It takes some effort to find the whereabouts of Giannini Automobili. The most famous Fiat tuner of the greater Rome area is tucked away in a narrow gray seventies warehouse on an anonymous industrial estate at the westside of town. At the end of a road full of potholes we finally see the blue and red Giannini sign. ‘The glory of days gone by’ is the first thought that springs to mind. A thought I can’t shake of for the rest of the afternoon.
The silver-gray Giannini book is dropped on the table in front of me with a dry ‘thud’. We’re in the office above the workshop. Again that same seventies feel we had outside on the street. Hefty glass ashtrays still on the table. ‘This is our history’, says Geraldine Polverelli, a tall Roman woman, who, since her father Gabriele recently deceased quite unexpectedly, runs the business. ‘From the twenties up til now. Yes, that is how long the company already exists.’ She can see the disbelief in my eyes.
In 1922 the Giannini brothers start up a garage to maintain mainly Itala’s. They are obviously doing a good job, because by 1927 the Marquis of Pellegrini asks them to prepare his Itala Tipo 61 for the very first Mille Miglia. After the war the brothers decide to develop their own engines. In 1948 they build the very first direct injected diesel engine. The lack of succes drives them back to racing. They create the little 750cc G1 engine, which, tucked in the tiny front of the Fiat Topolini, becomes a big succes in the 1000 Miglia of 1949. A new version of the engine, the twin overhead cam G2, powers the Giaur. A partnership between Giannini and Taraschi, a coach builder from Teramo on the Italian east coast. Boasting over 70HP the little Giannini engine drags the lightweight body to beautiful results in the 1000 Miglia’s of the early fifties. When the east-west partnership goes pear shaped in 1958, Giannini hits a rough spot. As often in Italian family businesses quarrels and ‘ado’ about succession is the beginning of the end. In 1961 Giannini files for bankruptcy.
Two new firms rise from the ashes of Giannini. The Costruzioni Meccaniche Giannini S.p.A. and Giannini Automobili S.p.A. The Costruzioni Meccaniche continuous to built prototypes and engines. It doesn’t prove profitable and in 1971 the company closes its doors permanently. Giannini Automobili becomes part of the Fiat dealer network and does standard maintenance to all Fiat models. Next to that they develop tuning kits, for the Fiat 500 in particular. The company likes to tickle some of the little Fiat 500’s themselves and soon their little racers belong to the fastest and most reliable of the moment. The Giannini 590 GT and the 500 Tursimo Veloce are renown for their racing heritage and quite rare and valuable these days. In 1966 Giannini even manages to spoon in a 700cc four cilinder engine in the back of a Fiat 500. The battle between Giannini and Abarth is legendary in the sixties. Usually the Romans come first. The succes story ends abruptly, when director Domenico Giannini dies of a heart attack in 1967.
‘Coffee?’ Geraldina comes over to check if I’m allright. ‘Yes, please’, I answer absently, being absorbed by the arm size Giannini book. `In the seventies Geraldina’s granddad, Volfango Polverelli, takes over the company. Polverelli, descendant of a rich family from Piacenza in the north, starts his working life as a journalistt and lawyer. In the middle of the sixties avvocato Polverelli even is mayor of a little town just north of Parma. From 1973 on the Polverelli family is the owner ow Giannini Automobili. Though how ever hard they try to keep the glorious era from the sixties alive, their legendary competition with Abarth’s little 500’s never returns. Under the lead of chief engineer Armando Palance the company still tunes cars like the Fiat 126, Ritmo and Panda, but they never become a big succes. In the mid-eighties Giannini Automobili is forced to drop out of the tuning business and specialises in coach building.
Downstairs in the workshop we find a stunning example of those days, the Fiat Windsurf. Based on the Fiat Bravo this futuristic 1996 prototype looks like a silver monster, sporting air holes all round and a mega spoiler on the tailgate. Next to the Windsurf we find some 500’s, a lost Giannini Uno and some dusty prototypes. Nowadays Giannini main business is maintenance to FCA-group cars and the armoured cars of the Italian ministry of internal affaires. The glorious past seems long forgotten is the anonymous warehouse on the wobbly road on the western outskirts of Rome. ‘But’, Geraldina Polverelli assures me, ‘Giannini will make a new start’. Polverelli is determined to execute the investment plan her father Gabriele designed shortly before his death. ‘We need to put Giannini back on the map.’ Her eyes glisten. ‘We still have the licenses to modify and tune Fiats and that is exactly what we will be doing; building new Giannini 500’s.’ The version of the sixties that is. New glory from days gone by…
text and pictures: Angelo van Schaik
translation: Marc GF Zaan