Luigi Villoresi: the old master of Modena

One of the few remaining pre-war Grand Prix racers, Luigi Villoresi remains among Italy's most distinguished figures. Graham Gauld visited him in Modena

Italian racing driver Luigi Villoresi (1909 - 1997) sits in his Maserati whilst preparations continue for Britain's first international car race at Crystal Palace. (Photo by David Savill/Getty Images)

Villoresi prepares for Britain's first international car race at Crystal Palace in 1937

David Savill/Getty Images

In May, Luigi “Gigi” Villoresi will be 88 years of age, and after a remarkable career he is now the last of the great pre-war Italian racing drivers. His esteemed status as such was recognised last October during the annual Ferrari Day race meeting at Mugello. It was there that he received an impressive prancing horse trophy from Niki Lauda to mark his many victories with Ferrari, and spent the afternoon signing autographs and chatting to all his old pals.

Today, Villoresi lives in the Santa Catherina nursing home in Modena. This may sound like a sad postscript to a motor racing career as a factory driver with the likes of Maserati, Ferrari and Lancia, but you only have to sit for a while with this charming and friendly old man to see that he is still full of life. There’s still a twinkle in his eye and he has lost none of his great sense of humour.

A few years ago Villoresi’s legs began to fail him (possibly as a result of a crash in Italy years before), and he arrived to meet me in his wheelchair, pushed by Don Sergio Mantovani, the local priest who set up and runs the Santa Catherina nursing home. Don Sergio (no relation to the Sergio Mantovani who used to race for Maserati) first came to Modena in 1953 as a young clergyman and was adopted as the priest to the Maserati factory and racing team. He told me that Villoresi still nurtures his love of racing, and that he has a special wheelchair with a racing seat. “He’s the terror of the nursing home in that chair!” says the priest.

The Villoresi family was well known in Milan. When Luigi was born in 1909 his father ran a company generating electricity for the city, but it was his grandfather who was the most famous member of the family. He built a large canal taking water from the river Ticino near Milan’s present-day Malpensa airport to irrigate that part of Lombardia. In recognition of this it was called Cana le Villoresi and the name is still marked on maps of the area.

Lady Howe puts a wreath around Luigi Villoresi in his Maserati racecar after he won the International Grand Prix. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Congratulated after winning the 1948 International Grand Prix at Silverstone

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Luigi’s father, Gaetano, and mother, Esther, had five children but sadly the family was dogged by misfortune. Luigi’s brother Emilio was killed testing an Alfa Romeo Alfetta at Monza, his sister Rosa died in a road accident and, perhaps more tragically still, another brother committed suicide. His last brother, Eugenio, died of cancer. As Luigi never married he wistfully declares, “You see, I am the last Villoresi.”

His first motorsport endeavours were in local rallies in 1931 with a Lancia Lambda, but two years later he bought a Fiat Ballila a model which opened the door to racing to many young Italians. It was in this that he competed in the Mille Miglia with his younger brother Emilio as passenger.

“You see, I am the last Villoresi”

They finished a creditable fifth in the hotly contested 1100cc sportscar class and from then on the Fiat was used in a number of events including the 1935 Coppa Ciano where he came third. That year he was so successful he became Champion of Italy in the 1100cc sportscar class, and the door to a career-long affair with Maserati was opened.

For 1936 he bought one of the ex-factory 4CMs and immediately rocked the establishment by taking sixth place in the Voiturette race supporting the Monaco Grand Prix; his first race in the car!

From the archive

He shared the car with brother Emilio who proved to be a particularly quick driver. Quick enough, in fact, to be snapped up by Enzo Ferrari to drive the Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeos in the 1937 season. In the meantime, Luigi and the Scuderia Ambrosiana which he had helped form with Count Johnny Lurani bought a 6CM Maserati (C/N 1541).

By 1938 Villoresi was a full member of the Maserati team and, recalling those years, the car he remembers more fondly that any other is the fabulous 8CTF (Eight cylinder Testa Fissa – fixed head) of which only three were ever built. This had an in-line 3-litre, eight-cylinder engine with twin Roots superchargers, one driven off the crank and the other geared to the camshaft. It produced over 350bhp and was Maserati’s answer to the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union cars which were dominating Grand Prix racing at the time. Had it not been for the war, the car might have developed into a true race winner. As it was, one of them went to the States and, as the Boyle Special, dominated Indianapolis, while one of the others appeared at the Goodwood Festival last year.

“I asked to see the remains of my brother’s car, but Enzo refused”

In 1949 Villoresi bought a 4CLT Maserati and came to race in Britain. It was while in England that he had a big surprise: “I received a message from Enzo Ferrari,” he remembers, “saying he had sent a single-seater Ferrari to Brussels for me to race in the Brussels Grand Prix, and a sportscar to race in Luxembourg. I won both races and when I got back to Milan I had a telephone call from a journalist called Corrado Fillipini telling me that Enzo Ferrari wanted me to drive for him.”

This brought a dilemma for Villoresi; he had disliked Enzo Ferrari since the day of the accident which killed his brother Emilio at Monza: “On that day, June 28 1939, Enzo Ferrari put on a lunch actually on the circuit to show the new Alfetta.” he recalls. “After lunch, they cleared the tables off the track and my brother ‘Mimi’ went out in the car. He did two laps with no problems and on the third lap he crashed into a tree and was killed.

MOTORSPORT - F1 1950 - MONACO GRAND PRIX - 05/21/1950 - MONTE-CARLO (MON) - PHOTO: DPPI / LAT Luigi Villoresi - Ferrari 125 - Action Ferrari first F1 GP

At Monaco in 1950


“I asked Enzo if I could see the remains of the car but he refused, and when I asked him what had happened he told me he thought my brother had eaten too much at lunch and perhaps had indigestion which had caused him to go off the road. Then I asked him about insurance and he told me there wasn’t any, so I was very upset. After that, my brother’s road car, an 80 Alfa Romeo 2300 disappeared and some time later Consalvo Sanesi, the Alfa Romeo test driver, told me that the steering had broken on the car. So I really did not like him. However, I decided to go and see what he had to say.”

When he arrived at Ferrari’s house he was ushered upstairs to the great man, who was ill in bed. He immediately made his feelings known: “I told him I knew he didn’t like me and I didn’t like him, but let’s talk. At the end of the conversation I left Modena not only with an agreement to join Ferrari but also with two other contracts which I was to pass to my friends Alberto Ascari and Nino Farina. All three contracts were exactly the same.”

His career was now into full stride, but despite his brilliance Villoresi was to have a number of accidents, the two most serious being in Geneva. One was in a Maserati when his mechanic put new tyres on the car and he shot off the road on the first corner. The second, when driving for Ferrari in 1950, was much more serious.

“As soon as the race started the car was not running well and I could only get 10,000rprn when I should have been able to take 11,000. What I think had happened was that my mechanic Meazza in changing the plugs from soft to hard had missed two of them, and this was why the car was misfiring. I was down the field and someone up front blew his engine and spread oil over the road. I spun, hit the straw bales and overturned. Luckily I was thrown out of the car, but was lying in the middle of the road. Nino Farina actually saved my life as he saw me in time to swerve, but he too hit the oil, went off the road and crashed.”

Villoresi was taken to hospital in a coma, lost the top of one of his fingers and admits today he was lucky to be alive. “You know, in all my racing I broke 24 bones in my body. Most of them were in that crash at Geneva.”

Despite his horrific injuries, Luigi recovered in time for the 1951 Inter Europa Cup meeting at Monza, where Enzo Ferrari entered him in a Ferrari 340 Coupe. Not only did he win the race but he enjoyed it so much he asked Ferrari if he could race the Coupe in the Mille Miglia. Ferrari refused, saying he would have a Barchetta like Ascari, but Villoresi persisted. Eventually he was allowed to race the Coupe, and won the event.

Le Mans, 1951. (Photo by: GP Library/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In the Ferrari pits, 1951

GP Library/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“Enzo Ferrari didn’t understand that the Coupe was actually a better car for the Mille Miglia. The race was wet, but I felt comfortable and was very happy to win.”

When you ask Villoresi about Ferraris in those days he is blunt and to the point: “Ferrari made really good engines but the chassis were never up to the job. In fact, by the end of 1955 and the period of the Squalo and Super Squab, Ferrari was lost. Then he got the Lancia racing team, changed the colour of the cars and went out to win the Championship in 1956.”

Asked about his last season with Ferrari in 1953, Villoresi shoots his eyes up to the ceiling in a look of despair. Why did he leave? “I was tired,” he says, but goes on to reveal the real reason: “At the end of 1953 Alberto (Ascari) and I drove to Maranello from Milan to see Enzo Ferrari about our contracts for 1954. As was typical of the man, Ferrari took Alberto into his room while I was left to go with team manager Ugolini to his office where he and I discussed contracts.

From the archive

“When we finished, Alberto and I said goodbye to Ferrari and Ugolini, got into the car and set off to drive back to Milan. While Alberto drove he reached inside his pocket and pulled out two sheets of paper, handed them to me and said ‘read this’. The first one was a contract from Gianni Lancia for Alberto to race for the new Lancia Grand Prix team in 1954 which he had already signed. The other was an identical contract signed by Gianni Lancia with my name on it and Alberto said ‘sign it’. I couldn’t believe it: Alberto had had this long discussion with Enzo Ferrari about a contract for 1954 knowing he had already signed for Lancia and left me to talk to Ugolini not knowing what had been going on!”

As we now know, the Lancias were not ready for most of the 1954 season, so Villoresi was loaned out to his old friends at Maserati and drove 250Fs. At the Spanish GP the Lancia appeared but Villoresi retired from the race with failing brakes. During the 1955 season he drove solely for Lancia, scoring a fifth place at the Monaco Grand Prix, the highest placing ever scored by a Lancia Corse-entered Lancia.

In addition to his Grand Prix work Villoresi raced Lancia sportscars he and Ascari won the Sestrieres Rally in a Lancia B20 saloon. “You know,” he confides, “some years later when Sandro Munari won the Sestrieres Rally for Lancia the company made a big show of the fact that it was the first time Lancia had won that event. They forgot about Ascari and me!”

“Gianni Lancia handed over his cars to Enzo Ferrari, but without Villoresi”

At the end of the season Gianni Lancia handed over his cars to Enzo Ferrari and the Lancia-Ferraris triumphed in the 1956 season, but without Villoresi. He returned to the Maserati fold and finished fifth in the Belgian GP in a Centro Sud 250F and sixth in the British GP in Luigi Piotti’s 250F. It was therefore only fitting that Villoresi should end his Grand Prix career at the Italian GP of 1956 in a factory Maserati; sadly, it retired.

His racing days over, Villoresi lived quietly in Modena. But he remained a fine ambassador for Maserati and was always present on the company’s stand at motor shows.

Explaining how Luigi is supported in the nursing home by a number of his racing friends, Don Sergio is quick to point out that many members of the VSCC in England have contributed. That very appropriate, as some of Villoresi’s very happiest memories came from places like Silverstone. Goodwood and Snetterton.

Many a glass will be raised to the white-haired Villoresi on his 88th birthday on May 16. He was truly one of the great Italian racing drivers.