In 2015, at the launch of Ferrari’s new Formula 1 car, many observers were surprised to see an Alfa Romeo logo adorning the rear of the body. It had been expected that the logo of Ferrari’s parent company, Fiat, would be used on the car piloted by Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen that season. In fact, the use of both the Ferrari and the Alfa Romeo logos on the same vehicle was history repeating itself with a twist: Back in the 1930s, a number of Alfa Romeo race cars featured Ferrari’s prancing horse logo.
What is the story behind the historic link between Alfa Romeo and Ferrari and why has the prancing horse logo been used on both cars? The answer will take us from endurance road races in the mountains of Sicily to aerial battles in World War I.
The roots of this story lead back to Ferrari’s founder, Enzo Ferrari. Although Enzo came from relatively humble beginnings, his talent as a driver and entrepreneur saw him rapidly rise through the ranks of the Italian auto industry in the 1920s. The son of a self-employed metalworker who operated his business out of the family home, Enzo dreamed of becoming a racing driver since he was a young child. He got his first taste of the car industry by working as a test driver for Costruzioni Meccaniche Nazionali (CMN), a car manufacturer in Milan.
Enzo Ferrari was a good, but not an exceptional driver
In 1920, Enzo got closer to his dream when he was taken on as a racing driver for Alfa Romeo, which at that point had only been in existence for 10 years. His first really big breakthrough in racing came later that year when he finished second at the Targa Florio open road endurance race in the mountains of Sicily. However, he came to realize that although he was good, he was not an exceptional driver, and he soon took on more of an organisational and ambassadorial role for Alfa Romeo, encouraging other talented drivers to join the team. This change in focus culminated in 1929, when he founded the Scuderia Ferrari racing team, which was the racing division of Alfa Romeo.
It was on these Scuderia Ferrari race cars that the iconic prancing horse logo first appeared alongside the Alfa Romeo logo. But how did Enzo decide upon the prancing horse logo? After all, as he came from a family of modest means, there was no equestrian tradition or family coat of arms that could explain the choice. In fact, the prancing horse has its origins in the aerial dogfights of World War I.
After some hesitancy early on, Italy ultimately sided with the Allied Powers in the war. Although Enzo himself served, it was a famed Italian fighter pilot, Francesco Baracca, who endowed Ferrari with the legendary prancing horse symbol. Baracca had previously been in a division of the Italian cavalry called the Piemonte Reale Cavalleria. However, he became famous during the war in the air force, where he led the so-called “Squadron of the Aces” and had an unprecedented record of 34 victories in aerial battle. In honor of the cavalry division in which he had previously served, he took the prancing horse from its coat of arms and painted it onto the side of his plane.
The horse became both a personal symbol and lucky charm for Baracca and stories of his dogfight heroics and humble personality made him a national hero in Italy. Ultimately, however, he died in battle in 1918 when he came under fire while providing cover for ground troops. His mother later met Enzo Ferrari and suggested that he put the horse on his cars as a tribute to Baracca and to bring him good luck.
Enzo took the prancing horse symbol and combined it with the canary yellow color from the flag of his hometown of Modena – and in this moment, the iconic Ferrari symbol was born. When he split from Alfa Romeo to form his own company in 1947, he retained the prancing horse symbol for all subsequent vehicles. In 2017, a study by Brand Finance rated Ferrari as the world’s strongest automotive brand, but rather than being devised at a creative meeting at a marketing agency, the genesis of the brand was created in a biplane in the skies of Italy.