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Interview: Ferrari collector and archivist Ronald Stern

TG chats to one of world's foremost collectors of all things Ferrari at the exhibition he helped put on

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Life would have been a whole lot trickier for the curators of the London Design Museum exhibition, Ferrari: Under the Skin, without a certain Ronald Stern. Stern owns three Ferraris, a 599 SA Aperta, a one-off 1986 Ferrari Testarossa Spyder originally created for Fiat and Ferrari capo di tutti and legend Gianni Agnelli, and a 275 GTB/4, recently restored by world-leading specialists DK Engineering. He also owned an ex-Fangio Ferrari 290 MM, which sold two years ago at an RM Sotheby’s auction for, gulp, $28m. A famous 250 GTO also graced his garage some years ago, but that’s another story. 

Like so many notable Ferrari collectors, though, the astronomical value the (mostly) red cars now attract is genuinely secondary. Spend any time with Stern, and it’s clear his fascination with the world’s most famous car company runs deep. Like, really deep. So deep, in fact, that he has dedicated himself to curating a frankly staggering collection of Ferrari artifacts and memorabilia, much of which forms the backbone to the new Design Museum exhibition. We’re talking paperwork, menus, watches, documentation, illustrations, the crash helmets worn by every driver to win the F1 world title for the Scuderia, even the steering wheel of the car Niki Lauda crashed while racing at the Nürburgring in the 1976 German GP. He also acquired the letters Enzo Ferrari wrote to Fiamma Breschi, Ferrari F1 driver Luigi Musso’s lover, whom Ferrari installed in a florists business in Florence following Musso’s death in the 1958 French GP. Ferrari began a lengthy, impassioned courtship of Breschi, heaping further emotional turbulence on a life that was already highly complicated. 

During a private tour of the collection, the scale and scope of Ronald’s archive is genuinely jaw-dropping. But it also means that the man’s insight into Enzo Ferrari’s life and world is second-to-none. He has also written a series of books, co-authored with his archivist Nathan Beehl. The first reproduces Ferrari’s sales and marketing literature from 1940 to 1964 (all of it); the second reprints the postcards Enzo Ferrari sent to friends and colleagues. The third and most recent is the definitive history of Ferrari’s first car, the 125S. We caught up with the great man at the preview evening of the new Design Museum exhibition. 

Where did it all start? 

“I wanted to do the Ferrari pilgrimage, so back in 1974 I drove to Italy, in my beloved AC Cobra 289, and visited Maranello. I heard the ‘blam-blam-blam’ of a Formula One car, and then out of the factory gates walked Enzo Ferrari, along with Clay Regazzoni. They disappeared into the Cavallino restaurant. It was momentous. I followed a little later, thinking I might eat with them. But, of course, they disappeared into a private dining room.”

When did you begin collecting the memorabilia, if we can call it that?

“I was offered this small collection by a chap called Vittorio Roveda. He sold me a set of Ferrari Yearbooks and some brochures, back in the late 1980s. I think I paid around £11,000 for them. Then there they sat, rather unloved actually, and I’d flick through them occasionally. I was at Goodwood and I met Ben Horton, of Hortons Books. I mentioned the collection to him, and he decided he ought to look at it. He said, ‘you’ve got some rare items here.’ Ben was the inspiration to start collecting properly. And that’s also when the madness began. The opportunity arose to buy individual pieces or complete collections. Ascari’s widow had some things, for example. Eventually I bought a huge collection in Italy. I bought all the important pieces from the Jacques Swaters collection [Swaters was Ferrari’s Belgian importer, and ran the Ecurie Francorchamps team]. So it’s the refining of the best of the best.”

You have a complete set of the famous Yearbooks [they’re on display in the Design Museum]. But isn’t it impossible to be a completist with the brochures?

“It’s much harder because some are exceedingly rare. I’m virtually there now, but there are still items, a particular language variation of a piece I already have, that I would dearly love. But that’s the thrill of the chase. And that’s also when you’ve become a bona fide treasure hunter. I sought out one particular item at an auction in Gstaad. We think it’s the only one in the world, though we’ve never found out quite why it’s so rare. Most of the brochures are worth perhaps £200-£300 each. This one is worth in excess of £10,000. This isn’t done from an investment perspective, it’s because I have a passion for what it is. Financially, it probably doesn’t make any sense at all, although it’s obviously worth something or other.”

You could say that. It has grown way beyond being a hobby, hasn’t it?

“My ambition, and I say it modestly, is to assemble the world’s best collection of Ferrari memorabilia. It’s not a competition, though it can become competitive. I enjoy it, I love having it, I love sharing and showing it. I’ve met many dealers and experts over the years, and I thought it would be good to put on paper some of the things I’ve learnt to help other collectors, now and in the future.”

Has the archive deepened your understanding of Enzo Ferrari?

“Enzo Ferrari was a very complex man. I sat in Piero Ferrari’s office one day and asked him to describe his father. ‘Like a Rubik’s Cube,’ he replied. ‘You never knew which side of the cube you were looking at.’ This was a man who set his goals and objectives and he followed through on them. Not only that, but the decisions he made were normally right. Enzo Ferrari was such a capable man, and had such terrific vision. He was also a born marketeer. Because of the material I’ve acquired, I’ve also seen a different side to him. He is often depicted as being a monster and a tyrant, and of course he could be, but he was also very kind. And a lot of people choose to ignore that part of his character because it doesn’t suit their narrative.”

You seem driven by an urge to protect and preserve this material for future generations. That hasn’t always been the case: Ferrari itself didn’t keep key items, back in the day. 

‘Ferrari’s history over the years had evaporated into lots of private hands, so I set about trying to find as much of it as I could. I felt it was a shame that this history could be dissipated. I’m only the custodian, but it would be great to see the collection return to Italy one day. This is part of Italian culture, after all. I hope over the years it gives other people as much pleasure as it has given me, and that they learn from it, too.’ 

Is this an obsession now, Ronald? 

“No. It’s not an obsession. It’s a passion. There is an excitement, but it’s about trying to complete the story, a sense of fulfillment. It’s enormous fun, but it takes a lot of dedication and a lot of thought. Deciding what to include is instinctive, although where possible it must be original. There are times when you think the puzzle is nearly complete, and then you receive a phone call, and you realise there are other pieces out there. Indeed, this happened earlier this year, and the documents in question were so significant they took the archive to another level. That is part of the thrill. It’s a form of cultural archeology, detective work. And it can be very addictive.”

Is there one item you treasure above all others?

“My favourite? To paraphrase Enzo Ferrari, the one I haven’t got. Yet…”

Ferrari: Under the Skin runs at the London Design Museum from 15th November 2017 until 15th April 2018

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