Around 1930 a new type of trains appeared all over Europe: self-propelled railcars powered by liquid fuel, consisting of a single unit with an open interior including the driver's seat. The German Schienenbus looked like a bus that was put on the rails. In Italy, a car manufacturer took this concept to a higher level. The Fiat automotrici were modern, efficient and beautifully designed.
The Littorina can be regarded as a co-production of Mussolini and Fiat president Agnelli. The new train type helped achieve Mussolini's political goals, proudly carrying the symbol of his fascist party on its front. Agnelli was able to realize his ambitions for Fiat's railway division — as far as in Africa.
by Arjan den Boer
As the cliché says, Mussolini made the trains run on time. Although the recovery and improvement of the railways had already been started before he came to power in 1922, Mussolini attached great importance to the railways, and hugely invested in them. The Ferrovie dello Stato, established in 1905, were centralized further. Still, there were many private secondary railways left.
In the 1920s fast links between the large cities were realized, for example connecting the capital of Rome with northern Italy, the country's economic engine. In the next decade regional railways were also modernized. Fiat railcars were suitable for this purpose, while also acting as a figurehead for Italian innovation.
Former journalist Benito Mussolini founded the Fascist Party in 1919, mainly supported by unemployed veterans. The political chaos of 1922 enabled him to form a government. Step by step Il Duce dismantled democracy. Mussolini wanted Italy to become a major power. Strong national industries played an important role in this effort.
In 1939 Mussolini pacted with Hitler. Deposed during the war, then used as a German puppet, Mussolini was finally shot by partisans in 1945.
The founder and managing director of Fiat, one of Italy's largest employers, was a powerful man. In 1923 Agnelli became senator. He had good connections with Mussolini but was not a confirmed fascist. He could scarcely justify himself for this before he died in 1945.
Car manufacturer Fiat had been building trams since 1906 and started producing trains in 1917. Fiat built diesel locomotives and later on also electric trainsets. In the 1920s Fiat had already experimented with diesel railcars, culminating in the Littorina in the next decade.
In 2000 Fiat Ferroviaria was acquired by its French competitor, Alstom.
In 1931 Fiat built its first petrol-powered railcar. A year later the breakthrough came with the ALb 48: Automotrice Leggera benzina (light railcar on petrol) with 48 seats. This capacity was startling for its 15-meter length, as was its top speed of 110 km/h. The design was also revolutionary.
The slightly streamlined front was given a grille reminiscent of Fiat cars. The interior offered comfortable leather couches, heating and an almost panoramic view. The ALb was the ideal efficient and comfortable replacement for steam traction on local lines and for the growing commuter traffic.
In 1932 the new petrol railcar took Mussolini, Fiat chairman Agnelli and other guests to Littoria. The name of this newly built city was based on an ancient Roman symbol the fascists had seized. A journalist of Mussolini's own newspaper named the new train after the city: Littorina.
Agnelli was charmed by this somewhat fascistoid name and adopted it. From that time on, all Fiat railcars from the 1930s were called Littorina. The name was used in promotional materials as well as in maintenance guides.
The brand-new ski resort of Sestriere, east of Turin, was largely funded by Fiat chief Giovanni Agnelli. He erected two modern round hotel towers. For optimum access, Fiat and the State Railways started a Littorina service in 1935. It linked nearby Oulx not only to Turin but also to Ventimiglia, where easy connections to the French Riviera were available. This link was meant to entice fashionable tourists. For this reason, the French name Sestrières was used on posters and for the train's lettering.
A longer Littorina with 80 seats was deployed. Soon, seats were sacrificed for ski and mail transport.
The State Railways' Littorinas were fitted with a bronze fasces symbol on their front. After all, in ancient Rome littore — after which the Littorina was indirectly named — were the bearers of the fasces, a bundle of rods tightly bound around an axe as a symbol of authority.
It was selected by Mussolini as the symbol for his fascist party, and even for the entire Italian state after his takeover. It stood for power and joined forces. The fascists opposed the existence of different political parties and separate classes; instead they pursued a national unity with a strong leader.
Mussolini was keen on referring to the glory days of the Roman Empire and the associated symbols.
These ancient symbols were also used in the architecture of the Mussolini era, as can be seen at the Milan railway station.
New Littorina models followed in rapid succession. In 1934 Fiat introduced a diesel version called ALn 56. As its class number indicated, it featured 56 seats. The new Littorina was given an oblique, slightly curved nose somewhat reminiscent of a Rolls Royce. It had a revolutionary build which was based on aircraft construction. A cage of welded tubular frame was covered with aluminum, a new material also produced in Italy.
The two engines were mounted directly on the bogies, separated from the coach body, which ensured minimal vibration. The modernist interior design was egalitarian: all three passenger classes shared the same upholstery, lamps and luggage racks.
A special version of the ALn 56 was built for the Paola-Cosenza railway in Calabria. Because of the many elevations it was partly constructed as a cog railway in 1915. Fiat equipped ten Littorinas with a cog wheel, extra power and a special gear.
The 35-kilometer journey took a whopping 2.5 hours using steam traction, which was reduced to 90 minutes by the Littorina. It could only reach 18 km/h on the rack sections, but 70 km/h was achieved on the other parts.
A completely new railway with tunnels and viaducts was constructed after the war. The Littorinas were taken out of use.
In 1988 the American collector Mitchell Wolfson Jr. discovered the dilapidated ALn 56.1903 at Paola. Wolfson managed to purchase the Littorina and had it restored at Moretta. In 1990 the railcar was shipped to Wolfsonian-FIU in Florida. On loan at a Tennessee rail museum the Littorina was damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
In 2011, the Rahmi M. Koç Museum in Istanbul acquired it on loan for 10 years. After arrival in Turkey the Littorina was carefully restored.
The ALn 56 was successful because of its reliability, comfort and appearance. However, the railways demanded more flexible capacity and wanted to link two Littorinas together under central control. In 1937 Fiat developed the ALn 556 for this purpose. As many as 200 units of this railcar were built.
Manufacturer Breda also built 140 motor cars of the ALn 556 class. Their design and engine were different from the Fiats. They lacked the typical grille and had a higher top speed of 140 km/h. The Bredas also proved to be more durable; they remained in service well into the 1980s while the last Fiat of this class was discontinued in 1976.
At the Pietrarsa railway museum near Naples the difference between the Fiat ALn 556 and the more straightforward-looking Breda version becomes evident.
The Littorina name was reserved for the Fiats only. Because of their looks they were more populair than the technically superior Bredas.
Fiat also produced Littorinas for narrow gauge (95 cm) private railways. In 1935, four railcars were built for the Ferrovie Meridionali Sarde (FMS) in the Sulcis region of Sardinia. They were paid for with shares that made Fiat co-owner of the small railway company.
These little Littorinas of the ALn 200 class had only 36 seats, one diesel engine and a top speed of 83 km/h. The distinctive grille, a kind of shield almost reaching down to the rails, doubled as a cattle catcher — no luxury on sheep-riddled Sardinia. They remained in service until 1972; one specimen has been preserved.
Also in Sardinia, Fiat delivered three Littorinas to the Ferrovie Complementari della Sardegna (FCS) near Macomer in 1937. These ALn 40 class railcars were equipped with two diesel engines because of the steep slopes.
In 1937 six Fiat Littorinas were delivered to Sicily for the Ferrovia Circumetnea, the railway around Mount Etna. This 110-kilometer long narrow gauge (95 cm) line was inaugurated in 1898. More important than its tourist function was that the railway opened up isolated villages.
With a speed of 75 km/h the Littorinas were twice as fast as the old steam trains. The railcars were designated ALn 56 because of the number of seats, but they did not resemble the eponymous standard gauge class. Instead they looked more like the first Littorina model. Two of the six Sicilian Littorinas have been preserved.
On special occasions, the two preserved Littorinas still operate around Mount Etna. One is restored to its original cream-red livery, the other one still has its later light brown (castano-Isabella) color. They are the only pre-war Fiat Littorinas still in service in Italy.
Italy 'lagged behind' as a colonial power, because it was not a unified state until the late 19th century. In 1886 Eritrea and Somaliland were assigned to Italy. In 1911 Libya was conquered. Mussolini occupied Abyssinia in 1935. The League of Nations protested in vain. Fiat benefited from the colonial expansion.
Narrow gauge Littorinas were shipped to Libya and Italian East Africa. Since 1936 they connected the port of Massawa with the Eritrean capital of Asmara. With 68 km/h they were almost twice as fast as steam trains. Today a couple of Littorinas are still running in Eritrea, almost 80 years old!
In Lybia, eight Littorinas operated in the Tripoli area and around Bengazi since 1938. With 55 seats and a top speed of 90 km/h they were in service until the 1960s.
During the occupation of Ethiopia a small Fiat Littorina ran on the 1-meter gauge railway between Addis Ababa and Djibuti. It had only 27 seats.
After the occupation of Abyssinia, Italy — one of the Allied countries during World War I — became isolated. Only Hitler could appreciate Mussolini's aspirations. Italy faced a trade boycott and wanted to become self-sufficient. This became even more urgent when World War II broke out.
Italian-built trains by Fiat, Ansaldo and Breda were in line with the pursuit of autarky. The Littorinas were modern, efficient and domestic. The aluminum used for their construction was produced using own electricity. Ads from 1940 show that the State Railways were using Italian fuel only.
The isolation and war also affected exports. In the 1930s Fiat had supplied Littorinas to Poland, Yugoslavia, Brazil and other countries. In 1940 the delivery of seven Littorinas to Egypt was blocked.
They were eventually deployed on the Biella-Novara railway in northern Italy, which was just inaugurated by Mussolini. One of them has been preserved at the Piedmont railway museum in Savigliano.
The first small 1932 Littorina had generated a lot of offspring in less than a decade. In 1940 around 800 railcars of various classes were running on the Italian railways. Some had grown longer, faster and more luxurious. The automotrici (railcars) had developed into autotreni (trainsets).
During the war, most Littorinas were out of operation due to the lack of fuel. Some were damaged or altered for military purposes. At the end of the war, only 120 of the 800 railcars were in working order. It was of prime importance to get them up and running again at short notice, sometimes at the expense of original (interior) details. Around 1950 the railcar stock was back at its old level.
In 1938 the Fiat ATR 101 established the speed record for diesel trainsets at 160 km/h. Although composed of multiple units, the design was still close to that of the Littorina. These trainsets, intended for longer distances, were equipped with luxurious compartments and a restaurant.
After the war, Fiat built new railcars and trainsets such as the ALn 990. They did not have the same striking appearance, but people kept calling them Littorina for a long time afterwards.
Fiat self-propelled railcars of the Mussolini era
With thanks to Bruno Cianci (Rahmi M. Koç Museum) and Paul van Baarle.
Fiat produzione ferroviaria, tramviaria, filoviaria, Fiat 1942 (Wolfsonian-FIU Library)
Ernesto Petrucci, Le Littorine. Accadeva 80 anni fa, Fondazione FS Italine
Clive Lamming, Le chemin de fer Italien. Inventeur de la grande vitesse, 2006
Mussolini en de treinen in: Historisch Nieuwsblad no. 1, 2002