Nothing causes a prince to be so much esteemed as great enterprises and giving proof of prowess.
—Niccolò Machiavelli

His thick thatch of hair is snowy white now, and his eyes are usually shaded behind beige-tinted glasses, even indoors. His natural stance is canted slightly aft, paunch thrust forward, so that he appears to be taking the measure of the world by sighting down his aquiline nose.

At 81 Italy's Enzo Ferrari is a legend on wheels and, protestations of modesty to the contrary, he is thoroughly pleased to be one. In a life that spans virtually the entire history of motor sports, he is acknowledged as the master builder of sleek, swift racing cars. The products from his small factory in the northern Italian village of Maranello have been so successful in competition that an exact victory count was discontinued years ago. The proud Ferrari crest—a prancing black stallion on a yellow field—is an insignia commanding reverence among automobile aficionados the world over.

The Ferrari reputation, won on the high-risk racing circuits, carries over to the marketplace, where ownership of his handcrafted, street versions can symbolize the ultimate in four-wheeled status. Because production is limited (only 2,000 Ferraris are built each year) and prices are hefty (current range: $36,000 to $60,000), it is a privilege accorded to an anointed few. Ferrari owners among filmdom's macho set include James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Alain Delon and Clint Eastwood. On the other hand, 15-year-old Tatum O'Neal has been promised one when she is old enough to have a driver's license. Opera's Luciano Pavarotti had his heart set on one until he discovered his waistline prevented his fitting under the steering wheel. Ferrari offered to build him a made-to-measure custom model.

Central to the Ferrari mystique, of course, is the man behind the fabled machines. Over the years biographers have characterized him as arrogant, aloof, imperious, irascible, volatile, austere but, above all, enormously gifted. He is unquestionably full of idiosyncracies. This genius with things mechanical, for example, is terrified of elevators and refuses to step inside one. And though he often disparages himself as "just a peasant," others would do well to address him as Commendatore, a title of merit bestowed on him by the Italian government.

In the full Italian sense of the word, he is also a commediante—a performer who orchestrates his own image. He can turn on the charm or tears at the drop of a wrench. A shrewd judge of people, he varies the personality he wishes to project to suit the visitor before him—often stern and forbidding with men, courtly or mildly flirtatious with women.

Ferrari never goes out to the world, the world must come to him—on his terms. He is a notorious practitioner of the "waiting-room technique," letting others cool their heels until he is prepared to receive them. His closely guarded factory is considered "harder to enter than the Vatican."

Yet Ferrari prides himself that he personally "answers all my mail, every letter I receive." His messages, always signed in purple ink, are pithy—"I believe most things can be said in a few lines." Ferrari tells the story of a client, "a beautiful woman of a certain age, as we say in Italy. Well, she picked up her new car and was very pleased, but after a few days we got a call from her in Geneva. She said the overdrive gear had broken. We got it fixed for her and thought that would be the end of it. But twice more we are called, from Monte Carlo and then Lisbon, with the same problem, followed by a telegram asking, 'What can I do to prevent this from happening again?' So I sent her an urgent reply: 'Change husband, chauffeur or lover!' " Ferrari roars with laughter.

In the early 1960s Henry Ford II was so taken by the Ferrari mystique that he wanted to buy it—not just a car but the whole works. After lengthy negotiations, the Commendatore refused. "I suddenly realized," he explains, "that if I were not Ferrari anymore, I would be no one. I would have no identity and no reason to be living."

Ferrari makes no effort to hide his affection for the machines that bear his name, and he has been known to pat their hoods like a father patting the head of a son. Once, when a distraught wife of a Ferrari racing-team driver blurted out, "I don't want to see my husband risk his life for a hunk of iron," Ferrari was outraged. "It's not just a hunk of iron," he replied passionately. "It has a heart and soul, and I give it life."

His name, in fact, comes from ferro, or iron, and his father owned a small ironworks in Modena, a city famed for its metal-working artisans. As a boy Enzo learned to distinguish the sound of a hammer on iron, steel, copper or bronze and to recognize when metal has been properly fused. In 1908 his father took Enzo and older brother Alfredo to their first auto race, the Targa Bologna, in which Italy's Fiats won over four French teams. Enzo was profoundly impressed.

His father was killed at the front in World War I and in a matter of months Ferrari lost his older brother as well. In his 1942 autobiography, My Terrible Joys, Enzo Ferrari recalled the lowest point of his life—standing on a Turin street, unemployed, applying for a job at Fiat that never materialized. He scrounged by as a mechanic and eventually became a driver for the Alfa Romeo racing team.

In 1929 he formed his own racing stable, the Scuderia Ferrari, and competed successfully until motor racing was suspended for World War II. He turned to machine-tool manufacturing, and his Modena factory was alternately bombed by the Allies and looted by the retreating Germans. After the war Ferrari established his factory in Maranello, about 11 miles outside of Modena. Before long, cars colored blood-red (the Italian racing color) and bearing the Ferrari horse came to dominate Formula One racing, the big league of European Grand Prix competition. The celebrated Italian driver Alberto Ascari won a world driving championship in a Ferrari in 1952 and repeated the following year. Argentina's Juan Fangio did it for Ferrari in 1956, Britain's Mike Hawthorn in 1958, America's Phil Hill in 1961, England's John Surtees in 1964 and Austria's Niki Lauda in 1975 and 1977.

The racing philosophy at Ferrari differs from that of most of its competitors. Some large manufacturers, such as Mercedes or Ford, go into racing intermittently in hopes of boosting car sales. The Ferrari factory, on the other hand, exists for racing; the limited number of cars it builds are sold on the side to offset the staggering overhead. Until it was taken over as a subsidiary of Fiat in 1969, the Ferrari operation was often strapped for funds. To this day the Commendatore is a pinchpenny when it comes to spending a lira.

"This is really an artisan factory," says Mauro Fornghieri, who has been designing race cars for Ferrari for over 15 years. "Ferrari is a tradition, a style. When a man comes here he adapts, the system doesn't adjust to him. Everyone here lives for the cars. Each gives more to Ferrari than he takes home in salary." Their devotion to an idea, however, has not made for easygoing camaraderie. On quitting last year, driving champ Niki Lauda was quoted as saying he could start feeling like a human again away from the Machiavellian feuds on the Ferrari team.

The cars from Maranello are meticulously constructed machines. But motor racing can be lethal. Over the years, the list of top drivers who have died in Ferraris includes Ascari, Peter Collins, Marquis Alfonso de Portago, Luigi Musso, Eugenio Castellotti and Count Wolfgang von Trips. The Commendatore's attitude toward his sport is ambivalent. While insisting on greater refinement and ever more speed, he is squeamish about watching his cars in action. He claims he has not been to a race personally in 20 years, because the "emotions would be too much" for him. Since the death of Lorenzo Bandini in a fiery crash at Monte Carlo in 1967, Ferrari has refused to hire Italian drivers for his Grand Prix teams. The reason, he says, is that he cannot bear being accused by his countrymen of killing off the best native driving talent.

Of course, for Ferrari the immediate response to any criticism is to announce his withdrawal from racing. The next season, or the next race, he is back.

The Commendatore likes to insist he has no friends. "How could I," he asks plaintively, "elbowing my way through life as I have?" Nowadays, indeed, Ferrari's conversations tend to be a litany of woes. "I am alone, completely alone," he sighs. "First I lost my father, then my brother, then my son, my mother and now my wife last summer. I'm tired, tired. Right now what keeps me going are injections and pills."

Those who have known him long observe that Ferrari has lost weight in recent years, and his steps are no longer certain. They also know the Commendatore is a master at playing pathos for maximum dramatic effect. Yet none questions that the great tragedy in his life was the death of his son Alfredo, called Dino, in 1956. Ferrari's hope was that Dino would one day take over the firm, but his son succumbed to muscular dystrophy at 24.

In his simply furnished Maranello office the Commendatore keeps a black-framed photograph of Dino flanked by constantly burning votive lights in the red-white-and-green Italian national colors. A recent addition is a photo of Jerry Lewis—"my friend"—with whom Ferrari has worked to raise funds for muscular dystrophy (his wife also died of the disease). The bulk of his fortune, Ferrari says, will be left to a foundation he has established for MD research.

Ferrari also has an illegitimate son, Piero Lardi, in his early 30s, whom he recognizes as such. Ferrari has provided for Piero—"I have arranged things so that when I die Piero can, if he wishes, take my name"—but the two are not close. "Piero has his wife, his daughter, his mother—they have put me aside," he complains.

With age, Ferrari has retreated into ever more splendid isolation. His Ferrari empire is an extension of himself. No decision is made without his approval. In a full life, he has seen his cars win virtually every race of any importance in the international circuit, with one major exception. He tinkered with but never came up with a design that satisfied him sufficiently to enter the Indianapolis 500.

He lives alone in a plain-looking, two-story house in Modena (though he also owns several villas and assorted other real estate). His household includes a nurse, a maid and two chauffeur-bodyguards—essential in a society stalked by kidnappers and left-wing terrorists. Few try to pierce the wall of deference that surrounds him. Once a veteran race driver, Count Giovanino Lurani, urged Ferrari to take a world trip with him. "Just think," Lurani enthused, "you will be received everywhere like a king." "That's not necessary," Ferrari responded without a second's hesitation. "Here in Modena I am already a king."