Ferrari’s name was built on an unwavering devotion to winning. His was a life full of ups and downs, bitter rivalries, and sweet victories.
The story of Enzo Ferrari is one of obsession, with winning, with success and public recognition. His story is also one of war and personal tragedy, of petty rivalries that inspired greatness, and of very fast, very expensive cars.
Nothing flaunts your success quite like driving a Ferrari. With decades spent in the winner’s circle and a list of some of the greatest, most vaunted cars ever built, the name Ferrari denotes excellence as few others can. This legacy of greatness owes directly to the man himself, Enzo Ferrari. He was a devoted father and a charismatic salesman, but also a tough boss, a tougher business partner, and the bitterest, most hard-nosed of competitors. Winners drive Ferraris because Enzo Ferrari was a winner.
Enzo Anselmo Ferrari was born in Modena, in northern Italy in 1898. His father, Alfredo Ferrari owned a machine shop which was connected to their two-story house. It was here that Enzo was first exposed to all things mechanical.
Early in his childhood he showed interest in sports journalism (getting an article published nationally at the age of 9). He also loved opera and contemplated pursuing a career as a singer. But most especially, Enzo loved going fast. Enzo, alongside his older brother Dino, was known for zipping around town on roller skates and bicycles, reveling in the sensation of speed.
It was at the age of ten that Enzo attended his first automobile race in Bologna. This would prove a fateful event. The speed, the look, the sound of the cars as they zoomed past stirred something in the young Enzo. A fiery, inextinguishable passion for racing that would define the rest of his life.
With the advent of WWI, Enzo’s brother Dino was conscripted into the Italian army and sent off to fight the Austro-Hungarians. While he was away, Dino fell ill with flu and died. That same year, Enzo’s father too succumb to the flu, both he and Dino were likely early victims of the then nascent Spanish Flu pandemic. When Enzo turned 18, he too was conscripted into service and assigned to the Alpine Artillery where he worked as a mechanic. Like his brother and father, he also contracted the flu and was sent to hospital. After his convalescence, Enzo was discharged and made his way home to Modena.
Having left school at an early age and still suffering the aftereffects of his illness, Enzo Ferrari initially had a challenging time finding work. But one thing was clear to Enzo, he wanted to build cars. His dream was to build and race the best cars in the world.
His start along this journey was inauspicious. He first moved to Turin where he unsuccessfully applied for work as a mechanic at FIAT. He did, however, find work at a smaller car builder, CMN (Costruzioni Meccaniche Nazionali). There he was hired as first a test driver and later as a race car driver.
Enzo’s first race came in October of 1919, where he came in fourth place. His next race he came in second place, a good start for the young driver. Despite the good showing Enzo was reportedly devastated that he’d not won the race outright. The lofty standards would prove a Ferrari hallmark.
Ferrari would build a reputation as a skilled driver, eventually talking his way onto Alfa Romeo’s team in 1920 and for whom he would race through 1931. In addition to racing for Alfa Romeo, Enzo also began selling cars for the company as well, eventually setting up his own series of dealerships.
In 1929, Enzo founded Scuderia Ferrari (scuderia meaning horse stable, a common parlance for a professional racing team) which served as Alfa Romeo’s racing team through much of the 1930s. It was during this time that Enzo’s wife Laura first became involved in helping manage Scuderia Ferrari. Enzo would give up racing for good in 1932 following the birth of his first son, Alfredo “Dino” Ferrari.
Alfa Romeo’s main competition in those years came from an upstart company doing exactly what Enzo had always dreamed of, building and racing cars. The Maserati brothers proved formidable rivals, even luring away Alfa driver Tazio Nuvolari to their team and helping them crush the competition, including Alfa Romeo in 1934. But Enzo and Alfa Romeo would return to their winning ways with their new Alfa 158. The new car posted a second-place finish at the Grand Prix in Milan and a one, two, three finish at the Grand Prix in Tripoli. But a disastrous 1937 racing season for Alfa Romeo season saw the dissolution of Scuderia Ferrari.
Enzo Ferrari quit Alfa Romeo for good in 1939 to start his own company. As part of his severance package, he promised not to use the Ferrari name for parts or car building or racing. So instead, Ferrari named his new company Auto Avio Construzioni or AAC. AAC’s first car, the 815, debuted in 1940 for the Milli Miglia.
Like nearly all manufacturers of the day, Ferrari’s company was required by the Fascist government of Italy to participate in the war effort. But such work made Enzo a target, first by Allied war planes which bombed his factory and forced him to move from Modena to the smaller town of Maranello in 1943, and then by communist partisans fighting the Fascists.
The Italian resistance, and its communist faction in particular, was fond of pressing local businessmen for funds to help their efforts. Enzo Ferrari was just such a man. Plus, he was still forced by the Fascists to build munitions and tank components at his factory. His acquaintance Eduardo Weber, of Weber carburetor, had already been disappeared by members of the resistance. So, things looked grim when Enzo was formally sentenced to death by the communists. Luckily, a large payment of some 500,000-lira worked to save Enzo’s neck. Ferrari would end up aiding the resistance in smuggling arms and even at least once facilitating a meeting between the mayor and partisan leaders by personally driving the mayor to the meeting.
These good deeds didn’t save his factory from again being bombed by the Allies in 1945. It was this same year that Enzo fathered a second son, Piero, with his mistress, Lina Lardi.
After the war, Enzo founded Ferrari S.p.A in 1947, putting his own name on the cars he built. He then set about realizing his dream of building and racing the world’s best cars. The first official Ferrari was the 125 S, a new V12 car which debuted in Turin in 1948. The following year, 1949, saw a quick succession of wins for Ferrari cars, including a 2nd place finish at the Italian Grand Prix, 1st at the Milli Miglia, and at the most prestigious race of all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a first-place finish. Silverstone’s world Grand Prix in 1951 would be Scuderia Ferrari’s first major win. 1952 and ’53 saw Ferrari win back-to-back F1 championships.
All this was great publicity for Ferrari’s other business, the business of making and selling road cars; the proceeds of which were largely funneled right back over to Enzo’s real passion, Scuderia Ferrari. By the mid-50s, Ferrari’s had become the playthings of the rich and famous right alongside Porsches and Mercedes. The 1950s were wildly successful for Ferrari, but the decade was also full of tragedy.
Enzo’s son Dino had long suffered from muscular dystrophy. In 1956, at the age of 24, Dino Ferrari passed away. The proud and devoted father, Enzo was devastated. Following Dino’s death, Enzo, already an irascible personality, grew more withdrawn and short-tempered. From then on, Enzo would wear dark sunglasses when in public as a sign of mourning.
Racing had always been a dangerous sport and the 1950s was an especially deadly time for team Ferrari. A series of high-profile crashes that cost the lives of both drivers and spectators culminated in Alfonso de Portago’s crash at the 1957 Milli Miglia which cost his life and that of his co-driver along with 9 by-standers. The tally of deadly crashes was widely publicized and even prompted a denunciation from the Vatican itself, which decried Ferrari as a modern-day Saturn devouring his children.
1961 saw a major shakeup at the small Ferrari company. Laura Ferrari’s involvement had become increasingly troublesome for Ferrari’s staff. When sales manager Girolamo Gardini said it was either him or Enzo’s wife, Enzo made the only decision he could. But it wasn’t just Gardini that left, chief engineer Carlo Chiti, development chief Giotto Bizzarrini and many others also walked out in solidarity and agreement. The exodus left many of Ferrari’s current projects in limbo, but replacements were found and cars like the 250 and the Dino were successfully completed.
The 1960s were two of Enzo Ferrari’s more notable rivalries. The first was prompted by a visit from customer, an Italian tractor maker named Ferrucio Lamborghini. Lamborghini was a fan of Ferrari’s GT road cars, but felt that their clutches, which tended to wear out prematurely, could use some refinement. Enzo’s salty reply? Basically, stick to tractors. But rather than stick to tractors, Lamborghini decided to get into the luxury sports car business himself and build a proper GT car with a proper clutch. That’s right, Lamborghini, the maker of the most over-the-top supercars and potent Ferrari rival, got its start in response to Enzo’s rudeness.
The next rivalry has become the stuff of racing legend. The beef between Ford Motor Company and Ferrari began with Ford’s desire to get back into racing. In the early 1960s, Detroit’s automakers had been operating under an informal agreement to stay out of the dangerous sport of auto racing. But with the advent of the C2 Corvette, it was clear the gentleman’s agreement was a good as the paper it was printed on, as in, it was worth zilch.
Henry Ford II, Henry Ford’s grandson had inherited control of Ford, and like Enzo Ferrari, wasn’t used to taking no for an answer. So rather than build a racing division of their own, Ford approached Ferrari with a proposition. As we mentioned above, Ferrari’s focus in racing meant funds from the company’s road cars was often funneled straight to the racing division. This meant Ferrari’s books weren’t in the best of shape, despite their successes on the track.
Enzo was initially interested in a deal but wanted to retain control of Scuderia Ferrari. Ford agreed with the proviso that Ferrari would need Ford’s approval for any spending beyond 450 million lira, or around $700,000 US. The threshold meant de facto control of Scuderia Ferrari, something Enzo would not brook.
The dissolution of the deal was a bitter blow to Henry Ford II, who vowed to build his own racing team devoted to defeating Ferrari at their own game. That would prove a challenge, with Ferrari dominating in the early 1960s with six straight wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans from 1960 through 1965. But with the help of builder Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles, Ford would get his win at Le Mans in 1966. Ferrari has yet to win again at Le Mans. Though they’ve continued to see success on the F1 circuit.
Check out this article for more on the epic Ford vs Ferrari rivalry.
Enzo couldn’t hold out forever. Despite refusing Ford’s offer, the struggling company still needed a partner if it was to survive. FIAT, who’d once denied Enzo a job way back when, began their partnership in 1965 and by 1969 had bought a 50% stake in Ferrari. Enzo stepped down as manager of the road car division in 1971. By 1988, FIAT would own a 90% stake in Ferrari.
Enzo’s wife Laura died in 1978. It was with her passing that Enzo was able to formally recognize his son Piero, who was able to take on his father’s name and a seat on the Ferrari board. Piero would eventually succeed his father at the company and still reportedly retains a 10% stake in the company.
The Ferrari F40 debuted in 1987. The greatest and most beautiful of all Ferrari’s cars would be the last project on which Enzo would have a hand. He would pass one year later, at the age of 90. He is remembered for his grit and his gruffness, but most of all for his unwavering passion for and commitment to winning. And yet, what remains aren’t just the trophies or colorful anecdotes but cars like the 250, the 288 GTO, the F40, and many more. They are Enzo Ferrari’s real monument, as impressive as they are indelible.
For more on the best Ferraris of all time, click here.