Sunday, November 14, 2010
It comes as no surprise to learn that Enzo Ferrari was a motorcycle enthusiast in his youth, and reputedly owned an FN 4-cylinder and a Henderson 4-cylinder motorcycle. The Ferrari family had a flourishing metalworks business when Enzo was young, but WW1 saw the conscription and death of both his father and brother. After being conscripted himself, as a mule farrier, the flu epidemic of 1918 nearly killed him; he returned home, and was forced to quit school, taking a job as a metalworker for a local fire department. He soon joined a small company, CMN, which converted war-surplus vehicles to civilian use. This is probably where he acquired his Henderson, as Italy was an ally of the US in WW1, and US forces were notorious for abandoning equipment - even Hendersons!
As test driver for CMN, he developed a taste for competition, and by 1919 was racing cars at events like the Targa Florio, doing well enough to secure a job at Alfa Romeo, where his courageous driving style won him a spot on the Works Alfa team. Alas, the passionate Italian had a crisis of confidence before his first real GP (the French of 1926), and bowed out of the race, and the team. He remained at Alfas though, competing in minor events and doing well, but becoming more interested in management of his Alfa Romeo dealership in Modena, and his new family. In 1929, he formed Scuderia Ferrari as a scheme to manage Alfa Romeo racing at a time when Alfa temporarily disbanded its Works team. Scuderia pilots were given full mechanical support by the factory, plus delivery of their cars to races, and sponsorship of Pirelli tires, Shell oil, and Bosch electrics. Ferrari immediately had 50 full- and part-time members, a veritable Alfa army, which did very well at races, especially when another motorcyclist, Tazio Nuvolari (below, on bike), joined the team.
Nuvolari had been racing with Bianchi for several years, and was exceptionally successful with their groundbreaking 'Frecchia Celeste' (Blue Arrow) model, one of the earliest double-overhead camshaft racing machines. Introduced in 1925, the 348cc machine was technically a decade ahead of the competition, using a shaft drive to power the cambox, and gears to spin the cams. A proper oil pump (at a time when most bikes used total-loss oiling) and unit-construction engine/gearbox with gear primary drive put the Bianchi on top of Italian racing through 1930, and 'Nivola' gained the 350cc European Championship on this machine in 1925 (there being no World Championship series until 1949). Nuvolari raced both cars and motorcycles from 1925, joining Scuderia Ferrari in 1929. By 1930, he had given up racing his beloved Bianchis to concentrate on the far more lucrative sport of automobile racing, for Alfa Romeo. He is considered among the Eternals of racing on two and four wheels, a champion at both (in rare company with Achille Varzi, Alberto Ascari, and John Surtees).
In 1932, Scuderia Ferrari, now an extremely successful racing team, employed similar tactics - supplying and delivering bikes, offering full support and entry fees - to create a motorcycle racing division. Enzo Ferrari felt motorcycle racing was an excellent training ground for racing drivers, as the two most successful members of Scuderia, Achille Varzi (who raced Sunbeams, above) and Tazio Nuvolari, were champion motorcyclists before turning to four wheels. It may have been hubristic to think an endless supply of such drivers as Varzi and Nuvolari can be cultivated to win Grands Prix in cars by motorcycle training, but it had been a happy fishing pond thus far.
Not that the 'Scuderia Moto' was unsuccessful at motorcycle racing! They purchased two of the best available racing marques (and I use this term advisedly - there were amazing racing motorcycles at Moto Guzzi and Bianchi, but they were not for sale!) of 1932, Norton 'Internationals' and Rudge 'TT Replicas'. Norton was at the beginning of a 30-year winning streak, and Rudge was at the peak of their racing success in 350cc and 500cc races all over Europe and England, a moment which passed very quickly, as the Depression curtailed any further expenditure in racing development beyond their pushrod four-valve engine.
The choice of the Rudge 'TT Replica' for Scuderia Ferrari may well involve the use of Rudge-Whitworth wheels on Alfa Romeo racing cars (see Tazio Nuvolari atop a pair of Rudge wheels below). As noted in a previous post, Rudge-Whitworth invented a wheel mounting system using splines on a hollow axle, and quick-change central 'spinner' to hold the wheel - allowing very fast wheel changes during a race. In 1922, Carlo Borrani took out a license to manufacture Rudge wheels in Milan, and soon many sporting and racing cars used Rudge wheels (Alfa Romeo, Mercedez Benz, Auto Union, Lancia, etc). Thus, with his employment at the Alfa Romeo factory, Enzo Ferrari had much contact with Rudge personnel...and the racing team jerseys certainly advertised 'Rudge Whitworth Coventry', as well as sponsor Pirelli tires, so it was clear a commercial tie-in with Rudge was involved...the team did NOT wear Scuderia Ferrari sweaters! [There are accounts which claim Ferrari had an interest in a Rudge motorcycle dealership, but I've yet to confirm this.]
The use of English racing motorcycles for an Italian team rankled the press and populace of Italy, as they were justifiably proud of their technically superior home products...and let's be clear here, it was not the English, Americans, Germans, French, or Belgians who produced dohc four-cylinder racers, sohc twin-cylinder racers, and sohc and dohc singles, supercharged and normally aspirated, by 1932! It was Moto Guzzi, Benelli, and Gilera who made by far the most advanced racing motorcycles during the 1930s. Thus, it was a bit of a shock for the Italian populace, ardent supporters of all things racing, that Ferrari chose English machines to race. But, Scuderia Ferrari was not (yet!) a manufacturer of racing machinery, and was limited to over-the-counter racers on two wheels.
But the use of English machines wasn't assured. Enzo Ferrari had become used to winning races, and his motorcycling team needed to win. He was also as patriotic as the next Italian, and did in fact seek Italian machinery to race for his team. Local to Ferrari's home in Modena was the Mignon factory, headed by the talented engineer Vittorio Guerzoni. Mignon in 1931 was developing an advanced chain-driven overhead camshaft (and dohc too) single-cylinder racer [above], with unit-construction engine and four-speed gearbox, which looked very promising. In tests though, the machine was clearly no match for the English hardware which were currently winning races. That year, Ferrari approached Guerzoni with the idea of collaborating to produce a new engine for the Scuderia. A racing Norton 'International' was purchased and disassembled, and Guerzoni, with his engineer Vittorio Bellentani (who later built the very first Ferrari racing car - the '815' - in 1940) set about copying what he felt was the best of the design, and created a shaft-and-bevel single cylinder ohc engine more along the lines of the Norton. In tests it too proved no match for the Norton, and the project was abandoned. Enzo Ferrari found greater pride in victory than nationalism.
The motorcycle division of Scuderia Ferrari shortly equaled the success of its four-wheeled stablemates, winning and placing with stunning frequency. Rider Giordano Aldrighetti had particular success in 1932, winning almost every 250cc and 350cc event entered, including a Gold Medal in the '32 ISDT. Ferrari moved him up to 500cc for 1933, and he won the Italian championship. Aldo Pigorini won the 350cc championship in 1934. Mario Ghersi and Piero Taruffi (above, on the Norton he raced for SF) became very well-known riders in international competition. It is possible the Ferrari team didn't pay well, as the personnel changed dramatically in its 3 years. Aldrighetti was the only team member for all 3 years.
A combination of factors led to the closure of the motorcycling team in 1934; Scuderia Ferrari was likely the only large-scale 'private' motorcycle racing team in the world, until the 1950s. Fielding a racing team is an expensive proposition even for the manufacturers themselves, and it is equally likely that the automotive half of SF was subsidizing motorcycle racing, as sponsorship deals were simply not lucrative enough in the early 1930s, in the midst of a worldwide Depression. There is an implication Enzo Ferrari didn't aggressively pay his riders, as the best (Taruffi, Ghersi) were quickly lured away by other race teams. Finally, the Rudge 'TT Replica', on which the team was solely dependent by 1934, was no longer as competitive at international-level racing; 1930 was the last year a 'pushrod' engine won the Isle of Man Senior TT - a Rudge ridden by Wal Handley - after this, the writing was on the wall for 'knitting needles' pushing valves.
Enzo Ferrari rarely spoke or wrote about his motorcycle racing team after building his own cars, and rumors have swirled for years, given the rarity of published accounts of the team. It is probably his skill at team management and talent spotting which made the team so successful. His only peer in the motorcycling world was Joe Craig at Norton - equally autocratic, aloof, difficult, and completely focused on victory.