MY YOUNGEST SON, aged 10, is going through the “car phase”, dreaded by some, but a joy for a Ferrari-mad father like me. Ferrari is his god, his king, his dream. He talks of little else than the cars with the prancing horse on their bonnets; has committed all the performance statistics of the current range to memory, and dreams of nothing other than a pilgrimage to the town where they are made. So, during a family holiday in Tuscany, I arrange a day trip, together with his elder brother, 13, and a school friend, to Maranello, home of the Ferrari factory, repository of all the dreams of all the boys in all the world. Me included.
“It's like going on a safari, but instead of animals, it's cars,” gushes my son, wide-eyed as we drive into what is, in truth, a rather humdrum town, ringed by dusty ceramics factories. But now we have begun to spot the scarlet cars. A 458, two Californias, an older 360. The bark of their exhausts bounces off the pastel concrete walls of Maranello's apartment blocks, and we lower our windows to hear better. We are, of course, extra eagle-eyed, on the look out for ones with “prova” (test) plates, or unusual black cladding – signs that a car is a prototype for a future model, or for the Ferrari LaFerrari, the company's outrageously beautiful flagship.
Some of the Ferraris we see are being taken for their pre-delivery shake-down – driven by test drivers up into the hills surrounding Maranello – but many of the 458s cruising the streets are rentals. Since I last visited a few years ago, a number of companies have started offering Ferraris to those prepared to cough up €150 for 10 minutes in a 458 Spyder. But we won't be renting a Spyder today.
“That's our hotel,” I say, nodding to a building right opposite the Ferrari factory gates on Via Abetone. “And, this is the actual factory on the right,” I explain as the iconic yellow sign comes into view on the front of the factory, above what used to be company founder Enzo Ferrari's office.
“Wow,” says my son, open-mouthed. He's seen it in a hundred photographs, and here we are in reality. But instead of driving past the hallowed factory gates and turning into our hotel, I turn into the factory itself. I haven't told my son what I have lined up for him: he thinks we're here “just” to visit the Ferrari Museum.
He is silent; looks at me quizzically. A guard approaches. Through the open window I explain that we have come to pick up a car. He raises the barrier and we drive in. My son is still silent, but now has a very different expression on his face. His eyes widen as I explain that I have pulled a few strings and arranged to borrow a car for the day – an FF, Ferrari's first four-wheel-drive road car, with four seats.
“It's probably that grey one there.” I point to the car in the parking bay beside us, just as excited as my son but trying to act as if this is just another day at work for me. In fact, it's been a while since I was last in the driving seat of a Ferrari, but the magic never wanes.
After a few minutes I have the keys, and the four of us have settled into the sumptuous tan leather cabin, touching and stroking the leather as if aboard an alien spacecraft. A couple more minutes fiddling with buttons, adjusting chairs and mirrors, and we nose tentatively out, back onto the streets of Maranello, noting as we go the special traffic lights whose lenses sport the prancing-horse logo.
Much of the day is spent thrilling to the neck-snapping acceleration and – actually even more striking – deceleration of this extraordinary 660bhp, 335km/h, €300,000 machine. But we do also have some sightseeing to attend to.
First we take a drive around the factory perimeter fence to see the monumental Renzo Piano-designed wind tunnel (nicknamed “the armchair”), and return to the area around the factory gates and our hotel. Beneath the hotel is a small showroom, with a classic Dino (by Pininfarina, from a simpler, more delicate era of car design) in the window. A few minutes' walk away is Galleria Ferrari, the official, purpose-built Ferrari Museum, packed full of astonishing machinery and archive pieces, with an actual LaFerrari, still-born race projects and early F1 cars a major highlight. The museum has a small gift shop, but there are several other supercar-themed souvenir shops in the town where you can buy models of all the manufacturers based in this so-called Supercar Valley (Lamborghini, Maserati and Pagani are all within a half hour's drive).
Security is tight at Pista di Fiorano, the factory test track a couple of minutes away (also in Maranello, at the end of Viale Gilles Villeneuve), built in 1972. These days it's tricky to see much of the action as the company has erected tall fences, but the scream of an F1 engine usually brings traffic to a standstill on the Via Abetone bridge, where you can get the best view of the bottom of the main straight with the pit garage to the left. Your best chance to catch an F1 car in action is between races during the European season, but there's usually something happening most days at Fiorano, whether it's customers going for a spin, as when we visited, or factory test drivers stretching road cars' legs. (For information on test days at Fiorano, log on to ferrariworld.com and click on News and Events. Ferrari owners with a password can access owners.ferrari.com for information on hospitality packages that include factory and Fiorano visits.)
From here we slingshot north to Modena, the region's capital and one of the wealthiest towns in Italy. This is where Enzo Ferrari was born, and these days his birthplace is now home to Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari, yet another state-of-the-art museum divided into two buildings – one a futuristic, sweeping structure with a roof that mimics a louvred bonnet (and which, when we visited, housed a breathtaking exhibition of Maseratis), and the other the evocative original home and workshop of the Ferrari family. In here we inspect a small but exquisite handful of some of Ferrari's greatest creations, both road and race cars, and spanning almost seven decades.
Finally, if, like us, you want to pay your final respects to the controversial “godfather” of the sports car, Mr Ferrari is buried in the family tomb in Cimitero San Cataldo, on Via Cimitero 1, Modena.
“If I have a son, I'm going to call him Enzo,” says my youngest. Now why didn't I think of that?