Magazine article The Spectator

Ferrari: Under the Skin

Magazine article The Spectator

Ferrari: Under the Skin

Article excerpt

Has a more beautiful machine in all of mankind's fretful material endeavours ever been made than a '60 Ferrari 250 Granturismo? Go to the Design Museum and decide.

I have driven many Ferraris and the experience is always unique. They are alive, demanding, feral, sometimes even violent or truculent. Addictive, too. Once, in Haverfordwest, I arrived sweating and puffing after seven hours in traffic. I parked the 246 GT at the hotel for a moment but then, unable to ignore the hot, seductive car, I got back in and drove up and down the coast road; up and down, up and down. Just because it was there.

Kierkegaard thought that 'the best demonstration of the wretchedness of life is obtained through a consideration of its glory'. Thus, the motor car. Heavy, expensive, wasteful, dangerous, but romantic too. The car is the ultimate analogue experience: the laws of nature made explicit with explosions and exhausts, forces and fears, sculpted metal. And Ferrari is the ultimate car: a machine-for-driving-in conceived and executed without compromise.

But in this year of its 70th birthday, London, Paris and Oxford have announced plans to ban cars -- or at least the oil-burning sort. As petrol cedes to electricity and brute analogue certainties cede to epicene digital abstractions, as driving becomes a gruelling chore, the Design Museum's Ferrari exhibition has an elegiac quality. Or it might have had, if executed a little differently.

What is Ferrari? One answer is: a symbol of Italy's post-war ricostruzione. The Vespa scooter and Fiat Cinquecento had similar roles, but were democratic forms of transport to mobilise peasants, women and priests. Ferrari was different: lordly and magnificently detached from the mundane, but nonetheless a superb demonstration of Italy's established national genius in craft and art. The part of Emilia-Romagna that Ferrari calls home has metal-bashing traditions going back to the Etruscans. Indeed, the name 'Ferrari' approximately means 'smith'.

Another answer is that the Ferrari story is a heroic adventure by an individual of singular, even sadistic, will. This was Enzo Ferrari, born in Modena in 1898. He finished fourth in his first motor race, a hill climb at Poggio di Berceto near Parma. Soon he was managing the Alfa Romeo racing team under the auspices of Scuderia Ferrari and the marque of this stable was the cavallino rampante (prancing horse) that Ferrari had slyly lifted from a first world war fighter ace. When Alfa Romeo frustrated his ambitions for a new car, he decided to build his own.

At the Ferrari factory in Maranello, they point out the five windows by the factory gate that meant the old man could keep constant interfering watch on the traffic. 'I am not a designer,' Ferrari once said, 'but an agitator of men.' Indeed, he was. He agitated widely. The mystique of Enzo Ferrari -- remote, obstinate, forbidding, unsentimental, determined, manipulative -- contributed powerfully to the mystique of the cars. Do machines have life? Of course they do.

Competition obsessed him. 'I have no interest in life outside racing cars,' he confessed. His love was machinery, not people. Remote? The racing driver Eugenio Castellotti explained that he was only allowed to meet Enzo himself after buying no fewer than seven of his racing cars. And so many racing drivers were killed in Ferraris that the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, damned Ferrari as a 'Saturn' for destroying his children. …

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