You know that “six degrees of separation” concept that says everyone is separated by a maximum of six people from someone else? On my first ever trip to Italy that number for me was three, and that’s how I unexpectedly found myself at Ferrari factory and annual factory luncheon in 1981.
Cars were my passion through much of high school and college, specifically the Italian marques Iso and Bizzarrini. I was constantly researching them through good old detective work (back then hardly anyone knew what an Iso or Bizzarrini was), and while playing Lt. Columbo I met a gentleman named Rino Argento who lived in southern California. He worked with Iso in 1965 when they were having trouble selling cars here in the U.S., and was very good friends with a guy named Franco Lini.
Franco resided in Milan, was one of Italy’s top automotive journalists, and always had a sly smile and twinkle in his eye. In fact, Franco was so highly regarded that Enzo Ferrari hired him in 1967 to run the competition team, and they won the endurance-racing crown that year.
In 1981 I decided to go to Italy to try and find some former Iso employees, and Rino set up an introductory meeting with Franco at the Las Vegas Grand Prix to see if he could help me. We hit it off, and did I ever end up with a wonderful chauffeur and guide for much of that trip.
One day Franco called my hotel room (ahhhh…the time when cell phones didn’t exist), and asked what I was doing on a certain date the following week. I had something planned, but did that change in a hurry when he invited me to go to Ferrari. Little did I realize it was not only a visit to the factory but I’d have a seat at the annual year-end factory celebration.
We arrived quite early, and I watched Franco do his thing, chatting people up while I amused myself by taking pictures (thankfully I brought enough film to last the day). After probably an hour of us kicking around, there were at least 50-100 people milling about outside, when an orange-red 308 came into the large parking lot. It slowly proceeded forward then rocketed down a parking lot lane in front of us, its roofline barely visible over the parked cars. Then it came whipping around the far end of the lane with tires squealing and the back end all the way out, straightened up and shot straight towards us where it screeched into an empty parking space at our feet and shut off. Out stepped Formula 1 ace Gilles Villeneuve, looking as if nothing had happened.
A bit later Enzo Ferrari arrived in a chauffeur driven Fiat 130, and he got out, glanced around at the assemblage of people, and went into the restaurant. It was as if the Red Sea had parted, and we all followed him in. Thanks to Franco, we sat at the head of a long table, and were probably fifteen feet away from the Old Man. Sergio Pininfarina was there, as were a bunch of Fiat honchos and Piero Ferrari. I remember Franco pointing Piero out and saying, “There is Enzo Ferrari’s son.” Back then no one over here knew about Piero, as the only son ever mentioned in books and magazines was Dino.
After the luncheon we went over to the Ferrari factory (which was closed) so I could look around. Not only did I wander the production line but Franco’s clout got me into the F1 department. There I stood, a 20-something kid, camera around my neck, when my guide wandered off to do something. I knew I shouldn’t have taken a photo but couldn’t resist so I opened the shutter up while keeping the camera close to my stomach, and took a couple shots. Neither was perfectly in focus, but looking at them today (the slide show is the first time I have shown one) makes it clear what a different world it was back then.
Several minutes later in came Didier Pironi, Ferrari’s number two driver. We spoke briefly, and what I remember most is when Franco joined me he began talking about how the materials on the F1 cars were changing, and Pironi handed me a body panel which I proceeded to wave around above my head, it was so light. Not a bad introduction to the world of carbon composites, if I do say so myself…
That whole trip was one memorable voyage, and little did I realize that Italy, Modena and the Ferrari factory’s hometown of Maranello would become my home away from home.