The Wilderness Years

After being fired by Alfa Romeo then having his new company nationalized for the war effort, Enzo Ferrari turned to manufacturing mechanical components and machine tools.

Photo: The Wilderness Years 1
July 19, 2021

For Enzo Ferrari, the year 1937 began with excitement and satisfaction, as Alfa Romeo took back the reins of its racing program. The Scuderia Ferrari, which had fielded racing Alfas successfully since 1930, was no longer Ferrari’s property, as the automaker richly compensated Enzo for 80 percent of its shares.

Alfa Romeo also commissioned Ferrari to design and build a new racing car for the 1.5-liter Voiturette formula. This machine would be created in the Scuderia’s small yet well-equipped works in Modena, with the help of Gioacchino Colombo, a student of the work of the legendary Vittorio Jano, who was on loan from Alfa.

“Colombo and Ferrari had gotten to know each other at Alfa Romeo,” said historian Piero Casucci, “and became closer when they were at Modena when the Alfa Romeo 158 was on the drawing board.”

“The whole car was built in Modena in our workshop,” added proud father Ferrari. “What we could not do directly, we had built by the Daldi and Matteucci workshops in Porretta Terme or by the Cevolani workshops in Bologna. I was rushing around day and night picking up pieces here and there.”

But Enzo would not have the satisfaction of seeing a finished 158 roll out of the portals of his headquarters on Viale Trento e Trieste. As a result of the 1937 season’s dismal racing performance, the pressure he received from on high, and the counsel of his new cadre of advisors, Alfa chief Ugo Gobbato revised his views of Ferrari and his Scuderia, and decided it was time to begin anew.

Photo: The Wilderness Years 2

Designer Vittorio Jano, Enzo Ferrari, and Alfa Romeo chief Ugo Gobbato in 1934.

“On December 27, 1937, Scuderia Ferrari ceased to exist,” wrote Ferrari biographer Luca Dal Monte. “For Enzo Ferrari, who had invested eight years of his life in the Scuderia, with all the physical and mental energy he could muster, it was a bitter day. He could not say that the decision had come as a surprise but it was still a stab in the back. In eight years, Scuderia Ferrari participated in 225 races with a total of 715 cars. It obtained 144 victories and 171 podium finishes.

“The only satisfaction Enzo received was that it made him rich,” added Dal Monte. “The liquidation of the Scuderia in fact provided him with more than a million lire—1,142,462 lire and 5 cents, to be exact. A total of 980,000 lire came from the sale of five units of the Tipo 12C-1937—one of which was ‘built by Scuderia Ferrari with spare parts’—and three Tipo 2900 As.” The dollar equivalent of the settlement was some $64,000—serious money at the time.

The balance of Ferrari’s compensation from Alfa included severance pay for his services in 1937 and reimbursements for expenses and rents payable. His Modena headquarters at Viale Trento e Trieste 11 became a service and logistics center for owners of racing Alfas.

To say that Alfa Romeo did not leave Ferrari personally high and dry would be a vast understatement. Named the head of a revived Alfa Corse, the automaker’s in-house racing stable, Enzo drew an annual salary during a three-year contract of 190,000 lire. A potential 60,000 more was available from his share of car sales and starting and prize money from racing. First-class compensation was payable for travel including his commuting between Modena and Milan, where a new Alfa Corse was erected near the works. Yet Enzo was contractually “relieved of any residence requirement, office hours and presence.”

The new Alfa Corse, said Ugo Gobbato, was to “deal with the design of racing cars, their research, their construction, their preparation and finally their management.” Triumphalism, even gloating, accompanied its creation. At last, Alfa Romeo could show what it could do on its own.

Photo: The Wilderness Years 3

Exterior view of Ferrari’s base in Modena.

A new corporate magazine was also born, the first issue of which would see the light in April 1938. It featured what was called “a drawing of appalling taste: it pictured the Visconti snake [in the Alfa emblem] swallowing the Ferrari horse.”

IN JANUARY 1938, the immediate impact of the new relationship was the arrival of a fleet of Alfa Romeo transporters to take all work in progress at Modena to Portello in Milan, including jigs, tools, and components of four unfinished Tipo 158s. With them went Gioacchino Colombo, who would oversee the model’s completion and testing while also doing his best to spruce up Alfa’s available material to compete under the new Grand Prix rules of 1938.

In 1938 and ’39, however, Alfa Romeo went well off the boil in Grand Prix racing, due in part to the arrival of Wifredo Pelayo Ricart y Medina, a Spaniard whose role was initially as a consultant on testing and technical issues. Born into a “comfortable middle-class family” in Barcelona in 1897, Ricart graduated as an industrial engineer in 1918. So spellbinding was Ricart that Ugo Gobbato discounted the practical advances made by his existing racing-car designers.

Gobbato’s further elevation of Ricart was evident because, according to Guiseppe Busso, who arrived at Portello on January 1, 1939, “in April 1940 Ricart received a circular from the management giving official confirmation of the functions that he had been carrying out for some time: supervising both our Special Studies Service and all other design and experimentation for cars, trucks, aircraft, bodywork, racing, etc.” Ricart would remain with Alfa Romeo to the end of his contract on March 31, 1945.

While Ricart was an annoyance for Enzo Ferrari, his real difference of opinion was with Gobbato. “Despite mutual respect,” wrote Luca Dal Monte, “Enzo Ferrari and Ugo Gobbato had antithetical conceptions of how a racing team should operate. Different from Ferrari, who grew up with motor racing, Gobbato believed neither in ‘improvisation’ nor in ‘quick decisions.’ Indeed, he ensured that everything was arranged in advance down to the last detail—which was not always possible in the world of motor racing. Ferrari knew this; Gobbato did not.

Photo: The Wilderness Years 4

L-R: Engineer Alberto Massimino followed Enzo from Scuderia Ferrari to AAC; Gioacchino Colombo worked with Enzo both before and after World War II.

“From the point of view of the company man that he was,” Dal Monte continued, “Gobbato considered a racing car the synthesis of all the departments that made up a company, the fruit of the work of many organizations, even if they were seemingly far apart. Ferrari, on the contrary, based on his experience, argued that racing cars were to be ‘the compendium of the work of a small auxiliary workshop with excellent resources and its own special and flexible staff, ready to translate ideas and projects quickly into an ever-changing final product.’”

The final rupture was not long in coming. Separating Enzo Ferrari from Alfa Corse almost a year and a half ahead of his contract’s expiration would be costly, Gobbato’s officials told him. Yet, facing up to the apparent necessity, on September 6, 1939 the Alfa chief advised Enzo of his premature termination.

“While we express our regret that circumstances have prevented us from continuing to require your assistance,” he wrote, blaming the onset of war, “we would like you to know that we appreciate the work that you have done for Alfa Romeo in the last 20 years, and are pleased that your liquidation came about in a friendly and fair way and with mutual satisfaction.”

“In the end I was sacked,” was Ferrari’s summary, “which seemed to be the only logical solution to the situation that had developed. In 1939 came my divorce from Alfa Romeo. I sold the cars to Gobbato and he fired me. With the settlement after my 20 years and with my savings, I transformed the Scuderia into a small car factory.”

The public announcement was concise: “Ferrari, after a mutual agreement with the management of the make, resumed his freedom with respect to Alfa Corse, and is now setting up, in the premises that were already home to the Scuderia, a workshop for repairing cars. The workshop will be ready at the end of the month. Racing is for the time being set aside.”

Photo: The Wilderness Years 5

Alberto Ascari sits behind the wheel of AAC 815.

That last item—so disappointing to Ferrari’s many fans—would turn out to be erroneous, even though a clause in the agreement he signed with Alfa Romeo forbade Ferrari for four years from rebuilding his Scuderia and from being involved with the racing sector. “I was a leading and possibly a crucial character,” he said, “in two sensational clubs—Fiat and Alfa Romeo—by which I mean in the motor-racing sector.” But he found a loophole.

Enzo Ferrari could not compete, but what if his name were not on the maker or its product? In September 1939, he founded a new company called Auto Avio Costruzioni (AAC), which opened its doors at Viale Trento e Trieste 11 to provide design and manufacturing services.

Joining him were Alberto Massimino, Enrico Nardi, and a newcomer with workshop experience, Vittorio Bellentani, as well as faithful members of his mechanical crew. Federico Giberti controlled the office while Lorenzo Ross managed finances. Production was overseen by Rolando Paolo Rosso. Equipped to carry out all machining work in-house, AAC needed only to obtain castings from the Fonderia Calzoni in Bologna.

Almost immediately an opportunity presented itself: the 1940 Mille Miglia, scheduled for a fast road circuit near Brescia on April 28. For this event, Ferrari conceived a 1.5-liter sports car built around some Fiat components, which would aid their construction in a short period of time while also qualifying them for a bonus that Fiat offered for success with cars using its parts. Designed by the adaptable Massimino, the car was called the Tipo 815. Though too hastily built to finish the lengthy race, the two examples produced showed satisfying speed in the hands of drivers that included future double World Champion Alberto Ascari.

THE WAR WOULD SOON CHANGE AAC’s focus on racing. “On July 17, 1941,” Dal Monte related, “the Auto Avio Costruzioni Modena workshop was declared ‘auxiliary’ to the war effort. According to this status all company employees became mobilized civilians, subject like all soldiers to military law. Put simply, those who were to be absent from work without a written permit or had not returned from a vacation without a just cause would be considered deserters.”

Photo: The Wilderness Years 6

The Ferrari factory of the 1940s, with offices at the front and machine shops in the long arms. Small building located in the “elbow” was used for racing car preparation.

An early customer for AAC’s services was the Compagnia Nazionale Aeronautica (CNA), based at Rome’s Littorio Airport. Established in 1920 by Count Giovanni Bonmartini and flying colleagues from the Great War, CNA’s airport was developed for a flying school and the production of light aircraft and their engines, with Carlo Gianini as chief engineer. In 1934, a young engineering graduate, Rome’s Piero Taruffi, was taken on as Gianini’s assistant. One of their projects was an advanced four-cylinder 500-cc motorcycle racing engine, originated by Gianini and Piero Remor and taken over by Bonmartini’s CNA.

CNA did not escape the wave of nationalization by Italy’s state industrial company IRI, which took command in 1935. The company was placed under the management of Gianni Caproni, who was not interested in CNA’s motorcycle project. Taruffi arranged for its takeover by Gilera, which developed it into a world-beating machine.

When the military placed greater demands on CNA, ordering ten of its latest high-wing two-seaters powered by its 60-bhp flat-opposed Tipo D.IV four, the Roman outfit needed outside manufacturing assistance. This was provided by Ferrari’s AAC, making good the “Avio” part of its name. A second shift had to be added to AAC’s 40-man work force to meet CNA’s requirements.

Enter an urbane and gentlemanly racing driver, 38-year-old Franco Cortese, who would be an important wartime ally of Enzo Ferrari. Friendly with Count Giovanni “Johnny” Lurani, a prominent motorsports editor and racing driver, Cortese knew that Lurani was related to the chairman of Milan’s Ernesto Breda company, a maker of railcars, vehicles, and weapons much in demand in wartime. Ferrari’s AAC, thought Cortese, could be useful to Breda.

“Cortese arranged a deal with Breda for Ferrari to manufacture a complex gear-reduction unit for a special landing craft being built for the Italian Army,” wrote Brock Yates. “Breda was converting their big Tipo D17 six-cylinder engines from their self-propelled railcars for use in special landing craft intended for the invasion of Malta. Ferrari was to fabricate the gearboxes which would permit the Breda engines to be modified for marine use. It appeared to be a lucrative contract for the small firm. The Breda officials were eager to get on with business when they summoned Ferrari to Milan to sign the contract.

Photo: The Wilderness Years 7

Ferrari’s Maranello factory was twice bombed by the Allies.

“Ferrari imperiously notified Cortese that he would not drive to Milan,” Yates continued. “If the Army and Breda wanted to close the deal, they would have to come to Modena. Phone calls were exchanged between an apoplectic Cortese and an intransigent Ferrari. The ‘miracle man’ was adamant; he would not travel the 75 miles up the ancient Via Emilia to Piacenza, there to cross the Po and continue the final 25 miles to Milan. Grumbling in disbelief, Cortese and his entourage of executives and Army brass gathered up eight automobiles and motored to Modena to complete the deal. The mountain came to Mohammed! It would not be the last time.”

AAC’s staple business during wartime was the manufacture of highly precise grinding machines, suitable for the manufacture of desperately needed ball bearings and other precision components. Related Brock Yates, “Ferrari’s version states that he was introduced to Turin businessman Corrado Gatti by his friend and associate Enrico Nardi. Gatti is said to have suggested that Auto Avio Costruzione get into the business of copying German-made Jung grinding machines under license.

“Ferrari says he tried this but was refused,” Yates continued. “The Germans claimed that they never granted such patent rights. Besides, they airily said, they doubted whether anyone but themselves had the technical expertise to manufacture such sophisticated devices. But Ferrari discovered that German patents were not enforced under Italian law and decided to copy the grinders without permission. The effort was a great success.”

“Ferrari asked Gatti and then his lawyer about patent authorization,” said Luca Dal Monte, “which the Germans had refused to grant him. He was told by the former, and the latter confirmed it, that a patent was not necessary since Italian law did not require one if it concerned a product not manufactured in Italy for at least three years from the date of the patent and if the production was not enough to cover the demand of the Italian market.”

In the run-up to Italy’s war and during it, wrote Nunzia Manicardi, Ferrari “played his part as an industrialist. I believe that he managed as he could, trying only to pursue his own objectives. And this already from the beginning of Fascism. Moreover, if Fascism won general approval until 1939, it was not just because we were all stupid or because of the words of the Duce, which were basically quite banal. People believed in that period, nothing else. Ferrari was a man who lived through the period like everyone else, who could not escape the events, just as no one escaped the events. But it is one thing to be in the front row to drag the others. It is another thing to experience the event because you cannot escape.”

Photo: The Wilderness Years 8

Enzo takes the wheel of the first Ferrari Tipo 125 in March 1947.

TWO YEARS INTO THE WAR, the government issued an order for Italy’s industries to decentralize. Although not giving up his Modena base, Ferrari moved Auto Avio Costruzioni to Maranello, a rural suburb some 10 miles to the south, where he owned land he had bought after leaving Alfa Romeo. With the help of a friend there he acquired additional property on both sides of the main north-south highway, the Via Abetone Inferiore, for a total holding of 75 acres. Along the road he established a machine-tool factory of 40,000 square feet.

Located “where the plain rises to become the foothills of the Apennines,” wrote historian Alessandro Silva, “Maranello was not a very pretty place. Its climate was known to be harsh with foggy and humid winters. Sheds were built to house the factory. Ferrari’s increasing number of employees merited the space available in the new buildings, which in any case were needed for the relocation that was compulsory after the Allied bombings on Modena.”

According to then-Ferrari employee Girolamo Gardini, the move took place on July 26, 1943. By September, AAC’s 160 employees were once again at work.

“Ferrari did not move his residence to Maranello,” Dal Monte related. “When gasoline rationing forced him to leave the car at home, he had no trouble covering the distance on his bicycle. Most of the time he was accompanied by Peppino Verdelli, whose corporate role was chauffeur but who had in effect become Enzo’s official escort. Sometimes, now that he was older—around ten years old at this time—his son Dino went with them. To avoid strafing by Allied planes, they often reached Maranello by isolated country paths that followed the course of the ditches. On average he covered more than 30 miles a day by bicycle.”

His move further reinforced Enzo Ferrari’s commitment to Modena and environs for his life and business. After the Armistice in Italy on September 8, 1943, the German military took control of Ferrari’s grinding-machine production. Said the responsible officer, “Mr. Ferrari, I know that you make some good German grinding machines and, for this reason, all that you are producing will from now on be confiscated.” They were, but not by the Germans, because the partisans boycotted Ferrari’s production.

Photo: The Wilderness Years 9

Franco Cortese drives 125 C in its maiden race, at Piacenza on May 11, 1947.

Enzo’s relationship with the powerful partigiani was ambivalent. “He buried a case containing the money of the outlawed Communist Party under a tree on his Fiorano property, not far from the Maranello factory,” said Luca Dal Monte. “In his Modena apartment he agreed to conceal the archive of that same party. Ferrari was among those who actively contributed to the partigiani cause, giving the resistance half a million lire in 1,000-lire bills. Yet he ended up on the Resistance blacklist—or so it seems. The versions are discordant and there is no way to know for sure.”

In spite of its remote and obscure location, the AAC factory—then consisting of provisional structures—suffered air-raid damage in November 1944 and February 1945, the second raid badly damaging the facility. Yet these proved only temporary setbacks to the resourceful Ferrari. A personal and professional blow was the partisans’ assassination of Edoardo Weber on May 17, 1945. The carburetor manufacturer was Enzo’s friend, and some said later that Ferrari was next on the list.

Ferrari did not let the hostilities pass without thinking about motor racing. During the war, he said, “I had always continued to make plans for racing cars.”

He bought out his last partners in the Scuderia Ferrari, and in 1945—at the age of 47—he changed AAC’s name to Auto Costruzioni Ferrari, with the mission of building cars and taking part in competitions. In 1946 and ’47, Ferrari would produce his first post-war car, the 1.5-liter Tipo 125, at his rebuilt Maranello factory.

“When we got out of the storm I quickly got rid of the machine tools,” Enzo said. In fact he continued to produce the grinders for a few years to provide financing for his car-building effort.

Franco Cortese was outraged by Ferrari’s decision to halt their production. “You are crazy to stop making the grinders!” he told Enzo. They had been a cash cow for him as well as Ferrari and could still fill that role.

But Cortese would benefit from Enzo’s choice of career. He would be the first to race a Ferrari car at Piacenza on May 11, 1947—and the first to win with one at Rome on May 25.

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