ON ENZO’S TRAIL
Luca Dal Monte’s new Ferrari biography is a must-read, and the author is a story of his own
LUCA DAL MONTE is thoroughly Italian. Born and raised in Cremona, home of Stradivari, in the Lombardy region of northern Italy by the left bank of the River Po. Lives today in Milan. Ran press operations for Ferrari and Maserati, two of the most essential, essentially Italian marques. He’s also written several books, including a novel called La Scuderia and, most recently, Ferrari Rex, a weighty yet wonderfully colorful biography of Enzo Ferrari. There’s a fair chance it will become an Italian miniseries.
Yet, intriguingly, 55-year-old Dal Monte credits America— where Ferrari Rex is only just now available in English and retitled as Enzo Ferrari: Power, Politics, and the Making of an Automotive Empire— for his success.
On a U.S. press tour, Dal Monte has come to meet us at Dominick European Car Repair, a mecca for all things oldcar Italian, in White Plains, New York. We’re meant to drive off in a rare and valuable 1966 Ferrari 275 GTB belonging to a generous customer, an early-production long-nose model with several unique details and a value in excess of $3 million. I offer Dal Monte the first drive, but eyeing the steady drizzle of a cold Westchester morning along with some spirited displays of local driving skill outside the garage, he declines: “Not today.”
I, however, don’t have to be asked twice to drive the first 275 GTB I’ve ever sat in. Still, determined to remain on task, I ask Dal Monte, “What is it about you and America?”
“I’ve always been fascinated with you guys,” he says. “I belong to the Race to the Moon generation. I remember watching the Apollo launches and splashdowns on TV, dreaming of one day going to the U.S.
“I also belong to the post-JFK generation. My mom and dad remember to this day where they were when they heard the news of JFK’s assassination. I know all Americans [of a certain age] do, but in Italy it’s more rare. Perhaps as a consequence of this, I developed an interest, which became love and then passion, for U.S. politics and history.”
Dal Monte admits to a teenage predilection for U.S. sitcoms like “Happy Days.” “And then, I mean, you go back to ‘The Brady Bunch’ in the early ’70s, that was [American] high school at its best!” he says. He proudly says that this, along with understanding parents and an unlikely exchange program between Cremona and Owensboro, Kentucky, brought him to America for his senior year of high school. He liked it so much he decided to stay for college at the University of Kentucky, studying political science and American history while writing for the Kentucky Kernel, the school’s newspaper. His children attend American universities, and American politics remains his favorite subject. As evidence, he has an extensive collection of American political memorabilia, including more than 600 buttons, posters, and convention flyers dating as far back as 1896.
After his U.S. schooling, though, it was back to Italy for compulsory military duty. Dal Monte cast around for journalism jobs upon completing his service and applied to Peugeot on a lark. He wound up landing a plum assignment in the French automaker’s Italian press office. With no experience, he chalked up this early career success to the employer appeal of his English language skill and firsthand knowledge of America. Ditto Toyota, which hired him a few
years later to head the press effort for its newly established Italian operation, and then Ferrari, which sent Dal Monte back to the U.S. in New Jersey to run its North American press office. He then helped relaunch Maserati in the States before returning to Italy to oversee the company’s worldwide press operations.
In Dal Monte’s view, the American connection led to jobs that capped his career. They also put him in a position to gain enhanced access to relevant Ferrari and Alfa Romeo documents, making a burgeoning historian’s job easier. The Enzo Ferrari tome joins a growing list of works that includes overviews of Ferrari cars and racing, a 100-year history of Maserati, and La Scuderia, a spy and love story set against a 1930s racing backdrop. As for the Ferrari biography, the Italian press has hailed it as the most scholarly and deeply researched biography of Il Commendatore yet, of the admittedly few that have been written.
While living in Ferrari’s Modena heartland during his tenure at Maserati, Dal Monte was surrounded by older folk who had worked with Enzo. He often met them after work following initial interviews, and they filled in details and remembered things they had not in earlier conversations. His position with Maserati gave him access to a wide range of primary materials, too. “One of the greatest assets in my research was the Alfa Romeo archive in Arese, near Milan,” he says. There Dal Monte found Enzo Ferrari’s personnel file from when he managed Alfa’s race team. It documented Ferrari’s importance to the great Italian racing power in the inter-war period as well as elements of his financial acuity. “Much like a Broadway producer, he used other people’s money to finance his endeavors,” Dal Monte points out. His was a kind of scholarly curiosity and deep-dive research not always associated with the public relations profession.
“There are two kinds of PR people: those who come from marketing and those who come from journalism,” Dal Monte says. He sees himself in the latter camp; though his own experience in traditional journalism was slight, his formative years in college forever shaped his perspective. Facts, analysis, and color, not marketing fluff, became his focus. Perhaps inevitably, in 2015, he left PR for good.
“After 30 years in a worldwide position, there was really nothing I could add to my job profile, I guess,” he reflects. “And in the meantime, writing had become my second profession. You reach a point when you’re 50 and say, ‘I’d rather do it today than wait any longer.’”
Past employment with Ferrari notwithstanding, Dal Monte’s eight years of research into one of Italy’s most famous figures has not resulted in a hagiography. It contradicts Ferrari’s own 1962 autobiography, for instance, by including the story of how, long before he ran Alfa’s winning race team or set up a successful car company, the young Ferrari was failing at running his own first business, a coachworks. In fact, the man didn’t build his first Ferrari car until he was 49, after World War II, which ought to lend hope and inspiration to late bloomers everywhere. Dal Monte’s opus also runs down Ferrari’s serial infidelity to his wife, though he sees its roots in her lifelong depression and anxiety, which made her pull away from him. “He needed someone,” the writer says.
Of course, all of Italy forgave and continues to forgive Ferrari for his transgressions. “If you grew up in Italy in the ’70s, Enzo Ferrari was a towering figure,” Dal Monte explains. “There was the Pope, and then there was Enzo. I am not kidding; by the mid-’70s, Enzo had reached a demigod dimension. He was the Grand Old Man not just of motor racing but of the country. You could even hear him call into some of the early TV automotive/motor racing shows and speak—to the point of shouting—with the talk show host in order to defend his cars and his drivers. More the cars than the drivers, actually. He was everywhere.
“When I did the research for my book, I was able to scientifically confirm what I remembered from those days: There was hardly a day in which national newspapers did not have a story on Enzo. It was inevitable, when discussing his cars, races, or drivers: You must mention or quote him.”
Dal Monte remembers as a teenager in the late ’70s taking an hourlong train ride to Modena early one morning with his brother, just to catch a glimpse of Ferrari having his morning shave at a barbershop. Ferrari stared out at them staring in at him and smiled.
“I had wanted to write a book on him for a long, long time,” Dal Monte says. “But I didn’t want it to be a book like all the others. I wanted to tell more. More of the man, and of the men and women around him. When I was hired at Ferrari, I gained access not just to archives but to people. And it was at that point I realized that if I really put my mind at it, it could be possible.
“Of course, I love cars, especially sports cars. But my fascination with Enzo went and still goes far beyond that. It was his lifelong struggle to succeed, to become someone, to beat the odds, to go down in history that intrigued me. In so many ways, Enzo was like [Ronald] Reagan: a man with no particular specific qualities that made it big. There’s a beautiful book on Reagan whose subtitle reads, ‘How an ordinary man became an extraordinary leader.’ In my opinion, that applies to Enzo Ferrari as well: ‘How an ordinary man became an automotive giant.’” AM
“After 30 years, there was really nothing I could add to my job profile. ... Writing had become my second profession. You reach a point when you’re 50 and say, ‘I’d rather do it today than wait any longer.’”