Alfa Romeo has made some of the most beautiful and soul-stirring machines ever made. The Tipo 33 Stradale. The GTAm. The 6C 2300. All of them were world-class works of art, and all of them were the result of the state machinery instituted by Benito Mussolini.
Benito Mussolini is often overlooked as Europe's second-craziest nutjob of a dictator during World War II. He was Adolf Hitler's main man in Italy, and he was obsessed with not only building a New Rome, but building it with what he considered to be works of beauty and splendor and all that the Italian state and its corporations could offer. Also, he was absolutely out of his mind. Seriously. This was his campaign headquarters in Rome:
Yes, that's his own enormous face plastered onto a building that says "SI" a bunch of times. Like I said, he was outside his goddamn mind.
Mussolini, like many dictators before him and since, came to power in a coup d'etat in 1923 and appointed himself Prime Minister. Just a scant two years later, though, he dropped all pretenses of democracy and basically just made himself leader in perpetuity. His blackshirt paramilitary squads terrorized Italy, ruthlessly eliminating anyone who stood in his way.
Like much of Europe in the 1920s though, Italy's economy was foundering. Benito Mussolini, being Benito Mussolini, basically decided that the Italian economy was in his way as well. So he nationalized it. By the mid-1930s he claimed that three-quarters of the Italian economy had been brought under state control, including one of his most prized possessions.
That right there is Benito Mussolini's actual Alfa Romeo, a 1937 Alfa Romeo 2300 MM. The picture up top is Mussolini sitting in an Alfa Romeo P3 2600 racing car. He loved the damn things. Not content to simply own an Alfa Romeo, though, Mussolini made sure that the Italian state actually just straight-up owned Alfa Romeo itself.
To be fair, it's not like Alfa Romeo was grabbed by Mussolini because he liked going fast, though it didn't hurt. Alfa was founded in 1910 as Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (aka A.L.F.A), but by the late 1920s the company was in shambles. Though it had built a reputation on beautiful sports cars and winning races, the bulk of its money came in from defense contracts. After World War I, those contracts dried up, and the company began to flail.
The company was virtually bankrupt by 1932, and Mussolini's new Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale, or Institute for Industrial Reconstruction, stepped in, effectively taking control of the entire company. The IRI was setup as a temporary measure to grow the Italian economy and Mussolini's Italy, and Alfa Romeo was one of its prized possessions.
The historic maker of racers at the Mille Miglia was now an entity of the Fascist state.
IRI poured capital into Alfa, and not only for more defense contracts. Some of Alfa's most famous cars were made during this period, including the original Alfa Romeo 8C and the Bi-motore, a twin-engined beast built by Enzo Ferrari himself. Normally you wouldn't think that a state-owned company should be engaging itself in such frivolous pursuits as car racing and luxury motoring, but this was Italy and Mussolini was pretty much as good at basic economics as he was at pretensions of democracy, which is to say "piss-poor."
Even still, by the time World War II started almost all of Italy's economy was centrally-planned by the State and IRI. Only the Soviet Union had a greater degree of economic control.
Mussolini was forced out of office in 1943 for many different reasons that could take many many books to explain, but for our purposes let's just accept that siding with Hitler is never a good idea (if you think siding with Hitler is always a great idea, don't let anybody know in the comments). By 1945 he was shot dead by Italian partisans, and his body was hung up on meat hooks at a gas station, getting the treatment all fascist dictators deserve.
When the war was over it took a long while for the dust to settle over Europe. Nations needed to be rebuilt, not only economically, but socially and politically as well. Millions were dead, and many cities were in ruin. Much of the old polity was thrown out, though perhaps not as much as should've been.
One of the main questions that the Allies faced when rebuilding the continent, though, was how to rebuild industry. With Italy in tumult and the Marshall Plan to economically rebuild Europe still just getting started, Italians turned to one state institution that was still around – the IRI, and with it, Alfa Romeo.
Alfa Romeo stayed a part of one of the vestiges of Mussolini's regime, and got right back to doing what it did best. The company won the first Formula One Championship in 1950, in the 158 with Nino Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio at the wheel.
You would think that this is where IRI leaves off, and fades into history. But weirdly, it didn't. Though it was created as a temporary measure by Mussolini, it actually hung around as a dominant force in Italy's economy for the next few decades. It boosted Italy's economy in the 1960s, and Alfa Romeo was boosted right along with it.
Some of Alfa's prettiest and most successful cars were made in the 1960s and 1970s, all while Alfa was a remaining part of IRI. So much for all the people railing against socialism, I suppose.
Nowadays you may know Alfa as a brand owned by Fiat, and a sibling to Chrysler. But that actually didn't happen until 1986, when Alfa became loaded with debt and was finally sold to Fiat. Still, I find it fascinating that perhaps the company's best years, from the late 1940s to the 1980s, were spent as an arm of the government.
As for IRI, it fell apart and was dissolved by 2002.
Photo credit: MPW57, Marvin Raaijmakers