Horse of a Different Color

In 1963, the Ford Motor Company’s failed bid to purchase Ferrari sparked one of motor racing’s fiercest rivalries.

The racing rivalry that almost wasn't: A Ford GT40 leads a Ferrari 250LM at Le Mans in 1969, with a Porsche 917LH close behind.

For an illustration of how little Enzo Ferrari cared about road cars, consider this: In 1963, the Ford Motor Company had a deal in hand to buy Ferrari. The deal was split in two, with Ford owning the passenger-car part of the operation, and Ferrari retaining 90 percent of the racing enterprise. The only caveat was that Ferrari would race where Ford wanted, in the series it wanted. This turned out to be the deal-breaker.

Ferrari, the company, came on the market inconspicuously. In 1962, Il Commendatore, growing tired of doing business in Italy and generally feeling his age, began to entertain thoughts of selling. The first suitors were Texas oil barons John Mecom, Sr. and Jr., who were well known to Ferrari as customers, and frequent visitors to Maranello. Discussions between the Texans and the “Pope of the North” escalated to a fairly serious level, producing a reported price in the $20 to $25 million range. But the Mecoms turned tail and ran in the face of the other serious bidder, this one with more money than even them: the Ford Motor Company.

Ford had just broken the industry-wide ban on motorsport stipulated by the Detroit-based Automobile Manufacturers Association. Ford’s motorsport-as-marketing plan, dubbed “Total Performance” tapped into the nascent youth market as it produced high-performance cars for the street and the racetrack. Ford, knowing that Ferrari was on the market, thought they had found a short-cut to racing glory, one that could be bought for roughly the price of a new engine program.

So, in April, 1963, an army of Ford white-collar types descended on the compound in Maranello, with its Abetone Road offices, long race-car-building gallery off to the east, the foundry and assembly lies out back, and Cavallino (Prancing Horse) restaurant. It was a county farm of a car business, a fraction the size of a Ford division.

The engineers and accountants who went there prepared what was perhaps the first and certainly the most thorough inventory of the Ferrari organization ever attempted. It remains in the Ford Motor Company archives. When all was present and accounted for, Ford made its bid: $18 million. The new company would be called Ford-Ferrari. Ferrari said fine.

With all the legal and monetary issues hammered out, the talks eventually narrowed down to two men, Enzo Ferrari and Ford division assistant general manager Donald Frey. The two met in Ferrari’s office to discuss one last issue. As Brock Yates reports in his book, Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine, Ferrari addressed Frey thusly: “Dottore Ingegnere, if I wish to enter cars at Indianapolis and you do not wish me to enter cars at Indianapolis, do we go or do we not go?” Frey told Ferrari in no uncertain terms that Ford would be calling the shots. Ferrari replied, “It was nice to know you,” and sent Frey on his way with an autographed copy of his memoirs.

When Frey brought back news to Henry Ford II that Ferrari would never relinquish control of his racing operations, Ford said, famously, “Okay then, we’ll kick his ass.” The Ford GT40 that won Le Mans from 1966-69 is the product of that conversation. Born of the Hank the Deuces’ passions and frustrations, it was the car that beat Ferrari where he lived.


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