Ferrari has been making a lot of noise about turning 70 this year:
limited-edition cars; two-day cavalcades of classic cars; three-day cavalcades of modern cars; a charityauction (at which a secret buyer bought a limited-edition supercar for $10 million); weekend-long race meetings; big logos on its F1 drivers’ overalls and its F1 cars.
And now, opening next month at the Design Museum in Kensington, what is effectively a ‘retrospective’, an opportunity granted to few – if any – other creators of automobiles. Can Ferraris be considered art? Under the Skin – a trove of memorabilia mined from collector Ronald Stern’s astonishing possessions, which opens on 15 November – doesn’t explicitly ask we should.
But at its heart are 13 Ferraris – ranging from a 125S 1947 Replica, the first Ferrari, to a 2017 LaFerrari Aperta (identical to the star lot in the charity auction) – static and silent, removed from the context and purpose of their creation. How else are we to regard them, if not as art, given they are incapable of leaving those looking on unmoved and most will regard them as downright beautiful?
In the last 10 years, the classic car market has remodelled itself along the lines of the art market: specialist departments, showrooms in the most expensive parts of town, personality and collection-based ‘event auctions’. Prices have gone stellar – and Ferrari prices interstellar, increasing five-fold over 10 years and putting the most sought-after models the far side of $50m.
Others (notably Aston Martin) have the odd big-ticket item in their back catalogue, but no other maker’s global value comes close to Ferrari’s. Its position is all but unique not just among car makers, but among all engineering and technology-based operations, and even among manufacturers of luxury goods.
Certainly, there is Rolls-Royce. But Rolls-Royce has never raced its cars and it is racing that created Ferrari. Born in 1898, the son of a railwayman, Enzo Anselmo Ferrari was a talented driver who rapidly recognised the best way to make his very ordinary name famous (it can be translated as ‘Blacksmith’ or just plain ‘Smith’) was to get other, even faster guys to drive the cars in the race team he ran for Alfa Romeo, and then engineered and built under his own name. Some of the drivers he paid, some paid him. and a business was born.
Later, Ferrari would realise he could put the astonishingly complex V12 engines from his racing cars in coach-built bodies, beaten out of sheet aluminium by the retrained agricultural workers who settled in the small towns around Modena in the heart of Italy’s bread basket.
Towns like Maranello, where Ferrari made his home and where in 1940 he built his first car under the name Auto Avio Costruzioni at 4 Via Abetone Inferiore. He was forbidden to use the Ferrari name for four years after leaving Alfa Romeo due to a contract dispute.
On the 70th anniversary of the first car made in the Ferrari name, Ferrari is now a public limited-liability company with an HQ that comprises a collection of buildings from the likes of Renzo Piano, Jean Nouvel and Marco Visconti.
It more resembles a west-coast technology campus than an industrial operation that last year built more than 8,000 cars with revenues of €3.1 billion, and all still made at the same address in Maranello.
Ferrari was quick to realise that the glamour of racing created a market for his cars among the rich and often famous, who he and his agents actively courted.
Under the Skin celebrates a few – Miles Davis, Peter Sellers, Roger Vadim, Steve McQueen and the conductor Herbert von Karajan are all pictured or documented with their Ferraris – but doesn’t make clear just what Ferrari thought of them.
It’s likely that the glamour he was able to cultivate around his cars was just a means to an end, and the end was racing; racing success sold road cars, road car sales paid for faster racing cars. It suited Ferrari. Having lost his father when he was 18 and suffered the tragedy of his son Dino dying from muscular dystrophy at the age of 24, Ferrari was reclusive and by the end of his life (he died in 1988) had not attended a race meeting in decades.
His team managers would have to call and tell him the race results, good or bad – and in F1 the reputation has often not reflected the reality. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel is on course to lose this year’s championship to Lewis Hamilton, a challenge he looked set to win two months ago; Ferrari has not had a champion since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007 (and before Schumacher’s astonishing run of five straight titles in 2004, it had not won since 1979).
A new film, Ferrari: Race to Immortality, out in November, examines Ferrari’s relationship with racing and with his drivers around the time of Dino’s death, and in particular his relationship with the young English driver Peter Collins, one of many who would die at the wheel of a racing Ferrari around that time.
Although there is a memoir, Ferrari gave few interviews and when he did comment it was usually from behind that emotional cold front. He liked to present himself as pragmatic to the point of ruthlessness, obsessive, dominant and difficult. Very rarely did any light illuminate the solitary man inside that study.
The result is a legacy dominated by the people who have driven his cars – especially those who have raced them – and the cars themselves.
Ferrari: Under the Skin is at London Design Museum, 15 November-15 April 2017. Tickets, £18, designmuseum.org