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The Ins and Outs of Italian Iron: Remembering Enzo Ferrari

Auto racing began 5 minutes after the second car was built.” – Henry Ford

“Racing is a great mania to which one must sacrifice everything, without reticence, without hesitation” — Enzo Ferrari

Before Enzo Ferrari

Although engineers had been tinkering with mechanical locomotion for decades, the first gas-engine automobile was built and tested in 1879 by the inventor Karl Benz. At the time, it was a novelty device, built more like a cross between a giant tricycle and a racing carriage than a modern car. But the possibility of the automobile caught the imagination of the world.

Seventeen years later, the young Irish emigrant Henry Ford was working as the chief engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit, when he pitched his idea for the Ford Quadricycle to the Edison executive board and Thomas Edison himself. Several designs, numerous races, one land speed record (91.3mph), and two bankrupt companies later, Henry Ford was on track for the mass-production of the Model T by 1908.

In many ways, it was not Ford’s engineering genius, but his persistence through devastating losses and against-all-odds successes that would set the tone for a passionate and volatile industry. Today, the Ferrari company is worth roughly $3.8 billion, and hosts the most successful Formula One racing team in history. Ferrari is a symbol of status, luxury, and speed—but the world’s most famous sports car manufacturer was built from nothing but passion, and the brand has survived incredible losses as well as incredible gains. Here’s a peek into Ferrari history.

Enzo Ferrari

In the same year that Ford released the Model T, a 10-year-old Enzo Anselmo Guiseppe Maria Ferrari witnessed the Circuito di Bologna, a grueling car race that required 10 circuits around a treacherously curved 52 mile track. The race was incredibly challenging. Three cars ended the race in steep ditches, and the final win went to Felice Nazarro, driving a prototype Fiat that averaged an incredible 75mph. Nazarro’s win secured funding for the brand and infected young Enzo Ferrari with a lifelong case of racing fever.

Ten years later saw the close of WWI. Enzo’s father and older brother had been lost in the 1916 flu epidemic, the family business was in ruins, and Enzo was serving in the Italian Army. During the fighting, he befriended the ace Italian fighter pilot Francesco Baracca, who gave Enzo a necklace with a pendant shaped like a prancing horse as a good-luck charm, shortly before Baracca’s plane was fatally shot down by the Austrian airforce. Later that year, Enzo himself was invalided out; taking the pendant with him, young Enzo Ferrari began the transition back to civilian life.

With no family business to return to, Enzo decided to follow his passion into the auto industry. At first, Enzo volunteered to work for Fiat, but they turned him away, and he eventually landed a job test driving for the Milan-based company Construzioni Meccaniche Nazionali, which was known for recycling truck bodies into passenger cars. He began racing for CMN in 1919, then transferred to Alfa Romeo in 1920.

Enzo won the Coppa Acerbo in 1924, but spent his time engineering as much as racing, and after the world-class Alpha Romeo driver Antonio Ascari was killed while racing in 1925, Ferrari gradually transitioned from racing to management and the development of the Alfa Romeo brand. During this period, Enzo began using Baracca’s prancing horse as a symbol on the Alfa Romeo cars and put together a team of champion racers called Scuderia Ferrari (“Ferrari’s Stable”). For a few years, he was living the dream—cutting-edge race cars, incredible drivers, a position where he could fully express his passion for race cars—but the golden years didn’t last.

Due to financial constraints and contract disputes, Alfa Romeo dissolved the team, and Enzo left Alfa Romeo in 1937, just before the onset of WWII. He bounced back quickly, founding his own auto part manufacturing company, but was soon was forced into wartime production by the fascist government. After his factory was bombed by Allied planes in 1944 and again in 1955, Enzo’s inventory was almost completely destroyed. That year, he moved to a different part of Italy and, once again, started from scratch.

Enzo founded Ferrari S.p.A. in 1947, the first year in which he used the now-famous Ferrari shield, and immediately returned to full-scale automobile production and racing, launching his own team under the old Scuderia Ferrari name. They debuted in 1948, won Le Mans in 1949, and have participated in the Formula 1 World Championship every year since 1950. Alberto Ascari (son of Antonio Ascari) landed Scuderia Ferrari the Formula One Championship in 1952 and again in 1953. But even a winning racing team is unbelievably expensive to maintain, and that year Enzo made the decision to subsidize Scuderia Ferrari by selling high-end sports cars to private individuals. And so, history was made.

But while the Scuderia Ferrari’s winning streak continued, the team and the brand suffered a series of devastating setbacks. Alberto Ascari was killed while test-driving the Ferrari 750 Monza in 1955. In 1956, Enzo’s eldest son Dino died of muscular dystrophy. And in 1957, Eugenio Castellotti was killed test-driving a Ferrari Grand Prix car; later that year, Ferrari driver Alfonso de Portago was racing in the Mille Miglia, when he blew a tire at 155mph and spun into the crowd, instantly killing himself, his co-driver, and nine spectators. The manslaughter charges against Ferrari and the tire manufacturer were eventually dropped in 1961, but in 1962 Enzo’s autocratic, fiercely competitive management style inspired a mass walkout, that included his chief engineer, manager, sales manager, sports car development chief, and two champion racecar drivers. The defecting figures founded Automobili Turismo e Sport (ATS), but failed to recreate Ferrari’s magic. While Ferrari went on to produce the highly successful Dino road cars (named after his son), as well as the Daytona and 275 racers, ATS folded within five years.

Bonus Factoid: Did you ever wonder why Ferraris are red? In the 1960s, the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (precursor to the modern FIA), mandated that all racecars be colored by country of origin. Italian Rosso Corsa, British Racing Green, Bleu de France, and German Silver Arrows all descend from this mid-century mandate.

The triumphs and the tragedies kept coming, Scuderia Ferrari captured three Formula One victories between 1956-1961 and won Le Mans six times in a row from 1960-1965, but the cost for the Ferrari racers was very high. In 1958 Luigi Musso was killed during the French Grand Prix, and Peter Collins during the German Grand Prix. In 1961, Formula One leader Wolfgang von Trips struck another car and spun fatally into the fence, killing himself instantly; and in 1967, Lorenzo Bandini lost control at the Monaco Grand Prix, resulting a crash that exploded the fuel tank. Auto racing is a notoriously dangerous sport, and Ferrari’s high death toll was comparable to that of other racing teams, but at the time, an Italian newspaper compared Enzo Ferrari to the Titan Saturn, a god who consumes his own sons.

And the mid-‘60s brought their own troubles. In spite of his successful sales division and ongoing wins in numerous categories, Enzo ran into financial difficulties while struggling to meet new safety and emissions requirements for a wide variety of racing and road vehicles. He initially offered Ford the chance to buy 50% of the brand for $18 million, but they refused to grant him complete and independent control of the racing division, so he rejected their offer and turned to the company that first inspired his love of racing. Enzo gradually sold Fiat a 50% interest in Ferrari between 1965 and 1969. Yet his decision to focus specifically on racing did no pay the dividends that he had hoped. During the same years, the competition in the racing world really stepped up, and Ferrari started to lose its domination of the Formula One scene—after three victories in the 1970s, the team fell into a serious slump.

Enzo tried to recover using new turbo engines, but lost champion driver Gilles Villenueve to an accident just before the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982, and nearly lost Didier Pironi to another spectacular crash at Hockenheim in 1983. That year, Scuderia Ferrari won the Constructors Championship for the last time before Ferrari’s death in 1988. But in fitting tribute, Scuderia Ferrari finished first and second at the Italian Grand Prix, just weeks after his funeral.

For his contributions to the nation, Enzo Ferrari was made a Cavliere del Lavoro in 1952; for his contribution to the sport, he won the Hammarskjöld prize in 1962, the Columbus Prize in 1966, and the De Gasperi Award in 1987. Even after his death, the honors and recognitions kept coming. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994, and the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2000. Over the course of a lifetime, Enzo Ferrari acquired many names—he was “Il Commendatore” (“The Commander”) on the track, “L’Ingegnere” (“The Engineer”) in the garage, and “Il Grande Vecchio” (“The Grand Old Man”) in his final years (and, of course, he earned any number of unprintable names from his various drivers, engineers, and rivals).

Bonus Factoid: Some of the most incredible sportscars in the world were designed by men who were furious with Enzo Ferrari. Italian tractor magnet Ferruci Lamborghini didn’t like the clutch on his new Ferrari, and when he complained, Enzo called him a farm equipment merchant, and sent him away. Lamborghini decided that he could do better, and launched Automobil Lamborghini S.p.A in 1963. In the same decade, after Ferrari refused to sell his shares to Ford, Henry Ford II and his team of engineers promptly went to work on the Ford GT40, which debuted in 1964, broke Ferrari’s winning streak at Le Mans in 1966, and broke it again in 1967, 1968, and 1969.

Enzo Ferrari’s automotive legacy lives on, as well. The final road car built during Enzo’s lifetime was the famous Ferrari F40, which is still considered a classic. And the most expensive car in the world remains the Ferrari 250 GTO, which sold for $52 million in 2013.

In 2002, Ferrari also launched a limited 400-car run of the tribute sportscar Enzo Ferrari, a 2-door, 6-speed, 651hp berlinetta with a 6.0L Tipo F140 B V12 engine. In every line, a fitting epitaph carved in steel; the entire run of cars was sold before the final manufacturing was complete.

How do you measure a life like Enzo Ferrari’s? In dollars and titles? In blood and fire? In steel and gold?

Enzo Ferrari was rejected, fired, conscripted, bombed…and he lives on in legend.

As we’re coming up on the fourth Grand Prix of this Formula One season, take a moment to tip a hat to Enzo Ferrari.

What failures inspire you?

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1 comment

  • Wow! I never imagined the high pressure and drama in the world of Ferrari. Thanks for the great summary.

    Louise McDade

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