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ROME (AP) -- The death of Umberto Agnelli, Fiat's chairman and the last member of its old guard, marks the end of an era at the Turin-based auto giant and raises questions about the family's future grip on the company.

Agnelli's death came as Fiat battles to rebound from its worst financial crisis ever. It also occurred with crucial developments on the horizon: An option to sell its auto operations to General Motors Corp. comes into effect next year; and a huge loan comes due -- meaning banks could theoretically wrest control of Fiat from the Agnellis.

Agnelli, who died of cancer Thursday night, ran Fiat for 15 months after the death of his elder brother, Giovanni Agnelli. Who might succeed them now is unclear.

"The family no longer has clear leadership," said Matteo Bonizzoni, an automotive analyst at Kepler Equities in Milan.

Fiat might be looking at current CEO Giuseppe Morchio -- who has had a major role in putting together a restructuring plan that analysts say is bringing Fiat back to financial health -- to lead the company while the younger Agnelli generation builds the necessary experience.

The Agnellis had groomed Umberto's son as the Fiat heir, until he died of cancer in 1997. After that, the family looked toward Giovanni Agnelli's grandson John Elkann for a long-term successor. But he's only 28 -- likely too young to oversee a conglomerate with over 162,000 employees.

"He has always been very responsible, very aware of his mandate to ensure the family's continuity," said Fiat historian Valerio Castronuovo. "However, it is difficult to see John Elkann as chairman at such a young age."

This absence of an obvious successor comes at a tough time. In 2002, the year before Umberto Agnelli took over, the Fiat Group lost 4.3 billion euros; after a year at the helm, they had narrowed to 1.9 billion euros. The company issued a restructuring plan, sold off non-auto assets and started focusing on its carmaking core business.

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