The First Ferrari Wasn’t a Ferrari At All

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By Ben Selby

Yes, the first ever car to carry the Ferrari name was the 1947 Tipo 125S, which won the Rome Grand Prix that same year. However, the 125S, as iconic as it was, was not the first car to constructed under the personal guise of Enzo Ferrari.

To understand the true car making roots of Il Commendatore’s celebrated legacy, we must journey back to one the true car which started it all, the Auto Avio Costruzione 815.

The year is 1939, and Enzo Ferrari has been the at the helm of the Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeo race team for nearly 10 years. Alfa Romeo race cars adorning the now iconic prancing horse emblem saw great success on the European Grand Prix and Endurance stage in the early thirties. However, after the arrival of the Nazi backed Silver Arrows of Mercedes and Auto Union, the Alfa’s took a back seat to German motorsport supremacy during the latter half of the decade.

Enzo “Il Commendatore” Ferrari

It was these events, and the defection of Tazio Nuvolari, Alfa’s top driver, to Auto Union, which led Alfa Romeo management to rethink its motorsport strategy. This led to conflict with their head of the motor racing department, Mr Ferrari.

The big wigs at Alfa Romeo made the decision to bring the race team back in house, and reduce Ferrari’s role to a lower management postion. Enzo would have none of this, and he left Alfa Romeo with a huge chip on his shoulder.

He knew now was the time build his own car and set the events in motion to get even with Alfa Romeo, however a clause in his contract forbade Ferrari to manufacture a car under his own name for a period of five years. WW2 began in September the same year, but due to Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini keeping his country neutral during this time, the war clouds were yet to gather over the Italian people.

Acsari with his new 815

In December 1939, Enzo Ferrari was approached by Alberto Ascari, the same Ascari who would go on to win back to back World Titles for Ferrari in 1952 and 1953. He requested Ferrari would build him two cars to compete in the 1940 Brescia Grand Prix, one for himself and other for his friend, the Marchese Lotario Rangoni Macchiaveli di Modena. Enzo’s answer? Absolutely.

The two cars had to be built in time for the Grand Prix in April 1940, which gave Enzo and his tightly knit team of engineers a mere four months to conceive a competitive race car from scratch. Using the Fiat 508C Balilla as a base, the team set to work, under the branding of Auto Avio, or autoOne man on Enzo’s team, Alberto Massimino, was a dad handy with designing engines, and set to work on a new engine design to replace the Fiat’s under powered 1.1 litre engine.

The 815’s straight eight cylinder engine

The final design was a 1.5-litre straight eight, which was essentially two Fiat four pots joined together, resulting in the model designation 815. With a single overhead camshaft, two valves per cylinder and a lovely quartet of weber carburettors, it was good for 75hp and a top whack of 170km/h. Weighing in a snip of 600kg, the 815’s lines were penned by Touring of Milan.

Ascari about to race at Brescia

The cars were ready for the Brescia Grand Prix, which consisted of nine laps of a 103km street circuit throughout Brescia. As the flag fell, both Ascari and Lotario worked their way up the pack and by the mid-way point, things were looking good.

However, it was not to be, as both Ascari and Lotario retired with engine failure. Lotario passed away during WW2, but his 815 was inherited by his brother, who sadly had it scrapped in 1958. The other survived, and is now in the hands of a private collection in Modena.

Ferrari
It still survives today

The sole remaining 815 still does the rounds at Classic Car Shows everywhere, and has been present and every major Ferrari celebration.

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