Postcard from Maranello: a Ferrari factory visit

Our Ferrari host looked sheepish as we arrived at the gate of the Scaglietti body plant, on the first part of our works tour. “The men, they are on strike!” The faces of the assembled journalists fell. “They will not work for another 20 minutes. Most of our strikes last one half-hour, you see.” In response to the raised eyebrows of his British visitors, Ingenieri Catanzano added “I think we export strikes to Britain, but you make a bigger job of them!”

It became obvious that Catanzano, who is Head of Production at Ferrari, spends as much time in the works as in the office; although there was an interpreter present, he conducted the entire tour himself, and in English. We started at Scaglietti, which is in a suburb of Modena some 17 km. from the main factory at Maranello, and where sheet steel is first turned into recognisable panels. Catanzano is obviously very concerned with production standards, and proud of the elaborate steps taken to combat corrosion. Being aware that in past years the engineering quality was not always matched by finish and longevity, Ferrari now have four quality control stations in the body plant, and should a fault be found, the line is stopped while it is investigated. Corrosion problems between steel outer panels and aluminium inners are avoided by inserting a separating compound, and in certain places, such as door mounts and behind the front valance, a sacrificial zinc foil will slowly corrode in preference to the steel.

Watching the panels being hand-welded together in elaborate jigs and then wheeled to the next station to have the doors, bonnet and boot offered up brings home just what a small and flexible operation this is. Originally, the 308 had a glass-fibre body, but the change to steel was relatively simple. The current 208 (a 2-litre Turbo for the home market only) uses carbon-fibre lower panels, while the Boxer body is all aluminium, excepting the roof, with internal elements of GRP.

Another material will shortly be added to the range — a non-rusting steel sandwich called “Zincrox”. The first cars built with it will be appearing before the end of the year, and will be able to dispense with much labour-intensive internal protection.

Before being declared ready, every body-shell is coated with a high-gloss oil which shows up any blemishes. Once the panels have been perfectly aligned, any concave joints are leaded in traditional coachbuilding fashion, although recent techniques have brought the amount of lead down to 100 grammes on a Mondial. A total of ten bodies leave here a day, with 208s predominating over 308, Mondial and Boxer, while one 400i shell every day arrives at Maranello direct from Pininfarina.

At Maranello the scale is much greater: a large foundry building, an assembly block which looks capacious enough to be handling Fiats rather than Ferraris, paint shop, stores department, pre-delivery inspection and rectification shop, the usual offices, and the recently vacated racing department. Until a few months ago this was housed in a rather quaint building with a clerestory roof of red tiles. With the completion of the Fiorano complex directly across the road, it has moved to more sophisticated quarters opening onto the elaborately equipped testing circuit, where a series of fourteen cameras shows the progress of a car around the circuit on a bank of monitors in the control-room, while numerous sensors record and analyse speeds at three and sometimes four points in a single corner. Interestingly, the tape records of F1 testing show that, while Arnoux and Tambay achieve very similar times overall, they can be very different through a particular corner, reversing the advantage at the next. Fiorano and Maranello (actually two small villages) are separated by a busy road, but if you are not in a hurry to pass from one to the other, you can pause at the little corner trattoria which lies temptingly between the two. And you are still on the premises, for this, too, is a Ferrari facility. . . .

One of the factors which gives Ferrari an advantage as a racing team is that their extensive foundry can cast any new components quickly, relatively cheaply — and in secrecy. (Although the Fiorano track is alongside a public road, hedges and fences make it very difficult to see into.) In addition, Maranello is called on to produce small quantities of specialist items for the Fiat group who now own the company; during our visit a stack of cylinder-heads marked “Lancia” was to be seen, destined for the Group C cars. This is one of the few indications that Ferrari is anything other than an independent company, as the Fiat board take no part in the running or policy of the firm. On the other hand, laboratories and wind-runnel facilities are available to the smaller company, and Ferrari executives profess themselves very happy with the arrangement.

Within the assembly plant, the “lines” only extend to holding four or five cars at a time, and there is not a robot to be seen. The nearest thing is a complex automatic milling machine which turns rough castings into finished cylinder-heads eight at a time, but Ing Catanzano was equally quick to demonstrate the next step: a pair of skilled hands tapping in the valve-guides and gauging by the sound whether they were properly seated. “This”, he exclaimed, “this is the true Ferrari!” Certainly, the transformation of an assortment of castings in cardboard boxes into the famous V12 engine proved of compulsive interest to the British visitors, who eyed the completed units with art-gallery reverence. Not so the engine technicians, who remove every motor to the test-rooms and turn it over electrically for an hour to ensure its smoothness. One in ten units is fired up and tested for peak revs and power, and if it should show a fault, the whole batch is checked. The claim is that a Ferrari engine will run for at least 100,000 kms. with only routine maintenance.

Before starting the assembly process, the bodyshells go to the paint-shop, where they are treated to the same sort of electrophoretic primer used by most major manufacturers, and are then carried on the overhead conveyer through the spray booths. This work is done by hand, and makes a fascinating sight through the glass walls of the booth. In order to protect the finished paintwork, a porous transparent plastic is applied like cling-film to the bodies before they go to the assembly and trim lines, and is not removed until the pre-delivery inspection.

Once in the main building, the individual sub-assemblies come together on an elevated line which handles any and all of the various models, front or mid-engined, eight or 12 cylinders. (The V8 in fact accounts for 80% of cars sold.) Once the car is mechanically complete, it has arrived at a corner of the main building which is immediately identifiable by its smell as the trim department. Connolly hides are now used, which are sewn on rather well-worn machines, and whose traditional feel conceals the most modern self-skinning polyurethane cushions. From here only some external trim details remain to be affixed, and then the cars are driven to a covered parking area to await inspection. In the strong sunlight, it is easier to believe that these rows of gleaming, spotless, and mainly red Ferraris are toys rather than the real thing, except that each one displays the sticker it has carried throughout the factory showing which country and dealer it is destined for.

The inspection room itself is lofty and bright, so that after the cars have been buffed up, any imperfections inside or out can be found. The fitment of polystyrene packing pieces is all that remains now before the cars are rolled out to await shipment.

About 3,000 Ferraris a year are sold, a quota which Squazzini maintains is ideal for the market, and which he intends to continue. The average buyer seems to be a 35-year-old company director, and, says Squazzini, he is not buying just a fast car, but a whole concept — performance, quality, and the legend. For this reason there will not be any economy Ferraris. What we will see is a very high performance version of one of the existing cars, and in perhaps two years a four-door, although the company would not be drawn on whether it will look like the Pinin styling exercise.

In the meanwhile, potential owners who enjoy carrying three passengers in the fresh air can look forward to autumn. .  GC.