I got back from Italy late last night following my first visit – or should that be pilgrimage? – to Maranello. Actually, I tell a lie, I have been to the town before, but never ventured through the Ferrari factory gates – an apt metaphor for my teenage years...
Anyway, this time I was a guest of Ferrari, thanks to the generosity of UK PR boss Jason Harris. Curiously, none of us really knew why we were going, merely that it would be a nice trip and that we would all get a look at the museum (of which more anon in the magazine), eat some good food and get a proper factory tour. Count me in.
The trouble is, I soon started to feel my increasing cynicism for Enzo’s old firm beginning to creep in, just as I did when I stayed in the cheesy Maranello Hotel on my last visit.
You see, at first it appeared that people in the corner of Modena that will be forever red seem to have acquired a new vocabulary. Out have gone ‘passion’, ‘history’, even ‘Enzo’, in their place words such as ‘profit’, ‘efficiency’, ‘sustainability’, and even, horror of horrors, ‘automation’.
OK, so I’m being a bit harsh here: there is plenty to applaud in making the business more eco-friendly, the cars less thirsty; and the automated engine plant is to build Maserati V6s – ‘proper’ Ferraris are still made largely by hand.
And a visit to the Classiche department was as jaw-dropping as you might expect, with everything from a GTO getting a nose-job to Steve McQueen’s old 275GTB, freshly re-roofed after an earlier chop.
But it’s hard to shake the feeling that these days it’s as much about the brand than the cars. The revamped factory is churning them out at a rate of 32 per day – 24 V8s, eight V12s – and the firm employs some 3000 people with a very impressive HR department that focuses on building and developing the ‘Ferrari family’ (a recruitment drive plans to add another 250 in 2013).
There’s a new bespoke ‘Prima’ clothing line (above) for clienti (which means a jacket will cost you €1500) to run alongside the ‘fan community’ gear in 50 Ferrari Stores around the world.
That should build the 'red passion' that brand guru Andrea Perroni claims will “strengthen brand equity in line with brand values... using the Prancing Horse as a lifestyle trademark for the business”.
And that brand – recently voted the strongest in the world – means that 95 Prancing Horse products are sold every minute!
When the 'Formula Ferrari' press conference got under way, I shifted uneasily in my recycled-cardboard chair as MD Amedeo Felisa failed to mention a classic Ferrari in his speech about the firm’s efficient future.
But then chairman Luca di Montezemolo took the stage.
This is not a man who is short on charisma, or indeed passion. “After my family, Ferrari is the most important thing in my life. Each day when I come into the factory, I feel lucky.” That’s more like it.
And as he continued, he started to drop in a few more phrases to soothe my aching heart, such as “respect for history” and “what I learned from Enzo”. And perhaps most importantly: “Are we going to build an SUV, a four-door, a cheaper car? My answer is no. And we will never manufacture an electric car while I am chairman.” Phew!
He then dropped the kind of bombshell that would make most business consultants choke on their panninis: in 2013, Ferrari will produce fewer cars than in 2012 (under 7000, in fact). On purpose. Because Mr di Montezemolo says so. And despite this, in the first quarter trading profits are up a whopping 42%.
I reckon that Enzo would have approved. After all, he wasn't that interested in road cars, and in the end it’s all going to fund the race team. And that relationship is pleasingly cyclical – the tech that F1 is putting in following new rules on hybrid power will likely find its way into road cars within four or five years, just as the KERS system has done in the new LaFerrari supercar.
And do you know where that profit is going to come from? No, not the hats and polo shirts, but history. Because one of the biggest money-spinners at Ferrari is personalisation – 99% of new Ferraris have at least one element of it – with the new ‘Tailor Made’ department creating bespoke cars to their clients’ exact specifications. Such as the 458 Spider done up to look like Gooding & Co’s record-breaking 250TR (above), complete with the same trim fabric.
These tweaks add further exclusivity to an already exclusive product – not to mention, rather usefully, on average 25-50% to the list price.
“We are not selling a product, we are selling a dream,” di Montezemolo explained. “A Ferrari is like a beautiful woman – you must desire her, you must wait for her... The merchandising is for our fans and our future customers, but it cannot be compared with our core business [of making cars].”
And do you know what, that rather un-PC bit of romanticism rather put me and my self-important cynicism in their place. Because so what if someone wants to wear a Ferrari baseball cap? And so what if their heart desires an F12 in the same livery as a 500TRC? If that’s what makes them happy, and they can afford it, then who am I to sneer?
After all, I mused as I ambled along 'Via Juan Manuel Fangio' before climbing aboard the bus to Bologna, the current cars may be massively more efficient than their illustrious predecessors, but they are also hugely fast and, amazingly, the range is almost the same as it was 40 years ago. There's a 'new Dino' in the 458 middie (and a GTS in the Spider); the F12 is a modern-day Daytona; the FF covers the V12 four-seater territotory then occupied by 365GT4 2+; and there's even a mid-engined 12-pot supercar flagship (the LaFerrari) coming to take the place of the Berlinetta Boxer.
Whatever the circus that surrounds the marque, at its heart it is – and I hope always will be – a maker of thrilling four-wheeled works of art.