The Rearview Mirror: Ford Courts Ferrari


Henry Ford II with the first Ford Mustang at the 1964 World’s Fair.

Ford Motor Co. executives were stunned. After having endured 22 days of intense negotiations, those talks abruptly come to an end when an enraged Enzo Ferrari, spewing expletives, gets up from his chair and turns to his personal secretary, Franco Gozzi, saying, “Let’s get something to eat.” And with that, Ford’s planned takeover of Ferrari is scuttled this week in 1963. 

But the death of one dream would give birth to another. And if you only saw the 2019 movie “Ford v Ferrari,” you may not know the actual story.  

Ford’s European love affair

It’s February 1963 and Ford’s European operations received a tip that an unnamed “internationally known Italian automobile factory” is up for sale. After doing some investigating, Ford Europe executive Robert Layton discovers the factory in question is Italy’s most famous: Ferrari.

The tip couldn’t come at a more fortuitous time.

Henry Ford II had always liked Europe, much like his later father Edsel. He also loved 36-year-old Cristina Vettore Austin, an Italian divorcée living in Milan. The affair coincided with Henry’s push to finally establish Ford Motor Co. as a premiere automaker in Western Europe, from England to Russia. 

The birth of “Total Performance”

Carroll Shelby

In America, Ford previously committed to “Total Performance” in an effort to match General Motors programs that secretly supported its NASCAR efforts in violation of a public pledge to not support racing or advertise speed or horsepower. But the reality was different. Chevrolets and Pontiacs so dominated the sport that GM’s market share grew to more than 61%, enough to cause Congress to consider if the company was breaking antitrust laws. 

Henry had enough, publicly withdrew from the Safety Resolution and launched the Total Performance program to meet GM head-on. Ford cars finished first, second, third, fourth and fifth at the 1963 Daytona 500, beating 14 GM cars.

The company began supplying engines to Texas race car driver Carroll Shelby, who placed Ford V-8s into a lightweight A.C. Ace chassis to create the Shelby Cobra, which proved faster than a Corvette. The Torino, a car that would become the Mustang, was under development. 

And now, the greatest sports car company in the world was for sale, just as Henry’s affair with his Italian mistress was heating up.

Ford Motor Co.’s Don Frey, Lee Iacocca’s second-in-command.

Trouble in Maranello

Things hadn’t been going well for Enzo Ferrari since the death of his son Dino from muscular dystrophy in 1957. A series of racing accidents had killed spectators as well as drivers, turning public opinion against him. A loss of talent proved troublesome. While Ferrari won races, he was being branded an assassin. But racing cost money, and Ferrari needed more of it.

By this point, Ford Europe’s tip had reached Lee Iacocca, who was given approval by Henry Ford II to begin exploratory talks. Thirty-eight-year-old Roy Lund, who had designed the DB2 while at Aston Martin, led a delegation to Ferrari. By May, Don Frey, Iacocca’s second-in-command, joined the group. 

The asking price, $18 million, wasn’t much considering Henry II’s net worth of $500 million. He could wire the money personally.

The world reacts

But as negotiations continue, word leaks out. The Italian press who had once vilified Ferrari were now striking a different one. No longer vilified, Enzo Ferrari and the company that he built was now a national treasure. 

The 1966 Ford GT40 Mk II is prepared for Le Mans at the Advanced Vehicles factory in Slough, England.

But the talks had reached their final stage, and on May 21, 1963, the finished contract was being reviewed by both parties. The final price was a paltry $10 million, which would consist of two companies: Ford-Ferrari, 90% owned by Ford and manufacturer of street cars, and Ferrari-Ford, 90% owned by Ferrari and in charge of racing. But the net result was Ford, which would own Ferrari, would dominate Le Mans, European racing and the Western Europe car market.

A dramatic turn of events

But as the two sides are reviewing the final contract, Enzo Ferrari notices that Ford will not give Ferrai the total freedom to run his race team as he pleases, a scene recounted in A.J. Baime’s book, “Go Like Hell.”

As Baime recounts, Ferrari discovered the contract stipulates if he wants to spend more than is budgeted for racing, he must request authorization from Ford in America. 

“My rights, my integrity, my very being as a manufacturer, as an entrepreneur, cannot work under the enormous machine, the suffocating bureaucracy of the Ford Motor Company!” Ferrari shouts, according to Baime, followed by a lengthy diatribe.

Trio of Ford GT40 Mk IIs cross finish line at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.

It was 10 p.m. Ferrari turned to his secretary Franco Gozzi and said, “Let’s go and eat,” and left.

A failure and a success

Frey and the team return to Ford’s world headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, where Frey recounts what happened. Henry was not happy; the prize had eluded him.

But that didn’t mean that Ford couldn’t own Le Mans. And so, began the start of the Ford GT40, and the company’s attempt to beat Ferrari at his own game at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s most prestgous race. And money was no object — a rarity at Ford. 

The program would start in 1964, and lead to two years where Fords didn’t finish. But in 1966, under the guidance of Carroll Shelby, the company would finish first, second and third at Le Mans, cementing its “Total Performance” reputation.

And it came out of a failure that occurred this week, 59 years ago.


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