The Genesis of a Culture Hero

Griff Borgeson looks at the fires that burned within the young Enzo, and the powerful forces that drove the mature Ferrari to act out his dream on the world stage.

The Genesis of a Culture Hero 1
February 28, 2019

The Monza SP1 and SP2, the first products in Ferrari’s new Icona line, pay homage to the marque’s racing cars of the 1950s. Few automakers can claim such a rich and storied history, and Ferrari’s was defined by founder Enzo Ferrari, who ran his eponymous creation from just after World War II until his death in 1988. This, then, seems like the perfect time to look back at the man who created the legend. This essay, written by the late Griff Borgeson, first appeared in FORZA #6, our Summer 1997 issue.—Ed.

FERRARI. It would be nice to be able to read metal-working meaning, as old as time, into the family name that fate and his father gave our hero. One hesitates: It might have to do with “from Ferrara,” the city not far from his native Modena. But no. People from there are Ferraresi. Among the words for ironworker one does find ferraro, the plural forms of which can be ferrai or ferrari. The Latin root, fer, rings out, with all its semantic associations, such as “iron will.” Right on, then!

There is a staggering concentration of Ferraris in Modena, the name taking up many square yards of fine print in the local directories. Still, in a very real sense there is only one Ferrari in Modena, in Italy, in the rest of the world—there is the Ingegner and Commendator Ferrari whom the whole world knows, and then there are all those myriad others.

His given names, Anselmo and Enzo, are no doubt those of close relatives. Enzo became a name in its own right at some point, after having originated as a nickname for Lorenzo. That name derives from the Latin Laurum, laurel, sacred to Apollo, symbol of honor and synonym for victory.

While on the subject of name magic (“Who hath not felt/With rapture-smitten frame/The power of Grace/The magic of a name?”), one name that came to haunt Enzo throughout his life was Dino. It is the diminutive of the diminutive of Alfredo—the name of his dead son, his older brother, his father, and of the first-born males of his bloodline for immemorial generations. Dino, short for Alfredino, has the ring of the old Greek dinamikos — powerful. Put Dino and Ferrari together and you get a semantic mix such as “strong as iron.” There is an echo even of dinastia — dynasty. One can be sure that none of this symbolism was lost on Enzo, nurtured on Greek myth and tragedy as he was.

Some students of the hero syndrome sense a link between it and trauma during the exceptional individual’s youth. We know precious little about the formative period in Enzo’s life, but he did write that he had been condemned to shoeing mules while in the army—the iron in his karma again. Then, he tells us, he almost perished in a ghastly military hospital. While he was there, his father and brother—Dinos both—died, and he himself was on the brink of death when he was finally released back into a cruel world. This could have been the trauma that hero-oriented psychologists look for.

It was followed in Enzo’s memoirs by the highly dramatized park bench trauma in Turin. His much younger friend, Gino Rancati, who has done much biographical writing about the man, saw in it the beginning of a burning appetite for vengeance, a recurring theme throughout Il Grande Vecchio’s career. He acted it out publicly, on what swiftly became a world stage. One certainly sees vengeance as one of the many fuels Ferrari burned.

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A young Enzo Ferrari (on left) with brother and parents.

Enzo’s desertion of his teammates after a taste of practice for the 1924 French Grand Prix marked another major turning point in his life. He was judged harshly for it by aficionados of crash-and-burn, but cooler heads could see it as a triumph of maturing intelligence over youthful derring-do. It did leave him, however, with battered self-esteem and an intensified need to prove himself—to himself and to the world—and instead of embracing death in a ditch, as did all too many of his comrade race drivers, he became their leader, creating the Scuderia that carried his name. With dynamism that tries credulity he forged this entity into a patrimony of glory without equal in motor sport, and of the honor of his patria, his homeland—a word that moved Ferrari’s soul.

Enzo Ferrari was 47 years old at the end of World War Two, and most of his life had been an apprenticeship for what he now was about to do, which was to build his own racing cars and, with them, to take on the world.

With that grim and glorious goal in mind, he opted for a V12 engine configuration, telling one and all how he had been impressed by the Packard Twin Sixes of the World War One era. I am serenely confident that the verity is otherwise. When young Count Carlo Felice Trossi became president of the Scuderia Ferrari in 1932, he already possessed quite a few years’ experience in seeking out the best sporting cars in the world. Money was the least of his concerns. He knew Alfas and Bugattis intimately, and had just about three years of fidelity to the S-series Mercedes-Benz supercharged Sixes. His still extant, magnificent SSK boattail speedster is testimony to that period. When Packard released its Twelve in 1932, Trossi gave it a try. The combination he discovered of marvelous performance along with outstanding safety, luxury, and comfort brought about his enduring conversion to that marque and model. He began collecting them, buying at least two or three a year, the custom-built body of each being more marvelous than the last. His heir, Don Maurizio Fracassi, has shown me the huge albums, filled with professional photographic portraits of these cars, all posed before the drawbridge of il Castello di Gaglianico, the Trossi family’s northern seat. The count did his commuting between Biella and the Scuderia in Modena in these marvels. And the bravura with which he drove them is the stuff of legend. The Packard Motor Car Company remained a potential competitor in the international market until the late Fifties and Ferrari, very understandably, would not acknowledge his relatively recent indebtedness to that illustrious American marque. Hence the legend of American generals and the Baronessa Avanzo and their World War One vintage Twin Sixes.

A distinguished automotive executive who was a member of the Scuderia in the Thirties has impressed upon me the point that there were two marques that commanded Ferrari’s intense interest: Packard, as we have seen, and Bugatti. The talent of Ettore Bugatti as the creator of legend and image fascinated Ferrari. My source is emphatic about the fact that the Cavallino/Baracca elements of the carefully crafted Ferrari image were chosen in emulation of the Bugatti mix of pur sang horse-flesh and fighter-pilot heroism—Roland Garros in the case of the man from Molsheim.

IN ALL THE LITERATURE I have read on the marque I am unaware of any explanation of how the title of Commendatore came to Ferrari, nor of its correct meaning. First, let it be noted that in Italian, titles that end with -re—Signore, Dottore, for example—almost always drop the final “e” when followed by a proper name. To resume, then, when the Coppa Acerbo was organized under regal auspices at Pescara in 1924, one of the incentives to win was, perhaps on this sole occasion, bestowal of the rank of Cavaliere (Knight) of the Order of the Crown. In our hero’s case, this reward may have been the actual incentive to win what would prove to be the most important contest in his career as a racing driver. Thus at the youthful age of 26 he fairly and legitimately became Sir Enzo Ferrari to the world—and in his own self-image.

How the Cavaliere in turn became Commendatore was explained to me by his faithful aide of decades, Franco Gozzi. Within the Order of the Crown there were three grades: Cavaliere, Commendatore, and Grand Ufficiale. It was due to his great achievements with the Scuderia in the Thirties that the Crown elevated him to the next rank, that of Commendatore. The title does not mean one who has received royal commendation, but one who may dispense commendation. Only war and the fall of the Italian monarchy prevented Ferrari’s ascension to the ultimate degree.

As it grew, La Ferrari—the company—became a marvelously complex and unwieldy creature. It featured separate divisions for the design, development, fabrication, and campaigning of racing cars, and was boosted by its own small sales department. Then, of course, and to help pay for the costly racing sector, a full-blown passenger-car manufacturing and marketing enterprise was allowed to take on a parallel existence.

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Enzo drove for Alfa Romeo in the 1920s.

Sir Enzo was getting no younger as this clamorous monster evolved. He was preparing to pass the scepter of command to son Dino—not to retire, God forbid, but in order to start getting some well-earned rest after a long and tumultuous career. But Dino’s health withered away and in 1956 he died, appearing to take with him all hope of linear succession. This tragedy in the life of the 58-year-old giant was lived out in the most public way for decades to come.

The wounds from the catastrophe were wide open when, in 1957, Enzo’s suffering was vastly compounded when he was treated by certain elements of church, state, and press as a criminal public enemy because of de Portago’s fatal exit into the crowd in that year’s Mille Miglia. This suffering, too, took on a high public profile.

It was in about 1959 that Sir Enzo’s image acquired a new, all too cryptic facet. Making vague allusion to the colorful Elizabethan buccaneer Sir Francis Drake, a journalist—either Gianni Reif or Dario Zanasi—referred to Ferrari as “Il Drake.” For some unimaginable reason the title, pronounced “drah-kay” in Italian, was seized upon by the national press and still today is a readily recognized way of referring to Il Grande Vecchio.

In 1960 the prestigious University Bologna honored him with title of Ingegnere, a title he thereafter preferred over Commendatore. And as Enzo Ferrari was about to expire, the University of Modena finally came to life, making him an honorary Doctor of Physics.

FERRARI LOVED LANGUAGE, and spoke it with elegant force. He was a good public speaker who could have become an impressive orator. He loved the written word and had done some writing himself, first as a banal reporter of sporting events, later as a staffer on the Scuderia periodicals, which he invented and ran. He was not a good writer by any stretch of the imagination. His Le Mie Gioie Terribili (“My Terrible Joys”) appeared first in 1962, as a rather naive compendium of answers to questions posed by an imaginary interviewer. Getting his version of the story down in durable print was the objective, not literary frills. That act of self-discipline, when he had myriad other responsibilities, was an excellent investment in image. The text has gone through many editions and much rewriting in various languages. Of course, it is the first reference that most writers consult for authoritative data on the great man’s career. His memoirs have become history, regardless of their manifest subjectivity. If you want a thing done right, do it yourself. And it was all-important to Enzo that this thing be done right — his way.

I was in San Francisco and Sir Enzo in Maranello when we began a sporadic correspondence in 1949. He was just another early postwar specialty-car builder trying to find a foothold. By the time I became settled in Italy in 1963, Ferrari and his enterprise had already achieved worldwide renown, and both were impressive to observe at first hand. Admirable at times, he was awful at others, and was notorious for being irrationally unpredictable. As a human figure, he would have looked superb in a Roman toga. He could be jovial, but those in his entourage cringed at his frown. Ferrari and I would meet occasionally, but always under distracting, crowded conditions.

It was not until 1975 that this pattern changed. I had gone to the now Fiat-owned Maranello factory to interview its president on the prospects for the marque in a country on the brink of takeover by the political Left. As I was leaving, who should hook my arm but Gozzi. He smiled and said, “Borgeson, Engineer Ferrari would like to greet you before you get away. It will just take a moment.”

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In the ’30s, Scuderia Ferrari campaigned and developed Alfa’s works racing cars.

By this time Il Grande Vecchio had become literally a demigod for a good segment of the Italian population, and a personage of world distinction. I was delightfully surprised and honored. Sir Enzo’s greeting was warm. He had been a student of the printed word about him since the early days, and he knew what I had put on paper. The ensuing conversation was as relaxed and intimate as though it had taken place in the den of an old friend. In the end it was I who had to take my leave. To chat with Ferrari was to exchange ideas with a totally unpretentious individual of very broad culture and erudition. He seemed to have read everything from Benedetto Croce to Einstein, with Stendahl, Ludwig, and Playboy thrown in along the way. And his schooling?

“Well, I did the three primary years, then three of technical school.”

I suppose that the latter was essentially shop training. His enormous intellectual assets had been acquired, then, entirely through his own efforts. The climax of the rambling, easy-going session came when I asked Ferrari if the phenomenon that was the present-day firm rested on a particular philosophical base.

“La Ferrari,” he said, “is the living expression of my dreams. A car is a rather beautiful and fascinating thing. It is because of that, and because there is no perfection but only evolution, that I continue to dream.”

This caused me to quote words by Lawrence of Arabia, concerning dreams as a motivating force in life: “All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it is vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

“That is exactly it!” was Sir Enzo’s emphatic response. “E’ tutto lì!”

In composing the foregoing I have had the precious help of my dear friends Gianni Cancellieri and Adolfo Orsi.—GB

Also from Issue 173

  • Inside new Icona model line
  • 250 GT SWB
  • 290 MM
  • 24 Hours of Daytona
  • Ferrari and Michelotto go GT racing
  • Kimi Raikkonen's F1 career
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