Giovanni Agnelli and the other founders of Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino - Fiat for short - were not car men.
But when they met in a Turin cafe on 11 July 1899, they decided that automobiles were the right product for their new industrial enterprise.
It was a well-financed initiative, with Ludovico Scafiotti as the first chairman and Agnelli the board's secretary.
Agnelli's native Italy was lagging behind in the development of the car, which had taken off so successfully in France.
To realize their dream, the founders of Fiat SpA had to buy a patent - and the services of its inventor, engineer Aristide Faccioli - from the only car pioneer in Turin, Giovanni Ceirano.
Ceirano had just begun construction of the Welleyes two-cylinder car in early 1899. Renamed Fiat 4HP, it became the company's first model. The stage was set. Fiat would to play a major role in the European car industry in the 20th Century - and beyond.
Thirty Fiat 4HPs were made in two years by 35 employees. The 1902 16/20HP model was the first Fiat to exceed a production volume of 100.
The Fiat company quickly began to catch up with its French counterparts. Agnelli, who was appointed managing director in 1902, emerged as the visionary.
One of his first decisions was to go racing. Vincenzo Lancia, who later became a car manufacturer, was his first, and fastest, race driver. In 1906, Fiat competed successfully against Mercedes, Renault, Benz and, a few years later, Peugeot on the race tracks. Fiat continued in Grand Prix racing until 1926.
In its early years, Fiat offered a wide range of cars, including massive, 9000cc models. But Agnelli understood the needs of a larger public and came up with one of the world's first successful small cars. The 1912 Tipo Zero, powered by a 1.8-liter engine, was a hit.
Over 2,000 were produced within three years.
By then, Fiat employed 2,500 people and had an annual output of 1,215 cars.
The Tipo Zero launched Fiat as a small-car producer. After World War I, the company delivered an even smaller-engined model, the 1919 Tipo 501. By then, Fiat was well-equipped for mass production. In 1916, Agnelli approved construction of Lingotto, Europe's largest car manufacturing plant, with its unique roof-top test track. It remains a building of major architectural and historical interest.
A total of 45,000 Tipo 501s were made through 1926, when an even smaller car was added to the range. The little 509's 990cc four-cylinder engine used an overhead camshaft. It was a real people's car - over 92,000 were made from 1926 to 1929. But it also served Italy's need for a lively little sports car.
In 1934, Fiat's annual output reached 113,000. Agnelli decided to increase capacity with a second plant at Mirafiori, which opened in 1939.
The 1936 Fiat 500 was a milestone for the company. Nicknamed Topolino, or Mickey Mouse, the two-seater coupled four-cylinder technology with surprisingly good road manners and the smallest-ever dimensions. The 500 sold in large numbers -519,464 units were made from 1936 to 1953. It was created by Dante Giacosa, one of the world's greatest engineers, who worked at Fiat for 40 years.
In 1937, the elegant, 1,089cc Nuova Balilla became the first of a long range of popular compact family cars. Its production run of 52,017 units from 1937 to 1939 helped Fiat see steady annual production volumes of well over 100,000 cars before the outbreak of World War II.
The rear-engined, air-cooled, 1957 Fiat 500 was the company's first million-seller. A total of 3,583,210 of the Giacosa-designed cars had been sold by the time production ended in 1975.
The 600 and 850 were larger-engined derivatives, and the 1956, six-seater Multipla was Europe's first attempt at a minivan.
Giacosa was also the driving force behind the Fiat 128 in 1969 and the 127 in 1971, both advanced and successful front-wheeldrive models.
In the postwar years, Fiat proved itself one of Europe's automotive innovators. It was the first to offer mass-produced twin-cam engines and five-speed gearboxes.
The Dino Spider and coupe were unique joint cooperative efforts with Ferrari, which supplied the V-6 engines.
At its Rivalta plant, just outside Turin, Fiat set new standards in industrialization at the end of the 1960s. The plant contained a large number of robots.
The popular, medium-sized 124 and 125 played a key role in Fiat's history. In 1966, in the midst of the Cold War, Fiat struck a unique deal, selling the concept of this model, including all production tooling, to the former Soviet Union. The models lived on as Ladas well into the 1990s.
Fiat's trendsetting international way of doing business also included its involvement in the foundation of Spain's Seat in the early 1950s, and production of small models in Poland, starting in the 1970s.
But Fiat was not successful in all segments of the market. It had difficulties selling large models. But by acquiring Lancia in 1969 and Alfa Romeo in 1986, it moved into premium segments of the market.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, amid social unrest, falling sales and lack of capital, Fiat seemed in trouble.
Chairman Gianni Agnelli moved to strengthen the company's finances with a capital injection from Libya.
This money enabled Fiat to finance a new model, the 1983 Fiat Uno. The car sold 6,272,792 units in over 10 years.
It was replaced by the equally successful Punto.
Fiat's new Punto has just been unveiled in Turin as part of the centenary celebrations. It goes on sale in Italy in September.