Part 34 Ferrari – The Early Years

The History of Italian Automobiles – Part 34

By David Cavaliere

Throughout the past several months, I have brought you many features on Italian automobile manufacturers whose history has been all but forgotten. This week I’ll feature a manufacturer that everyone has heard of – Ferrari. It is impossible to do justice to this marque in one feature. Many books have been devoted to the road cars, racing team, drivers, engines and the story of Enzo Ferrari himself. His name conjures up numerous images – the prancing horse, the Scuderia, the boys from Maranello, their legion of fans – the tifosi who can be found in every corner of the planet. Ferrari is the only car manufacturer that has a theme park (although Honda does own the amusement park at Suzuka, in Japan). Ferrari is the only team that has contested every year of the Formula 1 series (which began in 1950). It has won more races and championships than any other team in that series and has had a who’s who of drivers piloting its cars. In this feature, we will cover the early years of Ferrari.

Enzo Anselmo Ferrari was born on the outskirts of Modena on the 18th of February 1898. Enzo’s father, Alfredo, owned a small metal engineering company employing roughly 30 people, which built bridges and roofs for the state railways. In 1908, Enzo’s father brought ten-year-old Enzo, along with his brother Alfredo Jr., to watch a race at the motor racing circuit on Via Emilia in Bologna. The race is won by Felice Nazzaro (Vincenzo Lancia, who will the subject of a future story, set the races fastest lap). Young Enzo was entranced by the action – by the speed and by the sound. He told his brother that someday he would race cars; however, in 1916, the family suffered a double tragedy – both Alfredo Sr. and Jr. passed away. Enzo was forced to give up his schooling and found work as an instructor at a lathing school in Modena. His position was short-lived. Enzo was soon inducted into the Italian army, assigned to the 3rd Alpine Artillery Division. However, while in service, he became seriously ill and had to undergo two operations before being honorably discharged. Once he regained his health, Enzo attempted to get a job with Fiat in Turin. He was turned down; instead he managed to secure work as a test-driver for a small company in Turin that built torpedo sport bodies atop light truck chassis. This was not the ideal job for a man with huge ambition. Frustrated with the work, in 1919, Enzo moved to Milan to work for C.M.N (Costruzioni Meccaniche Nazionali), first as a test-driver and then later as a racing driver. He made his competitive debut in the 1919 Parma-Poggio di Berceto Hillclimb. He finished fourth in the three-liter category, a very respectable result since the car he was driving, a 4-cylinder CMN 15/20, had a capacity of only 2.3-liters.

In 1920, Enzo enjoyed only mixed fortunes at the wheel of an Isotta Fraschini 100/110 IM Corsa. His best result that year was second in the Targa Florio driving an Alfa Romeo Tipo 40/60. That race marked the start of a 20-year collaboration between Enzo and the marque. During that period, Ferrari did test-driving and racing; he was an Alfa Romeo dealer and the head of Alfa Corse – the company’s racing division. During his early days at Alfa, he competed in numerous races. In 1921, he finished second at Mugello in July, but had a major accident in September (trying to avoid a herd of cattle blocking the race route).

In 1923, Ferrari won the first Circuito del Savio and met Count and Countess Baracca, parents of the famous Italian First World War pilot Francesco Baracca. He received a signed photograph of the pilot and was invited to use Baracca’s aircraft squadron prancing horse emblem as a mascot for his cars, an emblem that 93 years later still appears on all Ferraris.

In 1924, at the age of only 26, Ferrari was made a Cavaliere (Knight) for his sporting achievements, his first official honor from the Italian state. His passion for journalism saw him become one of the founders of the famous Corriere dello Sport newspaper in Bologna in 1925. In 1927, Ferrari was made Commendatore by the Italian state in recognition of his services to the Nation in the area of racing. Still racing cars at this point, he won the first Circuito di Modena in an Alfa Romeo 6C-1500 SS in ‘27 and won the same event the following year.

The end of the decade saw a seminal event within the life of Ferrari. In 1929 he founded Scuderia Ferrari in Modena. The aim of the racing stable was to allow owner/drivers to race. The Scuderia initially fielded cars (primarily Alfas) and motorcycles. In time it became a technical-racing outpost for Alfa Romeo and effectively it took over as its racing department in 1933.

Enzo’s final drive as a racer was in 1931 at the Circuito Tre Province. He finished second to Nuvolari, while driving an Alfa Romeo 8C -2300 MM. The decision to quit racing came as result of the impending birth of his son Alfredo, better known as Dino and his growing workload as head of the Scuderia. In 1937, his Scuderia built the Alfa Romeo 158. The derivation of this car, the 159 went on to become extremely successful in the post war years, but by this time, Enzo had long since left Alfa Romeo. Scuderia Ferrari was wound down at the end of 1937 and in 1938 Enzo began a new position as the head of Alfa Corse (The Alfa factory racing team). The Alfa team did not have a budget that remotely approached either of the German teams (Mercedes and Auto Union). As a result, the Alfa team’s results were mixed (at best). 1939 brought an even more acrimonious situation between Ferrari and Alfa. He was handed his walking papers (and a severance package) on September 6th 1939. Part of the proviso was that he could not use the Ferrari name in association with racing cars for at least four years. From that moment on, beating Alfa Romeo in one of his own cars became a burning passion for Ferrari. Exactly one week later, Enzo used a loophole in the contract to form Auto Avio Costruzioni on Viale Trento Trieste in Modena, the headquarters of the old Scuderia Ferrari. This venture was covered on Part 17 – Auto Avio of this series on May 12, 2016.

Ferrari conducted machining work for the war effort during WWII and in 1943, had to move his factory from Modena to Maranello, where the first portion of what would become the Ferrari factory was built. Although the factory was twice struck by Allied bombs, it was soon repaired.

Enzo began work on the design of the first car to bear his name in late 1945. His ambitious plan was to power the car using a V12 engine. Enzo had always admired the smooth running V12 engines of Packard, Auto Union and Alfa Romero. His earliest cars used V12 engines designed by Gioacchino Colombo, who had formerly worked for Enzo during the Alfa Corse days. The first engine appeared under the hood of Ferrari’s 125 S sports racer. The name refers to the capacity of each of the 12 cylinders – in this case 124.73 cc, rounded up to give the engine and the car its name. Enzo believed that with the proper design, the engine would be versatile enough for use in racing cars and road cars – in that expectation, he was absolutely correct. He also believed that the engine would be suitable for development over the course of several years. In that assumption, he was remarkably conservative. During the lifetime of the engine, these single overhead cam V12 power plants ranged from the diminutive 1.5 liter units of 1947, to the 4.9 liter units fitted to the 1986 Ferrari 412i – a lifespan of 39 years!

(left) The 1952 Ferrari 500 F2. Ascari won two World Championships in this type. The Formula used F2 specifications in ’52 and ’53, fearing that there would not be enough F1 entries, once Alf Romeo withdrew from the sport. This picture clearly shows the 2 liter DOHC inline four engine. (right)

On March 12th 1947, Enzo took the first 125 S out for its initial test-drive on the open road. The car became an immediate success, claiming six victories in 14 races that year. Other successes followed. Having won the Mille Miglia in 1948, Ferrari then won the prestigious Le Mans 24 Hour Race in 1949. When Formula One was created in 1950, Ferrari entered the field. The formula was intended to be a contest representing the pinnacle of automotive development and experimentation. It won its first race in 1951. The following year, Ferrari driver Alberto Ascari became the Formula One World Champion. He repeated the feat in 1953 and in doing so, achieved a remarkable nine consecutive wins during the two seasons – a record that has not been broken and has only been equaled once. This was before the days of a Constructor Championship in Formula One (it was first instituted in 1958), but Ferrari was

For those who follow the sport, you may be interested to know that Ascari’s car was not a V12. Both of his championships were won driving an inline four. Ferrari drivers who followed Ascari and won driver  championships, included Fangio (with a Lancia engine), Hawthorne, P. Hill, Surtees, Lauda (2X), Scheckter, Schumacher (5X) and Räikkönen. Unbelievably, none of those drivers won with a V12 engine (although Lauda won twice with a flat 12).

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