Ferrari/Ford and Ford/Ferrari

Ford V Ferrari

In February 1963, Robert G. Layton, Director of Finance at Ford’s office in Cologne, Germany, received a letter from the German consul in Milan. It was about a small, Italian automobile factory up for sale, the letter read. Digging deeper, Layton would come to know the said auto outfit was actually leading the development of sports cars globally. Curious about the prospects of a possible deal, Layton forwarded the letter to the Glass House team, noting that “While I doubt whether this is of special interest, there may be angles that I do not know of.”

Interestingly, Lee Iacocca had nursed the possibility of acquiring Ferrari, a thought he communicated with chief engineer Don Frey. The letter presented a perfect opportunity to move things forward, and so lacocca discussed with his boss, Henry II. The idea immediately resonated with Henry II’s plan. He’d wanted to explore Europe and broaden Ford’s dominance on the global stage. Besides, if winning races translated into success in the showroom, and Ferrari’s cars were the fastest in the world, then acquiring the Ferrari factory could only be another big leap for the Ford company. Iacocca got the nod to find out more. On April 10, 1963, the first move was made. Franco Gozzi, one of Enzo Ferrari’s trusted hands, received a call.

“Filmer Paradise here, is Mr. Ferrari in the office?” the voice inquired.

Gozzi replied that he would take a message.

“Is Ferrari there or not?”


“Tell him I called to know whether or not we can arrange a meeting.”

On his return, Ferrari knew it had to be an important discourse; Filmer Paradise was president of Ford Italiana. “Fix a meeting in the old office in Modena, maximum secrecy, inside the company too,” Ferrari directed Gozzi.

The two bosses would eventually meet two days later, discussing the possibility of acquiring the Ferrari factory. Ferrari affirmed his interest, noting that “I never felt myself to be an industrialist, but a constructor.” However, he was quick to add that any sale would not diminish his control of the racing team. “But be quite clear that in the construction and management of the racing cars I want absolute autonomy,” Ferrari said. Filmer provided feedback to Dearborn. Ford II dispatched a team led by Roy Lunn on a fact-finding mission to Italy. A leading engineer with substantial experience designing racy European cars, Lunn knew he would be an important figure should the deal be penned to paper. Lunn’s trip was successful, and closing the deal was all that remained.

By this time, it had become common knowledge in Italy that Ferrari was about to strike a deal with an American firm. The stage was set for what would be the most unexpected merger in automotive history. Italian press outfits stayed glued to proceedings, keeping tabs on every move as though a national treasure was about to slip away. This was delightful for Ferrari, who had been the focal point of criticisms and widespread attacks for most of his career. It suddenly seemed he was an Italian hero, not the Monster of Maranello he had been portrayed for years on-end. Another team from Ford was sent to finalize discussions, this time lead by Don Frey, lacocca’s number two. The initial demand was $18 million, an insignificant price given Henry II’s wealth was running up to half a billion dollars. Still, Frey and Ferrari engaged in more talks and would eventually settle for $10 million.

The Palace Revolt

1961 Italian Grand Prix

Holding a press conference on a winter day in 1961, Enzo Ferrari unveiled his new fleet of racing cars. Further reiterating his undying philosophy of unrivaled horsepower and high-end innovation, “I want to create a car with the greatest possible speed, the least weight, the least fuel intake, and all parts of equal durability,” he said. As racing was became more popular, the race engines involved became more sophisticated. Ferrari’s mission was to marry stability, speed, and center of gravity with his superior engine, never to be matched by other competitors.

Le Mans sensation Phil Hill knew the Ferrari team was waxing stronger than it ever did. He had to remain indomitable to keep his place as Ferrari’s flagship pilot. But something was going to becloud the season – a crack in the Ferrari dynasty. 

Hill had won at Sebring in March, and Le Mans in June. The Ferrari’s lined up first to third. Perfect dominance. However, in Formula One, a slight drama was to unfold. The Ferrari team had two senior drivers, but only one would emerge world champion. There was Hill, and West Germany’s Count Wolfgang Von Trips

The duo had powered Ferrari to wins across major competitions earlier in the season. Hill dominated the mechanical intellect department, and Von Trips was armed with instincts and grit. Von Trips rode the Dino to victory at the Dutch Grand Prix, Hill finished second. Hill won at the Belgian Grand Prix, and Von Trips finished second. Von Trips took the British Grand Prix, and Hill followed in second.

The two were allies. But they also knew no American or German had ever won the Formula One title. Ahead of them was a chance to rewrite that history. Back home in America, Hill was fast becoming an icon. Admired by all and sundry, he was dubbed the “Mickey Mantle in a Ferrari” by the Los Angeles Time. And, according to Esquire, “He is resolve, terror and courage all in one.”

The Italian Grand Prix at Monza was the season’s defining moment for Hill and Von Trips. The crowd was no less enthused about the chance of a Ferrari clinching victory on home turf. September 10, 1961 was the day. Thousands gathered to watch. Von Trips tucked into his Dino, as did Phil Hill, who would prefer to start the race wet. The 1961 Italian Grand Prix was broadcast, allowing everyone from across the nation to stay glued to proceedings. Enzo Ferrari found his seat in front of his television.

As the Italian flag was waved signifying the start of the race, the pack of red, silver and green race cars darted forward, leaving behind a cloud of exhaust. Hill’s was the fastest of all, the American guiding his car to first from the second row. Von Trips followed and young Scottish Jimmy Clark trailed in third in a lime-green Lotus. Firing their way into lap two, the pack headed for the tightest turn -the 180-degree Parabolica. Hill successfully entered, with Von Trips and Clark behind. At a blistering speed well over 100 mph, Von Trips headed the racing line direction, as did Clark. But that would ensure their wheels made contact, enough to spin Von Trip away from the race track into the gathered mass behind a wire fence. Not oblivious of the accident, Hill maintained his composure on the track and would eventually go on to win the race forty-one laps later. He was the new World Champion!

The accident was aired multiple times, and the sight of helpless Trips on a stretcher couldn’t be more frightening. He died in the accident, along with fourteen spectators. Another casualty recorded, Ferrari’s most historic year came to an unsavory end.  And back at the factory, the mood was anything but lively. Employees became increasingly dissatisfied. Things had never been the same since Dino’s death. Ferrari’s word was no longer final, and major figures were no longer in tune with his directives. What followed was the departure of eight key men two months after the Monza disaster. Defiant, Ferrari summoned his junior hires. “We got rid of the generals,” he said. “Now you corporals must take charge.” The company struggled to hold up, Ferrari had spent his profits on racing and the company was left in bad financial shape. The barrage of attacks from all quarters made things doubly devastating. It was a classic “Palace Revolt,” but irate Ferrari wasn’t giving in yet. His undying love for speed machines fueled another strategy.

Phil Hill at Le Mans

Phil Hill

Hill was in. He was going to Le Mans, in one of Ferrari’s speed machines. And unprecedentedly, he was the first American to take a spot in the Ferrari team. “Well,” Ferrari said, “come now and let me show you the great cars you will be driving.” Phil followed, and they both went checking out the army of cars in the racing shop.

This was not Hill’s first shot at Le Mans, though. He had raced in an Osca at the 1953 Le Mans. And funeral after funeral, he was well aware the racetrack was both ecstatic, and ruthless to its drivers. Anxiety took its toll on Hill. Following an X-ray examination, he was advised to quit the dreaded scene. Hill obliged, quitting racing at twenty-six.

But he would take a U-turn in 1954, agreeing to race at the Mexican Carrera Panamericana. His car, a 4.5-litre Ferrari, was offered by Texas oil tycoon Allen Guiberson. “Guaranteed not to cause ulcers.” The oilman scribbled in his letter to Hill. The race went to completion taking seven lives with it. But at the finish line, Hill placed second, enough to receive a call from Mr. Ferrari. The former honored the invite, and off he was to Modena.

Hill was a skilled technician who was just as fearful of the racetrack as much as he loved it. He was aware of how fast his car could take him, and how good his abilities were. Striking a balance between the two was always his goal. Fear wasn’t considered manly, and even more so in racing circles, but Hill took exception, ensuring he personified, according to one profiler – “one of consummate and meticulous skill nurtured by an increasingly heightened and almost paranoid fear of death.”

Once interviewed by a reporter, Hill confirmed “I would so love to get out of this unbent,”, and that “I have a horror of cripples. Even when I was a little boy I couldn’t bear to look at anyone who was deformed, could not bear to see them suffering. I guess I’ve always worried about ending up that way myself.”

Hill feared ending like de Portago, Hawthorn, and Musso. Ferrari’s champions of the race tracks who also lost their lives while at it. Hill made sure he didn’t end up a victim of some else’s mistake – the mechanic, another racer, anyone else. Back home, the United States was Ferrari’s largest market, and the boss knew the value-add Hill brought into his team.

That season, in 1958, Hill took off on a blistering note, crushing competitors to wins at the Hours of Sebring and the 1,000 Kilometers of Buenos Aires. He’d steadily built his credibility. And it was time to take on the big stage – Le Mans. Hill paired with Belgian Olivier Gendebien in a 250 Testa Rosa heading into the race. The 24-hour Le Mans was far and away the most economically viable channel for automakers to impress spectators, and double down on sales. Ferrari was ultimately aware a win would only further project his red speed cars as the foremost in the world.

On race day, Hill, basking in confidence, told Gendebien “We can win this race if we have the guts to go slow the first part.” And off they went, with Gendebien taking the initial shift. Taking his turn at the wheel, Hill sparked fire and fury on the track, dishing a grandstand performance that penned his name in history books as one of the finest racers to ever grace of Le Mans. Flying past other racers in their numbers and leaving them in their wake as visibility worsened in the pounding rain, Hill inched closer to glory after hour after hour. And at about 4.00 p.m. on June 22, 1958, he was crowned Le Mans champion, the first American to be so etched in Le Mans history.

Ferrari, Dino & Phil Hill

Enzo Ferrari lost his only heir, Dino, in 1956. And a trail of tragedies soon followed. On May 12, 1957, the stage was set for Mille Miglia, a 1000 miles race stretching between Brescia and Rome. With car racing increasingly becoming a staple in the annual highs of auto enthusiasts in Europe, the racecourse was greeted by some ten million spectators. The Mille Miglia was one of Ferrari’s most indelible days.

“It is the race of the people. One may say that the whole of Italy leans forward with her eyes on the tarred strip of road somewhere along the course on Mille Miglia day. “It is a day when I feel my life is useful,” he once said to a reporter.

The 1957 Mille Miglia was expectedly won by a Ferrari, but the buzz of victory was dampened by a tragedy, one that spread pretty fast from Tokyo to New York. It was Spain’s Alfonso de Portago, who, tucked in a Ferrari 335, blew a tire as he blitzed past rural Guidizzolo at near full speed. Colliding with a telephone pole, Alfonso’s Ferrari went flying into a crowd, killing twelve and leaving dozens more injured. The accident scene couldn’t be more indescribably hideous – a body of de Portago severed in two. The incident attracted an onslaught from the media, with clamors for the Mille Miglia to be abolished. And so what was once Italy’s most decorated sporting event was called off, permanently.

More papers came Ferrari’s way, though. He was blamed for the tragic incident and charged with manslaughter: “Enzo Ferrari, born in Modena on the 20th February 1898, and resident therein, [is] charged with manslaughter and causing grievous bodily harm by negligence …”

Ferrari’s role, the charge claimed, was that his race cars came with Englebert tyres unequipped to accommodate the speed for which they were designed. Although he was ultimately declared innocent, Ferarri would contest the battle for the next seven years. At court, Ferrari felt betrayed; he had spent the greater part of his life fighting for national glory. Fighting for Italy’s honor as the world’s leading racing nation. But here he was, needing to defend that he didn’t kill anyone. “Why should I continue in an activity whose only reward is being branded a murderer?” he questioned. He considered quitting, but his love for racing cars wouldn’t let him.

More troubles soon followed, this time, in a different race car – the Dino One. Designed in honor of his late son, the Dino would go on to claim both life and glory. Rome’s Luigi Musso was the first casualty, dying in a Dino Ferrari during the French Grand Prix on July 6, 1958. British Peter Collins was next at the German Grand Prix. And while contract driver Mike Hawthorn won Grand Prix of Morocco in the Dino, he would also later succumbed to the deadly clutches of a wrecked Jaguar weeks later.

What ensued in Europe was a fierce debate on the safety of car racing. A report estimated that 1 in every 4 driver didn’t see out a racing season. Enough statistic to send chills down the spine of moralists, journalists and conscious sportsmen alike. The onslaught on Enzo Ferrari didn’t stop at the press though. The Vatican also chimed in its displeasure, regarding Ferrari “a modernized Saturn turned big industrialist [who] continues to devour his sons. As it is in myth, so too is it in reality.”

With most of his trusted experts dead, there was a dearth of talent in Ferrari’s camp in 1960. But there was still one man. He’d relished the opportunity to show up on the big stage. His name was Phil Hill, a twenty-eight year old from California. “How would you like to drive for me at Le Mans?” Enzo Ferrari asked. Hill had always hoped for this day. And here was his opportunity. Yes – he answered. How would Hill fare at Le Mans? We’ll find out in the next article.