Rumble Seat | OPINION: Rumble Seat | Indy Week
Pin It

Rumble Seat 

Though he died in 1988 at the age of 90, Enzo Ferrari had long since been taken up into the misty afterrealm of legend. In the last years of his life, he was a virtual recluse in his hometown of Modena, Italy. Sightings of the revered Grande Constructore were rare, audiences almost unheard of.

Pilgrims to Maranello--the village near Modena where the company is headquartered and to which Ferrari brought so many racing world championships--would wait for hours just to catch a glimpse of their hero as he was chauffeured through the gates. Look! Ferrari!

As a consequence of this spectral existence, when Ferrari died, he never really went away. Today his picture is enshrined in the city's garages, laundries and restaurants. He remains very much in the present tense.

The cars are immortal, too, with names like holy script: 275 Spyder, 250GTSWB, 340MM, 365 GTB/4. They are masterpieces of automotive aesthetics, the perfect union of art and hot-rod engineering. While a modern-day Ferrari 360 may fetch $154,000, vintage Ferraris routinely sell for millions.

The racing record will also live forever. Under Enzo Ferrari, the company won more than 5,000 races and collected 25 world titles in Formula 1, endurance and sports-car racing from 1947 to 1988.

But the man behind it all was not an easy person to understand, as Ferrari's many biographers have discovered. In private, among his carousing male confidantes and carousel of mistresses, Ferrari was a rowdy paesano, an old-world gallant, a new-world captain of industry, a charming white-haired don. It's probably fair to say that no one knew the whole man well, only pieces of him.

Enzo Anselmo Ferrari was born in Modena to a middle-class machinist in the winter of 1898. He was a poor student, and after his father died, he dropped out of school to become a machinist. During World War I, he was a farrier, shoeing mules for the Italian army.

As a young man, he became interested in racing and showed promise as a pilote, or driver. His racing debut came in the 1919 Parma-Berceto race. He entered the famous Targa Florio race that same year. In 1920, Ferrari went to work for the Alfa Romeo company in Milan. Over time, the ambitious and hard-working Ferrari rose from test driver to race driver and finally to the post of director of the Alfa racing division.

In 1929 he founded his own race shop, the Scuderia Ferrari in Modena, which became the official racing division of Alfa Romeo in 1933.

During World War II, the Ferrari workshop--then independent of Alfa Romeo--moved from Modena to Maranello and made grinding machines for ball bearings. The workshop was bombed out in 1944 and rebuilt in 1946, the year in which it started designing and building the very first Ferrari.

Through it all, the man was inscrutable: by turns reasonable and tyrannical, boorish and sophisticated, workaholic and philanderer. So compartmentalized was Ferrari's psyche that he managed to maintain a mistress and an illegitimate son--an entire second family--for decades.

It would be easy to dismiss Ferrari as merely a fraudulent and insincere man. But it ran much deeper. He was an indifferent father to his legitimate son, Dino, rarely spending time with the boy, who was cursed with ill health from an early age. But when Dino died in 1956 at the age of 24, Ferrari was thrown into paroxysms of mourning so profound that friends feared for his sanity.

After Dino's death, Ferrari grew even more enigmatic, his heavy-lidded eyes often shuttered by trademark dark glasses. In a postwar Italy that saw racing as a path to restored national dignity, Ferrari was regarded as a demigod, and like Elizabeth the Virgin Queen, he played to the deification, assuming an aura increasingly grand, remote and iconic.

It's no accident that Ferrari was called the "Pope of the North."

He was full of such contradictions. Ferrari himself never designed a car. The sensuous sheetmetal that bore his name came from carrozzeri, design studios like Pininfarina, Bertone, Scaglietti. He carried the title ingenere, yet he couldn't do calculus and never designed or built an engine, having only a brief trade-school education. Ferrari is generally regarded as a pioneer in sports-car technology, yet he dragged his feet for years on such advances as mid-engine packaging, disc brakes and monocoque bodies. The most famous name in sports cars commuted to work in the back of a Fiat sedan.

How did this peculiarly ungifted man become one of the most honored figures in the world of automobiles? In his own phrase, he was a great "agitator of men," constantly whipping up intrigues, jealousy and competition among all who served him in a management style reminiscent of the Borgias. He saw such conflict as the short route to higher performance in Formula 1.

Perhaps in the singular nature of auto racing, Ferrari found refuge from his divided self. Winning may have been a salve for his feelings of inferiority. He admitted in his memoirs--tellingly titled My Terrible Joys--he never felt as if he had quite shaken the lower-caste dust from his feet. It certainly wasn't for the thrill of being trackside. Ferrari didn't attend a race for the last 30 years of his life.

But he is always there. On any given race Sunday, whether in Monaco or Silverstone or any other place the Formula 1 circus lands, the stands are swamped with red flags bearing the Prancing Horse escutcheon. Over the shriek of engines comes the chant, "Ferrari, Ferrari!"

No one wants to say good bye.

Latest in OPINION: Rumble Seat

More by Dan Neil


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in OPINION: Rumble Seat

Twitter Activity


Most Read

No recently-read stories.

Visit the archives…

© 2016 Indy Week • 201 W. Main St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation