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Ferrari, il Cavallino Rampante

The odd thing about living in Italy is that you don’t see many Ferraris out on the road. Perhaps that’s because we’re not in Milan and only rarely in Rome or perhaps they’re now too expensive for Italians.

vintage Ferrari cars at the Ferrari museum in Modena

Out of the 10,000 of these beautiful automobiles that were made in 2019 it’s no surprise that many buyers were Americans and newly affluent Asians, Chinese in particular, but the British continued to be one of the biggest per capita buyers in the world taking a full 11% of production according to Ferrari’s own records.

There must have been a collective sigh of relief in Maranello when the Brexit deal was signed because otherwise the customs duty on these expensive machines heading out of the EU into Britain would have been huge, enough to take a sizeable bite out of sales.

But even if the Italians are no longer big buyers of Ferraris, the love affair continues unabated. Every Italian male lusts after this car and all Italians take great pride in it. And this extends to the Formula One team referred to either as la Ferrari or la Scuderia Ferrari (stable, as in a stable of racehorses). Unlike the British and others whose allegiance and support tends to follow the nationality of the driver, the Italians support only Ferrari whoever the driver might be, and even those with no particular interest in motorsports pay attention when there’s a Grand Prix on.

The Ferrari drivers who win races become immediate heroes in Italy and the unfortunate Michael Schumacher is beloved here. As too was Juan Manuel Fangio, a legendary name in Italy even today because although Argentinian he had an Italian name and Italian heritage so just like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra he was Italian. And of course the recently departed Niki Lauda had huge success with Ferrari and there was great affection for him also.

I can’t pretend to be much of a car guy driving around Italy in a beat up sixteen year old Opel (at least it never gets stolen) but you don’t have to be a gearhead to enjoy a couple of hours at the Ferrari museum in Modena. Opened in 2012 it was built on the exact spot where Enzo Ferrari was born in 1898.

Enzo became one of the early racing drivers, winning his first Grand Prix in 1923 in an Alfa Romeo followed by three more in 1924, his best season. Unsettled by the deaths of several close friends and perhaps also influenced by the recent birth of his son, he retired as a driver in 1932 after 41 Grand Prix and a commendable 11 wins. He then switched his attention to the development of racing cars, initially with Alfa Romeo, but it wasn’t until 1947 that the company Ferrari was born.

Enzo’s initial focus was not on producing cars but rather to win races at Le Mans and the Mille Miglia (thousand miles), an annual race around Italy, and also Formula One when it was re-introduced in 1950. Ferrari had immediate success in all three in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. The Mille Miglia was a huge event in Italy with massive public interest and it was a real race, highly competitive and requiring endurance.

The route around Italy was often on very poor roads and in its 24th year the inevitable tragedy happened. In 1957 near the town of Guidizzolo, just south of Lago di Garda, a Ferrari reportedly being driven at more than 150 mph blew out a tire and crashed into the roadside crowd, killing the driver, co-driver and nine spectators including five children. In the aftermath Enzo Ferrari was charged with manslaughter in a lengthy criminal proceeding before finally being acquitted in 1960. Racing on public roads was subsequently banned and the Mille Miglia since that time has been reduced to just an enjoyable procession of vintage cars.

vintage Ferrari cars at the Ferrari museum in Modena, Italy

To understand the history of Ferrari in the 1960s look no further than the recent wonderfully entertaining film Ford v Ferrari. It is a fascinating account of the rivalry that played out at Le Mans each year between Enzo and his rebuffed and insulted suitor Henry Ford II, and from everything I’ve read it keeps faith with the actual events as well as any Hollywood film can. A good cast with good acting and a great story that happens to be mostly true.

As the film suggests, the legendary Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli, who was head of Fiat for almost 40 years, came to the financial rescue of Ferrari in 1969 and took 50% ownership, leaving control of just the racing side in Enzo’s hands. The ownership stake was increased later to 90% but finally in 2016 things came full circle and Ferrari become an independent company again after a gap of almost 50 years. Enzo, who died in 1988, would no doubt have been pleased.

It’s not just Italians of course who drool over Ferraris. They have featured prominently in some iconic films and television series over the years. And while they mostly just get driven around as a pretty looking prop (think Don Johnson in Miami Vice in a black 1972 Daytona Spider or Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I. in a cherry red 308 GTS) they are rarely worthy of an Oscar for best supporting role for an inanimate object. In the classic 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the Ferrari surely deserved such an award.

The star here is a simply gorgeous red 1961 250 GT California, of which there were only 52 made and one of them sold recently for $17 million. The car steals several scenes and though its ‘”death” in the ravines in Highland Park gets plenty of film time and loving camera shots, the best is unquestionably the “jump scene” when the two car valets get the Ferrari airborne as they literally fly out of the garage from under the El tracks in the Chicago Loop with the engine revving to the Star Wars theme tune.

An old movie it may be, but if there’s anyone left out there who has not yet seen it, then lockdown would be the perfect opportunity.

Don Johnson, by the way, received a personal gift of a silver Testarossa from Enzo in the 1980s such was the popularity of Miami Vice syndicated across 77 countries and as Ferrari objected to the show’s use of fake Ferraris, which their experts could spot easily, they also donated a couple of real ones to the show.

Note there are two Ferrari Museums.

We visited the Enzo Ferrari museum in Modena (that has his son’s name Alfredo on the building) which is very close to the center of town and requires less time than the one 13 miles away at Maranello. We didn't go to Maranello but we understand that there is more to see there including tours of the factory and the racetrack, a driving simulator and even a test drive in a Ferrari with an experienced Italian co-driver, presumably so you don’t lose control and crash. A combination ticket can be bought for both museums at a reduced price.


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