The marque: Bedrock of the Italian motor industry with worldwide tentacles.

The history: Fiat's evolution almost exactly mirrors that of Italy's late-19th century industrialisation. Fabricca Italiana Automobili Torino was founded in 1899 by Giovanni Agnelli, a cavalry officer whose urbane, multi-talented grandson, in some ways the most powerful man in Italy, remained in charge of the Fiat empire up to his recent death.

That empire includes Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Ferrari, Maserati, New Holland tractors and truck firms Seddon-Atkinson and Iveco, plus many non-automotive emterprises. Agnelli also owned La Stampa, newspaper, Cinzano vermouth and the Juventus football team. Fiat even considered abandoning the then loss-making car business in the 1970s, such was the success of its other enterprises, but then came the highly successful Uno and equilibrium was restored, for a time.

But it was on Fiat factory floors that Italian communism had grown, and where the Red Brigades was later founded. The company's executives were frequent targets for its terrorism.

But the 500 was the car that got Italy's masses mobile. In fact, Fiat has launched a car called 500, or cinquecento, three times: in 1936, in 1957 and 1993.

Only recently has the Fiat flair dimmed as new chiefs try to broaden the marque's appeal and stem serious financial losses. Fiat could yet be absorbed by an unwilling General Motors, and Italy will lose a hefty slice of its soul.

Defining model: Fiat 500, 1957 to 1975. Tiny, two-cylinder car, now a mobile Italian national monument.

They say: Hand-built by robots (Fiat Strada ad, 1979).

We say: Don't let the Tin Man lose his heart,

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