Walking through a generic shopping centre is not how you’d expect a tour of one of the car industry’s greatest treasures to begin, but the Fiat Lingotto building is quite unusual. Seemingly endless rows of chain shops sit where there was once a production line, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell this building’s original purpose today. Unless, of course, you get in the right lift, and have a key that’s obtained only if you know who to talk to.
There’s nothing to suggest this lift as special, and the slot for the key is unmarked. Even when the lift has reached its destination and the doors open, you won’t see a plaque or an information board explaining where you are and why it’s so significant.
Walk out onto the roof, and it immediately becomes clear - this is a test track. Measuring one kilometre in length, the circuit features a heavily-banked curve at each end. When cars were still built here, they would make their way up the facility’s five floors via concrete ramps at either end of the building, finishing on the roof for testing.
Dominating the middle of the roof is a glass dome housing a meeting room, with an adjoining helipad, both of which are still used by FCA officials coming to Turin. The interior of the dome and its panoramic views of the alps has at times been used as a backdrop for Fiat’s online configurator.
Visibility isn’t great today, but there’s still a beautiful vista laid out before us. Rather than get distracted, though, I head for the banked section which can - and sometimes does, on special occasions - still have cars going over it. The other is blocked by bollards.
The walk to the middle point feels precarious - it really is a steep angle. Taking my mind off the thought of tumbling down the cobbles is the spooky acoustics of this part of the track - I can clearly hear fellow journalists 40 metres away as if they were standing next to me.
Gingerly strolling back to the start of the banked section, I walk down one of the access ramps, arriving at a vast, cavernous space housing one of the two spirals used to transport the cars through the factory and up to the roof. Its counterpart at the other end of the building is open to the public and integrated into the shopping centre. Integrated weirdly well, at that.
Designed by Giacomo Mattè Trucco, the Lingotto building was completed in 1923, becoming Europe’s largest car factory upon its opening. During its years of operation, 80 different Fiat models were made here. Even if you’ve never heard of this place, you’ve probably seen it before, because this is where the famous rooftop car chase scene of The Italian Job was filmed.
In the decade that followed Lingotto’s silver screen moment in the sun, the factory was looking increasingly dated. In 1982, the decision to close Lingotto was made.
This iconic part of Italian car manufacturing history, however, was to be preserved and turned into something else. Architect Renzo Piano - who went on to design London’s Shard skyscraper - reenvisioned Lingotto as a multi-use facility including a cinema, office space, a convention centre, a theatre and yes, a shopping centre too. The best mall in the world? It surely is, so long as you have the right key.