The Spark of Magneti Marelli

March 28, 2022

Magneti Marelli is one of the most recognized names in the pantheon of Italian automotive greats. The company never built a single car, yet their products enable every car produced in that country and many other countries (such as the Porsche 911) to go. Magneti Marelli got its start in the early days of the automobile, embracing motorsport at the highest level to hone and harden its products, ultimately becoming the huge automotive supply conglomerate it is today.

Magneti Marelli means “Marelli Magnetos” in English, and while not the inventor of the magneto, the company did a lot to develop, perfect, and commercialize these critical components. From that starting point, they expanded into automotive batteries, spark plugs, distributors, alternators, radios, lights, brakes, pumps, electronic engine management, and much more. Today, the company also owns other famous names such as Weber, Jaeger, Veglia, and Solex.

First There Were Fans

Young Ercole Marelli was born in 1867 in Milan to very humble beginnings. (Ercole is “Hercules” in Italian, btw.) Early on, Marelli showed an aptitude for mechanical work, which led to him attending a vocational training school by day. At the young age of 15, he started to apprentice after classes with Tecnomasio, a firm installing the first electrical lighting projects for cities and towns in the late 19th century.

This eventually led to Ercole, now just 20 years of age, boarding a steamship to Paraguay, where he would spend the next three years of his life installing a lighting and electrical system in a factory.

Upon his return to Italy, he decided to set out on his own. In 1891, he set up an electrical workshop in Milan. This is where the Marelli empire got its start, initially producing batteries, capacitors, and electro-medical devices. The company’s first commercial success came from manufacturing electrical fans (“air agitators” as they were called) after seeing one that had been imported from the U.S.A.

Ercole Marelli

Ercole Marelli and his team were always tinkering and experimenting. Marelli himself applied for many patents, including one for an entire airplane! One of his applications in 1915 was for a magneto ignition system. He didn’t personally invent the magneto. Instead, he secured a patent in Italy for one of his designs. Magnetos had been around for some time, as Bosch and Simms were credited with the first practical version for automotive ignition in 1897.

Marelli’s magneto was simple, durable, and reliable, so he started production to supply Italy’s automotive industry. After WWI ended, Marelli spun off the automotive supply into a company called Fabbrica Italiana Magneti Marelli (FIMM), which was a 50/50 joint venture with Fiat in 1919. Thus, the name Magneti Marelli was born!

From Day One, Magneti Marelli was active in motorsports -- in the days when competitions were on primitive roads. The lessons learned from participating in dozens of competitions every year “hardened” the components and helped them deliver performance and durability.

Servizio Corse circa 1925.

The Magneti Marelli Servizio Corse (Racing Service) was present at nearly every event, and helped competitors sort out issues and provide replacement parts if needed. They provided support to the 1930 Mille Miglia winning team of Nuvolari and Guidotti in an Alfa Romeo, as well as the two sister cars which finished second and third.

Post-War Expansion

The Marelli organization’s origins were in electrical products. From their original magneto product, they stayed the course, adding batteries (1929) and spark plugs (1935). In 1935, a joint venture was formed with Bosch by the unimaginative name of MABO to jointly market their parts. Meanwhile, other lines of Marelli’s business were pioneering television broadcasts, and even cutting-edge particle accelerators for scientific research.

After WWII, Magneti Marelli’s production ramped back up to fulfill the demand of the growing automobile industry, both in Italy and abroad. Marelli continued to help modernize cars with improved electrical components that met the needs of their demanding customers. Marelli’s R&D continued to be in the area of top-level racing, including the new Formula One series in which their components powered Farina’s Alfa Romeo to the inaugural World Championship.    

In 1967, the son-in-law of Ercole Marelli who had run the company since Mr. Marelli’s death, also passed away. With the end of family control, by the terms of the original agreement in 1919, Magneti Marelli became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fiat. 

Magneti Marelli Dinoplex

In the late 1960s, the company developed its first electronic ignition called the Dinoplex. It was developed for the first mid-engine road car, the Dino 206 GT -- hence the name. Marelli then partnered with Weber in the 1970s to develop fuel injection for Scuderia Ferrari’s Formula One engines, continuing that important technical partnership.

Magneti Marelli continued to develop products to help improve fuel efficiency and lower pollution, with its Digiplex and Cityplex electronic engine management systems. 

In 1986, the company was reorganized into a holding company under which many historic brands were housed, including the following prestigious names:

  • Weber and Solex for fuel supply.
  • Veglia Borletti and Jaeger instruments and electronics.
  • Carello and Siem lighting systems.

The testbed of racing continued to keep the company on the leading edge of innovation. Magneti Marelli eventually worked with all Formula One teams and introduced: the semi-automatic transmission with steering wheel controls (1989), intelligent steering wheel (1994), engine and vehicle control system with distributed architecture and miniature components (2000), real-time telemetry (2001), and KERS for the recovery of kinetic energy (2008).

The most recent chapter was the acquisition of Marelli by investor KKR for $7.1B in October 2018. The company was folded into Japan’s Calsonic Kansei Corporation. The new entity is called simply “Marelli” and is the seventh-largest independent car parts supplier. It employs 54,000 people across 170 facilities around the world, and generated $11.8B in sales in 2020.

Magneti Marelli partnered with Scuderia Ferrari from the outset.

The Marelli Difference

Magneti Marelli is less an inventor than an innovator, meaning they didn’t create new ideas, they just took existing ones and relentlessly improved them. The corporate culture was built early on with the impetus and inspiration of its founder Ercole Marelli.

He was humble and was by all accounts a great leader. He invested in creating a supportive work environment for his employees. The other differentiator was the testbed of motorsport where Marelli was not just a supplier, but an active partner with many of the sport's most famous names.

Unlike England’s Lucas, which favored cost efficiency over performance with not-so-great results, Magneti Marelli has maintained a good reputation (albeit imperfect) by continually driving forward to stay at the forefront of automotive technology.

Meanwhile, for collector car owners, Magneti Marelli parts are still plentiful in the market, and there is also a cottage industry of providers who can rebuild an original part to get it working just like new. Time will tell if the new Marelli’s long-term support for collector parts continues for its brands. Hopefully, they will be good stewards of these iconic brands.

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