A new generation of buyers have come into their own in the intervening years since Fiat last sold vehicles in the United States and Canada. Many of these buyers were yet to be born, or far too young to remember the full details as to the travails that the brand, and it’s customers, had endured in the not-so distant past.
Fiat brand vehicle build quality in the 1970s and 80s was abysmal. As Charlie Hughes, former head of marketing at Fiat during that era, stated “We sold 100,000 Fiats in the U.S. in 1975, and we got 99,000 of them back for major problems” (source: tirebusiness.com). Plagued by problems, Fiat eventually pulled up stakes and abandoned the US/Canadian market completely in the early part of the 1980s.
Fiat Group dealership, Piazza Riccardo, Turin, Italy (source: maps.google.com)
Focusing on Europe, as well as strengthening its presence in emerging markets, Fiat’s vehicle quality steadily rose, and became more on par with other full-line automobile manufacturers.
Fiat dealership, 231 Colney Hatch Lane, London, England (United Kingdom) (source: maps.google.com)
Fiat dealership, Avenida Brasil, 8685, Olario, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (source: maps.google.com)
In the wake of the global economic meltdown in 2007-2009, and the Federally orchestrated bankruptcies of both General Motors and Chrysler, Fiat would be presented with an opportunity to return to the large US auto market.
Chrysler Building, New York City, New York
Acquiring an interest in Chrysler in 2009, by way of the US Federal bankruptcy proceedings, afforded Fiat a broad reaching, established dealer network with which to relaunch the Fiat brand in the United States and Canada. However, rather than pushing Fiat branded vehicles amongst other Chrysler company brands, these particular vehicles would be sold in separate and distinct showrooms.
2-Separate and special
As part of the US/Canada narrative for the re-introduction of the Fiat brand, the plan was to construct unique, stand-alone showrooms (“studios”) that would showcase, sell and service the brand’s unique vehicles.
Fiat 500s on dealer lot
Establishing a distinct network of single brand studios was considered the ideal approach to appeal to a new type of buyer that was not particularly swayed by the Chrysler vehicle portfolio. Presumably, Chrysler’s pseudo-luxury pretensions, Dodge’s American muscle-car/boy-racer persona, or the rough and tumble Jeep brand did not resonate with Fiat intenders.
Fiat dealership, Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, Atlanta, Georgia (source: maps.google.com)
Fiat’s targeted clientele was young, hip, urban, stylish, savvy and connected. Without doubt, these buyers would gravitate to “Italian design and style, with technology at an affordable price” (source: chryslerinthenews.com). As such, creating a “gallery-like” experience, whereby industrial-age pop art, such as the iconic 500, could be admired was part of the re-introduction roadmap. Wrapping the brand in an aura of Italian fashion and flair, the studios would also feature in-store cafés, and a myriad of factory-authorized, dealer-installed customization options.
Fiat dealership (interior views), Hecktown Road, Easton, Pennsylvania (source: fiatusaoflehighvalley.com)
However, selling a single model, in the small car segment, which is notorious for slim profit margins, without the cachet of a luxury brand to command higher transactional price points, had many dealers balking at the prospect of undertaking significant new facility investments.
The uptake for new from-the-ground-up unique dealer facilities not materializing as quickly as the Fiat brand operatives had hoped, the original plan vis-à-vis stand-alone “studios” would be modified to allow some level of cross-pollination between the Chrysler and Fiat brand products within the same showroom space.
Fiat-CDJR dealership, Palladium Drive, Kanata, Ontario, Canada (source: maps.google.com)
Although the showroom would house all corporate brands, the Fiat brand would maintain a dedicated, brand-specific space, that would serve to provide the unique Italian-inspired experience. Meanwhile, the other Chrysler brands would be cast aside, sharing and competing for the remaining showroom space.
In some instances, the Fiat studio is grafted onto one of the ends of the existing dealership facade as a completely new space, or existing space is annexed from other brands, and transformed into dedicated Fiat space.
Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge dealership, Chemin Cote de Liesse, Montreal, Québec, Canada (source: maps.google.com)
CJDR-Fiat dealership, Chemin Cote de Liesse, Montreal, Québec, Canada (source: maps.google.com)
And in other cases, the Fiat showroom was simply wedged into where space allowed.
Fiat dealership, Driver’s Circle, Cicero, New York
Additionally, some dealerships seized the opportunity for renewal and incorporated the addition of their Fiat studio into the overall long-term dealership facility planning, electing to construct newer state-of-the-art digs to house all their brands.
Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Fiat dealership, Boulevard des Sources, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Québec, Canada
Proposed CJRD-Fiat dealership, Boulevard des Sources, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Québec, Canada
In all, the “studio” plan deviated far afield from the unique stand-alone brand mantra resulting in a broad range of built-environments that interpret the brand features and elements of the Fiat brand.
4-Unique brand elements
The nature of the automotive retailing business being intimately linked to easy grade level access, which facilitates access for getting vehicles from the exterior into the showroom, Fiat studios are low in height, boxy, rectilinear, and generally simple and straightforward regarding building footprint geometry.
Fiat dealership, South Memorial Drive, Tulsa, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)
The building’s primary facade tends to be composed of aluminum and glass storefront glazing systems, dominated by expansive glazing and punctuated with entry doors. Clear anodized aluminum finish is favoured as it is a more subtle finish that is less distracting and seamlessly integrates into the overall composition. Above the glazing, the exterior treatment is achieved by way of fiber cement panels, pre-fabricated elements such as ACP (aluminum composite panels), IMP (insulated metal panels) rendered in a complementary neutral colour.
Fiat dealership, Auto Park Circle, Vaughan, Ontario, Canada
Of particular note, the facade glazing does not wrap around the corner. Large end columns, at one or both ends of the facade as the case may be, create a rigid vertical break line in the facade. Creating large column corners gives the building a more assertive start/stop point along the horizontal axis, essentially book-ending the glazing, reinforcing a strong edge definition.
The upper portion of the column corners step out and cantilever away from the facade, thus adding visual mass to the upper portion of the columns. The lower portion appears cinched, therefore imbuing a sense of heft and relative girth at the higher strata. Bordered on both sides with column elements, clad red in colour that reprise the Fiat logo and branding material, the facade mimics a funnel, with the view and interest turned inwards towards the body of the building.
Fiat dealership, Auto Park Circle, Vaughan, Ontario, Canada
In some instances, possibly due to space constraints, conflicts with neighbouring buildings, or zoning/urban design norms, the upper stepped portion is turned inward, abruptly terminating the glazed transparent portion of the elevation.
Fiat dealership, Boston Post Road, Larchmont, New York (source: maps.google.com)
Prominent seams within the column and headwall portion carve up the elevation of what might otherwise be a slab sided expanse of wall into a patchwork of pre-fabricated metallic panels. Although they provide minimal surface relief, the seams add a rhythmic pattern, symmetry and scale into the elevation.
CJDR-Fiat dealership, Chemin Cote de Liesse, Montreal, Québec, Canada
The side elevations typically carry through the theme developed on the facade, large glass areas capped by neutral headwall areas and strong corner definition. The rear, typically the least adorned side of the building, is likely clad in concrete, CMU (concrete masonry units), cement plaster or some other durable, low-maintenance material.
Recognizable by the prominent red corner column element, the overall design seems to lack any radical or wholesale application of unbridled Italian design and dramatic flair. As a consequence of adhering to the proven built-environment formula, the Fiat studio experience, though recognizable, falls short on revolutionizing the form-follows-function automotive retailing/dealership architectural design landscape.
During the relaunch of the brand in the United States and Canada, accompanied by the unrelenting brand/lifestyle association with the stylish re-incarnated 500, Fiat has managed to imbue the brand with some of their iconic model’s cheap and cheerful personality to go along with its fashionable Italian flair.
Although successfully generating interest with variants and special/limited edition models, the slowing-stabilizing-falling sales figures indicate that much of the initial euphoric early adopter purchasing wave might have passed for 500 aficionados (source: goodcarbadcar.net). In fact, it remains a relative oddity to see the diminutive 500, ideally suited for city driving and urban duties, on American roads dominated by larger vehicles, SUVs and pickup trucks.
Ford E-Series van and Fiat 500
Separate sales channels, dedicated “studio” spaces, brand specific environments, and a unique architectural identity can help build and maintain awareness, but may only carry a brand so far. As many who follow the automotive industry would concur, getting the product mix right matters profoundly.
Various Fiat Chrysler Automobiles brands:
RAM, Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep, SRT (recently discontinued), Mopar,
Fiat, Abarth, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Ferrari, Lancia
In short, Fiat will need to continue to follow up with new, innovative models that will keep the brand relevant in the hearts, minds and wallets of the competitive American marketplace, or it is likely destined to become “just another brand” within the vast FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) brand portfolio.
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