Il Grande John

Setting out of his Modena home on a winter morning in 1964, Enzo Ferrari has his loyal chauffeur Pepino waiting at the wheel of a purring Fiat 1100. Now sixty-six, Ferrari was fast approaching his twilight years. The automobile genius having seen out many successes and challenges for years on end was finally finding some comfort. His new home was both comfy and spacious enough for his wife, and his mother Mama Adalgasia. He’d rather be driven at this age, but his undying love for Fiats remained. Pepino’s morning commute eventually lands them at the factory.

Ferrari had enjoyed virtually all successes race cars could win.  But by 1964, the quest for speed and design of sports cars had become global and competition for customers was increasingly fierce. From Porsche 911 to Jaguar’s E-type and Lamborghini 350 GT, there were more than a handful of competitors vying for global dominance.

Still, Ferrari’s two new 1964 models were truly amazing. Dubbed “the Sophia Loren of supercars,” the 275 GTB was blindingly elegant, yet fully designed for speed. And the new customer car – high-end 500 Superfast – had enough steam to hit 170mph. There was limited supply of Ferrari’s Superfasts – only thirty-six made, but purchases came pouring in, with the Shah of Iran cashing in on two, and Peter Sellers buying one. If anyone was more popular than Ferrari in Italy, it had to be the Pope. His popularity swayed 40% of his sales to America. Clients included New York’s governor Nelson Rockefeller, William Holden and the Dupont and Dulles families.

Following the death of Von Trips, race champion Phil Hill eventually took the exit route from Ferrari’s team. He didn’t click with new manager Eugenio Dragoni.  Hill didn’t regret his departure, though, stating that Ferrari never really gave him his full support. “I wasn’t sorry to leave. Enzo Ferrari never understood me … He always favored the man who would take that extra risk in a live-or die situation. I wasn’t willing to die for Enzo Ferrari. I wasn’t willing to become one of his sacrifices.” Hill said in an interview.

Following Hill’s exit, Englishman John Surtees soon became the leading figure in Italian racing. A contract driver with Ferrari, Surtees got off to a sensational start and was endeared Il Grande John by fans. His first meeting with the boss was a remarkable one. “It was a curious feeling as I walked through the door of Ferrari’s office that morning, as if I was stepping into another world,” Surtees noted. “It seemed as though everybody was going about their jobs with a reverential earnestness which was almost unnatural. I was experiencing for the first time the unique magnetism of Ferrari.”

Comments from Paul… John Surtees, the only man to win world titles both on motorbikes and cars! Don’t think that will happen again in a hurry….

Means and Motives

Carroll Shelby

Ford II’s resolve to take on Enzo Ferrari was unquestionable, but American cars hadn’t the best of records in Europe, with the only success coming forty-two years earlier in 1921, when San Francisco’s Jimmy Murphy rode the Duesenberg to victory at the French Grand Prix.  On the big stage at Le Mans, the closest an American car came was second, in 1928. Failure to beat the red Ferrari’s would be a massive dent on the Ford Motor Company, and could potentially jeopardize Ford II’s bid to become a global force in the automotive space.

Soon after the Ford-Ferrari deal broke down, it unfolded that Ferrari was negotiating a deal with Fiat, an unexpected move seeing as discussions with Ford almost seemed done and dusted. Fazed by the development, the Deuce’s resolve was now fueled with vengeance. It became obvious Ferrari was never truly interested in trading off his entity, not to the Americans at least, who had earlier brought his factory to ruins in World War II.

W. O. Bentley was the first to reckon the importance of Le Mans. The thrill of winning the 24-hour duel, the national pride, and the commercial gains the car maker stood to gain was something he’d enjoyed. His English racing cars won the competition from 1927 to 1930. Alfa Romeo followed from 1931 to 1934 races, and Ettore Bugatti’s French cars dominated the scene before the Second World War.

Following World War II, Enzo Ferrari rose to become the most revered constructor in Le Mans history. Victory for manufacturers skyrocketed sales in the showroom. The 24 hours of Le Mans was, according to Ferrari “The Race of Truth,” were two men paired – one at the wheel at any point in time, and  the other waiting in the wings – to race other competitors bidding to lap the 8.36-mile circuit the most times. The competition had grown so popular it was divided into two classes: Grand Touring cars or GT’s (production cars available for customer purchase) and Prototypes. Sure, cars in both categories had to meet design standards: two-seat cockpit, headlights and trunk space. But the Prototypes significantly edged out GT’s in speed, as much as 70mph in some cases. The Prototypes brought future sports cars to close view. Building these prototype cars was the task at hand in Dearborn, a challenge led by engineering expert Roy Lunn at the new Ford Advanced Vehicles division.

The goal was to have a car rolled out in one year, just in time for the 1964 Le Mans. Meanwhile, Lunn reflected on what transpired at the 1963 Le Mans. Speed machines in red coasted to perfect glory, as Ferrari’s cars finished first to sixth. Lunn noted that beating Ferrari would require a car with a superior speed topping 200 mph, and the durability to last the entire race. This speed far exceeded the take-off speed of most aircraft. Keeping those cars on the ground, then, would be a major challenge. Lunn noted that “with the exception of land-speed record cars, no vehicle has ever been developed to travel at speeds in excess of 200 mph on normal highways.” A fusion of superior sophisticated technology and unrivalled innovation would be needed to have a Ford prototype up and running for the next Le Mans.  Lunn came up with a budget of seven-figures. Iacocca approved the figure and the entire plan as a whole.

However, there was one problem; only few of the specialized components needed were available in the United States since no auto outfit had ever embarked on such ambitious project. One man also had to be brought into the discussion. His name – Carroll Shelby. Shelby’s automotive thinking drove the manufacturing of “Powered by Ford” Cobras by the summer of 1963. And just like Ferrari’s business model, the success of Shelby’s cars depended on their performance at the track. That summer, Shelby’s Cobras were smashing away other cars in the Sports Car Club of America competition. Winning overseas was the next on Shelby’s checklist if he was going to claim king of the road. And so America went all in, launching an unprecedented fight featuring Shelby’s Cobra and Ford’s prototype against Ferrari’s fleet of cars in both categories at Le Mans.

Comments from Paul… Carroll Shelby, what an icon! One of those guys that just got things done. Things start hotting up now…

The deal breaks down

With discussions well advanced, Frey got back in touch with Henry II. On May 21, the two teams from either side of the discussion table sat down to a final draft to close the deal. Two entities were going to be created, Ford-Ferrari: A customer car company, 90 percent of which would be owned by Ford, and Ferrari-Ford: The racing team, 90 percent of which would be owned by Ferrari.

Dearborn negotiators knew the latter company was the real deal. Le Mans was the biggest stage in European racing. A win at Le Mans was commercially more important than all other European races combined. Ferrari was king of Europe, and his commercial success was rivalled. If the Ford Motor Company were to successfully penetrate Europe, and dominate it, they had to capture Le Mans, and so they made moves to secure the deal to Ford’s advantage.

Reading the final agreement, something caught Ferrari’s attention. Dearborn representatives knew something didn’t go down well with Ferrari when he drew a large exclamation point at the margin of certain pages.

Turning to Frey “But here, Ferrari said, It is written that if I want to spend more for racing I have to request authorization to do so from America! Is it also written that way in the official English text? Where is the freedom that I demanded right from the start to make programs, select men and decide on money? But Mr. Ferrari, you’re selling your firm, and you pretend still to dispose of it to your pleasure,” Frey replied.

Ferrari questioned, “so if I wish to enter cars at Indianapolis and you do not wish me to enter cars at Indianapolis, do we go or do we not go? You do not go,” Frey replied.

This was a deal breaker for Ferrari. He had worked his entire life bringing sports cars to life and calling the shots on the race track, a deal that would see him stifled out of control was simply out of the discussion. Furious, “My rights, my integrity, my very being as a manufacturer, as an entrepreneur, cannot work under the enormous machine, the suffocating bureaucracy of the Ford Motor Company!” Ferrari shouted. The deal was off.

After months and long hours of talks, Frey couldn’t be more disappointed heading back to the Glass House having lost the deal. He departed Italy for Dearborn the following day, leaving with a copy of The Enzo Ferrari Memoirs: My Terrible Joys, as a parting gift. Back in town, he would find himself in the same room with the Glass House boss. “I failed,” Frey told Ford II.

The duo made their way to the dining room of the penthouse before Frey before provided an in-depth briefing on how discussions panned out in Italy. It was “the longest lunch I ever had in my life,” Frey would later describe the meeting with Henry II.

Listening, Henry II was bottled-up in fury. The unsavoury turn was not expected. But his mission in Europe was not going to be truncated by anyone, including Ferrari.

“All right,” Henry II said. “We’ll beat his ass, we’re going to race him.” Frey knew something big was about to unfold, and he’d play an integral role in it.

“How much money do you want to spend?” then, Frey asked his boss.

“I didn’t say anything about money,” Henry II responded.

The point was clear to Frey. Henry II was ready for the challenge no matter the cost, bankrolling the project was not a problem, and finishing second was not an option. Aware of Ford II’s next move, lacocca assembled his team and developed a proposal for a new special-vehicles department. Its purpose – to design and build the fastest, most reliable and technologically advanced racing car in history.  Another fight was born; Ford II was leading America to an unchartered territory – a quest to beat Enzo Ferrari at Le Mans.

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?”

“No.”

“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.