TURIN – A key component inSpA’s successful bid last week to acquire beleaguered Carrozzeria Bertone SpA was a promise to retain jobs and produce -brand niche vehicles at the contract-manufacturer’s plant here.
Italian Industry Minister Claudio Scajola approved the sale to, saying the decision to turn the manufacturing operations over to the Italian car maker “is based on the return of all the 1,137 workers still on the payroll of Carrozzeria Bertone...and the production of some models.”
Fiat later confirmed its plans for Bertone include production of niche models, such as sports cars and luxury sedans, to be sold under both the Fiat and Chrysler brands. It also noted it would invest some E150 million ($212 million) in the factory over the next three years.
Fiat’s winning bid for the manufacturing arm means Bertone will be split into two, with the design business and Bertone brand name going to matriarch Lilli Bertone, who has been in a bitter family fight to retain control of Stile Bertone for nearly two years.
A third party, Gianmario Rossignolo, a past Fiat executive and more recently CEO of Telcomm Italia, had submitted a plan to acquire Bertone in its entirety, but it was rejected by Scajola in favor of the Fiat-Lilli Bertone bids.
Fiat made its offer only three weeks ago, showing no interest in the contract manufacturer until just a few days before the deadline for submitting bids.
Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne earlier revealed the auto maker had discussed directly with Lilli Bertone a deal that would save Bertone, but negotiations stalled and Fiat lost interest.
But the low purchase price and the chance to tap into some E900 million ($1.3 billion) on the table from Italian regional governments earmarked to help revitalize the local auto industry drew Fiat back to Bertone at the 11th hour.
Marchionne’s decision to make a play for Bertone reportedly was facilitated by Giuseppe Perlo, a former Fiat executive and one of three experts appointed to assist the administrators overseeing the sale.
Perlo is said to have guided Marchionne through a quick tour of the Bertone factory on a Sunday in mid-July, just four days prior to the July 16 bid deadline.
Critics are questioning the move to acquire the plant – even at a fraction of its value – with Fiat having already closed or in the process of closing several other plants in the Turin area.
It also is unclear what models Fiat could build there, as there has been no news leaked of any new niche products in the pipeline.
Some observers say Fiat may be eying the Bertone plant as a source for low-volume Maserati and Ferrari production. It has a modern water-borne paint shop that remains one of the most efficient in Europe, with the capacity to produce 70,000 units per year.
There’s also talk the facility also could be used to produce a European version of theNano, now under development and testing at Fiat’s operations in Brazil. Fiat and India’s Tata Motors Ltd. have a number of cooperation agreements.