Tribute: Enzo Ferrari 1898-1988

The mantle of mystique

Anyone who lives beyond man’s natural span of “three score years and 10” has to be respected, and to live a further 20 years demands admiration. If that man has devoted nearly 70 of those years to a passion for racing cars and motor racing, then those of us who believe in motor racing as a way of life must hold the greatest admiration for such a man, and such a man was Enzo Ferrari.

From 1920 to 1938 his name was synonymous with Alfa Romeo, and in Italy Alfa Romeo was motor racing. In 1947 Ferrari struck out on his own as the manufacturer of Ferrari cars, and they have become more of a part of the Italian way of life in motoring and motor racing than even Alfa Romeo. If Enzo Ferrari had not fallen out with Wilfredo Ricart, Alfa Romeo’s chief engineer, in 1938, he might never have started his own firm and a Ferrari car might never have been born. The name of Ferrari would undoubtedly have stayed with motor racing, for it was Ferrari’s passion, even to becoming an obsession.

In his early days it was Grand Prix racing that was his true love, and in the 1930s he ran a powerful team that kept the name Alfa Romeo in the forefront of Grand Prix racing. In 1948 Ferrari committed his new factory to a programme of Formula 1 Grand Prix racing, and to this day the name Ferrari has been in Grand Prix racing consistently, missing the odd race here and there, but never missing a season. If for nothing else, 40 years of continuous support for Grand Prix racing shows a dedication beyond normal understanding.

Throughout his life in motor racing Ferrari only believed in one thing, and that was overall victory. Not for him an insignificant class victory, or success in some minor category or unimportant event. Only the top echelon interested him, and consequently the name Ferrari became linked to important and serious events. If the name Ferrari was not in the entry, the event did not rank of much importance.

He ran the Alfa Romeo racing from 1929 to 1939 under the banner of Scuderia Ferrari, so that the name Ferrari became associated with more things than the shrewd and calculating Modenese artisan who ran the team. In the past 40 years of racing, Ferrari almost changed from being a name to simply being an Italian word, used to encompass a wide variety of meanings all closely connected with racing and success.

When you spoke of “Ferrari” you could be referring to the man, to his cars or merely the image of Italian racing, and red racing cars at that. An exciting-looking red car in the street would bring only one word from an Italian enthusiast: “Ferrari” – even though it might be a Maserati, an Alfa Romeo, a Lancia, a de Tomaso, an Iso Rivolta or a Lamborghini.

Enzo Ferrari traded on this feeling among his followers by insisting that they did not use any form of title such as Mr, Signore, Cavaliere, Commendatore or Ingegnere, and certainly not Enzo. He claimed he was just “Ferrari” and, of course, in normal everyday life in Italy, the name Ferrari was about as impressive as Smith in England! In his home town of Modena he was usually referred to in conversation as “Zio Enzo” (Uncle Enzo).

His original Scuderia Ferrari was originated and established in Modena, some thirty miles west of Bologna, but wartime work for the Italian Government enabled him to establish a new factory at Maranello, south of Modena, and it was here that he built his Ferrari car factory. He never forsook Modena, living in a modest apartment in the centre of the town even when his whole manufacturing empire had moved to Maranello, and it was at home in Modena that he died.

I have already suggested that the best thing that happened for motor racing was Ferrari’s argument with Wilfredo Ricart, which forced him to manufacture his own cars. The next best thing that happened was to get Gioachino Colombo to leave Alfa Romeo and design the first Ferrari engine. It was either luck or a stroke of genius that prompted Colombo to design a V12 engine for the first Ferrari, for the sound of all those tiny cylinders was sheer music: first as a 1.5-litre, the a 2-litre, and by steady increments up to 5-litres (there was even a one-off 7-litre!). Though Colombo did not stay to see the development through – other engineers did that – the whole musical sound of Ferrari came from the initial decision taken in 1945.

It is interesting to conjecture what would have happened if the first Ferrari had been a four-cylinder or a six-cylinder, and been just as successful. The thrill and excitement of a Ferrari engine would never have materialised and a big part of the Ferrari legend would be missing. Even though his engineers subsequently designed successful four, six and eight-cylinder engines, none of them emitted the true music of a real Ferrari.

More than anywhere, it was the Le Mans 24-Hour Race that brought the song of a Ferrari V12 to many thousands of ears, as it did not pass by in a fleeting moment, but was continuous for 24 hours. If you didn’t enjoy that music you were destined to suffer for 24 hours, for one thing that made Ferrari engines admired the world over was their incredible reliability. This was easily understandable, for the engine was the heart of the racing car to Ferrari and everything went into the design and development of Ferrari racing engines, even if such vital things as brakes, suspension, chassis-frames and gearboxes were a bit primitive at times.

Right through his Alfa Romeo years Ferrari supported the sports car racing scene, and was a powerful force at Le Mans and in the Mille Miglia, as well as lesser events, but all the time Grand Prix racing was his first love. Open-road racing was taken away from Ferrari by officialdom hounding sports car racing on to purpose-built tracks, and he finally opted out of Le Mans after a battle to the death with Ford in the mid-’60s. Ferrari may not always have won, but he seldom gave up, and never gave in.

In Grand Prix racing Ferrari superiority rose and fell at regular intervals the heights being reached when the opposition was poor, and the depths being plumbed when the opposition was strong. The list of manufacturer’s names that beat Ferrari at one time or another is a lengthy one, but most of them are long-gone from the racing scene. Maserati, Vanwall, Cooper, BRM and Mercedes-Benz all fought and defeated Ferrari, but while they disappeared from racing the red cars from Maranello always came back for more. Today they are being beaten by McLaren-Honda but they are still there, and still fighting hard. Ferrari knew no other way; let us hope his successors have that same indomitable spirit.

Of all the journalists who have written about Ferrari since his death I must be the only one who never spoke to him, or went to one of the “play-acting dramas” he indulged in in his dotage. He did once speak to me. In 1956, when I was closely involved with Stirling Moss and Maserati, I went to the Ferrari racing department with Peter Collins – not particularly to see the racing department, but to go for a test-run with Collins in one of the big 3.7-litre 4-cylinder sports-cars. Ferrari appeared, looked down at me over his large glasses and said, “A Maserati spy?”, and was gone.

Having seen Ferrari in his heyday, when he actually attended races, practising or test-sessions, but even then only in Italian events, usually devoid of a tie or jacket, wearing braces to hold up his trousers and with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, I had no wish to see him in his dotage. A grand old man, undoubtedly; a legendary figure for anyone who had never seen him in a local bar or restaurant in Modena, acting like a perfectly normal Italian artisan. When he was active he was never portentous, he was just “Ferrari”. Only in his last 20 years did he don the mantle of mystique, a clever piece of “play-acting” to a gullible audience, making the most of every aspect of life and playing to the limit.

Even his death was played in the same way. His wishes were respected by his close associates who did not tell the world of his death until after his funeral. It was then too late for a 20-mile long funeral cortege, a lying in state, a week in mourning and all the rest of the religious mumbo-jumbo that only benefits those who are left behind.

The realisation of that final wish was the true Enzo Ferrari. An Italian artisan, born in 1898, who made as big a mark on Italian history as many legendary figures. To remain faithful to your belief in motor racing for 70 of those 90 years without faltering is as big a tribute as anyone could want. DSJ