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Remembering Gianni Agnelli

20 years after his passing, we retrace the passion of the “Avvocato” for Ferrari
Words: Umberto Zapelloni

Without “Avvocato” Agnelli, perhaps Ferrari wouldn’t have remained the source of Italian pride that it is today. It might be American, French, or even Chinese owned, as in the case of many car manufacturers from Old Europe. Gianni Agnelli, who died twenty years ago on 24 January, was a customer, partner and then owner of Ferrari, but above all he was always a big fan of the Scuderia and a creative collector of its cars. 

Without the agreement of June 18, 1969, which was announced three days later, Ferrari was unlikely to have been able to develop its dream to the point of becoming what it is today, a brand synonymous with excellence, performance and Italian style around the world, listing first on Wall Street and then Piazza Affari. 

That day, Fiat decided to help Ferrari by becoming a 50% member of the company with the guarantee of becoming the owner with 90% on the day the Commendatore died.

Gianni Agnelli is seen deep in conversation with Enzo Ferrari: while both deeply passionate about their companies, the two men never argued about business

Agnelli had always been in love with Ferrari and Ferraris. And his passion lead to have some of his collection tailor made to his tastes. You could say that he invented the one-off. A few years ago, some of his Ferraris were exhibited at the Museo Enzo Ferrari in Modena, a showcase of his aesthetic taste and love for the company. It all began with the 166 MM. Its elegance so fascinated Agnelli at the 1948 Turin Motor Show that he wanted one customised in a green and blue livery, a colour palette that also was represented in the bespoke interior. It was his first one-off made in Maranello, the first Barchetta in history. Then, in 1952, he had “family” two-tone 456 blue paired with the magnolia white roof on a Ferrari 212 Inter, adding two imposing headlights designed to make high-speed driving a pleasure at night.  Without forgetting the 1966 365 P Berlinetta Speciale, the first Ferrari GT with mid-engine architecture, built in just two examples, one of which, metallic gray, at the explicit request of Gianni Agnelli. 

If he liked a model, Agnelli would go on to have it customised. In 1955 he had a valuable chronograph positioned at the centre of the tunnel on a 375 America created by Battista Pinin Farina, and then in 1959 it was the turn of the 400 Superamerica, a one-off outfitted by Pininfarina that gave Ferrari a new stylistic approach.

From time to time he also asked for major interventions, like the time he demanded a Testarossa Spider in the mid-1980s, complete with some refined details, such as a bonnet with a new design and special colours: the magnolia white of the top, the grigio Nürburgring of the livery and the blue of the interior. He also chose to personalise his F40, which he ordered in 1989 in the classic Rosso Corsa with black seat fabric and a Valeo electronic clutch. But Agnelli also knew how to be generous: In 2000, based on the style of the 360 Spider, he entrusted Pininfarina with the design of an even more extreme one-off barchetta: it was his wedding present for Luca di Montezemolo, the only Ferrari the former president still has in his garage. 

The agreement to merge Fiat and Ferrari came in 1969, with both parties agreeing that the acquisition should not be based around money, but around creativity and possibility

While Agnelli often personalised every detail of his road cars, but didn’t venture to say anything about managing the Scuderia. He followed it closely, often taking his helicopter and attending F1 tests and Grand Prix races. He spoke with the technicians, with the drivers, had fun with the journalists, but he never felt it neccessary to give advice while Enzo was alive. “My father was impressed by the strength, qualities and business acumen of Gianni Agnelli,” recalled Piero Ferrari, Vice Chairman of the company. “There was a natural understanding between them, consolidated over the years until the decisive agreement which in 1969 gave rise to one of the strongest partnerships in the automotive world. I was with my father on that historic day when I had the pleasure of meeting Agnelli. From then on, we felt that, alongside Fiat, our company had a guarantee of continuity and development.”

Agnelli and Fiat guaranteed a future for Ferrari, removing the economic concern and freeing its ingenuity on other fronts. Fiat and Agnelli were the best partners Maranello could want. There were respect and knowledge, two factors that often do not accompany an acquisition. The motivation behind that 1969 agreement was more about love than economics.

Some of the spectacular cars built by Ferrari for Gianni Agnelli and meticulously customised in close collaboration with him. They include an F40, a blue and green 166 MM and a 1952 blue 212 Inter 

Once Enzo Ferrari passed in August 1988, Fiat became Ferrari’s majority shareholder, leaving 10% of the company to Vice Chairman, Piero Ferrari. Important managers had already started to arrive from Turin and over time the relationship intensified with Agnelli always having the last word, even in the choice of drivers at the Scuderia, including his decisive approval on the hiring of Michael Schumacher.

Before making the decision he is said to have asked “But who is this Schumacher? Is he worth all the money he’s asking for to drive the Ferrari?” It didn’t take long for him to understand that he was worth every penny. 2023 sees the 20th anniversary of Schumacher taking the F2003 GA to the World Championship, the GA standing for Gianni Agnelli, the dedication that the president of the time, Luca di Montezemolo, wanted to make to Agnelli, who had always been much more than just an owner.