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Ferrari at 50

Nothing's middle-aged about the 612 Scaglietti, the latest ride from Ferrari, created to celebrate a half century in America
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Sharon Stone, July/Aug 2004

In a world where milliseconds make all the difference, there's no room for error. Michael Schumacher learned that the hard way during the Japanese Grand Prix, the last race of the 1998 Formula 1 season. Within points of snagging the Formula 1 championship and clearly the man to beat, Schumacher jumped the starting flag, was sent to the back of the field and watched his chances evaporate.

It was a painful lesson, and one the determined German wasn't about to repeat. Two seasons later, he struck back with a vengeance, dominating the F1 circuit, race after race. Schumacher captured the 2000 championship for team Scuderia Ferrari, scoring again in 2001, 2002 and 2003, breaking the record of the renowned Argentinian, Juan Manuel Fangio with his sixth title. This year, despite rule changes less than subtly intended to shake his grip, Schumacher has a solid chance of taking the series once more—along with the all-time record.

Machine-like precision and an iron will make Michael Schumacher arguably the best race driver ever, and undeniably one of the world's wealthiest athletes. Of course, it helps that he's connected to car maker that possesses similar attributes. Using one of the most sophisticated wind tunnels in the world to fine tune aerodynamics, and squeezing even more horsepower out of Schumacher's open-wheeled racer, Ferrari engineers have kept the prancing pony the one to beat on the Formula 1 track this year.

The Italian automaker's invincibility on the track underscores its reputation as the king of the street as well—good timing, as Ferrari marks its 50th anniversary in the United States, its largest market. To commemorate the occasion, the carmaker is rolling out the all-new 612 Scaglietti, the long-awaited successor to the 456M sports coupe. If past is prologue, potential buyers likely will require Zen-like patience. In a world where rebates are the rule, Ferrari is the exception. Its products are in such demand that no one really knows how high is up. The company has artificially capped production at just over 4,000 cars annually. As a result, there's a waiting list of two years or more for various Ferrari models, and long before the 612 ever hit showrooms, dealers already had a full year of orders in hand. For those looking to take delivery any sooner, some who signed up early are offering their places in line on eBay—at a hefty premium.

If you're not a Ferrarista, that may seem difficult to understand. But the automaker's dapper chairman, Luca di Montezemolo, sums it up succinctly: "We sell you a dream with Ferrari, not an automobile."

Birth of a Dream
No one is quite sure when that dream began. But the man who lent his name to the legend was born in the northern Italian city of Modena, on February 18, 1898. As a teenager desperate for work, Enzo Ferrari spent much of the First World War shoeing mules, before migrating to Turin, then the center of the Italian auto industry. Landing a job with Alfa Romeo, he worked his way through a series of jobs, his skill and love of motor sports quickly becoming apparent. He started as a mechanic, moved up to test driver, then got a "ride" of his own in an Alfa race car.

On the track, Ferrari earned a reputation for courage that bordered on audacity. In 1923, after Ferrari won a particularly grueling race, a fan gave him the squadron badge of his son, an Italian air force ace, who had died in the war. With its image of a wild horse rearing high, it became Ferrari's good-luck charm. Later, he'd place the image in front of a field of yellow, the colors of Ferrari's hometown, Modena, creating the logo for his new company.

Ferrari's love of racing was infectious. It was also good business, Alfa realized, when in 1929, its ambitious young employee created the original Scuderia Ferrari, a team of "gentleman" racers, spiced with a few professionals. "With Ferrari, I learned the business of racing, for there was no doubt he was a businessman," the French driver René Dreyfus, who left Bugatti to work for the Italian team in 1935, later wrote. "Enzo Ferrari loved racing, of that there was no question. Still, it was more than an enthusiast's love, but one tempered by the practical realization that this was a good way to build a nice, profitable empire. I knew he was going to be a big man one day, even then when the cars he raced carried somebody else's name. I felt sure that eventually they would carry his."

It wouldn't take long, in fact. By 1939, the brash yet charismatic Enzo Ferrari's relationship with Alfa soured, and he decided to strike out on his own. Ferrari was barred by contract from putting his name on a car, but it really didn't matter for the moment. He spent the war years manufacturing machine tools. At least that was the official story. In the back of his small shop, Ferrari continued to tinker with cars of his own design.

While he gets credit for two small race cars entered into the 1940 Mille Miglia, automotive historians generally dub the Tipo125 that ran in the 1947 Grand Prix the first "true" Ferrari. With its unusual V-12, the 125 gained instant notoriety and defined the type of engine for which Ferrari would soon be best known. It didn't take long for the new company to begin winning races, and by 1951 it came heartbreakingly close to capturing the Grand Prix season, losing a crucial race to Fangio.

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