The Ferrari files: how one man’s obsession saved racing car history

Car Industry

2017-11-02 /

In 1975, a young British motor enthusiast named Ronald Stern ventured on a pilgrimage to northern Italy to see the factory where Enzo Ferrari built his racing cars. On a hot July day, Stern arrived in Maranello, near Modena, and parked by the factory gates. It was lunchtime and a few workers lingered to appreciate his AC Cobra sports car.

“As I was standing there, Enzo came out with Clay Regazzoni, the Formula 1 driver, and walked across the road to the Cavallino restaurant. I followed them in, thinking, ‘Well, I might be able to have a pasta with them,’” Stern recalls, chuckling. “They went into a little anteroom, so I had my pasta on my own. And then, from outside, I heard a Formula 1 car starting up. It was magic, just fantastic. That’s when the madness began.”

 Enzo Ferrari     

Between 1947 and his death in 1988, Enzo Ferrari turned his own name into a legend, and his factory — which today makes 30 Ferraris a day — into a shrine. Relentless, uncompromising, visionary, sometimes cruel, the former racing driver founded the world’s most glamorous and elite car brand. Such is the devotion of wealthy fans that vintage Ferraris can sell for tens of millions, and the company has more than doubled in value to €19bn since its initial public offering in 2015. Its sales grew by 9 per cent to €3.1bn last year, 22 per cent from buyers in Asia. 

To their owners, Ferraris are more than cars. Françoise Sagan, the author of 1954’s Bonjour Tristesse, owned a Ferrari GT California Spyder, among other sports cars, and wrote in her memoirs of the joy of driving at speed: “The plane trees at the side of the road seem to lie flat. At night, the neon lights of petrol stations are lengthened and distorted; your tyres no longer screech but are suddenly muffled and quietly attentive; even your sorrows are swept away: however madly and hopelessly in love you may be, at 200km an hour, you are less so.”

Stern, who is now 68, lives very differently to Enzo Ferrari. Ferrari had sons both by his wife Laura and his mistress Lina Lardi, and conducted sundry other affairs. Stern, founder of a UK office products firm that owns the Platignum and Snopake brands, is faithful by nature. “Same business 40 years, same wife 35 years, same house 32 years, different dog,” is his self-description.

But as well as being entrepreneurs, they share two qualities: an obsessive interest in Ferrari and blind determination. Many collectors in the world own more Ferraris than Stern does. Nick Mason, Pink Floyd’s drummer, still has the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO that Stern sold him for £42,500 in 1978; the vehicle is worth about £30m today. But no one comes close to matching Stern as a collector (or “preserver”, as he prefers) of Ferrari memorabilia — material about both the public company and the private man.

Enzo was careless about history. “The best Ferrari that has ever been built is the next,” were his words, painted at the entrance of the company museum in Maranello. He was 49 when he built his first Ferrari and stayed in a hurry for the rest of his life: always looking forwards, never back. Ferrari used to dump its old racing cars at the rear of the factory, and for years discarded documents that are now highly valuable. “I think he woke up in the morning just wanting to win the next race,” says one executive.

For 35 years, by buying other private collections and bidding at auctions, Stern has doggedly recovered what Ferrari lost: helmets of each Formula 1 champion; articles of incorporation for the Scuderia Ferrari team; Enzo’s wedding certificate; watches with Ferrari’s prancing horse logo, which he gave as gifts to employees, clients and drivers; letters from his first son Alfredo (known as Dino) before Dino’s death in 1956 at the age of 24; a menu signed by friends at a celebration lunch; and thousands more items. “If Ronald hasn’t got it and he wants it, it ends up here. It’s as simple as that,” says Nathan Beehl, the full-time archivist employed by Stern. 

Just think of it. Italy is virtually destroyed...The roads are broken, his factory has been bombed. And yet he thinks, “I’m going to build racing cars”

Some of this will go on display at the exhibition Ferrari: Under the Skin, which opens at the Design Museum in London later this month, marking Ferrari’s 70th anniversary. Stern’s material will be shown alongside classic Ferraris and details of how the company designs and builds its vehicles. “Many museum collections were assembled in the past by enthusiasts like Ronald with the passion and the knowledge to go hunting,” says Andrew Nahum, the exhibition’s lead curator. “Public institutions can seldom afford to do the job he has done.”

Stern’s archive is not popular with everyone. It gets under the skin of some at Ferrari, who question his right to control such intimate material. At times, that has included Piero Ferrari, son of Enzo and Lina Lardi, and who has a €1.9bn stake in the company. “What Ron has done is invaluable, but if someone collected my wedding photos, I might say ‘Hang on a minute,’” says Mason. “Sometimes they approve of him, sometimes they don’t. Ferrari makes the Borgias look straightforward.”

   French Riviera     Francoise Sagan


It is hard to understand fully Stern’s obsession with Ferrari without retracing his journey to Italy four decades ago. 

Silver light bathes the fields as I approach Maranello, a town of 17,000 people. My taxi pulls up on the outskirts, where Stern parked his AC Cobra in 1975, by an ochre-red building with a yellow Ferrari sign above its entrance arch. The Cavallino restaurant still sits across the road.

Enzo arrived in Maranello in 1943 to occupy a low, triangular set of buildings in the midst of farmland. After a career as an Alfa Romeo racing driver, he had formed the Scuderia Ferrari racing team but fell out with Alfa when it took over the team. In 1944, as he worked on the first car under his own name, the factory was hit by Allied bombs. Finally, 70 years ago, the Ferrari 125 S rolled out, failing to complete the course in its first race. “A promising failure,” Enzo declared.

“Just think of it,” Stern says in wonder. “Italy is virtually destroyed. To move materials around is difficult. The roads are broken, his factory has been bombed. Yet he’s thinking, ‘I’m going to build racing cars.’” From the start, Enzo’s ambition was to beat Alfa Romeo. (“Today, I have killed my mother,” he exclaimed when Ferrari won its first grand prix at Silverstone in 1951.) Selling sports cars was only a means to earn money to plough back into developing faster racers.

Ferrari soon caught the attention of the glitterati. Richard Williams records in his 2001 biography Enzo Ferrari: A Life that the film director Roberto Rossellini visited Maranello in 1949 with Ingrid Bergman, and Bergman later drove a Ferrari 375 Coupé, custom-made for her. In 1950, Gianni Agnelli, scion of the Fiat family, bought one with bodywork by Touring, a Milan coachbuilder. “When Agnelli drove a Ferrari along the French Riviera, Ferraris were the most exotic and high-performance cars and they were also transgressive and dangerous,” says Nahum. These days, they are more associated with sheer wealth.

The Ferrari factory has grown since the 1940s: as well as larger assembly plants, today it holds everything from an aluminium foundry to a wing-shaped workers’ restaurant and a wind tunnel for its F1 cars, designed by the architect Renzo Piano. These spread out from the original triangle of buildings, which include the five-windowed office by the gate where Enzo would watch everything that came and went.

It has the feeling of a company town, although the 2,000 factory workers in red overalls return to their homes around Maranello after shifts. The buildings are arrayed on a broad avenue called viale Enzo Ferrari, with small streets named after F1 champions (via Mike Hawthorn, via Phil Hill) branching off. Walls are painted in Ferrari red, Italy’s grand prix racing colour, and employees cycle around on red-painted bicycles.

Ferrari is rooted in the craft culture of Emilia-Romagna. “Within a few miles of Bologna there was someone who could make anything, from a body to a high-performance crankshaft,” says Nahum. Enzo originally built only the engines and chassis for his cars, with bodywork supplied by others. In 1951, he struck a deal with Pininfarina to design the bodies, with aluminium being beaten into shape by craftsmen at the local coachbuilder Carrozzeria Scaglietti. Bodies are still made at Scaglietti, now to Ferrari’s design.

                                Ferrari Factory

The factory is automated but there is still plenty of craft inside a Ferrari. Only five 12-cylinder Ferraris are made per day (others have eight cylinders). The interior leatherwork and fabrics are trimmed by hand, and each engine is assembled by a single worker. Every buyer of a Ferrari 812 Superfast, which has a top speed of 340kph and sells for £263,000 or more, gets a certificate signed by its engine’s builder. 

The Maranello factory is remarkably peaceful. The robotic arms carrying car bodies move smoothly and steadily. The assembly lines are bathed in light from windows that show the surrounding countryside and the silhouette of the town centre. The buildings are filled with plants and trees. Little is spared to make its employees productive because there is no need to scrimp: Ferraris are luxury goods.

Maranello infuses Ferrari in other ways: the cars are built to cope with being driven at speed in the foothills of the nearby Apennine mountains. “If you drive into the hills, the roads are beautiful but they have an impact. They are very bumpy, very small, very curvy,” says Michael Leiters, Ferrari’s chief technology officer. “The comfort of a Ferrari comes from the streets of Maranello, I’m convinced.”

Despite the heavy sense of tradition, Ferrari retains Enzo’s restless attitude towards the past. “The next car needs to be better than the old car and, if we have to forget a principle from before, we forget it,” Leiters says. Ferrari’s ultimate aim is not speed but arousal: retaining the raw emotion of driving, feeling the kick of acceleration and the animal whine of the engine. Visceral pleasure, channelled through Enzo to his cars, is what draws Ferrari’s disciples.

“I call it the go-kart feeling, the direct reaction of the car,” says Leiters, who previously worked at Porsche. “I still remember my first time in a Ferrari. I was driving with a colleague, and when we got to a tunnel, we wound down the windows and heard this beautiful sound. We braked and accelerated. I felt...” He points to his arm. “What do you call it? Goosebumps. Only a Ferrari gives you goosebumps.”

The engine is only half of a Ferrari. The other half is the beauty of its shape. Much of that was originally dictated by aerodynamics — the smooth cigar outlines of early Ferraris, the bulbous aluminium curves hammered out by hand at Scaglietti. The exhibition shows how Ferraris were originally modelled at full scale in wood, then with metal rods, and now by computers and in automobile clay. Ferrari’s mouth-like radiator grilles and rounded intake ducts all have aerodynamic purpose.

“Design here means giving a beautiful form to something that is highly functional,” says Flavio Manzoni, Ferrari’s head of design. “The skin is the expression of what goes on under the skin. On a racing car, you need to drape the body over the mechanics as flush as possible.” He points to an image of a 1967 Ferrari. “It’s nice to see how it was iconic and full of personality, but there was one instinct: to give a poetic shape to something made for racing.”


Last May, an unusual item came up for sale at an auction house in Florence. It was a set of 142 letters from Enzo to Fiamma Breschi, the girlfriend of Luigi Musso, a Ferrari grand prix driver who died in a race in 1958. After Musso’s death, Ferrari started writing to Breschi, first in condolence, then in friendship and finally passionately. He wrote in the purple ink he always used, reflecting in one letter that he expressed himself to her “without the iron mask I wear every day”.

Their relationship had a dark genesis — Musso’s was one of a series of deaths of Ferrari drivers at a brutally dangerous time for motor racing, which led to Enzo being pilloried by the Italian press for being uncaring. “A modern Saturn, that is to say a Saturn who has become a captain of industry, continues to devour his own sons,” wrote L’Osservatore Romano after Musso’s death.

Stern went to Florence to meet Breschi twice before her death two years ago, and bought from her items about Musso. When her letters came up for auction, he acquired them for €36,000. It was not an unusual transaction for a man who has been steadily building his archive for decades: “My philosophy is, if I’m committed to something, I’ll get on and do it. You can’t be half pregnant.”

This time, he encountered an official block. Soon after he won the auction, the Italian government put an export ban on the letters. The state has become more sensitive to its heritage leaving the country, and any cultural work created more than 50 years ago requires an export licence. “I don’t know if my collection is the Elgin marbles but it’s the Elgin marbles to me,” says Stern, who has appealed against the ban.

Stern’s house is lined with Ferrari memorabilia and intricate steel models of cars, built for him by a French craftsman. “I employed him for 10 years without telling [my wife] Suzy,” Stern admits. One is a model of the 250 GTO he sold to Nick Mason in 1978, before the value of the rare classics (Ferrari made only 39 of the 1962 GTOs) rose vertiginously. “I’d had a few time wasters and I was virtually on my knees begging Nick to take the thing away,” Stern recalls.

His real trove lies elsewhere, in a small garage that contains not a Ferrari but walls lined with Ferrari-red bound volumes. It is a mundane, cramped space for a unique historical collection, but no one could quibble with the care that Stern takes. He and Beehl consulted the British Library on how to preserve the documents and these rest, neatly catalogued, inside their red binders.

Stern’s archive gives him a unique status in the small world of Ferrari collectors, which includes Jon Shirley, a former president of Microsoft, who tells me that he owns, “I think, a dozen old Ferraris and three pre-war Alfa Romeos”. Ferrari’s heedlessness about its history is common, Shirley says. “Most companies have little sense of how to preserve the past. Ronald has done a great job. If there’s one thing he needs, it’s more room than that little garage.”

The next car needs to be better than the old car and, if we have to forget a principle from before, we forget it

Michael Leiters, chief technology officer, Ferrari

There are many tales of Ferrari losing precious documents, including the sought-after booklets recording the models for each year. “The 1950 yearbook is hardest to find. It’s only eight pages,” says Beehl. “When Franco Gozzi, Enzo’s right-hand man, joined in 1959, he opened a cupboard in his office and found piles of 1950 yearbooks inside. He said, ‘What should I do with these?’ They said, ‘Throw them out.’ So he did.”

Ferrari has the documents that it needs for its Classiche workshop at the Maranello factory. It can rebuild any Ferrari more than 20 years old for the owner, bringing it back to its original condition from drawings. Stern’s archive delves far deeper, beneath the architecture of the cars into the heart of what Enzo created: there are certificates, letters written by Enzo in purple, original photographs of each historic moment. 

Some are painfully emotional: letters from Dino to Enzo that show the son’s handwriting deteriorating with his muscular dystrophy; condolence cards from family friends on Dino’s death; and Enzo’s letter to Laura in France after he had visited their son’s grave for an anniversary. Seeing them feels less like examining historical documents than intruding on personal grief. Yet somehow, perhaps out of carelessness and perhaps from greed, they ended up being sold.

That upsets Piero Ferrari. “I’ve got many letters between Enzo and his wife,” Stern says. “There’s nothing nasty in them, just normal letters. At one stage, I said, ‘Piero, if it’s driving you so mad, I’ll give them to you.’” The tension between them eased after Piero flew to the UK last year to see some of Stern’s material. “We’ve had a few moments but he came here and he said, ‘Ronald, the matter is forgotten now.’” Piero Ferrari would not comment for this article.

Stern’s archive delves into the heart of what Enzo created: there are certificates, documents, letters, original photographs of each historic moment

But Stern’s project is hardly shameful, given that the alternative would have been far worse. He has reassembled in one place what Ferrari and Enzo’s family failed to hold on to for themselves. Without his efforts, much of the material might have been lost. “I realised that Ferrari’s history was starting to be dissipated around the world and I thought, ‘This is awful. How could this have come out of the factory and the family? I want to preserve it.’ That’s where my heart is.”

Just as Enzo cared about little except the outcome of the race, so the money Stern has spent does not seem to matter to him. He paid £11,000 for the first private collection of papers he bought in 1982 and will not divulge the price of his costliest purchase (“I could answer the question but I won’t”). He says he would never sell the collection. “I haven’t made a list of what I spent on this or what I spent on that. On a car I might, but not this.”

It was in Maranello that the 25-year-old Stern first saw Enzo Ferrari in 1975, heard the scream of an F1 car and felt Ferrari’s emotional pull. Ultimately, Maranello seems the natural home for his life’s work. “It’s a big question,” he says, when asked where the collection will ultimately end up. “Really, in my heart of hearts, I would like to see it back in Italy.” For now, Enzo Ferrari’s history is preserved by the Englishman who saved it: “I’ve only got it because it wanted to be cared for.”