FERRARI'S 50TH anniversary is a great time to celebrate 28 years of extraordinary ownership by Fiat. No auto giant has ever done a better job of running a small specialist company.
Fiat acquired 50 percent of Ferrari in 1969. From the first day it has been the model for how to take a prestige marque under your wing and not squeeze it to death in the process.
It doesn't always work so well. Many great road and racing car names have bounced from owner to owner in the 100 years of the auto industry, slipping a little with each change of hands. Chrysler gave up on Lamborghini, GM sold Lotus. Jaguar and Aston Martin have each passed through a series of owners.
Fiat's mix of support and shielding has kept Ferrari strong while preserving the creative, competitive spirit of Enzo Ferrari.
Fiat never threatened Ferrari's distinctiveness. Maranello's hallowed grounds still have the look and smell of a feisty independent. The sewing machines for leather, the tiny foundry, the restaurant and test track across the road give the grounds character. No carmaking complex has more.
Ford tried to buy Ferrari before Fiat. But Ford had smothered some of Ghia's creativity after acquiring the famed Turin studio in the 1960s. So Gianni Agnelli resolved to block Ford from taking Ferrari. He was right to do so. That was Lee Iacocca's Ford in those days. Later, Iacocca's Chrysler did badly with Lamborghini and Maserati.
Ironically, Ford learned from the Fiat-Ferrari model. Ford has been a good patron for Jaguar and Aston. The launch of the XK-8 and Aston's DB7 proved Ford could preserve the essence of Brown's Lane and Newport Pagnall while providing financial and management strength.
The Fiat-Ferrari partnership succeeded for two reasons - Enzo Ferrari and Gianni Agnelli. One could stand up to the other. Enzo kept control of the racing team. Fiat ran the production car business.
Agnelli last week called the great man 'overbearing,' but also said that Enzo Ferrari had 'a great knowledge of the people in the racing business and a pure passion for technical innovation.'
To Fiat's great credit, the partnership has continued to run smoothly since Mr. Ferrari died nine years ago at age 90.
Fiat now owns 90 percent of the company. But the shares belong to Fiat SpA, not Fiat Auto. Ferrari has a privileged place outside the world of common platforms, shared parts and interchangeable design studios.
Centro Stile at Fiat and Alfa Romeo do not bid against Pininfarina to create new Ferraris.
Turin assures that new models arrive on time, but there is no pressure to double production, or to make four-doors, sport-utilities, minivans, midget roadsters or Lexus-fighters.
There have been no ill-advised road cars and no real challengers. Honda and Chrysler will never make a Ferrari.
Unlike Jaguar in the 1970s and Porsche in the late 1980s, the brand has never faltered. Ferrari today has pretty much the same mission as 50 years ago: to make the most genuine sports cars in the world and to go racing.
Another great Italian name, Maserati, hasn't done as well. Now Maserati has been folded into Ferrari, where it will come under the guidance of Maranello. If only Ferrari can manage Maserati as well as Fiat has handled Ferrari.