The Factory – Time and emotion at Maranello

Ferrari’s famous home has undergone several fundamental shifts recently, in terms of structure and practices. But, as Colin Goodwin discovers, these have not been entirely at the expense of tradition

It had to be a small Fiat. Tradition dictated it. In all the stories I read in car magazines during the 1970s, the journalists visiting Ferrari always drove a hired Fiat. So on my first trip to Maranello in the early ’90s
I flew in from Heathrow and collected an Uno from Hertz. To have hired a Fiesta would have been very wrong.

It takes no more than half an hour on the autostrada to reach the Modena Sud exit, where almost immediately you see the first signs to Maranello. Those journalists who came years before me, arriving on the late-evening flight, would have taken the Via Emilia to Modena and booked into the Hotel Real Fini. I would eventually stay at the Fini for the launch of the Ferrari F355 – and for the 360 Modena – but on that first visit I wound my way through the villages, following the blue signs for Maranello, and instead stayed at the Hotel Europa in Maranello, a dull place with none of the history of the Real Fini. Drivers used to stay at the Fini. Some even lived there between races, running up a tab that would be settled on their return with start money – or, if they were lucky, their winnings. The skint drivers lived in vans in Maserati’s car park, just down the road. The Europa, however, at least put me on Ferrari’s doorstep.

The first drive in a Ferrari is a momentous occasion. The romance of turning on the ignition and letting the electric fuel pumps whir for several seconds before squeezing the throttle pedal a few times was history by the time I drove mine, replaced by fuel injection and computer mapping controls – but the lump in the throat was still there. Even this emotional moment, however, didn’t have the sense of occasion as driving slowly along the Via Abetone and glancing right to catch my first glimpse of the famous entrance to the factory. 

There is hardly a book about Ferrari which does not include a photo of the arch that lies beyond the entrance gates. It’s a trademark almost as famous as the Prancing Horse. To remove it would be like knocking down the Arc de Triomphe: absolutely unthinkable. In the early days there was no sign above the arch, but from the early 1960s yellow letters spelled out the company name. There have been other (detail) changes over the years – windows added, others removed – but otherwise it looks pretty much as it always has. Presumably it’s protected as a historic monument. It certainly should be, because it’s one of the few remaining visual links to the beginnings of Ferrari. Even since my last visit a couple of years ago the factory has changed almost beyond recognition.

This time I stayed at the brand-new Maranello Palace instead of the Hotel Europa or grander Fini. I would never have found the place on my own; even the chauffeur sent by Ferrari to collect us from the airport struggled. It’s a comfortable hotel. There are photos on its walls of ‘Sharknose’ 156s, of drivers and of Ferrari events, but there’s no sense of real history, no imagining that Surtees, Lauda, Scheckter or Villeneuve might have checked into the same room. No doubt in 20 years time middle-aged journalists will check into the Palace and remember with misty eyes their first trip to Maranello, the drive from the airport in the back of a Lancia, etc.

The Via Abetone is busier than it was even 15 years ago, and it would be all too easy to make the ultimate tifosi sacrifice: get knocked flat by a speeding Punto opposite the factory gates. But it’s dodgy for the driver, too. The most nervous I have ever been in a car was edging a new 456GT out of the gates and onto the main road. There are traffic lights now, so it would take an infringement of Latin lunatic proportion to total a Ferrari with its tail still on the premises.

When you come to collect a car from Ferrari, or arrive on any other business, you go to the office on the right just before the arch. Today it’s a large open area with displays of photographs and sometimes an F1 engine on a stand in the foyer: very smart. It used to be much simpler: a security guard would take your passport and direct you to one of several waiting rooms. And that’s how it was in the 1960s, too, when customers such as David Piper would arrive to strike a deal with the Old Man.

“Maranello could be absolutely freezing cold in the winter,” recalls this gentleman racer. “I remember sitting shivering in one of the waiting rooms awaiting a summons to see the Old Man. Chief racing engineer Mauro Forghieri walked past and I said, ‘Christ, Mauro, it’s bloody freezing in here!’ He told me the heating was off to save money. Ferrari was often short of cash in the ’60s.

“Ferrari was pretty feudal in those days. Even if you had an appointment and were a good customer there was a lot of waiting around in pretty basic surroundings. It wasn’t comfortable like it is today.”

If you walk under the arch and turn left you are in front of Enzo’s office. A man of simple tastes – he had a desk and just a couple of chairs – but complex relationships, he no doubt understood the psychological effect of these stark surroundings on drivers when negotiating their fees.

“Ferrari would be in his office, occasionally getting up to have a look out of the window in case a driver was hanging about with a pretty blonde,” continues Piper. “There were no women working at the factory because Enzo thought it would put the workers off. I can remember only one.”

Brenda Vernor came to Italy from England as an au pair but ended up working for Enzo. There are retired workers all round Maranello and Modena who can remember what it was like at Ferrari in the old days, but there are very few who knew the drivers and Enzo as well as Vernor. She made travel arrangements for the drivers, washed their overalls and was a mixture of matron and mate.

“When I started at Ferrari in the early 1970s the factory was exactly the same as it was at the beginning,” says Vernor. “Ferrari wasn’t interested in image or flash trimmings, he just wanted the place to work properly. His life was pretty simple, too. First, he’d go to the barbers in Modena and then to the cemetery to visit his son Dino’s grave. From there he’d go to the assistenza [the office] in the Via Trento Trieste. At 11am he’d arrive at the office in Maranello, and at 1-1.30pm he would go over to the circuit for lunch. He’d stay at his office in Maranello before leaving for home in Modena at about 7.30-8pm. That was his routine.”

Today, if you stand in front of Enzo’s old office and scan your eyes to the right you spot a gap in the building where a new entrance has been added, but in the old days Ferrari’s office led straight into the racing department. What a fantastic, bustling place this enormous workshop must have been in the ’60s. Nowadays, of course, all of the racing department – Formula 1 in other words – is based at Fiorano a few miles down the road. I know of no journo who’s ever been inside it, let alone had the run of the place. 

Look left from Ferrari’s office, with your back to the factory, and you espy what was once the commercial department. It’s been converted into offices and a studio which can be used to make presentations to customers. At the end of the building where papers were shuffled and adding machines rattled was Ferrari’s foundry. One of the first steps in modernising Maranello was the opening of a new foundry in the early ’90s. I used to work in a foundry and have been fascinated by them ever since. After several years of dropped hints, finally I have the chance to see inside Ferrari’s. It is state of the art, boasting all the modern safety practices, but no matter how many warning notices are plastered on the walls, a foundry never loses its medieval atmosphere. Every day pallets of aluminium ingots are tipped into a giant melting pot and the molten metal is poured into crucibles into which other metals – magnesium, for example – are added to make the correct alloy. Next, air bubbles are removed by passing nitrogen through it. After that the liquid goes to electrically heated vats from which it is poured into the moulds. Only in the automation of this latter process is it much different from the method used to cast engine parts for 250GTs, 275GTBs and thousands of other Ferraris.

Opposite the former race shop is an original part of the factory where the road cars were built. There’s a building site at the end of it now: a new works canteen is being constructed. Famous visitors and journalists on expense accounts traditionally eat at the Cavallino restaurant. It’s as essential as hiring a little Fiat: a Punto, then pasta. I once came to Maranello to help assemble F50s for an article. It was incredible. Single-handedly bolting in a V10 was a buzz, but the lasting memory is of having lunch in the canteen hidden behind and to the left of Cavallino. The canteen is exactly as it was 40 years ago, the incessant talk of football is probably no different either. But the new canteen is a necessity, for not only does Ferrari employ more people than ever before – 2700, including 800 in F1 – but its premises are now so spread that the workers at the furthest end from the old canteen spend most of their lunch hour walking there and back. They still use bicycles at the factory. Workers have always used them to fetch and carry. When I was there building F50s, the iconic badge arrived via bicycle – wrapped in tissue – in its handlebar basket. But if the factory continues to expand, workers might have to upgrade to mopeds.

Ferrari faces a dichotomy between maintaining the atmosphere of its past – and with it the exclusivity of what was once virtually a cottage industry – and the economics and technologies of modern-day motor manufacturing. That Ferrari now produces substantially more cars (5800 a year) than it promised 10 years ago it would never exceed is understandable. Who 10 years ago would have predicted that China would become a major Ferrari customer? But even with modern production methods, F430s, F599s and Scagliettis are hardly streaming off the two production lines (one for V8 cars, the other for V12s) like cans of beans at Heinz. Yet Ferrari is not happy for us to photograph the long line of F430s stretching back along the plant. I fail to see why it’s so touchy. In the early 1980s 308GTBs were rolling off what was then a typical production line. Besides, a Ferrari is still a machine built with passion for the passionate. And each one is still given a full test out on the open road, as well as numerous quality checks.

As we pass the production building we are walking into the 21st century Ferrari. To the right is a glass building which houses the engineering department. You could not get further from the days when body shapes were drawn in chalk on a concrete floor and an artisan from coachbuilders Scaglietti would hammer out the vision in aluminium. That’s a far, far cry from engineers in open-plan offices sitting in front of computer screens constructing virtual – and unrecognisable  – widgets that will one day come together to make a new Ferrari. Formula 1 design is carried out at other offices in Fiorano. There’s no
need to ask: we won’t be allowed in.

Next along is a wind tunnel (which the Scuderia does use) and opposite that is a new building which houses the machine shop. Countless times I have watched in amazement the Fritz Lang-like scene of CNC machines automatically milling, drilling and turning engine components. But at Ferrari the sight is even more incredible because the robots are not cutting a Toyota Corolla’s valve seats but turning V12 cylinder head blanks into the works of art that will eventually produce over 500bhp. And just in case the workers forget that these parts are art, parked in a line are a few old masters, including a 288GTO with test mileage only.

We meet Romeo and Juliet, a pair of robots who work together in a relationship measured in thousandths of a millimetre, fitting valve seats to cylinder heads. The head is heated in an oven to expand the seat area while Romeo (or possibly Juliet – they are anonymous to a layman unable to sex a robot) dips the valve seat in liquid nitrogen to shrink it. He has no name, but the robot who machines crankshafts is a clever bugger, too. To watch him is mesmerising. His arm takes down a lightbox from the wall of his sealed cabin, shines it over a row of half a dozen crankshafts so that his camera can photograph them. The lightbox is then replaced while the robot works out which cranks are which so that it doesn’t try to drill a V8’s oilways in a V12 item. It is a sight less human than a walking, talking machinist working on a Daytona crank in the 1970s, but it’s no less fascinating. Besides, the skills are still here – it’s just that now they’re used to programme, supervise and check the machines.

The human element still rules at Ferrari, even though the tools have changed. At one end of the building housing the production lines is the engine test department. Every unit is run on one of the many dynos to check its output and ensure it performs exactly to specification. The engines are mounted on dollies outside and plumbed and wired so that they’re almost ready to fire the moment it’s wheeled in.

I see no way around wallowing in nostalgia. The brash Ferrari memorabilia shops on the other side of Via Abetone, the Galleria museum, the new hotel and the explosion of modern buildings mark the end of an era. But many of the important things haven’t changed. The famous entrance, for instance. And opposite the gates is the workshop of Tonio Franco, in which you will spot the odd classic Ferrari. Fifty years ago you would have seen 750 Monzas and 166s in the same garage. The old Ferrari is still in Maranello. You just have to look a bit harder.