Sergio Scaglietti’s Cherry Blossom Death Machines

Last fall, two months before he died, I sat on a bench, awake for two days, and cried, thinking of Sergio Scaglietti. He was a relatively obscure racing car designer who imagined the most beautiful Ferraris of the 1950s and hammered them into aluminum.

Cars like the 290 MM, the 860 Monza, the 250 Testa Rossa, cars so beautiful in their perfect imperfection that to look at them is to look at aluminum and steel imbued with life, a life which can only burn out and never fade away.

Sergio Scaglietti’s racing cars were beautiful because they were death machines. The people who raced them, Italian and British boys in their 20s, were destined to die, like Achilles. The racing cars gave their lives meaning and the racing cars gave them death. There is a photo taken at the 1956 Mille Miglia by Louis Klemantaski from the passenger seat of Peter Collins’s 860 Monza. It shows two other Ferraris ahead of them, Luigi Musso reaching out of another 860 Monza to give a cigarette to Eugenio Castellotti, driving a 290 MM. They share the road with a headless man dressed in black, riding a bicycle the opposite way. This is all taking place during the penultimate Mille Miglia race, which Castellotti would go on to win. He was the first to die. At Modena, in March 1957. Musso died in July 1958. Collins died a month later, on the Nürburgring.

I’m alive and I’m terrified of dying and I’m very happy that, thanks to the efforts of Sir Jackie Stewart and others, motor racing is no longer how it was depicted in the BBC documentary Grand Prix: The Killer Years but it is also not poetic anymore. It’s exciting and entertaining but it’s also no more serious than the squabble of the gods in The Iliad. Achilles and Ajax and Odysseus facing the Trojans who “attacked like a blast of a sudden squall that swoops down to earth with lightning and thunder, churning the dark sea into a fury, and countless waves surge and toss on its surface, high-arched and white-capped, and crash down onto the seashore in endless ranks,” that was serious.

Is there anything more devastating to consider from our world of the living? That an experience of rapturous intensity cannot exist without its imminent death? This is what the poetry of the heroic age of motor racing was about, death made literal. For Castellotti, Musso and Collins, death was not a contemplation of cherry blossoms hitting the ground. How did they feel when they got into Scaglietti’s low and sinister and red machines and hammered the throttle on endless Italian roads and smoked their cigarettes and inched ever closer to the edge, to a death which needed no arrow shot by Paris and guided by Apollo but only aluminum and steel imbued with life.

Last fall, two months before he died, I sat on a bench, awake for two days, and cried, thinking of Sergio Scaglietti. Thinking of the people who preserve his racing cars and turn them into lurid simulacra, and hating them. Of experiences of rapturous intensity which can only burn out. Never fade away.