Ever wonder where one of the most famous sports/luxury car manufacturers got its logo from? Interestingly enough, it had absolutely nothing to do with cars and everything to do with Italy’s most decorated fighter pilot of the First World War.
Born to a wealthy family in Northern Italy, Francesco Baracca was a product of the Military Academy of Modena destined for the Italian cavalry, thanks to his love of horseback riding. After a two-year stint in the cavalry, however, his attention shifted from the ground to the air, and he made his way to Reims, France to learn to fly. By the mid-summer of 1912, he became a fully qualified pilot and was given orders to the Corpo Aeronautico Militaire (Italian for Military Aviation Corps). After just two years as a pilot, and thoroughly enjoying trading a horse and a revolver for a biplane, Baracca found himself readying to serve his country in battle.
Thanks to the assassination of the heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, years of tense relations and the incredibly messy European political setup at the time, war broke out and Italy couldn’t avoid it. Baracca, neither here nor there with his opinion of Italian involvement in the war, was prepared to fight whichever way his country ordered him. Sent back to France to train on Nieuport 10 two-seater scout/fighters in 1915, he found the aircraft to be frustrating to say the least. The majority of engagements that saw Italian Nieuport 10s go up against Austro-Hungarian fighters and scouts saw the Nieports either lose or, if the pilot/observers were lucky, unable to actually engage to begin with.
Baracca’s prayers were answered with the arrival of the Nieuport 11 single-seater, equipped with the same Lewis gun used on the 10 model. In 1916, he would score his first confirmed kill, a Hansa-Brandenburg C.I reconnaissance plane. After spotting the C.I, Baracca bled altitude until he would be able to race in behind his (much) slower prey, whereupon he would unload round after round into the enemy aircraft at extremely close ranges, ensuring that most if not all of his shots would hit their mark. This would also happen to be the very first Italian air-to-air victory in history.
Like most other fighter/pursuit pilots of the era, Baracca had his aircraft painted to distinguish it as his own. Instead of witty phrases or cartoons, he had a black prancing horse painted onto his fighters as a way of commemorating his service as a cavalry officer. In recent years, some suggest that the prancing horse was actually copied by Baracca from the wreckage of a German aircraft he shot down- the horse prominently featured on the city emblem for Stuttgart, Germany. Regardless of where he got the logo, it became closely associated with him, and he soon became known as the “Cavalier of the Skies”.
Baracca, not known to be one who enjoyed paperwork, was destined for command. His tallies kept rising, and the respect he earned from his colleague pilots grew exponentially. Within time, he was known around Italy as the finest pilot in the Corps. In 1917, he was made the commanding officer of the 91st Squadron, the “Squadron of the Aces”. By this time, he was already a confirmed ace, and would rise to be Italy’s “ace of aces”, its most successful pilot (with the highest kill count).
Upgrading in 1916 to the Nieuport 17, he flew to further distinction, tallying both individual kills and shared kills with other pilots. He was then given the French SPAD VII, already in use with the legendary Lafayette Escadrille in France’s Aeronautique Militaire. Baracca used it to good effect before transitioning once more to a newer fighter- the SPAD XIII. After scoring two more kills with this new aircraft, Baracca decided to bench his XIII and use the VII as his primary fighter, though he used the newer aircraft from time to time when the VII was grounded for repairs.
In 1918, tragedy struck the Squadron of the Aces. Baracca was sent out with a flight of SPADs on an attack mission to strafe enemy positions on a hill with the intention of weakening Austrian numbers so that Italian troops could push forward and recapture the hill. Baracca launched with a newcomer to the 91st Squadron as his wingman, but soon, the two were split up when withering ground fire chewed up their aircraft. Baracca’s wingman climbed his fighter higher and banked away, noticing a burning airplane suddenly falling from the sky in the distance. Baracca didn’t return to base that night.
Five days later, Italian soldiers prevailed and Austrian troops were forced out of the area. Soldiers had made note of the site of an aircraft crash, and had the message relayed to the 91st Squadron. Baracca was found near his destroyed VII with a gun in his hand and a bullet hole in his head. Accounts differ as to what exactly happened, with some saying that the intrepid fighter pilot took his own life in the air lest he be captured by the enemy or killed outright when his aircraft hit the ground. Others say that Baracca was hit by ground fire and and was thus brought down. Interestingly enough, Austrian records claim that a two-seat recon/fighter plane managed to bring down Italy’s most decorated fighter pilot, having attacked him from a higher altitude. Regardless, the Cavalier of the Skies was dead, with a final kill count of 34 confirmed, and many more unconfirmed.
In 1923, a young race car driver and automotive enthusiast by the name of Enzo Ferrari met a pair of spectators after a successful race in Ravenna, Italy. The two, a husband and his wife, were elegantly dressed and waited upon, denoting their position in Italian society. In conversation with the couple, Ferrari learned that they were the parents of Francesco Baracca. Countess Paolina Baracca, seeing a spark in Ferrari similar to what she saw in her son, suggested that Ferrari might consider using the prancing horse which once adorned her son’s fighter planes as the logo for his cars, possibly bringing him good luck. Ferrari made it the logo of his racing team in 1929, and after a race in 1932, the prancing horse once again became legendary. However, this time, it was because of the race cars it was painted on and not the canvas and wood fighter planes it once flew on. The logo is, today, world-famous because of the high-performance cars which bear it as a badge. But once upon a time, when the Italian air force was just in its infancy, it was famous for a different reason… it existed as the emblem of a revered, respected and much-loved fighter ace.