Essential Macau | The man, the myth

Three decades have passed since the death of the most prominent figure in the history of cars. Enzo Ferrari was a driver, sports director and car constructor, but above all else, he was the world’s most famous creator of dreams

By Guilherme Marques

In 2014, the consultancy firm Brand Finance named Ferrari the most powerful brand in the world for the second year running. Not just in the running with other car brands, but with all those that exist in every segment of the market. Google, Apple, Lego, Disney, Coca-Cola, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes; they all trailed behind. David Haigh, CEO of Brand Finance, justified the distinction, based on metrics deduced from studies undertaken in several countries, in the following way: “The prancing horse on a yellow badge is instantly recognisable the world over, even where paved roads have yet to reach. In its home country and among its many admirers worldwide, Ferrari inspires more than just brand loyalty, more of a cultish, even quasi-religious devotion.”

We’re talking about a manufacturer that currently sells 8,000 cars a year, or 0.08% of the global car market. But Ferrari is much more than a car. Models such as the 250 GTO, the California Spyder and the 330 P4 became more than just vehicles a long time ago, becoming something comparable to a Picasso painting or an Alberto Giacometti sculpture. They are works of art that feature in 20th-century history books and which capture generations. The Ferrari F1-90, which Alain Prost drove in the 1990 season, was the first car to be part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

For the Ferraristi, the devotion to which David Haigh refers leaves no doubt of one thing: Enzo Ferrari was a god. Il Commendatore, Il Drake, or Il Vecchio, as he was called by his employees and drivers, is the most famous name in the history of the car industry, and so it will remain. His doctrine was simultaneously simple and impossible to copy: how to materialise the most basic human dream – the dream of freedom – in an object with four wheels.

Enzo Anselmo Ferrari was born into a poor family in Modena on February 18, 1898. Due to a thunderstorm that thrashed the city for two days, his parents were unable to leave the house to register the birth of their second child.  Officially, the youngest Ferrari was born on February 20.

His father, Alfredo, a blacksmith by trade, built his modest workshop in a shack beside the house, while his mother, Adalgisa Bisbini, took care of the children, the home and everything else. Without the development that was already happening in countries such as England, Germany and France, late 19th-century Italy offered few prospects for its poorest inhabitants. Both Enzo and his brother, Alfredo Jr., spent too little time at school for the education system to serve their future in any way.

The beginning of the First World War was a decisive time in European history, and the Ferrari family suffered the tragic consequences of the armed conflict first-hand. Alfredo Sr. and Alfredo Jr fell victim to the flu pandemic of 1916, and even Enzo himself was at the brink of death when he served in the 3rd Mountain Artillery Regiment. He was sent home for health reasons, managed to survive and helped his mother escape famine, an evil that swept the country for obvious reasons. These were difficult times for both of them, but which undeniably marked the personality of a young Enzo. The coolness with which he faced life and business and the way in which he blindly focused on objectives were certainly moulded by the hardships of the first 20 years of his life.

Keeping his father’s workshop was never an option. From very early on, the youngster had said that his dream would be to do something in the car industry. FIAT was the largest Italian industrial conglomerate and, in the possession of a letter of recommendation from his senior officer, Enzo travelled to Turin to ask for a job, as did many other soldiers returned from the war. Rejected, the youth from Modena recounted of how he walked to Valentino Park, wiped the snow off a bench, sat down and cried. At that moment in time, his life prospects were bleak.

A few months later, Enzo met a former cyclist called Sivocci. A friendship was born between them that led the latter to convince his employer to hire Ferrari. At CMN (Costruzioni Meccaniche Nazionali), Enzo began by turning the bodies of useless old cars into small, cheap cars that people could buy. In one way or another way, Enzo started to become known as an excellent driver among his colleagues, which reached the ears of the administration who promoted him to the company’s test driver.

His official debut in a race took place on the Parma – Poggio di Berceto hill in 1919. Enzo Ferrari placed fourth. In the same year, he debuted in the Mille Miglia, but a water leak in his CMN 15 hp stopped him from finishing.

The powerful Alfa Romeo liked what it saw in the attitude of the young man from Modena, and hired him to be part of its racing team in 1920. But Enzo never saw great results; at least nothing like his peers Antonio Ascari and Luigi Villoresi, two great drivers of that time. His most prestigious victory happened at Coppa Acerbo in 1924, in the city of Pescara.

The death of Antonio Ascari in 1925 had a deep impact on Enzo, who was never the same behind the wheel. He began paving another path more tied to sports management, where his skills in human relations and the contacts he obtained over the years could bear fruit.

Ferrari married Laura Dominica Garello, a dancer also from Modena, in 1923.  Signora Ferrari always held hope that her husband would see sense and eventually abandon the world of car racing, and even suggested that Enzo accept a position at the municipal tram company. But fortunately for all those who dream about the Cavallino Rampante, that didn’t happen.

Their only child, Alfredo, like his grandfather and uncle before him, was born in 1932. Sadly for his parents, Dino, as he was affectionately known, despite being a brilliant student and a fan of the motoring world, suffered from a serious case of muscle dystrophy from very early on, and died prematurely at just 24 years of age. His biggest legacy for the brand was to convince his father to produce a family of V6 engines, which eventually won the F1 World Championship in 1958 and led to the first mid-engine Ferrari road model, which Enzo christened Dino. Today, it is one of the most admired classics among the Ferraristi and considered one of the most beautiful cars of all time.

Enzo Ferrari and Laura Garello’s relationship was never easy, mainly because Enzo always maintained other love interests. In 1930, even before Dino was born, Ferrari embarked on an affair with a 20-year-old called Lina Lardi, a relationship he maintained until the end of his life. From that relationship, Piero Lardi Ferrari was born in 1945, a son that Enzo never acknowledged publicly until Laura’s death in 1978. Today, Piero is the most iconic figure of the company founded by his father and owner of 10% of its capital. He was also there for many of the most important decisions that moulded the brand in the last three decades.

Change of track

Enzo’s pursuit of a role within Alfa Romeo that was more focused on sports management and not on driving led him to organise a dinner in the city of Bologna on November 16, 1929, where he started to outline the future. He requested financial support from Augusto and Alfredo Caniato, the heirs of an enormous industrial textile empire, and Mario Tadini, a wealthy amateur driver. The goal was to form a racing team in his own name, using the sports resources of Alfa Romeo.

Even then, Ferrari kept driving until Dino’s birth in 1932, the year that the Cavallino Rampante symbol on a yellow background appeared for the first time on an Alfa Romeo racecar, at the 24 Hours of Spa. Two Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 MM took the highest steps of the podium. Antonio Brivio and Eugenio Siena were the winners, with Piero Taruffi and Guido d’Ippolito right behind them.

The famous emblem also has a peculiar story behind it. The prancing horse was given to Enzo Ferrari by the mother of Francesco Baracca, the most illustrious ace in Italian aviation during the First World War. Originally part of the cavalry regiment of the Italian army, Baracca learnt to fly in France and got his pilot’s licence in 1912, when he enlisted in the Corpo Aeronautico Militare. Baracca’s first victory in the skies took place in 1916, against a German reconnaissance plane from Stuttgart. Among the wreckage of the German aircraft, Baracca found a prancing horse painted on the fuselage, the same one that adorns the crest of the city of Stuttgart. As a spoils-of-war, Baracca painted the enemy’s horse on his own plane. The Italian pilot claimed a total of 34 personal victories during the time he fought for his country, but he passed away in 1918, shot down in an aerial battle in Austrian skies. Five years later, on June 17, 1923, Count Enrico Baracca, Francesco’s father, witnessed Enzo Ferrari’s victory on the Savio track in Ravenna, at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo. Enrico introduced himself to the victor, and that conversation led to a second meeting, in which Countess Paolina Baracca gave Ferrari the symbol of her son’s plane as a good luck amulet. Enzo accepted the gift and added a canary yellow background – the colour of Modena, his birthplace. It is indeed incredible that Ferrari and Porsche, perhaps the two biggest rivals in the car industry in terms of prestige and number of fans, and also separated by a political border and 700km, share the same Cavallino Rampante in its symbols. Based in Stuttgart, the German brand displays the city’s symbol on the emblem of its cars, the same one that the Baracca family gave to Enzo. Incredible is a euphemism.

In 1933, Alfa Romeo started going through a period of serious financial difficulties, and the only way to stay active in racing was to make the Scuderia Ferrari its official team. Ferrari’s genius as a manager of both man and machine was being refined constantly, and in late 1937, apparently with its finances stable, Alfa Romeo bought Scuderia Ferrari and inaugurated a new department that would centralise sports management, called Alfa Corse.

In little over a decade, Enzo had formed a semi-professional team that encompassed more than 40 drivers, including names that featured in the list of the best in the world, such as Achille Varzi and Tazio Nuvolari. The latter won the most famous race in the early 20th century and the one that would put the Ferrari name on everyone’s lips. On July 28, 1935, Tazio Nuvolari and his Alfa Romeo P3 (Tipo B) from the Scuderia Ferrari aligned for the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring, the longest and most dangerous race track in the world. Since Hitler’s Socialist Party had come to power two years earlier, investment in the sport had grown exponentially, as the Führer saw it as yet another way to demonstrate German supremacy.

Mercedes and Auto Union shared an annual budget of 900,000 marks from the state and brought in four times that figure themselves. The year 1934 saw the birth of the two most advanced racecars in history to date: the Mercedes W125 and the Auto Union Type A V16, the latter designed by Ferdinand Porsche. In front of a crowd of 330,000 spectators, the representatives of the Third Reich were so sure that one of their drivers would win that they didn’t even bother to have the Italian national anthem to hand, which would might be played if Scuderia Ferrari won – it was perhaps the only one that, realistically but unlikely, could challenge them. Halfway through the 22 laps – or of the four hours expected –, Nuvolari suffered a poor pit stop and set off in sixth place, behind Stuck, Faggioli, Rosemeyer, Caracciola and the leader Mercedes W125, driven by Manfred Von Brauchitsch. Two laps later, Nuvolari, who, as accounts of that day say, was “possessed by a demon”, was up to second place, but a minute and a half behind the leader. Going in to the 21st lap, the Flying Mantuan (as he was known for being from the city of Mantua) had already recovered a minute from Mercedes. Von Brauchitsch ended up pushing the German car’s mechanics too much and blew a tire, falling by the wayside. After crossing the finish line, Nuvolari himself handed the organisation a recording of Il Canto degli Italiani so that it would play on the circuit’s speakers. Hitler had lost; Nuvolari and Ferrari had won. The transalpine driver became a legend, and the Ferrari name became a part of the motor racing vocabulary.

In 1939, Enzo and Alfa Romeo came to an agreement to terminate his contract, on the condition that the first couldn’t use the name Scuderia Ferrari, or even just Ferrari, for a period of four years. So Enzo founded Auto Avio Costruzioni (AAC), which produced components for other brands, but the start of the Second World War had a deeply negative impact on the car industry and put a full stop on all sporting events in Italy. It was the premature end of AAC. Just like all the other factories in the country, Enzo had to contribute to the war effort. The years of the conflict were very tough for the country, which had to start from scratch post-war and reinvent itself as an industrially and technologically advanced nation, with an emphasis on design and the fundamental beauty of objects, as we know it today. Contributing to this was a small company based in the town of Maranello, founded in 1974, with the purpose of manufacturing racecars, called Ferrari S.p.A.. That this would eventually become the most famous car make in the world and that it would have a decisive influence on all Western culture, not even Enzo Ferrari could have imagined.

The 125 S, the first Ferrari to be produced, debuted on the Piacenza circuit on May 11, 1947 with Franco Cortese at the wheel. The first victory came just a week later at the Rome Grand Prix, with the same driver. In the following year, Enzo debuted a win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with a 166 MM driven by Luigi Chinetti and Peter Mitchell-Thomson. Chinetti, who came to play a key role in the future of Ferrari as a US importer of the brand, drove for 23 of the 24 hours. The legend began taking shape and, in 1950, Ferrari signed up to a new category called Formula 1, being the only team to take part in all world championships of the premier class of motor racing since its inception. The first victory came at Silverstone in 1951, at the hands of José Froilán Gonzalez, who beat the powerful Alfa Romeo Tipo 159. It is said that Enzo wept when he said, “I killed my mother”.

The first championship title took just another year to arrive at Maranello, and Alberto Ascari and the Scuderia would repeat the achievement 12 months later.

To be able to finance the races and maintain constant development of its racing models, Enzo was forced to start producing cars not only for the track, but also to be used on the road. It was a revolution. Kings, princes, presidents, Hollywood stars and rock gods, such as the Beatles and Elvis Presley, were knocking on Maranello’s door to be seen at the wheel of the most fascinating cars on the planet. Roberto Rossellini even got Ferrari to produce a specific model for his wife, Ingrid Bergman. The 375 MM Speciale, 0402AM chassis, cost the Italian director 4 million lira in 1954 and was painted in the colour Grigio Ingrid, created purposely for that effect. In 2016, what is one of the most stunning Ferraris ever won the most prestigious annual trophy for a classic car, picking up Best of Show at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

Enzo willingly accepted the money of the rich and famous, but he never abandoned his convictions. Dark glasses were ever-present in all meetings with clients, suppliers, press and public, which Ferrari used as a defence mechanism and as a way not to show his feelings in any situation. His signature in purple ink was another trademark. There are also countless quotes that Ferrari-lovers like to reproduce and that reflect Enzo’s approach to his cars and the way he managed the company. “The best Ferrari is the next one”; “Aerodynamics is for those who can’t build engines”; and the most famous of all, “If you can dream it, you can do it”.

Ferrari, the man

On the day that Alberto Ascari lost his life in Monza in a Ferrari 750 Monza (!), Enzo Ferrari received the news by telephone. His first question was: “How is the car?”. His attitude was sometimes misunderstood by those around him, and even more so by those who saw him from afar, but the truth is that Enzo didn’t care. He even refused to go to the Vatican, because it was too far and would disturb his work dynamic in Maranello.

Some of the most famous names in the car industry cut ties with Ferrari because of his temperament. Henry Ford II, because Enzo agreed to sell Ferrari to the American giant and went back on his word at the last minute. Carroll Shelby, because he thought that, by putting drivers against each other to make them faster and more ambitious, Ferrari was responsible for many of their deaths, including some of Shelby’s closest friends, such as Luigi Musso. Ferruccio Lamborghini, because Enzo belittled him. The wealthy tractor manufacturer bought a Ferrari 250 GT to celebrate the success of his company, and on his first trip to Maranello for the annual maintenance, Lamborghini realised that the clutch of the precious Cavallino was the same as that of his tractors. He immediately requested a meeting with Enzo Ferrari demanding a new piece – to which Enzo answered that someone who makes tractors doesn’t know anything about sports cars. Ferruccio spat on the floor, turned his back and in four months he presented the 3500 GTV, the first Lamborghini in history. In other words, the Lamborghini we know is a manufacture of cars, not of tractors, and we can thank Enzo Ferrari for that.

In 1969, aged 71, Ferrari made one of the most difficult decisions of his life: to sell 50% of the company to FIAT. The reason was simple: Scuderia was involved in more and more races, more categories, and the necessary capital to compete at the highest level started to become too much for such a small firm. Besides that, legislation regarding road models was becoming tighter, naturally, which increased development costs. However, Ferrari added a binding condition: the control of the racing team and all the decisions relating to cars and drivers would remain in his control.

Enzo Ferrari never took holidays and went to the office at the Maranello factory every day. Even if it was a Saturday or a Sunday, and the family had all gone together to the holiday home in Viserba, on the Adriatic, Enzo could be seen at the factory until the end of the day. This obsession, this absolute passion for cars and competition was what generated the very unique aura around the Ferrari name – be it the man himself or his cars.

The Ferrari legacy

On the 30th anniversary of his death, the legend of Enzo Ferrari comprises 234 F1 victories, 15 Drivers’ Championships, 16 Constructors’ Titles, 219 pole positions and 246 fastest laps, numbers that make the Scuderia the most successful F1 team in the history of motorsport.

Adding to that are the nine 24 Hours of Le Mans victories and seven titles in the first nine World Endurance Championships. Every week, a Ferrari wins a race somewhere, however remote the track, wherever there is an official race. And it’s rare for a driver not to say that their dream is to drive for Ferrari and be part of a lineage without equal, which, besides those previously mentioned, includes Juan Manuel Fangio, John Surtees, Phil Hill, Niki Lauda, Gilles Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher and that boy that Michael took under his wing as a child and who always told him his life’s dream was to be a Formula 1 driver for the Scuderia. His name is Sebastian Vettel.

Every week, a Ferrari also breaks some sort of record at the most prestigious auctions the world over; be it a LaFerrari Aperta, the most advanced road Ferrari ever, or a 250 GTO, the most valuable vehicle ever made. In 2017, a collector decided to spend $72 million on the only known 250 GTO to never have had even the slightest accident. It’s not a typo: it was really $72 million spent on a car that, in all rational aspects, is less capable than a Volkswagen Golf GTI. But of course, there are many more iconic models that adorn bedroom walls or are the wallpaper on computers and smartphones of the tifosi (the Italian word for supporters) the world over. A Ferrari painted in Rosso Corsa, the most famous colour in the car world, is an integral element of the visual culture of the 20th and 21st centuries, recognisable by old and young everywhere, by those who can buy one and by those who can only dream. The passion for Enzo’s creations seems to have no end.

Enzo Ferrari died 30 years ago, on August 18, 1988, but his spirit is alive in each unit that leaves the Maranello production line. Ferrari is constantly considered the best company to work for in Italy, something almost inexplainable for a factory with an office building and a test track on the side, receiving thousands of spontaneous job applications every month. Kings, princes, presidents, Hollywood stars and rock gods, such as Eric Claption, continue to knock on Maranello’s door. Mr. Slowhand even has a one-of-a-kind model with his name, the SP12 EC, which cost something in the region of $4 million. Everything changes, but some things still say the same.

The distinctive values of a Ferrari and Enzo’s passion for his cars and for racing are passed down from parents to children, as something almost sacred that is absolutely necessary to preserve. Over time, the Ferrari brand broke away from the limits of the auto spectrum and became a part of a unique collective imagination that is impossible to replicate. And it’s not like many haven’t tried or continue to try.

Enzo Ferrari marked the history of Italy and the European resurgence post-war. His name became larger than the man, larger than life, and the brand he founded became an icon that is the symbol and pride of a country that values beauty, romance and the pleasure of being alive like no other. Enzo Ferrari did nothing more than mix these three ingredients and add four wheels. Grazie Mille, Commendatore.