If Enzo Ferrari had been born today, could he have created the marque, and the legend, that Ferrari is now? Post-war Italy, a war-shattered country seething with suspicion bred in Fascism and occupation, was an unpromising seed-bed for a new, ambitious enterprise. When he founded his company Ferrari was approaching his sixth decade. He was not rich. Who would back that man at that time?
Ferrari evinced no doubts. He had talked himself into opportunities all his life, even persuading Alfa Romeo to hand him the reins of its racing team. He had a conviction and a presence about him that ploughed through objections. He knew he was right. He convinced a local bank to back his new firm, and he went straight for the top. Obsessed by Grand Prix racing, he wanted only to win. And he needed control, no discussions or permissions – which meant controlling his own finances. In that pre-sponsorship era you had to create cash sources; and who has money? Rich people. Sell them something desirable and you have a business.
Ferrari sold them something desirable. He sold them beautiful, fast, exciting cars whose cousins won races. With a clean sheet to build on he could ignore the bread and butter market, cross-pollinating his wailing V12 racers with luxuriously finished road cars built in the same way on similar underpinnings. He hit the ground running, a 166 winning the first postwar Targa Florio in 1948, and that year he sent two 166 coupés to the Turin show. They were a sensation, and the message was clear: these aren’t for everyone, but everyone will want one.
That Targa winner was owned by wealthy playboy Prince Igor Troubetzkoy, and it set the pattern: as long as Ferrari cars won races, there would be rich customers to fund more racing. This model worked in the days of simple technology; engines were engines – just down tune for the road – and chassis were chassis, simple and tough. To cap it all, the local tradition of hand-built coachwork meant his cars could be gorgeously clothed by Scaglietti or Pinin Farina to customer choice. Giannini Marzotto, one of Ferrari‘s faithful, described ordering his car as like having a suit tailor-made, with Ferrari‘s personal attention. Film director Roberto Rosselini, Domenican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli – these early clients set the bar for glamour, and Enzo relished their company.
And as if the fledgling company needed any assistance to take off, there was Luigi Chinetti in New York, convinced he could sell the new marque into a circle of well-off Americans. What more proof of his perfect position than him self winning the 1948 Le Mans in a 166? Later his NART team would give Ferrari a trans-Atlantic quasi-works equipe. The USA would be crucial to the marque’s success, yet it wasn’t Ferrari’s vision but Chinetti’s ambition that drove this market. Focused on his racing, and with cars seemingly selling themselves to European wealthy, Ferrari needed that nudge to raise his sights. For example, 1950 was a good year. Victories in the Mille Miglia, Le Mans and Targa Florio had pole vaulted Ferrari to the top of the heap. Eager competitors lined up to buy such competitive machinery – yet the firm built only 26 cars that year. It was an imbalance that would continue to dog the company – always the need to build more road cars, but always that dichotomy between hand-built and mass-production.
Indeed, Enzo said: “I should like to put something new into my cars every morning. Were my wishes to be indulged there would be no standard models, but only a succession of prototypes.” It was a principle that worked for the racing sports cars – there was always a new model for Le Mans, Carrera Panamericana, or Sebring, permed from the Maranello kit of parts or built one-off- but no modern business manager would wear it.
Enzo, though, worked a different way, not to an obvious strategy but reactively, issuing orders from his den, changing course, wrong-footing his team. Divide and rule. When the inevitable problems or failures occurred, instead of backing off, Ferrari pushed on through – in business as well as on the track, the equivalent of a Pedro Rodriguez keeping his right foot down through impossible angles of lock. Buoyed by limitless self-belief, ‘II Commendatore’ always seemed to recover, his greatest weapon the threat of baling out, whether arguing over start money, contesting his cars’ eligibility or battling the sporting rulebook. Without Ferrari a race, a class, a series was not complete. The same for business: a contract with Ferrari had prestige, so you agreed his terms.
And if the F1 cars weren’t winning, the sports cars, works or privateer, usually were, polishing the marque’s showroom lustre. How crucial sports car success, and consequent road car sales, was to the enterprise became painfully obvious in 1963 when John Surtees joined; expecting to focus on winning Grands Prix, he found himself obliged to concentrate (successfully) on sports cars because winning there brought income, either directly from outside teams buying cars to race, or through the showroom. “At Ferrari in those days you started with a handicap”, Surtees said. “Until Le Mans was over you couldn’t really do the work you wanted to do – and needed to do – in Formula 1.” He battled to the 1964 championship, but when conflict erupted with team manager Dragoni, the Old Man as normal stood back as his champion walked out. Conciliation was never his way; witness the ‘palace revolution’ of 1961 when half a dozen senior people departed. “Let them go,” he seemed to say. “Everyone wants to work for Ferrari…” Whether fixing deals, signing drivers or swapping posts around, he got his way with bullying charm – or he walked away.
But by the Sixties, two decades of attacking his way through crises was taking its toll. By force of will Enzo had created the most famous sporting marque of all. People wanted his cars, but as yearly production crept up from 300 cars in 1960, he on his own could not turn this desire into better cash flow. He was slowing down; the home economy was struggling. He needed a major partner – and Ford wanted a ‘halo brand’. Negotiations were awkward, held on Ferrari’s home turf, a clutch of Ford executives debating through translators with a domineering man who had never had to argue his decisions. The offer was 18 million much-needed dollars – but when he realised Dearborn would hold the racing purse strings he strolled out.
Another grand gesture; but even by 1969 with 1000 cars built, the cash supply remained inadequate. It showed on the track: that was a miserable F1 year. It was time to allow someone the honour of proffering assistance – Italy’s most significant industrial combine, Fiat. Building enough of the small V6 Dino engine to go F2 racing had been contracted to Fiat in 1965, establishing a bridgehead; next Enzo launched the Dino Ferrari in 1966. It was supremely successful, offering an ‘affordable’ Ferrari (minus the badge) without diluting the allure of the big V12s. Now head of Fiat, Gianni Agnelli, younger and maybe shrewder than Enzo, had been an early Ferrari client, which eased negotiations as the Old Man signed away the road car division and his post as MD while retaining full control of the racing department. Just what he wanted.
Aided by a new test track at Fiorano where Enzo immured himself in his darkened office, cultivating mystery, the F1 results returned – for a while. Yet age was affecting the man at the centre; he was no longer on top of everything as once he had been, and in 1971 he stepped down as president of the firm. His lieutenants, with their own agendas, were afraid to give him bad news, and the team struggled through yet another of the marque’s regular droughts. It would not be Enzo but talented engineer Mauro Forghieri and future president Luca di Montezemolo – plus Niki Lauda – who reinvigorated the team and in 1975 brought the F1 title back to Maranello. But Enzo, now in his seventies, no longer ‘was Ferrari’. With Fiat at the helm (paying to use Ferrari’s production facilities), the road cars were better vehicles but did not contain Enzo’s spirit. Until 1987, 40th anniversary of Ferrari, when the Ingeniere himself inspired the raw, aggressive 200mph F40. Once again a road Ferrari felt like a race Ferrari. It was his last grand gesture. Enzo Ferrari died in 1988.
He had held his firm together with his passion and intensity, driving people hard but inspiring the sort of loyalty that saw his employees prepared to stay late or work all night on a racing car. Working for Ferrari was a privilege, and ‘Il Commendatore’ frequently helped quietly with hospital or education needs. But while he looked after his workers, he did not profess attachment to most of his drivers. There were favourites, but not friends. A weekend fatality was simply not discussed on Monday morning.
Perhaps the death of his beloved son Dino in 1956 hardened his shell? Yes, Ferrari made misjudgements: fending off technical advances, upsetting Stirling Moss and Surtees, allowing his wife to interfere and cause tensions that led to that ‘palace walkout’, transferring skilled engineer Forghieri away from the racing unit. Without the Lancia handover of 1955 the marque, at that point flagging in Grands Prix, might have joined vanished exotics such as Bugatti or Pegaso. But then Ferrari had the knack of harvesting luck from all quarters, and if perhaps he substituted determination for foresight, it carried him to greatness.
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