Costruzioni Meccaniche Nazionali's (CMN) roots were in the aviation business, but it turned to automobile production at the end of the war to keep its workforce busy. Enzo Ferrari graduated from tester to racing driver, and that rekindled his childhood dream of being a top competitor.
He remained with CMN for a year, then pooled resources with mechanic Guglielmo Carraroli to buy an old Isotta Fraschini Grand Prix car. But it was Ferrari’s piloting of an Alfa Romeo 20/30 to second overall in 1920’s grueling Targa Florio that landed him on the racing-driver map.
“I felt like I was the Lord of the Universe,” he wrote of driving the Alfa. “Still, what mattered to me most was the fact it gained me an official entry into the Alfa circles, made me practically an Alfa team driver like Campari and Baldoni.”
He had indeed reached the big leagues. Alfa Romeo was only 10 years old at the time, but it was, along with luxury maker Isotta Fraschini, the biggest fish in Milan’s burgeoning automotive industry.
Originally named A.L.F.A. (Anomica Lombardo Fabbrica Automobili), the firm produced sports and racing cars along with airplane engines and large, sturdy automobiles. Thanks to a class win in April 1911, at the 1,500 kilometer, five-stage Modena trials, competition became a core element of the company’s raison d’être.
Alfa’s jump into the winner’s circle and onto the front pages of Italy’s newspapers was not a smooth one. From 1912 to 1914, the company was embroiled in strikes and labor discord, a matter exacerbated by insufficient operating capital. In 1915, Nicola Romeo, a successful industrialist with a background in engineering, purchased the firm; he would change the cars’ name to Alfa Romeo in 1918.
Alfa was relatively flush with cash from wartime munitions and tractor production when Enzo Ferrari entered the fold. Enzo was a proficient driver, not up to the stature of teammates such as Giuseppe Campari, but still good enough to garner press coverage and the occasional victory, the first of which was at Circuito di Savio in 1923.
By then, Alfa was once again in financial difficulty, thanks to the failure of one of its largest creditors and to the era’s chronic labor strife. Intervention by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, himself an auto enthusiast, helped prevent the firm from going under.
Though Ferrari continued to race through the 1920s, by the middle of the decade, he was proving to be a power behind the scenes. Nicola Romeo sent him to Turin to lure Vittorio Jano to Alfa, and Ferrari set the wheels in motion for the noted engineer to join the company in late 1923. Ferrari traveled constantly, in contact with the era’s best drivers and with numerous influential individuals, in and out of the auto industry.
By the second half of the decade, Ferrari was examining his driving career. “If you want spectacular results,” he noted in his memoirs, “you have to know how to treat your car badly. Ill-treatment means excessive gearshifts, pushing the car further than the engine will bear, reckless braking, all the things that got in the way of my feeling for the machinery. The fact is I don’t drive simply to get from A to B. I enjoy feeling the car’s reactions, becoming a part of it, forming a single unit. I couldn’t inflict suffering on it.”
He thus diversified by investing in businesses in the auto industry. He became Alfa Romeo’s dealer for the Emilia-Romagna region around Modena, and set up an office in Bologna.
“I found myself overwhelmed by an almost morbid desire to do something for the motor car, for this creature I was so passionately fond of,” he wrote. “So although I was doing well enough to justify pursuing a driving career, I had my sights set on wider, more ambitious horizons.”
Ferrari's ambitions quickly inspired him to form a new company. Read on to learn more.