Born in Modena, Italy, to a middle class family that owned a small foundry. His father's company made sheds and gangways for the railroads in Italy. Ferrari was never interested in school. He had other aspirations. "As a young man it is said that he had three great ambitions-to be an opera singer, a sports journalist, and a race car driver". He lacked the talent for the first, never applied himself to the second, but the third was what drove his life. His parents, on the other hand wanted him to stay in school and become an engineer.
In 1916, however, Ferrari's life changed and he left school. Italy was at war and his brother and father were drafted. As for many other families in Italy, WWI was a disaster for the country. Italy entered the war in 1915 on the side of the allies. Italy had at first maintained a neutral stance, but the country became involved because of the promise of land. If Italy would assist the allies, it would receive land after the war as compensation. During the war 600,000 Italians lost their lives. Included in that number were Ferrari's brother and father both dying, in 1916, of diseases they contacted while in the Army.
Ferrari left school after the deaths in his family. He too was drafted into the war. Because the war was not proceeding the way that the allies had planned Italy needed additional men to fight. The younger Ferrari spent a couple of months shoeing mules for the mountain artillery. He then contracted a deadly flu, but survived whereas many others did not. The flu epidemic in 1918 took more lives than there were casualties from the war itself.
Ferrari was released from the army with a letter of introduction from his colonel. When he returned home, he, like others needed to rebuild his life. The family business had collapsed after his father's death. Yet Ferrari needed to find work and to support his widowed mother.
After WW I, Italy was in economic crisis. There were millions unemployed, high rates of inflation, and the lira had been devalued. Another form of unrest in the country came from the promise of land that Italians felt they did not receive. Italy did not acquire the vast amounts of land promised to them. At the end of the war they were fighting to keep the borders that they had before the war. They did receive Trentino and South Tyrol as part of the treaty after the war. In Italy, and for Ferrari, it was a time to rebuild.
Ferrari took his papers and went to Fiat to apply for a job. He was turned down and had to look elsewhere. His first job after the war was test driving for the Vespa company. While test driving, he participated in the first postwar motor sporting event. Ferrari continued to race and in 1920 started to work for Alfa Romeo. Ferrari was starting to become a recognized name.
During this period the country was in great turmoil. The working class was upset over their conditions after the war. This lead to labor problems in Italy. Out of this turmoil came a charismatic leader, Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was the founder of Italian Fascism. Fascism started in the north where much of the unrest was taking place. Mussolini appealed to the owners of the factories, who internalized his ideals of Nationalism. "Fascism had sponsored an aggressive, expansionist, nationalism which made much of classical Rome imperial grandeur. Fascism played on the ideas of traditionalism and war.
Mussolini seized the government on January 3, 1925 and led through a totalitarian form of government. He was in control of every aspect of the government. Ferrari was awarded an honor from the Fascist regime of Cavaliere dell'ordine della Corona d'Italia and elevated to Commendatore. Ferrari received these honors because he had won numerous races for Italy in Mussolini's eyes.
Ferrari experienced a emotional breakdown in the late twenties and stopped racing for a short time, but in 1927, he returned. He continued to race for Alfa Romeo until his son was born, in 1932. Although Ferrari was a good racer, his talent was in the direction of organization and handling of small details. He worked for Alfa Romeo for nine years, but Ferrari wanted to design his own cars. After being released from his severance agreement with Alfa Romeo, Ferrari started his own car business. However, a stipulation of his release was that he could not race or design anything under his name for four years.
With the second world war taking place, the car racing battles were stopped, and Ferrari became involved with war production. During the war, the allies bombed his shops and he moved the factory to Maranello. After the war, Ferrari was shunned for his "reputedly too-enthusiastic support of the old Mussolini regime". For people that knew Ferrari, this was not surprising. He was a hard man. In his life time he did not make many friends. He told people that he had never taken a vacation, and preferred to work at the factory.
In 1946, Ferrari designed the first car that would carry his name. His empire continued to flourish as did the Italian economy. The fifties were a time of economic boom, mostly for the north. Italy was becoming a world economic power, and was experiencing rapid expansions in the industrial labor forces. With the boom came low inflation, low unemployment, and higher consumer spending. This was considered an economic miracle, there was a great demand for Italian goods. The north offered the jobs which caused massive migration from the south. With the southern workers mostly being uneducated and having no representation in the work force, they were candidates for exploitation.
As with any economic boom, there are also hardships. For Ferrari, the end of the boom came when his son, Dino, died of muscular dystrophy in 1956. This also led to the end of his marriage to Laura, who never got over the death of her only son. After he and his wife separated, he moved into an apartment at the factory. He started to work seven days a week and throw himself into the business. Following the death of his wife, he publicly announced that the son of his mistress was his new heir.
In the fifties the Ferrari racing company experienced numerous accidents, one of which led to Ferrari's indictment for manslaughter. One of his drivers lost control of his car and was killed along with spectators in the stands. Ferrari was acquitted of the charges, and he "urged strict new safety regulations to protect both drivers and the public".
In the years that followed Italy went through another crisis. In the sixties, the economy declined. An increase in inflation eroded wages. The late sixties were composed of student movements which included students helping the working class by fighting for and winning higher wages. During this time Ferrari was also experiencing economic troubles. He sold part of his company to Fiat in 1965, which kept it going for a few more years. In 1969, Fiat assisted him again and bought the up a total of 90% of the company, with the stipulation that he would control until his death.
Ferrari stepped down as president of the company in 1971. However, he continued to run many aspects of it, including control of his stock interest, until his death in 1988.