Tales of my father and a tour of the unseen Maranello – your guide, the sole surviving son of Il Commentadore, Enzo Ferrari. James Elliott takes notes.
Perhaps it is because Piero Ferrari has spent a lifetime being photographed next to pint-sized racing drivers, but he is not as tall or physically imposing as you would have thought. We catch up with him in Ferrari Classiche, admiring the restoration of yet another priceless racer, in this case the ex-Harry Schell 1953 Corsa Indianapolis. Looking urbane in an immaculate grey suit, he clearly has a friendly persona, but also a guarded one, well used to parrying tough questions or those that delve too deeply into his personal life. At the same time, he seems to have a benign acceptance of the fact that, as the figurehead for one of the world’s most powerful brands, such inquisitions are inevitable.
He is assured, but any sense of a commanding presence comes from the respect he is accorded by those around him rather than any aura of unnapproachability. In fact, if Piero Ferrari is anything, it is approachable. Quite literally.
We have something of a coup by being granted upwards of two hours and a personal tour of Maranello from Piero, but where to start? Not with his relationship with his father, that’s for sure. Piero, born of Enzo’s long-term affair with Lina Lardi, was never conspicuously the apple of his father’s eye. That place was reserved for the tragic Dino, who died in 1956, aged 24, from muscular dystrophy. In fact, Piero wasn’t even conspicuously part of the family until, at the age of 18, he was brought into the fold after the death of his grandmother. Even then he was held on the fringes until Laura Ferrari also passed on.
Now, however, as vice chairman he holds the keys to the kingdom, or at least the 10% of it not held by Fiat and Abu Dhabi. There’s a starting point: how does he feel about that? Remarkably calm, it seems: “There have been a lot of changes in Fiat over the past 20 years, but Ferrari has always maintained a level of independence. They respect that. It has always been paramount that the purity of Ferrari, its freedom, is not diluted even though its ownership may have been.”
What of the Ferrari World theme park, soon to open in the Middle East, that so many see as anathema to the exclusive qualities that the brand has built up over the years? Minutely analysing Piero’s face for signs of disapproval proves fruitless: either he is a consummate pro, or he really does like the plan. He senses the scepticism: “Look, we don’t have the time or resources to become a tourist attraction. There is more in Maranello to see and do than ever before, but if this venture helps more people to connect with the company in a way that we can’t accommodate here, then it must be good for us.”
We move on to a spectacular 275GTB/4. We have read that it is his favourite Ferrari and the firm has obligingly moved it from its Galleria museum for Piero to wax lyrical. He doesn’t, but patiently explains why: “Everyone asks me what is my favourite Ferrari. In that respect I am like my father: my favourite is always the next one. But I will say that the 275 is a car that I will never forget. I was driving this when I was 18, can you imagine that?” The fact that even now he clearly feels he was privileged as a teenager is gratifying and he does then fall silent, spending a long time looking at the car with lingering, loving glances. “It is like Sophia Loren,” he finally explains, rolling his finger aound the inner edge of one of the gill slats. “A very nice woman of a respectable age who still looks very nice. We still use these cars as inspiration for the cars we make today, in the way they look, the spirit of what they represent and especially in the quality of the build.”
The 275 was not exactly Piero’s company car when he joined the empire in November 1965, but it was symptomatic of his sudden elevation and acceptance: “I think it would have happened anyway, much later maybe, but my grandmother was a very strong woman, the only person who my father obeyed without question, and she had insisted that he bring me into the business. She died that year and it happened straight after.”
Thrown in at the deep end – “my father did not explain things to me, or say ‘Piero, sit here while I teach you’” – he got a crash course in all aspects of the business. Of course it was a business that was already unrecognisable from the team that Enzo started in the works at 31 Via Trento Trieste in Modena. Moving out of town to a nearby village during WW2, Enzo found himself surrounded by fields. Since then, both business and village have grown together, so there are signs of Ferrari – and the factory itself – visible throughout Maranello. Piero repeatedly refers to Ferrari as a small firm, which it may be in business terms, but in Maranello it seems like its giant, swollen heartbeat. That symbiosis between company and town is apparently crucial: “The people are proud to be associated with Ferrari and we are proud of our historical links with the region. What happened in Maranello couldn’t happen anywhere else. We have a passion for cars and for sport, plus a long and noble tradition of mechanical industry.”
From behind-the-scenes work on the 2-litre Dino racers, serving under Giberti (who had followed Enzo from Alfa), Piero moved through the company. Our discussion flows just as effortlessly, from the F1 fallow years after Scheckter’s 1979 Championship – “a new generation was finding its feet with new technology, yet we were competitive and came close many times” – to the Fiat and then Ferrari Dino programmes.
The historical insight is fascinating, but only emphasises the fact that in the past Ferrari has often been accused of neglecting its motoring heritage. “It is no secret that this was something we were missing for many years,” Piero concurs. “But it was easy to do so because the owners were doing that job for us. The devotion to the brand is astonishing, but now we understand that we have a big role to play, too.” Ah, that would be Ferrari Classiche: “Not just that, we are now actively involved in a lot of historic events, but Classiche has been a big step forward.” The certification scheme was introduced in 2003 to acknowledge Ferraris that were as they should be. What seemed an innocent plan soon attracted approbrium as modified or restored cars were declined certificates. The cynicism soared when Ferrari opened its own workshop, offering to put right any cars that fell short. Piero insists that the scheme was never intended to hold owners to ransom, but to ensure that the purity of the past is properly preserved. Yes, he accepts that inevitably some won’t see it like that, particularly those who spent a fortune restoring cars when Ferrari took a more laissez faire approach to its history, and are now denied the factory’s seal of approval.
Classiche certainly seems to have been a success, with 1650 applications to date and 1300 cars certified, each signed off at board level by a committee including Piero himself. The recent mellowing of the rules to allow ‘attestation’ for important cars converted in period has brought a further six applications. “It is not big business,” says Piero, “but it is important work and reflects a change in the company’s attitude. My father didn’t like to collect old cars because he was always concentrating on the future. I am close to his mentality, but Ferrari has a fantastic and enviable history: there is no other firm like Ferrari and we produced so many cars in a relatively short period of time that we owe it to the owners and the spirit of the company to preserve and promote that heritage.”
For Piero Ferrari it is difficult to get around Maranello. Every short journey is punctuated by endless hands to shake, customers to meet, people to greet. He handles it with charming aplomb, but being the public face of Ferrari is a full-time job. No wonder a similarly beleagured Enzo latterly holed himself up in his house-cum-office so he could quietly get on with doing what he was interested in. Next stop on Piero’s tour is that very house. Its doors are rarely opened to the public, but some aspects have been retained exactly as they were in Enzo’s day. Such as the main room, with its Prancing Horse tiles behind the Old Man’s desk, on it a framed photo of just one driver, Gilles Villeneuve. “My father always looked to the young, not people who were already famous, and Villeneuve had been a nobody. He also liked the fact that Gilles always pushed the car to its limit. That’s why he was so exciting, but also why he probably didn’t have the mentality to be World Champion.”
With the lack of natural light and the hint of must that accompanies a rarely used building, this room offers an unnerving experience. You half expect to see the ghost of Enzo at his desk, barking orders down the aquamarine phone. Piero is more comfortable, settled into one of the two large brown sofas. “I used to come here every day,” he says. “It seems strange to see it now, much like it was then.” If his guard is ever going to be down, it is now. So, about your relationship with your father? “People have made a lot of assumptions over the years, but because he did not show that he was emotionally involved with me does not mean that he wasn’t, or that I didn’t know that he was, and that was enough. I had a very good relationship with my father.”
Decorated with giant posters and artworks celebrating Ferrari, plus a well-stocked liqueur cabinet, the dining room is homely rather than showy. Here Piero leaps on the opportunity to point out that he has other strings to his bow. “I relish the challenge of engineering,” he enthuses, “of how to solve a problem or improve things. My other company has built everything from single- to 12-cylinder engines.” This prompts a bald, possibly bold, question and an unexpectedly frank confession: engineering makes him far happier than any of his other obligations.
Upstairs we see the old meeting room with its long, non-original table. The photos that plaster the walls were there in Enzo’s day, however, and the trophies are certainly period. The focus is now clearly on competition and we discuss the drivers, races, rivals and cars that mattered most to both Enzo and Piero. Both thought the biggest loss was not signing Jackie Stewart: “He came to Maranello once. I went to the airport in Milan and collected him. He came close to signing, but didn’t. Why? You’ll have to ask Jackie that.” Stirling Moss was another regret: “He had accepted the drive and we were already preparing a sports car – it was painted green just for him – but then he had his accident.”
Mario Andretti ranks with Piero’s favourites Scheckter and Lauda, and Lotus was a much-admired rival: “If you go back to those days, Lotus was a team that made a great contribution to F1 history. It focused on advanced engineering and chassis while Ferrari was more orientated around the engine. Today it is the opposite.”
Before he climbs back into his Lancia Thesis – a final reminder that Ferrari is perhaps not quite as independent as it would like to think –there is just time for one more anecdote. Ferrari recalls the Pope arriving at Fiorano by helicopter in 1988, expressing disappointment with the mundane transport being laid on and subsequently being ferried around in the back of a Mondial Cabriolet. Then, all too soon, our time with Piero is up. We have spoken for more than two hours, during which he has been affable, intelligent, intriguing and cheerful company, but far too savvy to let anything slip, for any major revelations to tumble from his thin lips. In the same way that Enzo hid behind dark glasses so as not to share his emotions, Piero uses a cloak of steely charm to do his job par excellence.
This article was originally published in the September 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.
Words: James Elliott