Ferrari number zero

Ferrari number zero

Eighty years ago Enzo Ferrari built his first car. It didn't yet bear his name, but the traces of the Ferrari cars of the future were already there. Only one model survives - it is probably the most valuable car in the world, and is owned by a collector who lives near Maranello

Vincenzo Borgomeo

The Holy Grail of Ferrari - the 'Auto Avio Costruzioni 815' - turns 80 years old this year. It was the first car to be built by Enzo Ferrari before he founded his own eponymous racing marque. It all began when Ferrari left the Alfa Romeo management team in 1939: due to a clause in his contract he was not permitted to build cars under his own name (he was too closely linked to the Scuderia Ferrari, and thus to Alfa Romeo). So Enzo founded the Auto Avio Costruzioni at the old Scuderia Ferrari headquarters, and began producing machine tools, particularly hydraulic grinding machines.

He entered into fruitful partnerships with the Compagnia Nazionale Aeronautica di Roma (the National Aviation Company of Rome), Piaggio and RIV, but racing cars remained the focus of the future 'Commendatore'. For this reason, the tiny company also began work on the study and design of a sports car, an open top two-seater with an 8-cylinder 1500cc engine (hence the name 815). Only two of them were ever built. And when it competed in the Mille Miglia road race in 1940 the seed had been sown.

The Auto Avio Costruzioni 815 making its debut in the 1940 edition of Italy's Mille Miglia road race<em> Photo: Zagari collection</em>
The Auto Avio Costruzioni 815 making its debut in the 1940 edition of Italy's Mille Miglia road race Photo: Zagari collection

The Touring body shop in Milan sculpted the stunning lines of the car, a two-seater barchetta, whilst the in-line 8-cylinder engine was created by combining two smaller Fiat engines. The car was immediately put through its paces in the Mille Miglia on 28 April 1940, but was subsequently forgotten during the Second World War when most sporting competition was stopped in one fell swoop. So Enzo Ferrari turned his attention back to the production of hydraulic grinding machines for ball bearings.

Alberto Ascari, Enrico Nardi, Alfonso Lotario, Rangoni Machiavelli and Giovanni Minozzi all raced for Auto Avio Costruzioni: the 815 was a true legend of a car, which later gave rise to the 125, the first Ferrari in history. Amazingly enough, the Auto Avio Costruzioni 815 still exists. And it is in Italy: it belongs to the Righini collection in Anzola Emilia. It still boasts its original paintwork, a dark reddish purple that is miles away from the blazing red that would go on to distinguish future Ferrari. Today, it is estimated that this individual specimen may be worth more than 100 million euros, which would make it the most valuable car on the planet.

The only other 815 belonged to the Marquis Lotario Rangoni Machiavelli who sent it off to be scrapped after it was wrecked in an accident. In 1958, however, his brother Rolando Rangoni Machiavelli found it again, in a scrapyard. He photographed it, and then went to Enzo Ferrari to confirm whether or not that pile of twisted metal was the crashed 815. The Commendatore confirmed that it was, but when Rangoni Machiavelli returned to recover the wreckage, the car had already been crushed. And so it was farewell. The Ferrari 125 S, the first Ferrari ever built, would also meet a similar end.

Alberto Ascari - F1 world champion in 1952 and 1953 - at the wheel of his beloved Auto Avio Costruzioni 815
Alberto Ascari - F1 world champion in 1952 and 1953 - at the wheel of his beloved Auto Avio Costruzioni 815

So the 815 that belonged to Ascari, which is still in perfect condition, is Ferrari number zero, if you will. And if anyone should seek to question this, it's worth knowing that Enzo Ferrari himself confirmed it many years ago, in a handwritten letter, acknowledging that the car was indeed one of that rare pair of 815s built by himself.

"It was purchased in Florence, and was in fairly good condition", says the collector today, "because it had only done a few races." Righini had bought it in 1955, when the spider was just an old car (the Ferrari car was born in 1947), perhaps proving once again that all legendary cars traverse a period of oblivion.

But the '815' was already bristling with modern ideas and features at the time: the headlights, for example, were completely covered, and the car boasted six slits on its front end - three on each side. Rather than being just decorative elements, these were air intakes to improve the efficiency of the brakes. Similarly, the elongated rear end of the bodywork was designed to improve aerodynamic penetration, thus increasing the car's top speed on the straights. So much technology. It was not surprising that Ascari, the future Formula 1 world champion in 1952 and 1953, fell in love with this remarkable machine.