As I drive my tiny rental car down a winding country road into Modena, the first thing I see is a giant spire puncturing the clouds. It is “Il Tridente,” a stylized steel trident that is the emblem of the Maserati motor company and to many serves as the symbol of this city. At first, the landmark’s prominence seems overstated. But as I explore this former medieval ducal capital in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, I realize just how fitting it is. For if the Modenese do not worship the automobile, they certainly honor it—the city may be best known for its production of balsamic vinegar, but the sign on the autostrada welcomes visitors to La Terra Dei Motori.
To car aficionados like me, the spire points to a place of pilgrimage. It was here, in 1929, that Enzo Ferrari founded the racing team that became the world’s most famous sports-car manufacturer; here that Maserati made the Birdcage race cars that scorched European tracks in the late 50’s; and only 12 miles east, in the village of Sant’Agata Bolognese, that a Ferrari fan named Ferruccio Lamborghini expanded his tractor factory into one of the world’s most prestigious auto plants. Without a doubt, the Modenese pride is justified. The fastest four-wheelers in the world are made in their city, and they regard sports cars the way Bordeaux natives regard wine: as something they may not have invented, but certainly perfected.
The Modenese approach to the automobile as art becomes clear at Galleria Ferrari in Maranello, a suburb 20 minutes south of Modena. By the 1950’s, high modernism had infiltrated consumer culture, and looking at these cars, you would be hard-pressed to find a purer expression of the idea that an object realizes its potential for beauty in pure functionality. These cars were built for speed and, no less important, built to look fast. Tours of the 27,000-square-foot modern glass-and-steel factory, which was set up here in 1947, are strictly reserved for Ferrari owners (patrons considered worthy—and wealthy—enough). Luckily, there’s an adjoining museum, and I queue up with Italian students on a field trip. Enzo Ferrari, a former race-car driver, had more passion for racing cars than making them, and much of the museum is dedicated to the company’s victories on the track. Inside, racing lanes map the floor, where a half-dozen Formula One cars sit side by side—small, sleek automobiles that resemble spaceships out of Star Wars and are packed with enough advanced technology that they probably operate like them, too. The first floor is dedicated to Ferrari’s big wins, but classic street cars dominate the upstairs. Arranged in a circle—hood down, on an angular floor—are the most gorgeous cars the company has ever made. Some, like the 275 GTB4, are old roadsters; others, carbon-fiber modern convertibles. My favorite, however, sits in a corner by itself: a glistening, red Ferrari GTO. Its smooth geometrical form gives the illusion that it’s about to speed away.
The next stop is the Collezione Umberto Panini, a private car collection owned by Umberto Panini, a retired Italian business mogul. Off the SP486 highway, a small sign for the museum points left, down a long driveway to what looks like a dairy farm. A rugged-looking Italian working under the hood of an old red English roadster looks up at me. “Il museo?” I ask, pointing to the barn behind me. “Yes,” he replies.
As a young man, Panini worked as a test driver at Maserati before starting a soccer trading-card business, which he sold in 1990 to become a gentleman farmer. A few years later, when Fiat bought the company, the Maserati collection was excluded from the deal, so Panini bought 19 of the cars to keep them in Modena. While Ferraris were associated with flash and speed, Maseratis were built for the Italian gentleman.
The museum is dark and quiet, but when I turn on the lights, 40 cars lined up like colorfully wrapped candies in a box surround me: a green Mistral from the 60’s, a gleaming red Bora from the 70’s, a dark metallic brown Khamsin—for a time Maserati named its cars after winds, some of them rather obscure. While I’m examining an old engine a group of businessmen walks in. With them is Panini himself, a distinguished old man in a cap, along with the guy who was working on the roadster outside, who turns out to be his son. Panini is gesturing wildly, as he points toward his prized possessions. Eager to convey my appreciation, I point to the cars. “Bellissima,” I say. His eyes light up. “Bellissima,” he agrees.
I drive to the Maserati facility, a set of factories in Modena’s Crocetta district, the following morning. My guide is Giorgio Manicardi, a retired executive who loved Maserati too much to leave and is now a volunteer. He speaks of the cars as if they were sculptures, and tells me that the company is so particular that it turns out fewer than 10,000 cars per year—what most factories do in a week. The first building Manicardi shows me is a factory the size of an airplane hangar, with two yellow metal tracks hanging from the ceiling, on which car bodies are suspended. Every half-hour, they advance in stages along the tracks until they are lowered to the ground to be joined to an engine and fitted with an interior. The workers often finish their tasks in 20 minutes. There is none of the frenetic energy that I expect to see in an auto plant. Their tradition of hand assembly, so full of craftsmanship and at times so prone to quirks, is part of what Maserati is selling. In the 80’s, its Biturbo even had a suede-lined roof and a Swiss clock set in its dashboard.
On my way out, I spot yet another group of schoolchildren listening to their guide recounting the history of car manufacturing. As a kid, I remember visiting places like the National Air & Space Museum and other institutions dedicated to the technological advancements of our country. They were doing the same here—only Italian rockets take off parallel to the earth.
Robert Levine is a New York–based writer who contributes to the New York Times, Portfolio, and Rolling Stone.