Luca di Montezemolo Is the Other Enzo Ferrari

The Asphalt Jungle

Enzo Ferrari's name blazes across the factory door, the cars, and all the jackets, handbags, perfume bottles, and sundry trinkets also wearing the magic Prancing Horse logo. But if room permitted, one other name could rightfully belong there, too: Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. Since Ferrari's founding as a race team in 1929 (road cars arrived in 1947), two men—Enzo Ferrari himself and di Montezemolo—have commanded the stable. (Two men did fill in between Enzo and Luca, but only briefly.) It's as if the New York Yankees had been steered by two managers over eight-plus decades.

Di Montezemolo didn't simply step in shortly after Ferrari's death in 1988. In many ways, he saved the company—re-energized it, modernized it, shaped it into the universally admired luxury brand it is today. So it was something of a shock when last fall, after 23 years at the helm, he was forced out as chairman and president, the "victim" of Ferrari's struggling Formula 1 team (which hasn't won a championship since 2008) and, more significantly, of a clash of visions with Sergio Marchionne, boss of Fiat Chrysler, which last fall sold off part of Ferrari. (It's now independent and publicly traded, although current FCA shareholders own 90 percent of the company.)

A lawyer by education, di Montezemolo was only 27 when he took over Ferrari's struggling F1 operation in 1974. The team hadn't won a title in 11 seasons. A year later, with Niki Lauda driving, Scuderia Ferrari captured the drivers' and constructors' world titles. It won both again in 1977.

After departing Ferrari to oversee other interests in the Fiat empire, di Montezemolo returned in 1991, promoted to president by Fiat Chairman Gianni Agnelli. And then he really rolled up his tailored sleeves. It's easy to forget, amid the masterpieces that are the current Ferrari lineup, that back in the late '80s and early '90s Ferraris were … well, merda. Remember the "Magnum, P.I." 308 and later the slat-sided 348? They were sharply creased and red enough, but as sports cars they handled like soapbox derby crates. When the upstart Acura NSX arrived in 1990, its quality and finesse smacked Ferrari upside its inflated head. Di Montezemolo, for one, sure noticed.

Under his stewardship, Ferrari's road-car business not only turned around, it blossomed. The fabulous 12-cylinder Enzo supercar, the 360 Modena, the 599 GTO, today's stunning 458 Italia and LaFerrari mega-hybrid all arrived during di Montezemolo's reign. Fixing the flagging F1 team took longer, but by 2000 Ferrari and Michael Schumacher captured both the drivers' and constructors' titles. Then they did it again. Four more times in a row.

Di Montezemolo always cultivated exclusivity, limiting road-car production to just 7,000 or so per year, far below demand. Yet prestige and revenues soared. In 1991, the year he took over, Ferrari showed profits of $15 million. By 2013, that figure exceeded $300 million. Ah, but here's the friction: Marchionne saw even bigger dollar signs, and he expressed no qualms about raising production to meet the booming appetite in emerging markets such as China and India. Expect 10,000 Ferraris—or more—within a few years. I almost hate to say it, but given the newfound catering to market whims, a Ferrari SUV doesn't seem an impossibility.

I've met di Montezemolo only once, in September 1992, at a showing of Ferrari's then-new 456. Fresh into his stint as president, di Montezemolo couldn't have been more cordial. Articulate, suave, immaculately dressed (tailored suit, Rolex "Pepsi" GMT), he took me by the arm and guided me around the car, passionately pointing out styling cues and mechanical details while also answering questions with undivided attention. That is, until a beautiful female journalist walked up. "Arturo, excuse me," di Montezemolo said, smiling. "As you can see, I have other important guests who will want to know about our new car." He walked a few steps, turned back, winked.

IIt was hard not to like the man. It's even more difficult to imagine the iconic Italian maker without him, a company in danger of being diluted of its heart-racing soul, of losing its carefully cultivated specialness. For Ferrari's sake I hope I'm wrong, but I fear Luca Cordero di Montezemolo may yet enjoy the last laugh.