Fiat: After Agnelli, A Sale?

Fiat patriarch Gianni Agnelli, 81, died last week just hours before a family meeting to decide the fate of his beloved but broken-down car company. Now it looks as though General Motors may reluctantly ride to the rescue of the debt-ridden Italian automaker. GM already owns 20 percent of Fiat, and the Italian automaker has an option to sell the entire company to the General in 2004. The strong-willed Agnelli, once a rival of Henry Ford II, fiercely opposed letting the Americans take the wheel. But now that younger brother Umberto is in charge, analysts expect him to turn the keys over to GM so he can focus on Fiat's more promising ventures in newspaper publishing, jet engines and soccer. A GM spokeswoman declined to comment, but the No. 1 automaker cannot relish the prospect. GM has already written off nearly all of its original $2.4 billion investment in Fiat, and repairing the automaker won't be easy in a country where strong labor unions resist U.S.-style downsizing. (Fiat workers briefly halted their latest strike when news of Agnelli's death emerged Friday.) The one bright spot is that GM might bring over to America another, sexier car line that Fiat owns: Alfa Romeo. But with the Italian wreck headed for GM's garage, the U.S. automaker is likely to learn why mechanics say Fiat stands for Fix It Again Tomorrow.