The History of Ferrari: 75 Years of Passion

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On a snowy Christmas Eve in 1946, one of the most significant meetings in automotive history occurred. It involved two men sitting in a cold, dimly lit office at a factory in Modena, Italy. There they discussed an idea that would intertwine their futures for decades to come. From that meeting between Enzo Ferrari and Luigi Chinetti emerged a marquee known worldwide.

The Birthplace of Ferrari

In the 1930s, a young Enzo Ferrari had become legendary as director of the Scuderia Ferrari, Alfa Romeo’s almost unbeatable factory-supported racing team. Having gone from racing driver to racing manager, Enzo retired from Alfa Romeo to establish Auto Avio Costruzione and build racecars under his own name. Given his unparalleled history in motorsports, Ferrari’s success was almost assured. Then, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. 

Ferrari’s plans for his future dissolved as Europe was consumed by war. Ferrari managed to earn a living by building machine tools for the Italian military,. Hardly a fitting career for one of Italy’s greatest racing legends. After 1945, things only grew worse. There was little demand for racecars in war-torn Italy. Enzo Ferrari had become out of step with the world around him. Then he received a phone call from an old friend on Christmas Eve 1946. Luigi Chinetti was in Paris and wanted to visit Ferrari that night in Modena, Italy, to discuss an idea. 

Chinetti had worked with Ferrari at Alfa Romeo in the 1930s, and the two men had become distant friends. 

In 1940, Chinetti traveled to the U.S. as part of the Écurie Bleue racing team, appearing at the Indianapolis 500. With war spreading across Europe, Dreyfus and Chinetti decided to stay in the U.S. (Chinetti became an American citizen in 1950). 

Postwar Resurrection

Knowing quite well what Enzo was capable of as an automaker, Chinetti realized that Italy in 1946 was not the place for Ferrari to find buyers for his racecars. He believed there was indeed a market for Ferrari’s cars, but far from Italy, a world away in the United States, where wealthy sportsmen were raring to go motor racing now that the war was over. He explained this to Ferrari, and with some convincing on Chinetti’s part, they decided to enter into business together. 

Ferrari would build the cars in Italy, and Chinetti would sell them in the United States. What sounds like the plotline for the movie Ferrari was the beginning of a relationship that would become legendary. Within a year, Enzo Ferrari produced a small number of twelve-cylinder race cars, while Luigi Chinetti established an American distributorship. 

The 212 Inter and Export models bodied by Vignale were the height of Italian styling in the early 1950s, cars suitable for both the road and race track.

Road Cars and Racecars

The difference between racecars and road cars in the early postwar era was strictly a matter of interpretation. The racecars could mostly be driven on the road, and the handful of road cars produced were also suitable for competing at events like the celebrated Pebble Beach Road Races of the 1950s. But, like the visually stunning 1948 Ferrari 166 MM Barchetta, most were far from being practical drivers. Ferrari needed a convertible most for his emerging non-racing clientele. In 1949, at Chinetti’s urging, the first Ferrari convertible debuted at the Geneva Motor Show.  

Between 1948 and 1952, Ferrari increased the swept volume of his twelve-cylinder engines, with each succeeding version more fortunate in competition than the last and possessing increasingly attractive coachwork by three of Italy’s most renowned coachbuilders, Touring, Pinin Farina, and Vignale. The 225 S, or Sport version, followed the design of the 212 Inter, with a Colombo short-block V12, now with a swept volume of 2.7 liters. The 225 S shared the 212’s chassis, with a double wishbone, transleaf spring front, rigid axle semi-elliptic spring rear suspension, and the same physical dimensions. It was an open road car that, with slight modification, would be equally at home on the race course. However, by the mid 50’s, Enzo and Luigi were speeding toward a divided road!

Building on Excellence

By 1955, Ferrari produced many road cars, and the separation between them and those built for competition was becoming more clearly defined. However, to say that there was a “production” Ferrari in the 1950s that could not be raced would be a bit of a stretch. As would the suggestion that there was such a thing as a “production” Ferrari, underneath perhaps. Still, the design and construction of bodies remained the work of individual coachbuilders, which was to become the defining characteristic of Ferrari road cars in the years to come. 

Horsepower!

Upon entering the American market, Ferrari discovered that, though American cars were heavy, chrome-laden machines in the 1950s and ’60s, their engines were very powerful, with large displacements and tremendous horsepower. When big Cadillac and Chrysler engines were used to power race cars like the British Allards, those cars were outrunning Ferrari in sports car competitions. This being unacceptable, Enzo embarked upon designing a comparable V12 with tremendous horsepower and displacement to level the playing field. This car would be known as the 410 Superamerica.  

Where Enzo and Luigi clashed was over building a Spyder version of the 275 GTB/4. Ferrari said no, so Chinetti purchased 10 Berlinettas and sent them to Sergio Scaglietti to be converted into Spyders. The N.A.R.T. 275 GTB/4 cars all sold by Chinetti in the U.S. are considered one of the most beautiful of all Ferrari models.

Road Car Luxury

In October 1962 came the debut of the strikingly sleek 250 GT Berlinetta Lusso, through which Pininfarina established a new level of style and luxury for Ferrari road cars. Production of this now highly collectible 1960s GT totaled only 350 from its introduction at the Paris Motor Show in October of 1962 until the final body left the Scaglietti atelier in 1964. When the last Lusso pulled away from Maranello, it also marked the conclusion of the 250 GT era at Ferrari. Over ten years, the 250 GT designation has been applied to nearly 2,500 cars.

The most charismatic road car to come from Maranello after the 250 GT Berlinetta Lusso was the all-new 275 GTB. Introduced as a two-cam model in 1964, it was the first of Ferrari’s now legendary ’60s-era Berlinettas offered to customers in either touring or racing configurations. Equipped with the Colombo-designed, sixty-degree V12 displacing 3,286 cubic centimeters and dispensing 280 horsepower at 7,600 rpm. 

This amalgamation of styling made the 275 GTB/4 as close to perfection as any sports car has come. Late veteran race driver Phil Hill once described the 275 GTB/4 as “like a boulevard version of the GTO.” Hard to be outdone, Luigi Chinetti had 10 of the Berlinettas sent to Sergio Scaglietti. They converted into 275 GTB/4 N.A.R.T. Spyders (convertibles), which he sold in the U.S. under the North American Racing Team name. Some consider this one of the most beautiful Ferrari body designs ever. 

Out with Tradition—the Daytona

Ferrari had established a “style” with its earliest road and racecars, one that gave every car from Maranello a menacing look, with wide, egg-crate grilles that seemed to consume the fronts of the cars and looked as if they could just as easily consume the vehicles in front of them. However, for the new 365 GTB/4 Daytona, Sergio Pininfarina and his staff were about to take a stunning detour. No grille! 

Aerodynamics was the new order in the late 1960s, which dictated a new front-end design for Ferrari. The Daytona replaced the traditional oval Ferrari grille with a sleek, aerodynamic fascia that eliminated the need for conventional headlights. For this model, Pininfarina chose to set the headlamps back under a single band of clear plastic, which blended with the line of the front end and hood. The design was dazzling and adventurous and broke with all previous tenets of Ferrari styling. In America, the Daytona design evolved into one of the first sports cars to offer flip-up headlights, along with the Chevrolet Corvette.

The Mid-Engine Ferrari

Ferrari’s first mid-engine production sports car (discounting the Dino, with the engine designed by Ferrari’s son, Dino, and manufactured by Fiat) was the 365 GT4 Berlinetta Boxer. Introduced in 1974, it was equipped with a 4.4-liter production version of the competition engine mounted behind the driver and ahead of the rear axle. Output was a rousing 380 horsepower at 7,200 rpm. This would be the first generation of rear-engine, twelve-cylinder models remaining in production for over 20 years.  

Evolution in design has led to many of the most outstanding and best-loved Ferrari road cars. Still, none became more ubiquitous than the 308 GTB and GTS, the most recognized Ferrari ever produced. Thanks partly to Tom Selleck and Magnum P.I. The television series made the Ferrari 308 a household name. Pininfarina combined the best of the 246 Dino, 365 GT Berlinetta Boxer, and 512 BB to create the 308 design. The longest-running model in Ferrari history, the 308 continued into the 1980s in improved versions.

The 212 Inter and Export models bodied by Vignale were the height of Italian styling in the early 1950s, cars suitable for both the road and race track.

The 21st Century Ferraris

Today, Ferrari’s design department, known as the Centro Stile, is located in Maranello. It’s home to over 100 designers and automotive engineers creating the Ferraris of the 21st century. Over the short span from 2017 to 2023, and as Ferrari celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2022. The models introduced have continually left us awed by new and inspiring designs like the F12 Berlinetta.

Ferrari models in the 2020s have set new and even higher performance standards, beginning with the F90 Stradale, powered by a 769 hp twin-turbo V8 and a trio of electric motors that add another 217 horsepower (on demand). Initially offered as a Berlinetta, a Spider version with a retractable hardtop takes the design to another level for a car that can race from 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds! 

The 2020 and 2021 model years also saw Ferrari add the 812 GTS, a Spider version of the 812 Superfast. Already the fastest and most powerful Ferrari road car yet, the sleek, Roma 2+ Coupe and the PortofinoM 2+2 Spider. 

Much like the past 75-plus years, Ferrari continues to deliver the greatest racecar and road car combinations. It is the enduring legacy of the Cavallino Rampante.

Portions of this article are excerpted from the author’s 2022 book Ferrari 75 Years.

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