According to legend, Enzo Ferrari’s first V12 engine was influenced by a Packard. The Packard in question, the 4.9-liter 299, first ran in 1916, and after an active career it was bought in 1920 by the attractive Italian Baroness Maria Antonietta Avanzo.
The Baroness engaged Eugenio Silvani to race her new car in sprint and Formula Libre events. On November 14, Silvani set the fastest time in the Gallarate speed trials at 97.26 mph over the flying kilometer. The following January, he won the Vermicino-Rocca di Papa hillclimb at 42.17 mph. The Baroness, whom Ferrari recalled as “the first courageous woman driver of the postwar era,” took the wheel herself for Denmark’s speed trials on the beach at Fanoe, near Copenhagen, but had to drive the car into the sea to extinguish an engine fire.
The 299’s last known race was at Monza on a rainy October 22, 1922, where the six-year-old car finished ninth. We can be confident that, in one or more of its Italian appearances, the potent Packard was witnessed by Enzo Ferrari—and the Baroness herself was sure that her car caught Ferrari’s eye. After she swapped it to dealer-racer Antonio Ascari, she said, the Packard “went from owner to owner, and no-one managed to get any good results from it except Enzo Ferrari, who said that it had given him the inspiration for his future 12-cylinder cars.”
This was an exaggeration, albeit a delightful one. In fact, the decision to build a twelve was based on practical logic, albeit logic that seemed to ignore the privations of the struggling Italian economy in the aftermath of World War II.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE END OF THE WAR in Europe, Enzo established Auto Costruzioni Ferrari, a company whose name gave clear evidence of his intentions. “I had had ambitious plans for launching out into the manufacture of high-quality cars,” he said. “I remembered that I had joined Alfa Romeo when they were endeavoring to produce one car a day, and I too had hopes of achieving this same target.”
By a stroke of luck, a collaborator was available with whom Ferrari could work on the design of an all-new car. In June 1945, at the age of 42, Gioacchino Colombo had just been laid off by Alfa Romeo, the company for which he’d worked since 1924. Colombo referred to “a temporary suspension, caused by political misunderstandings,” but reading between the lines, this meant that the engineer was being investigated to see whether his wartime career as a member of the Fascist Party counted against his continued employment.
Ferrari and Colombo knew each other well from their pre-war associations. Under the great Vittorio Jano, Colombo had designed race cars for Alfa Romeo, including the low-chassis 312 with its V12 engine and the successful 158 Voiturette. Ferrari had organized Alfa’s racing entries until his Scuderia was bought out by the automaker in 1937, and had also built cars such as the aforementioned 158 and the Alfa-powered 1935 Bimotore. With engines both front and rear, the latter was first car ever to carry the Prancing Horse above its grille.