Enzo Ferrari, The Italian Dream

 

Think of a race car. It is a safe bet to say that you probably thought of a fiery red Ferrari, possibly the very embodiment of the passion for automobiles, mixed with speed, precision engineering and design. ‘Ferrari’ is, of course, the family name of the company founder Enzo Ferrari, born in Modena in 1898 and a permanent local hero until his death in 1988, in the same town. Enzo Ferrari was also known as ‘Drake’, a nod to the pirate Sir Francis Drake, whose determination and hot temper are said to have been on par with those of the Italian giant. His life story is a testament to his passion.

His first job, at 16, was as a reporter for the Gazzetta dello sport, then and now the most important daily newspaper focusing on sports only. His youth was however marked by rejections: first from the royal army, when he enrolled to fight in WWI, then by the automobile brand FIAT, when he hoped to join as a mechanic. It was almost by chance if he accepted to work for a friend’s small engineering company, where he was offered an opportunity to run the prestigious Targa Florio car race as a non-professional pilot. He jumped at it, mortgaging the family house to buy his first racing car. This had him noticed by Alfa Romeo, which took him in as a pilot from 1920 to 1931. He was a competent pilot, but his career hit various obstacles caused by nervous breakdowns, including the sudden retirement from the 1924 European Grand Prix, right when he could have entered the race drivers’ elite.

This appears to have been a blessing in disguise, as he was subsequently handed the management of Alfa Romeo’s racing team, where he developed many technological improvements and he worked with historical pilots such as Tazio Nuvolari and Antonio Ascari. Then Alfa Romeo team abandoned the racing circus, focusing on everyday vehicles and building cars for other teams.

Enzo Ferrari leveraged his network and expertise to enter the game with his own eponymous company. Stimulated by his longstanding friendship with the founder of Maserati, he flexed his managing muscles to assemble a star team of mechanics and pilots, able to the first F1 races already on their second year under Ferrari’s wing. The rest, as they say, is history.

One lesser known fact about Ferrari is that the team symbol, the famous rearing horse, was in fact the symbol of the Italian early plane ace Francesco Baracca. It was his mother who presented the young Ferrari with it, suggesting to stick it on his car for luck. The iconic red cars, by the way, were yellow in the beginning – and this is why car snobs still talk about ‘Ferrari yellow’ to this day as the official colour.

Enzo Ferrari himself was a very private man. He rarely gave interviews and he could easily come off as rude and ill-tempered; in reality he was also an extremely generous man, who always took special care to make sure his employees were happy, that his hometown and region was benefitting from the success of his company, and that part of his enormous fortune went to medical research – to spare others from the suffering he had endured in the past when he lost a son to muscular dystrophia.