Enzo Ferrari - A man and a brand

Ferrari aspired to be an opera singer, sports journalist, and race-car driver. He never pursued the first two but flourished with the third.

By Wheels Wheels.ca

Mar 21, 2022 5 min. read

Article was updated 2 months ago

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From the snow-capped mountains of Friuli, Italy, to the industrial epicentre of Turin, they still talk about the man with the flamboyance and the fiery temper. His presence is still felt in every showroom. His spirit still turns every screwdriver in every Formula One garage.

More than three decades after his death in 1988, mention Enzo Ferrari’s name in the streets of Italy and the reaction is like a splash of that infamous red.

“Ferrari?” says a young Italian teenager as he plays with a model race car on the street outside his suburban home 100 kilometres north of Venice. “That is what I want to race when I am older.”

There is passion in the sound of the name Ferrari. There is an Italian pride that flows from the heart. The very name is its own brand. The company is still a benchmark for many competitors. It’s a symbol of championships, performance and style. It is power and influence and results.

Ferrari, the man, would admire his place in history and his stature in his own home country, if only because it is part and parcel of the success he helped create. Ferrari demanded the discipline from everyone around him. Ferrari demanded results and got them.

But it hardly developed overnight.

Born in early 1898 to a middle-class family in Modena, Ferrari’s story is a rags-to-riches tale of automotive success. He was raised in a small engineering world where his father operated a metal-construction shop, making sheds and gangways for the nation’s railroads. Ferrari found great delight in the inner workings of the shop and had little interest in school.

As a young man, he had three ambitions: opera singer; sports journalist; and race-car driver. He never pursued the first two, and, despite some struggle, flourished with the third.

After losing his brother and father in the First World War, Ferrari was drafted into service in 1916 and served time herding mules in the countryside. After contracting a serious flu virus two years later, he was released from the army and sent home to a desperate situation and the family business had collapsed. His widowed mother was on the verge of poverty.

With his honorable discharge letter in hand, Ferrari tried to begin his career at Fiat when he was 21. But the Turin car company wasn’t interested.

Eventually, Ferrari was hired by a small sports car maker and a few years later joined Alfa Romeo’s racing department. There he helped Alfa grow the racing side of its operation by winning some of the first post-war sporting events.

Calm and composed behind the wheel, Ferrari displayed a natural talent for the sport and tried to help grow the business on his own.

Though not an engineer by nature, Ferrari knew engineering talent when he saw it. A big man with a flair for socializing, Ferrari slowly built Alfa’s race industry by luring away top talent from other companies, including his most famous recruit, Vittorio Jano, a well-known Fiat designer.

At the same time, Ferrari was also carving out his own niche. Racing under his own banner for Alfa — a prancing horse over a yellow background — Ferrari eventually built up enough credibility and success to start his own race team. A decade later, he turned it into a full-fledged company.

Founded in 1946, before Ferrari had turned 50, he created an organization that would set a new trend for motor racing and car building. The first car that carried his name set that trend for years to come.

As business publication Automotive News Europe once wrote, “his passion made the difference.”

He led by a different example. He never took vacations, and he often pitted his drivers against each other thinking it would bring better results. Sometimes it did, even though the work environment was often caustic.

During the 1950s, Italy was experiencing a post-war boom, especially in the north. As Italy grew, so did Ferrari, with Enzo at the wheel. His teams won races and his high-performance cars became the envy of every jetsetter on the planet.

There were tragedies, however. Many racing drivers died behind the wheel of Ferraris, such as Alberto Ascari (1955) and Gilles Villeneuve (1982).

When Enzo’s son, Dino, died of muscular dystrophy in 1956, it eventually led to Ferrari’s divorce. After they separated, Ferrari threw himself into his business, working seven days a week and living in an apartment above the factory.

In the 1960s, when Italy’s economy stumbled, Ferrari eventually sold part of his company to Fiat. In 1969, Fiat helped again, buying up 90 per cent of the company, with the stipulation that Ferrari would control it until his death.

On the track, the legend continued. Before Enzo’s death, Ferrari, the team, claimed 14 victories in the 24-hour race of Le Mans (France) endurance race and nine open-wheel Formula One championships. And then a young Michael Schumacher arrived on the scene to win five more F1 championships behind the wheel of Ferraris, his final time in 2004. Kimi Räikkönen won in 2007 and the company has been trying ever since to get back on top.

Over the years, a certain mythical aura prevailed over Ferrari’s sports cars. And while past machines such as the Dino, the 288 GTO, the F40, the Enzo and the Ferrari LaFerrari connect us in spirit with the company’s founder, the current lineup of a half dozen new models provide the link for future generations.