Thirty-odd years ago, when I met Enzo Ferrari for the first time, he was already in his 80s.
Somehow, though, it never occurred to me I’d ever write about him after his demise. He seemed immortal, both to me as a youngish hack and to everyone else at Maranello who ran his company, built his cars, did his bidding and invariably spoke about him in reverent tones.
He was retired by then, although he still came to the office most days and watched every race, accompanied by one or two people he liked. Strangers like me, if they met Enzo at all, saw him formally in the darkened office with the big desk that faced the portrait of Dino, his much-loved son who died at 24 of muscular dystrophy, always with a candle burning in front of it.
Conversations were never conversational, as it were. Though il Commendatore understood English he never spoke it — at least, not to people with their notebooks out. Translation came via Franco Gozzi, Enzo’s faithful lieutenant.
You always suspected that when the talk turned to business, Gozzi put words into the old man’s mouth. It was Gozzi, I suspect, who coined — or at least perpetuated — the founder's famous reply to the inevitable hack’s question about his favourite Ferrari: “the next one”. I always thought that deeply unhelpful: how great would it have been to know that Enzo liked the 250LM better than the 250GTO?
The second meeting was in company with three American hacks, about a year later, when a few of us were in Maranello to drive the new Mondial. We had quite a decent conversation (through Gozzi) about the improving expertise of Scaglietti, the nearby Ferrari body builders, who were gradually figuring out how to keep Ferrari corrosion at bay.
None of the transatlantic trio uttered a word, evidently cowed by the man’s legendary greatness. Later in the afternoon, as we drove the car in turns on the Fiorano test track half a mile away, we were ordered to stand aside while Enzo appeared in the latest Fiat Uno Turbo, accompanied by an overalls-clad test driver at the wheel and what looked like a local priest in the back. This curious trio did one stately lap and drove away — it turned out that Mr Ferrari still “anointed” every go-faster Fiat.
That was the same day Gilles Villeneuve, then a Ferrari works driver, appeared from the workshops carrying a bottle of red vino, jumped into his helicopter parked on a tiny pad right beside Fiorano's then-tiny pit building and, without ceremony, started the engine and flew away. Back to Monaco, they told us.
My third meeting with Mr Ferrari was a handshake and a “hello” at the unveiling of Ferrari’s ‘82 F1 car, the one in which Villeneuve was to die four months later.
My best conversation with him? It was during our fourth and last meeting, again in the long office, when we had quite an animated exchange (some of my replies didn’t even need translating) about “that strong woman”, Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister.
Enzo very much perceived the UK’s leader to have a steely resolve comparable with his own. I can remember him smiling and remarking that our country’s economy was undoubtedly all the better for Mrs Thatcher’s decisiveness. Can’t remember how I replied, but Ferraris were selling well at the time, so perhaps he was right.