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It started with a sketch

A First World War air pilot, a grieving Contessa, a genius engraver: these are the key elements in a fascinating story that eventually produced the Ferrari Prancing Horse, one of the world’s most recognised corporate symbols. And it all began at a road race in northern Italy a century ago this very year
Words: Kevin M. Buckley

When the 25-year-old racing driver removed his goggles and brushed off forty-four kilometres of road dust all he had in mind was receiving the trophy for the 1923 Circuito del Savio GP in northern Italy. His first victory at the wheel. It was presented by Contessa Paolina Biancoli, mother of First World War air pilot, Francesco Baracca, a revered Italian war hero killed in action in 1918.

What precisely was said during that prize-giving has long since been obscured by the fog of time but the Contessa is known to have urged the young racer to adopt the symbol her son’s bi-plane had famously sported, assuring the driver it would bring him good fortune in racing.

A triptych of metal badges reveals the variety of graphic features and symbolism that were considered along the way (all images courtesy of O.M.E.A. archives)  

That dramatic fuselage symbol was a rearing black stallion. So it was that when, some twenty-four years later, that very same racing driver established Ferrari, the factory’s first car sported a distinctive prancing horse upon its badge. It adorned the, now legendary, 125 S, which emerged from the Maranello gates in 1947 and would race for the first time that May in Piacenza.

In 1945, when Enzo Ferrari had begun establishing his own factory, he was determined the new company would have a distinctive emblem. There were likely some early in-house designs. But, ever the perfectionist, Enzo sought out one of Italy’s greatest twentieth-century artistic engravers, Eligio Gerosa, in Milano.

Their paths had undoubtedly already crossed when Enzo raced for Alfa Romeo, for whom Gerosa’s firm supplied its enamel twisted-snake badges. Plus, the two men shared an admiration for Baracca, with Gerosa founding a Baracca Association to keep the pilot’s memory alive. Indeed, Gerosa had already evolved the Baracca black horse symbol for the Association, notably giving it an upturned tail.

The final version, mounted on the legendary 125 S of 1947, the first ever Ferrari car

In 1949 Gerosa’s company was taken over by O.M.E.A. – Officine Meccaniche E Artistiche – owned by the Milanese Candiani family, the famous designer still on board. Today, O.M.E.A. company archives reveal just how close the collaboration was between Ferrari and Gerosa, who died in 1978, and contain fascinating evidence of the evolution of what would become the famous Ferrari corporate emblem. Now in his eighties, company chairman Emilio Candiani well remembers Enzo’s visits to the workshop, and many a lunch with the Ferrari founder at the ‘Il Cavallino’ restaurant at Maranello during a thirty-year collaboration.

One key archive document is a Gerosa sketch whose delicate hand-drawn detailing has a distinctly Da Vinciesque aspect to it. In the bottom right corner Enzo has added his personal instruction: ‘Invertire il cavallo’– turn the horse around’, capturing the very moment that the embryonic symbol would begin facing left, as it has proudly done ever since on roads and racing tracks around the world. “The design evolution saw the horse gradually become slimmer, more elegant,” explains company Vice-Chairman Luigi Candiani, Emilio’s son. “It moved away from an earlier, much chunkier horse, the ‘Romagnolo’ version you might say,” he laughs, referencing the famously irresistible cuisine of Maranello’s home region of Emilia-Romagna.

The original metal mould from which the badge was first created

Indeed, the nascent badge’s background purposely adopted a distinctive bright yellow to associate itself with the official civic colour of nearby Modena. “But mostly it was Enzo’s ideas that drove things,” recalls Emilio Candiani today. For example, an early proposal for the 125 S badge showed three curved lines at the top, in Italian national colours. “But I remember Enzo told Gerosa, ‘No, I don’t want curves, they remind me of Bugatti grilles. Give me straight lines!’”

The horse’s face also gradually became more finer featured. “At one point, Enzo wanted the hoof to be up in the air, not resting on the lettering. He demanded of Gerosa: ‘me la faccia che voli’ – make it fly for me’,” chuckles Emilio. A wall plaque now recognises those talented Candiani artisans, outside the historic workshop in Via Albani, Milan. Emilio Candiani’s own career has been recognised with the honorary title of ‘Cavaliere’ – Knight of Industry.

Emotion is his voice, Cavaliere Candiani says: “For our part, we are very proud to have contributed to one of the most famous symbols in the world. And it’s an all-Italian story. Enzo as a man was always very professional, well prepared. The thing I remember about him was how much he believed in his project. It was touching. And he was always looking ahead.”