manufacturer. As a matter of fact, the contributions that Alfa-Romeo has made to the aviation industry date back to when the company was still known as [Società] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili. The capacity of the Italian manufacturer to contribute to aviation became a focal point during World War I when Ing. Nicola Romeo & C. acquired an order to produce engines to improve the bombing squadrons of the Ministry of War, now known as the Ministry of Defence. The focal point of the aviation capacities of Alfa-Romeo came into even sharper focus under the administration of Ugo Gobbato – a man who concentrated the efforts of the Italian manufacturer on producing engines for the aeronautical industry, while building trucks and vans in small numbers for use in military applications. The production of exclusive luxury vehicles became even less of a priority, but it was continued for a time in order to maintain the illustrious image that Alfa-Romeo had created among members of the general public. The call for Alfa-Romeo to continue their intensive manufacturing of aircraft engines became even louder with the influence of Italian politics, which motivated Italian companies to enter an arms race. The advent of The Ethiopian War and The Spanish Civil War contributed to the militarization of Alfa-Romeo in the year 1935. The leadership of Ugo Gobbato further highlighted the callous disregard that The Fascist Regime had with regards to its choice of leaders across the companies it controlled throughout Italian industries. Ugo Gobbato – on the other hand – did not allow his decisions to be influenced by The Fascist Regime, and instead of perpetuating the nepotism that The Fascist Regime was known for, he ensured that every individual Alfa-Romeo employed was appointed on the basis of their professional merit. Ugo Gobbato was a man who believed in success depending on order, method and the effective application of systems – reinforcing his need to ensure that the right professionals were always employed.

The appointment of Ugo Gobbato at Alfa-Romeo was such a success that it even warranted a spite of jealousy from the likes of the now defunct Italian aircraft manufacturer named Società de Agostini e Caproni, more commonly known as Caproni and the extant automotive manufacturer Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, more commonly known as FIAT. FIAT was considered to be something of an industrial powerhouse in the Italian industrial landscape – being the largest automotive manufacturer in the country, and they were dismayed at the massive turnovers that Alfa-Romeo were capable of generating from their aviation activities, placing pressure on their own industrial capacity. It seemed then that FIAT did not like having competition, even though the company did take comfort in the inability of Alfa-Romeo to generate a substantial profit from the manufacturing of their exclusive luxury vehicles. 15 August 1938 marked the day when another pivotal member of Alfa-Romeo leadership history passed away. Nicola Romeo died at the age of sixty-two at his home in Lake Como – leaving his surname as an indelible mark on the Italian manufacturer and Alfa-Romeo vehicles to come. Soon after the death of Nicola Romeo came the year of 1939, which began with the creation of the official Alfa-Romeo aeronautical factory in the area of San Martino, prior to which Alfa-Romeo had built all their aircraft engines in the Milanese suburb of Portello. The factory that was constructed was like nothing that preceded it, focusing not only on the production of aircraft, but ensuring that a community of employees could live comfortably within the vicinity of the manufacturing facilities that Alfa-Romeo had built. It seemed then that in an attempt to produce a factory, Alfa-Romeo had built a town with aircraft at the core of its existence, and in 1941, Alfa-Romeo launched Alfa-Romeo Avio – focusing its attention on the manufacturing of aircraft engines. As progressive as these developments should have been, nothing seemed to prepare Alfa-Romeo for the effects of the infamously destructive event that was World War II.

03. © Nicola Romeo - Donga Tshabalala - ENLISTED by Donga Tshabalala
Nicola Romeo was born on April 28, 1876 in Sant’Antimo – located in the Compania region of Italy. Prior to his founding of Ing. Nicola Romeo & C., he was a student who acquired two engineering degrees in Italy and Belgium. The most identifiable contribution that he has made to Alfa-Romeo exists in the form of his surname which was added to the name of the company in early 1918. He died in 1938 in Magreglio, Italy.

Imagine being one of the many employees of the Alfa-Romeo Portello factory. Imagine having a fairly conventional morning before heading to work – featuring the cliché breakfast moment, the shower and the brushing of the teeth. Imagine arriving at work, greeting colleagues and hugging friends. Now imagine settling into the rhythm of the manufacturing process and executing a required set of tasks only to hear the devastating sound of a bomb making its way YOUR location. Imagine that the speed at which the bomb in question descended was such that there was no chance of escaping it. Imagine the trauma of an unexpected bombing at a workplace – a reality that all 8500 employees of the Alfa-Romeo Portello factory became too familiar with on February 14, 1943. The bombing from that day destroyed vast amounts of the historical archives related to the history of Alfa-Romeo. The bombing gave the management of the factory enough reason to separate the Alfa-Romeo design offices and the Alfa-Romeo drawing archives from the main factory – fearing that if both facilities were lost, then Alfa-Romeo would lose its capacity to manufacture its engines as well. As a strategic supplier of military aircraft engines, there was no doubt that the Alfa-Romeo San Martino factory would have been touched by World War II. May 30, 1943 brought Alfa-Romeo even more misery as their San Martino factory was struck by bombs for the first time, resulting in the death and injuries of the employees of the Italian manufacturer. However, Alfa-Romeo had already drawn up a plan to ensure that their manufacturing activities survived another bombing – deciding to move their engine repair operations to the Italian town of Marigliano, while their engine workshop found a new home in the caves of an area known as San Rocco. However, all their efforts were for nothing because on October 20, 1944, the Alfa-Romeo San Martino factory was brought down to the ground by a second bombing – everything stopped.

As if the bombings of the Alfa-Romeo San Martino factory were not dramatic enough, the transitions that Italy underwent proved to be even more climatic. On July 25, 1943, The Grand Council of The Fascist Regime voted out its leader – Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini – from power, and he was arrested after a meeting with King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and transported to the island of La Maddalena – located on the waters between continental France and Italy. Adolf Hitler later designated a group of men to rescue Benito Mussolini in an operation that became known as the Gran Rosso Raid – moving him up to the North of Italy in an area that had been occupied by Germany. Benito Mussolini later became the leader of the Italian Social Republic, which resulted in the unfortunate deaths of thousands of Italian Jews, and in his attempt to flee from Italy alongside his mistress named Claretta Petacci, Benito Mussolini was arrested by partisans. 28 April 1945 marked the day when Benito Mussolini and Claretta Petacci were both executed – shot by a firing squad before having their bodies hung on display at the Piazzale Loreto – a major town square in Milan, where their bodies were kicked and spat on by the general public. In terms of Alfa-Romeo, 28 April 1945 – the day Benito Mussolini was executed – also marked the day when someone equally important to the revival of Alfa-Romeo during the World War II era was killed. Ugo Gobbato was shot dead outside the Alfa-Romeo factory in Milan, and much like Nicola Romeo, Ugo Gobbato left his own indelible mark on Alfa-Romeo – being a managing director like no other.

07. © The Hanging - Donga Tshabalala - ENLISTED by Donga Tshabalala
Nicola Bombacci, Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, Claretta Petacci, Alessandro Pavolini and Achille Starace – their corpses all depicted at the Piazzale Loreto – a major town square in Milan, where their bodies were hung on display to be kicked and spat on by the general public.


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