Should you visit the Museo Enzo Ferrari in Modena, you’ll find as many examples of the sporty dream machines the legendary car magnate lavished on the world as you could wish for, from 1948 Touring Superleggeras and GT 2+2s from 1968 to the 2002 model that bears his name, fittingly resplendent in scarlet livery and complete with DeLorean-style batwing doors. There’s even a unique Ferrari Hydroplane, the Arno XI, from 1954. The exhibits are spotlit like rarefied jewels, and it’s not hard to see why the name Ferrari has transcended the world of AutoBuzz fanboys and Mille Miglia grand tourers and come to stand for something recherché and revered, whether it’s being dropped by French literary luminaries (Whisky, gambling and Ferraris are better than housework: Françoise Sagan) or U.S. rap eminences (Droptop ’Rari, scratch that off my bucket list: Gucci Mane).
However, amid the racers and engines and technical drawings, one of the Museo’s most telling exhibits is rather more modest: a pair of black Persol #2762 sunglasses in a Perspex case. These, along with an immaculate trenchcoat, became Enzo Ferrari’s style staples as he built his world-beating brand. The official story has it that he donned them in 1956 after the death of his beloved son Dino, aged 24, of muscular dystrophy, and was never seen without them again, but the enigmatic look they conferred was a good fit for a man who, in contrast to the brio of his products, maintained a Sphinx-like air, shunning the spotlight, gaining a reputation for being cold and calculating, nursing obscure grievances — “He told me to go soak my head, and never spoke to me again,” said Ferruccio Lamborghini, after the future designer had the temerity to point out some perceived mechanical faults with his personal Ferrari — and mixing gnomic utterances (“I am an agitator of men”) with stark aperçus (“I have, in fact, no interest in life outside racing cars”). Enzo’s reticence only fuelled an intense fascination with him in his native land: “In Italy, there was the Pope and then there was Enzo,” says Luca Dal Monte, author of the biography Enzo Ferrari: Power, Politics and the Making of an Automotive Empire. “By the mid seventies, he had reached a demigod dimension. He was the Grand Old Man, not just of motor racing, but of the country.”
For Dal Monte, Enzo Ferrari possessed all the traits, both positive and negative, that are necessary for the fostering of genius: an Olympian stubbornness; a laser-like focus and drive; and the ability to bend others to his will. He’s been compared to Steve Jobs, Napoleon Bonaparte and Machiavelli, but Dal Monte prefers a folksier comparison. “In many ways he was like Ronald Reagan, a man with no particular specific qualities who made it big,” he says. “There’s a book on Reagan whose subtitle reads, ‘How an ordinary man became an extraordinary leader’. In my opinion, that applies to Enzo Ferrari as well: ‘How an ordinary man became an automotive giant’.”