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The Sculptor of Dreams

19 maggio 2020

Giosuè Boetto Cohen

One hundred years ago Sergio Scaglietti was born. He was responsible for the bodywork of some of the most famous cars ever to come out of Maranello. He was one of Enzo’s closest collaborators, helping him build the Ferrari legend

In 1937 in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, a seventeen year-old called Sergio Scaglietti began work at the modest little body shop owned by his elder brother, Gino. The carrozzeria was situated in Viale Trento e Trieste, in Modena. And it just so happened that across the road, at number 31, was a fledgling racing car outfit by the name of Scuderia Ferrari. It was a simple coincidence that would lead to one of the most important collaborations in the life of Enzo Ferrari, with Scaglietti becoming the ‘father’ of icons such as the GTO, the 250 and the 275, the Monza and the Testa Rossa.

But back in those pre-war years the Alfa racers produced by Ferrari would compete each Sunday, and end up at the bodyshop bruised and broken on the Tuesday, to be repaired and readied for the following weekend. Sergio learnt to cut, weld, and model, all the time listening both to engineers and to engines on the test bench.

Sergio had a weak spot for red. As a child he'd painted his toy tractors red, ever since his parents had taken him to see the first Mille Miglia pass through the hamlet of La Bruciata, near Modena, and he'd caught a glimpse of a red sportster and remained enchanted.

Whenever the young Sergio had the chance to enter the Scuderia - even for brief errands - he couldn't drag himself away and began spending more time there than in his brother’s workshop. The old hands taught him the tricks of the trade, including how to spin on his heels to greet the Commendatore whenever the Ferrari founder came down to the shop floor - and how to avoid Enzo’s angry outbursts.

Post-war, the Scaglietti carrozzeria began to body some cars for their Ferrari neighbours, using Prancing Horse chassis. Then, as told in Sergio's biography, Lê andéda acsè (It went like this): ”Around the middle of 1953, a certain Cacciari, a producer of sheet metal and a passionate racing fan, came into my brother’s repair shop. He had had an accident and his Ferrari was in pretty bad shape. We re-made almost the entire body.” He also made some small aerodynamic and profile changes, “following what my eyes suggested to me”.

Enzo heard of this and crossed the street to see the man who'd breathed life back into that broken Ferrari. He was clearly impressed. Days later, the Commendatore commissioned him to build the body of a new model: the 500 Mondial. It was an enormous leap for the little factory with 15 employees, representing a leap onto the wheel of destiny. “There was no assembly line nor small series production to speak of,” Scaglietti recalls in his memoir. It was a beginning that gave Sergio a few sleepless nights. “Every unit was different from the others, a personalised object, and to build it we needed one week.” Twenty years would pass until Ferrari purchased Carrozzeria Scaglietti in 1973.

The reciprocal respect that by then bound the two men was manifested by the fact that the name ‘Scaglietti’ has remained above the entrance to the workshop, next to the symbol of the Prancing Horse. And thirty years on from that historic acquisition, the 612 Scaglietti was the only Ferrari model ever named after a living person.

At its peak, visiting Scaglietti in Modena was a real occasion. Even from outside the factory gates the rhythmic sound of steady hammers could be heard, which, once inside, became like music, with the low ‘bass’ of the metal presses in the background. Then there was that other ‘music’, of the tight Modena dialect in which the two men would communicate - whether on the factory floor or on the testing circuit.

It was from this creative symbiosis that the most valuable Ferrari cars ever made were born, some built without any designs, created by Scaglietti's masterful hands merely “with the hammer and strength.”

When Sergio Scaglietti died in 2011 he had lived an intense 91 years. Perhaps that longevity was just enough, as shortly afterwards came the computer revolution, digital simulation and the more mediocre, globalised tastes that would largely erase the exquisite artisanal culture and enviable dexterity of his day. As shown by the exhibition celebrating his life, at Turin's Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile, Scaglietti left an exceptional inheritance: that of his work, his humility, and of his humble beginnings, origins that he never disavowed and which contrast so much with today’s world that so often gives priority to superficial appearance.

There was also the empathy that Scaglietti had with his workers (who eventually numbered 450) as well as with the powerful, from Ferrari to Pininfarina, and that gallery of famous customers. The latter he observed with admiration, but without ever betraying his origins as a simple man.