A defining interview from 1977, the Old Man’s 80th year. Not so much the cars or the races, more the thinking, the ascetic values, the trials of life and the appeal of death.
By Keith Botsford
Enzo Ferrari is a big man. Big, flashy nose, Big, loose mouth. Big, solid body. The next thing you notice about him is that he bears about as much comparison to most car makers and the rest of motor racing’s constructors as an aging lion to a day-long mayfly. And then, quick upon that, there’s the realisation that he’s a profoundly lonely, solitary, disabused man to whom death is perhaps the most meaningful event in life. For his life, which began in 1898 in Modena, is near run. And one death, besides his own, has been its dominant theme: that of his beloved son Dino, dead now 25 years. It was for Dino’s birth that Ferrari gave up his career as a racing driver; it was with his death that he became a virtual recluse. Apart from the annual press conference, in which he deals with routine questions as though he were Socrates being queried in the agora, and written replies to questionnaires, he remains a stubbornly private man. Television has never seen him and few indeed are those who have had access to his inner mind. And he who could now travel and be feted all over the world almost never leaves his home, his office at Maranello a few miles down the road from Modena, and his testing circuit just a short drive from that.
I spent two-and-a-half hours with him in his office – that spare, bare, barrack of a room, with an empty desk, a glass sculpture of the Ferrari prancing horse and the illuminated portrait of Dino – and another two hours over a modest lunch across the road: pasta, roast veal and succulent Italian fruit washed down with a local rosé. Throughout our conversations, I was struck most by: first, the eloquence of his diction, his real vocation for words, for self-examination; second, the absolute frankness, the almost nakedness of his self-revelation; and only finally by the extraordinary mind at work, by its breadth of vision, its broad terms of reference, its ultimate quality. The depth of that quality, dawning fully as you leave him to go away and think back on the hours and what he has said, is dazzling. And the clarity that goes with it, that marvellous calm and control, is inspirational; even stunning. You know why headstrong and brave and brilliant men have so often given their all for this man. You understand what his presence has meant to motor racing, and what his dignity and purity have done for the road car. Overleaf, he bears is mind and his soul.
‘I am a man who has lived an adventure’
Most of my life, I have concealed myself. It is a mistake to look for my life. Most people think I am hard, but that is because I don’t want people to know me. I consider myself weak and so I put on a kind of mask. I put it on to hide.
I didn’t study much as a child, so my cultural patrimony is a small one. At most I have acquired a small erudition, but I don’t think it is to be confused with culture. I am careful to have those around who do have the culture.
When people think of me as famous, I know better. I live a life of constant self-examination. Consideration of the hallucinating fragility of life has taught me to question everything about myself. I know that I am a man who has lived an adventure. I have learned from my mishaps, mishaps which have constellated my life. One should query oneself without defence and without limits. If I am unable to see the defects in the machines I create myself, how can I see properly into myself?
People say suicide is a cowardly, vile act. I think it is an act of courage. You cannot say of a man journeying into the unknown that he is a coward or vile. When a man can do that, he is strong. I go every morning to the cemetery to see my son who died 25 years ago. Knowing that a man is nothing until he is dead. It is death that gives him personality. We go through the pomp of mourning, we cry, we strew flowers on the tomb; in a few days the flowers wither; then the grass grows over it; 25 years later the grave is overturned and nobody is present. We have illusions of being something. I vivisect myself, full of doubt. But how can others judge me?
‘I don’t believe there is such a thing as happiness’
I am not angered by criticism, as people say. I do get angry when I am lied about. Because I never tell a lie. Liars lead very complex lives and I am simply afraid of being caught out. So people conclude that I am cunning. But I have always given the public the least possible about myself. As I have said before, I could now go round the world without spending a penny, but where were those invitations when I was hungry and poor in Turin in 1918 after World War One? Who invited me then? I was proud then and I am proud now. Today I go nowhere. I have gone nowhere since my son died. If I go to see people, they have an opinion of me, ready-made. But if they come here, what they see is all my making. The opinion they form is not just about the person but also about what I have created.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as happiness. Happiness is never unmixed. If we ask “Are we happy?”, we can easily find 1000 reasons why we’re not. We live in a huge penitentiary and we are the inmates, caught in our instinctive egoism. But happiness? I’ve had too much already I suppose, for I’m alive, aren’t I? I can still see and take flowers to the sick. Our proverb runs: “He who has his health is rich and doesn’t know it.” You consider the essential fragility of life. It is the little things that get me angry. The great traumas are easier: you can always work your way through to reason.
‘What we do at Ferrari is elite work’
I think of myself as constantly realising a childhood dream. I am a promoter of ideas; I have to sell ideas which will then be realised by others. It is a kind of sleeping thought, a dormant thought. I dream at night, or I lie awake, and it is that blinding flash people speak of. In my head I say, why not make a machine like this, or like that? My job is to formulate an idea or a concept. My next task is then to explain that idea to the technicians, to argue with them until you both find the thread. When they are good ideas, they will work. Because the constructor remembers all his errors; he knows the paths which have led nowhere. It takes endless time. It is like a Kafka story: there is this long corridor and all the doors are shut, yet you have to find a way out.
I don’t think there’s a car in the world that hasn’t been improved by competition; a car which hasn’t been influenced by others. There are superb designers working today, but the basic idea, the working out of that idea, the construction of the machine, the finishing of a new idea, is always the work of a team. It is a compendium. A collaborative effort. I am convinced that a brilliant technician is not what’s indispensable to an innovative machine. What is needed is a man of stature. He has to be able to work with others – each with particular talents – to elaborate the original idea. All conquests are a consequence of human and technical capacity, and what we do at Ferrari is elite work. You can’t fit many men into it. If they have cultivation and craft, they usually have a personality of their own too. The problem then is how to get them to get along. There is neither luck nor ill-fortune; bad luck is what we didn’t know or couldn’t foresee, and good luck is what we planned. There is a point, too, at which all elements in a team suddenly seem to work together. But I have just lost two of my oldest collaborators, two of my closest – men in their early 50s. Now there’s a gap. I myself picked two young replacements, boys in their 20s. Before they can help, I’m in trouble.
‘A car maker must be someone who loves his passion for cars’
A car maker need be neither an engineer nor a technician. He must be someone who loves his passion for cars and he must be someone who knows a lot about human beings. His job is to harmonise the ambitions of his collaborators. When Fiat were winning, their workshop was run not by a technician but by a lawyer. And it was Dassault, not an engineer, who created the French Mirage. Accordingly, I give my collaborators great trust. Complete trust. That is the only way to see if they merit it. If they are good, they’ll do everything they can to show their gratitude; if they are not, what better way to bring on their mistakes? But I don’t deal with the industrial side of it now. I think of new machines, I do the racing. For the rest, I’m informed. You might call mine consultative work. I propose, insist and make it happen. Here everyone has full powers. We meet once a week, the head of each department reports; we decide together.
Of course I have some regrets about my career: I am bitter at my stupidity in not keeping at least one example of all the models we have built since 1940!
‘Fiat have never interfered in the technical or sports side of Ferrari’
I will be 80 next February, and I recognise that I can’t go on for ever. But there are enough excellent young men already working with us to make sure we have a real future. Our marriage with Fiat, I think you could say, was consummated in June of 1969 when I sold a part of my holdings in Ferrari to Fiat. I have never seen any reason even to consider a divorce. I sold out because I needed the money: the cash was used to make certain that I would be completely independent of any third parties. I was guaranteed continuity and enough capital for development and Fiat have lived up to this in every way. In 1969, for instance, we were 500 at Maranello; now we’re 1250. Fiat have never interfered in the technical or sporting side of Ferrari. As for myself personally, I am consulted and informed on all aspects of the company, but now I have nothing to do with either production or marketing. My main function is to advise. That has always been my main function.
‘There will always be room for a car that is out of the ordinary’
The real Grand Turismo Ferrari is an offshoot of my racing cars. I have, for example, never really thought of doing a four-door car; anyway, there are plenty of manufacturers making excellent ones. Our production cars are of course vital to our racing cars. The racing cars are our most effective way of making the Ferrari way known and selling what we produce. As for the future of car-making in Modena, we have a very modest output; but I don’t expect that we shall be exempt from the present difficult economic situation. Nonetheless, I am convinced that there will always be room in the world for a car that is out of the ordinary. Of course I have some regrets about my career: I am bitter at my stupidity in not keeping at least one example of all the models we have built since 1940!
‘Moss was perhaps the most complete driver I’ve ever known’
Great drivers? I’ve always said that the greatest drivers were distinguished by their supreme ability to handle any kind of situation, any car, any driving condition, any kind of race. For every race, every driver, every car has its history, its own intimate story, and each – even the simplest – is a marvel all its own. Nuvolari was a great driver in my sense. He flirted with death in every race. He had no desire to outlive his two children. But death does not always come easily, even to those who seek it. Nuvolari lived a life of passionate risk, yet he died, humiliated, in hospital: humiliated because he was unable to die in a race. Moss was a very great driver, perhaps the most complete driver I’ve ever known: and that despite the fact that he never won a world championship. He was a marvellously combative driver and he excelled at whatever he did.
I can describe perfectly the career of a driver. I think I understand them, even though they are today very different from those I knew. A driver today is an athlete out for hire; his mind is on profit. He comes to you and the first thing he wants is to prove that he’s the best in your team; the next thing, to prove that he is better than any other driver. He may have the necessary skill, but he needs your car to prove his point, so the next stage in his career is to make the greatest possible demands on you. When you have satisfied his demands, he rises to the peak of his fame. With that comes a change in his life. He has new economic and social conditions to face. His fame impels him to that new life. A driver needs a quiet private life, but how can he achieve that when he has to burn the candle at both ends? His new life can no longer be reconciled with a total dedication to the sport; he has other things he must tend to. Then comes a time when he keeps on going, kept moving by that passion that first moved him. But by then the element of earning is every bit as important as the sport. It becomes necessary for him to drive in any and every sort of condition, physical and moral: because he has to live up to his new life-style.
‘The organisers have prostituted the sport’
There is now no such thing as an “amateur sport”; all are run by the laws of cash. In motor sport the sponsors now have a dominant role; it is they who have inflated the costs of the sport so that a good driver costs half-a-million dollars a year. I accept sponsors who bring something to racing: lubrication, helmets, safety equipment, etc. But cigarettes and prophylactics are just prostitution and we’ve reached the point where we’ve totally depersonalised the marque of a car. The organisers have prostituted the sport for publicity; their arrogant signs take away stands and block the spectators’ view. It’s all geared to profit. Drivers simply imitate their surroundings. Organisers think they are offering spectacle. We had spectacle in the old days: a spectacle of technique, honour and sport.
That’s the usual way with the world today: either you’re first or you’re nothing
‘I belong to another time’
He who dies in a car dies a glamorous death. The whole world reads about him: not about some anonymous hang-glider or boxer. I’m not saying there is any justification for death. There never is, not even in war. And we constructors have a responsibility. It is to ask ourselves what caused the fatal incident. The cause, unfortunately, is never one. But man is presumptuous. He thinks it will never happen to him. He thinks especially it will never happen to him, he’s too good, too skilful. It is in us to try to exceed our capacities. I’ve had dead drivers. They died because they were in an anomalous state morally, or were ambiguous about death: men whose private lives were perhaps awry, or who wanted too much too fast, living as they did on the verge of disappearance. That’s the usual way with the world today: either you’re first or you’re nothing. Cruelty is one thing we have perfected. The world creates idols only to destroy them. Why? Because the public is avid for emotion.
In these latter days of my life, I feel so completely Italian and yet so strongly a man of my own little province. It is strange because I used to travel greatly and I’ve worked abroad and the whole world has flocked to Maranello. But I think fundamentally I belong to another time and I find it hard to come to any conclusions about the “Italian problem”. It is as though my thoughts were shadowed by the contrast with long-ago times, times that were so very different to these. These are times in which facts have become multi-facts. Nothing is new, but we advance; from the dagger to the sub-machine gun. We are more cruel; fear is the ultimate leverage of power. Yet I know the young to be in search of ideals, just as we were. It is the young who are the heart of the problem. The young have all rights; their olders’ duty is to speak the truth and give their all. But it’s the young who will decide, not us. In a world saturated with violence, their choice often takes my remaining breath away.