Maranello memories – Brenda Vernor recalls life at Ferrari

Brenda Vernor with Jody ScheckterFor as long as I can remember I’ve had a passion for all things automotive with a particular weakness for sports cars and motorsport.

 I have no idea how or why this bug bit me so hard but it’s proven to be an incurable addiction.

Growing-up in Britain and a teenager by the early ‘80’s, my fix was temporarily satisfied by reading anything and everything I could find on these developing passions. Maybe it was the exotic cover photography or the wonderful penmanship of then editor Mel Nichols but CAR magazine was my particular Kryptonite.

A picture of the latest Italian exotica typically being driven at speed through Emilia Romagna and teased on the cover at my local newsagents was always more than I could resist. Quality time in my bedroom then followed with the radio on as I eagerly devoured every word and picture of the latest Ferrari road car or Grand Prix race report.

Back then, well known editors or road test journalists arriving at Maranello to drive a 308, 400 or Boxer were sometimes offered the rare opportunity to greet Mr. Ferrari personally. Many a hardened journo described the long, anxious wait to meet the legendary “Il Commendatore” as an experience akin to meeting the Pope or an unexpected summons to the headmaster’s office at school.

Typically said journo would be ushered into Ferrari’s dimly lit office with him sat behind his desk, dark sunglasses on and flanked by an aide who would translate the conversation from English to Italian or vice versa. If the journo was someone that Mr. Ferrari had met before or appeared to like, the “old man” might ask the aide to go and bring a copy of his memoires that he would personally sign with his trademark purple inked pen and give to the journo as a gift. Fabulous stuff!

It was stories like this that captured my imagination and oftentimes reading reports from Maranello familiar names would often crop-up, none more so than Brenda Vernor. A fellow Briton, Vernor moved to Maranello in the early 1960’s and for many years was Enzo Ferrari’s personal assistant.   

Short of being a driver for the famous Scuderia or a factory test driver for the road car division, I figured that Brenda must have had the best job in the world. Not only did she get to work closely with the legend that was Enzo Ferrari, she would also meet many famous people and dignitaries that visited the factory. On the racing side, Brenda got to know well many of the drivers such as the late great Gilles Villeneuve, Jody Scheckter, etc.

Purely by chance, I recently found myself with the opportunity to connect with Brenda and was delighted when she accepted my invitation for a Q&A interview. Several informal chats followed and I was relieved to find that she was exactly as I imagined she would be, charming, amusing, direct to the point and quick to set me straight on any incorrect assumptions I had formed.

You can imagine that Brenda has given many interviews over the years so I am extremely grateful to her for her time and consent. Honestly, there were so many questions that I could have asked Brenda about her life and time at Maranello that what follows naturally represents a mere snapshot of the life and career of a remarkable woman, enjoy!

James:   When you first moved from England to Italy, obviously a different culture and language to understand and come to terms with, how difficult did you find the transition and how long did it take for you to feel at home there?

Brenda:   When I first went to Italy in 1962 I found it quite difficult and of course not knowing the language even more so. The Italian mentality was so different in those days that it was difficult for me to adapt easily. For a young person arriving today they would find things much easier because the mentality of Italians is more open than in those days.”

I stuck it out probably because I have 3 older brothers and when I informed my parents that I was leaving to go and live in Italy they all replied “Let her go she will be back in a month.” Being a Lion and half  Irish (my father was Irish) I was determined that I would not give them the satisfaction of saying “We told you so!”


James:   Were there many other English speaking people within the local community or at Ferrari at that time?

Brenda:   At that time there were not an awful lot of English or foreign people for that matter living in Modena and when I joined Ferrari in the racing department I was the only woman and the only English person there.

James:   At any point did you ever consider moving back to England or was it the case that once you had settled in Italy this was now home?

Brenda:   I have never had the inclination to return to the U.K. firstly because of the weather and of course the good food, but also over the years I have lost all contact with my school friends and what would I do there? Here in Maranello I have lived for so many years I call this my home now, and of course know so many people and all the visitors who come here for Ferrari are the ones who I met during my days at Ferrari.

James:   When Enzo Ferrari asked you to work for him, was this a daunting prospect in any way or an easy offer to accept?

Brenda:   I remember the day the ‘old man’ called me on the telephone. I had just taken my Labrador dog out for his walk and he had made my angry.

As I walked into the hallway the phone rang and I picked it up shouting down the phone “pronto.” I heard a voice at the other end saying “Are you angry?” to which I replied certainly not, and the voice then said “this is Enzo Ferrari” what about coming to work for me?  I stopped breathing for a moment and replied that I didn’t really know, to which he told me to come to the Pista of Fiorano the next day to speak with him and that was that! I had a 3 month trial and then after that was taken on as his English interpreter as he never spoke this language only French.

James:   How did your role at Ferrari evolve or change during your time there?

Brenda:   I used to send all the telexes in English to all the Formula One teams and when there was a meeting in Modena went to interpret for him.. it was great fun meeting all the famous managers of all the F1 teams.

They used to sit me next to Ken Tyrell, who I loved, because nobody else wanted to, why I still don’t know! I did letters etc and translated the telexes which came back from Bernie (Ecclestone) or the other teams, anything that was in English was my job.

James:   There has been so much written over the years about Enzo Ferrari both fact and myth. Obviously he served many roles, industrialist and public figure, husband, father and employer. How would you describe him in these roles?

Brenda:   The ‘old man’ had a wonderful sense of humour and he loved to tease people, many times with me, his work was his life and this was the most important thing for him. He loved his wife very much, in his own way of course, he wasn’t a person to demonstrate his feelings.

When he was angry he would go red in the face but it would only last for about 10-15 minutes and then it was all over as if nothing had ever happened, however it was always best not to reply or interrupt him whilst he was talking!

James:   How did Mr. Ferrari view the road car side of the company compared to the racing side? Was this an equal passion or were the road cars seen mostly as a way to fund the racing activities?

Brenda:   Of course his life was the racing department but he was also interested in the road cars which of course he sold to pay for the racing.

However when he received a client he always asked them the good things and the bad things about the car they had bought and wrote down all the details in his diary after which he would call in the engineer and tell him the defects of the car and the good things so it was put right.


James:   Mr. Ferrari built some of the most successful and desirable cars ever to grace the road and track, were there any particular road or racing models that he was especially fond of that you recall?

Brenda:   I can’t really answer this question, I only know that he used to drive a 330GTC, which I rode in with him, and what a driver, my hair was standing on end when I got out of the car.

He was of course interested in other foreign road cars, in fact he drove a Renault which he was given to try out and was impressed by the beautiful nappa leather seats, and I believe it was the first car where there was the voice which told you that your seat belt was not fastened etc and which he thought was impressive.

James:   As I mentioned earlier, there has been many myths and inaccuracies written about Mr. Ferrari over the years so it would be great if you would be able to set the record straight on a couple of topics. Luigi Chinetti was an important business associate of Mr. Ferrari’s, how would you describe their relationship both from a business and personal standpoint?

Brenda:   I think Luigi Chinetti was a real friend and they both got on together very well also from a business point of view, they were very much alike in their thinking this is probably why the ‘old man’ never had an argument, as far as I know, with Luigi.

James:   In the mid 1960’s Ford tried to take over Ferrari, at the time, was Mr. Ferrari openly looking to sell part or all of the company for any reason or did Ford simply make this offer out of the blue so to speak?

Brenda:   In the 1960’s Ferrari did think of selling part of the company because he needed the money but when he found out that Ford wanted to run the racing department he refused to sell.

James:   Gilles Villeneuve was my first racing hero and still someone I miss greatly to this day. He was without doubt one of the fastest and most committed drivers ever to compete in Grand Prix racing. It would appear that Gilles and Mr. Ferrari had a close relationship, almost a father and son type of relationship. Was this correct, how would you describe their relationship?

Brenda:   Not only you miss Gilles but he was like a younger brother to me. Ferrari loved him because he was quick and you never slept whilst Gilles was around and the ‘old man’ loved drivers like this.

James:   Talking of Gilles, he appeared to love life at Ferrari, would you say that his partnership with Jody (Scheckter) was the most harmonious driver pairing you saw within the Scuderia, both on and off track? How would you describe their relationship?

Brenda:   I still say today that the Villeneuve-Scheckter relationship was the best Formula One ever had and not only at Ferrari!

Gilles used to listen to Jody and they would discuss everything and I have never known them to have had an argument, although Jody used to tell Gilles you will never win a Championship the way you drive, it is not only won on first places but on points, but Gilles was Gilles.

I also miss him very much as we used to have a lot of laughs together and both of them used to play tricks on me, however having three brothers I was used to these sorts of things, I have broad shoulders!


James:   It was suggested that in 1982 and before his tragic passing at the Belgian Grand Prix that Gilles was negotiating with McLaren to return to the team where he made his Grand Prix debut. Did he ever express his feelings to you on this matter and do you believe that he was seriously considering leaving Ferrari at that time?

Brenda:  Gilles never spoke to me about this, however I do know that after the 1980 F1 season with the 312 T5 he was fed up because the car was a disaster, so maybe he did have this thought in his mind?

James:   Ayrton Senna quickly made a name for himself in Formula One, what did Mr. Ferrari think of the Brazilian and did he ever try to bring him to Maranello?

Brenda:  I loved Senna he was such a gentleman and when I met him for the first time when he came with (Gerhard) Berger to my office in Maranello, he confirmed what I thought, he was a gentleman as well as a very good driver. As for coming to Ferrari there was probably some talk about it but I cannot confirm as this was the job of Dr. Piccinini, he would be the only one to know.

James:   Do you follow Formula One today, if so, what are your thoughts on the sport at present, the Scuderia, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa?

Brenda:   I used to tape every single Formula One race but unfortunately I don’t do that now because I find them quite boring.

It is a pity to say this but I find it true. I always watch the start and if I am lucky I wake up for the finish, only of course if there is something exciting going on I stay awake, however I think the problem of the tyres, medium,hard, soft etc is really  a pain in the …. and in my time I was able to sit at the pit wall which you can’t do now and even if you want to walk the pit lane after practice you have to line up…… it’s not for me as I don’t have a lot of patience for this kind of thing, especially as in our days it was so much different… I suppose this is progress, who knows!

Alonso is a quick driver and very good at the start, like most of the drivers he makes mistakes sometimes but all in all he is good and let’s hope he will bring home the points for a Championship.

James:   Are you still involved or in touch with Ferrari in any way these days?

Brenda:   No I don’t go to Ferrari anymore, my time is over, I am just one of the past!

James:   Finally, looking back at your time at Ferrari, how would you describe it and if you could go back and do anything differently, what would you do?

Brenda:   I think myself very lucky and privileged to have worked for such a famous and wonderful man and to have been part of the ups and downs of the Ferrari racing department. At first being the only Briton and woman to work there with a 199 men, I had a whale of a time.

We worked very hard but always had time for a joke and laugh. I remember many times I used to go down to the racing department around 9 p.m. and take cakes which I had baked for the mechanics and a few bottles of Lambrusco and sit with them whilst they prepared the F1 cars until they had finished, sometimes 2 or 3 in the morning.

You could not do that today. However I still have a very good relationship with all the mechanics and all the F1 drivers that passed my hands. I use to wash their overalls, pack and unpack their racing bags, find them flats or book their hotels, do their fan mail etc., etc., and it wasn’t part of my job I did it on my own account, but it was fun and they always thanked me in their own way.

In those days I wouldn’t have changed anything, today I don’t know, however I think with my character I wouldn’t last a day in Ferrari, it has changed so much, but we are now in 2000’s so what can you expect, it is just difficult for one to accept.

James:   Brenda thank you so much for taking the time to speak with Girlracer, it has been a personal highlight for me to be able to connect with you and hear about your remarkable career and life in Italy!

Brenda:   Thank you for asking me to be part of Girlracer it has been a pleasure to answer your questions and I hope that your readers will enjoy the ups and downs of life in Maranello! By James Foreman

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