A SMALL but symbolic photograph catches the visitor's eye in Jim Blades's office. It depicts him and one of his teenage sons high on Mont Blanc. Mr Blades has an equally big mountain to climb in his role as the first British managing director in Fiat Auto UK's 90-year history.

Being a native is far less of a problem than getting Fiat and its stablemates, Alfa Romeo and Lancia, back to a respectable level in the British market. Their combined shares accounted for a healthy 6.34 per cent of new car registrations in 1977. Last year's 2.13 per cent reflected just 33,965 sales - fewer Fiats, Alfas and Lancias than Peugeot 205s.

Britain is the problem child in Fiat Auto's European family. Even the chauvinistic French buy enough of the Italian cars for them to account for 6 per cent of the market.

Mr Blades has high hopes for the long-awaited Cinquencento, which went on sale in Britain this week. Pundits criticise the lack of balance in this new range of tiddlers, which joins rather than replaces the Panda and the slightly bigger Uno.

This was all in the pipeline before Mr Blades, 45, joined Fiat Auto UK last December, after a few months with the parent company in Turin. His background includes an engineering degree from Southampton University, five years with Ford and a much longer spell with Rover.

Where has Fiat gone wrong in Britain? 'I believe the principal reason is that we have failed to communicate consistently the strengths of the products themselves. That has been particularly evident in the past two years - during a very disorderly market it has been very difficult to focus on the actual cars, because the ultimate transaction price is what has been driving the market.

'We are one of the best interpreters of the compact car. The Cinquecento confirms the characteristics that are present in all our products. We are confident it's going to do a good job for us.'

Fiat also needs to sell more of its bigger cars, notably the Tipo, which should be but isn't a significant player in the sector that accounts for about a third of the British market. Praise has failed to stimulate sales. As for the rest of the corporate range, when did you last see a new Fiat Tempra or Lancia Dedra?

One thing this Italian family needs is a dash of the brio apparent in the days when it derived attractive, affordable coupes and convertibles - 'niche models' in today's jargon - from the likes of the boxy Fiat 124 and Alfa Giulia saloons. Latter-day versions of those cars are in the pipeline.

Mr Blades's challenge during the next few years will be to launch 'a huge range' of new models. Does being British give him an advantage over his Italian predecessors? He nods: 'Someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in a domestic industry has a head start, an instinctive feeling for what sort of marketing is right, what sort of sales and promotional activity is right and, in the longer term, what sort of products are right.'

Mr Blades is aware that a long, distinguished heritage is not enough. 'Each marque has to deliver what people want today. We see Alfa as a sort of heart-on-sleeve car that's sporting and maybe even a touch ostentatious. Lancia should also provide performance, but in the more refined, luxurious and understated manner of a fast tourer rather than a gutsy sports car.'

Much of Mr Blades's quiet confidence springs from his time as Rover's overseas sales director. 'Ask any importer the same question and he will say he would like 3.5-plus per cent of the market - which we last had in 1988 - and would aspire to 5.0 per cent over a longer term. I would prefer to err on the side of steady.'

That was when I spotted the mountain photograph. A climber's philosophy may prove an even greater advantage than being British in Britain - the steady approach is the best way to climb a serious mountain.

(Photograph omitted)

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