posted on September 25th, 2017

Automotive history owes a lot to Modena

On the edge of the Pianura Padana, Northern Italy’s vast fertile plain fed by the River Po, lies the home of the supercar. When the agricultural workers of the pianura left the fields for metal bending and machinery during the industrial revolution, part of this region that stretches from Venice to Bologna to Milan became a hotbed for automobile production. In Modena, because a few of the right people started building cars at the right time in history, the Italians became the spiritual kings of internal combustion.

Italy was early to the motorsports party and produced many of racing’s successful coaches and drivers in the early twentieth century. Modena’s workers took this passion for cars, combined it with their sense of bellafigura, the unwritten code that keeps Italy stylishly groomed and well polished, and made their town into the automotive Mecca, the Holy City of the supercar. Some of the most evocative and storied names in the automotive world were born here — Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini all call Modena home.

Cross-town rivalry

Maserati racecars were dominating the sport years before anyone had even heard of Ferrari. In 1914, the Maserati brothers (Carlo, Bindo, Mario, Ettore, Ernesto, and Alfieri) worked out of a small basement in Bologna repairing and servicing racecars from a Milanese company, but began building their own machines when that company ceased production. The first car to bear the Maserati name, the Tipo 26, won its class in its debut race at the 1926 Targa Florio, with Alfieri Maserati behind the wheel.

Maserati moved to Modena before 1940, where the boys would build a legacy of striking, luxurious automobiles bearing the trident of Neptune. Mario Maserati got the idea of the trident emblem, perhaps the most elegant of all car badges, from the Fountain of Neptune in the brothers’ hometown of Voghera. The trident is a mythical symbol of strength and vigor that has remained unchanged throughout the company’s history, stylishly guiding Maserati to racing victory after victory. World War II temporarily halted their production as they focused on making components to support the war effort.

Another of Italy’s automakers, Alfa Romeo, also quit manufacturing cars for the war when the Mussolini government took it over in 1941. Until then, Alfa’s race division was effectively led by a man named Enzo Ferrari, a native of Modena with passion-driven vision and ambition. Enzo’s small department was spared complete government confiscation, and in 1943 the Scuderia Ferrari factory moved 13 miles up the road from Modena to Maranello, where it remains today.

After the war, motorsports returned to Italy with a fervor. To fund his Scuderia Ferrari racing team, Enzo Ferrari reluctantly began to build and sell his automobiles to consumers. The first road car with a Ferrari badge, the 1.5L V12-powered 125 Sport, made its debut in 1947. In 1950, Ferrari started fielding cars for the Monaco Grand Prix, and in 1952, legendary racer Alberto Ascari won at Monaco to secure Ferrari’s first world title. Ferrari has been an integral part of Formula One ever since.

A fierce rivalry between Maserati and Ferrari quickly developed as both automakers fought for supremacy on the track. The rivalry turned Modena into the center of motor racing during the ‘50s. The Via Emilia, an old Roman road running through the middle of the city, became a boundary between the territories of the two manufacturers. Maserati’s factory lay to the north of the Via, only a few hundred meters away from the Ferrari offices and service center to the south. The Modenese employed on the north side of the Via worked for Maserati, and if you were from the south, you were a Ferrari man. This local competition helped establish an emotional intensity among the builders in Modena, adding fuel to the clashes on the track and in the showroom.

Ferrari’s continued dedication to racing has baked motorsports into the core of its character. Epic battles with Ford at Le Mans in the ‘60s were followed by years of glory with Formula One greats like Niki Lauda and Michael Schumacher. And through a 1969 Fiat buyout and all the drama, heartbreak, and triumph of racing, Ferrari pumped out hit after hit of the highest quality, most desirable road cars imaginable — too many to list here. The last car Enzo Ferrari commissioned before he died in 1988 was the F40. The Ferrari F40 is the classic bedroom wall poster car and many consider it to be the best automobile ever made.

The tractor maker

Ferruccio Lamborghini was the original Tony Stark. The master tinkerer honed his skills as a vehicle maintenance supervisor for the Italian Royal Air Force during the war. In the late ‘40s he founded Lamborghini Trattori and became very wealthy manufacturing tractors from leftover military hardware. Through the ‘50s, he had many cars, including Alfa Romeos, Lancias, a Jaguar E-Type, and a couple Maserati 3500 GTs. Of the latter, Ferruccio said, “Adolfo Orsi (then the owner of Maserati) was a man I had a lot of respect for — he started life as a poor boy, like myself. But I did not like his cars much. They felt heavy and did not really go very fast.”

Famously, Ferruccio also owned several Ferrari 250 GTs, and was also unhappy with the performance. As the story goes, he discovered that his Ferrari’s clutch was identical to the one being used in his own tractors. Because he was a local magnate in his own right, Ferruccio was able to approach Enzo himself to demand a replacement part, but he scoffed at the tractor maker. Ever the proud Italian gearhead, Ferruccio immediately set out to make his own sports car, a better sports car. Four months later he unveiled the Lamborghini 350 GTV at the 1963 Turin Motor Show.

Lamborghini Miura (Image credit: Daniel Stocker)

From the beginning then, Lamborghini has been defined by not being Ferrari. Ferruccio Lamborghini’s spite-born quest to create a superior grand tourer with uncompromised performance formed the basis of Lamborghini’s identity. In 1967 he unveiled the mid-engined and laughably beautiful Lamborghini Miura. At the time, its V12 made it the fastest production car ever, as the Miura both pioneered the mid-engined layout and launched the fledgling automaker into relevance. Many point to the Miura as the first proper supercar.

Over the decades, the Miura’s descendants have become even faster, louder, and harder. Lamborghini’s flagships have evolved in technological sophistication but have kept their joyful absurdity and roaring mid-mounted V12s. Countach, Diablo, Murcielago, Aventador. These icons of speed are testaments to Lamborghini’s unapologetic lack of subtlety. With their wildly angular styling, scissor doors, and nuclear powerplants, all supercars that wear the Fighting Bull badge (Ferruccio Lamborghini was a Taurus) blatantly violate the boundaries of propriety, and we love them for it.

Lamborghini Aventador

Harmony in Modena

The ‘70s oil crisis hit all the Modena supercar makers hard, but Maserati was dealt the heaviest blow. Maserati saw many owners through the resulting lackluster era, starting with French automaker Citroen in 1968. De Tomaso, another Modena-based manufacturer, had a stint in control, then Chrysler, then Fiat.

In a strange twist of fate, Ferrari adopted Maserati as its luxury division when Fiat merged its two Modena-based subsidiaries in 1999. By sharing parts and stability with Ferrari, Maserati experienced a renaissance, introducing the Maserati Coupe, the Spyder, a new Quattroporte, and the ultra-exotic MC12 in quick succession. Fiat split the companies apart in 2005, but the old cross-town rivals have enjoyed commercial and industrial synergies ever since.

Today Maserati is one of the largest luxury-exclusive car manufacturers in the world, and vehicles bearing the trident have a mystique that Maserati’s more celebrated contemporaries don’t quite capture. In 2014, the 100th anniversary of the carmaker, Maserati unveiled the concept for its newest flagship grand tourer coupe — the Alfieri. 

Maserati GranTurismo MC

In the minds of enthusiasts, modern-era Modena has produced works of art to rival the relics of Rome and Florence. Countless wondrous machines proudly displaying names Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati have rolled out of Modena factories to thrill and inspire. Even the motorcycle maker Ducati and glamorous newcomer Pagani are both headquartered mere miles from the 12th-century Duomo di Modena. Everything that comes from this town on the edge of the pianura is the result of ambition, confidence, and dedication to creating automobiles that are as beautiful as they are fast — a distinctly Modenese spirit.

Steven is an avid car guy and content maker at Turo. Between Golden State Warriors games he can be found getting lost somewhere in California.