Giovanni Battista Pirelli (1848–1942)

The name Pirelli is familiar across Europe, wherever motor cars are driven, and particularly where they are raced or tested in rallies.

Giovanni Battista Pirelli was born, the son of a baker, at Varenna on Lake Como, then part of the Habsburg Empire. He studied Physics and Mathematics at the University of Milan in 1865, but the following year fought with Guiseppe Garibaldi (1807-82) in the operation that made Veneto a part of Italy, before returning to the University to complete his course, and finish top of his class in 1870. He gained a scholarship to study abroad and returned in 1872 to Milan where he opened a small rubber factory, supposedly the first in Italy.

He manufactured electric cables from 1884, bicycle tyres from 1890 and motor car tyres from 1899, as well as cables, transmission belts and hoses for cars. He supplied underwater telegraph cable for several important projects in southern Europe, including lines laid in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean by the Italian government from 1887, and the link between Spain and the Balearic Islands laid in 1888. In 1896 he opened a purpose-built plant at La Spezia to produce underwater cables.

Giovanni Pirelli adopted the famous elongated ‘P’ logo in 1906, and the following year began his company’s long association with motor sport, which provided it with much favourable publicity. The motor car race from Peking to Paris in 1906 was won on Pirelli tyres. The company opened plants in Spain in 1901-02, in the United Kingdom in 1913-14, and in Argentina, and by the early twenty-first century was the fifth largest corporation in Italy, and had 19 factories employing nearly 38,000 people.

The company is celebrated for its sponsorship over many years of the football club, Internazionale Milano, and for its publication from 1964 of its stylish calendar. The Pirelli skyscraper now occupies the site of Giovanni Pirelli’s first factory alongside the River Sevesette in Milan.