The first “official” car race took place in 1894. To boost sales, a Parisian magazine organized and promoted a race from Paris to Roue. The event was a success and news traveled the world. After that races started to become common place, and motorsports grew in popularity. At the same time, pilots and enthusiasts created the first motorsports associations, to organize races and championships, and things got professional. Possibly the most important of these first associations was the AIACR (Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus). Founded in 1923, the AIACR organized the first European Grand Prix race at Monza in the same year. And in 1925 came the first World Championship. From the early 30s onward manufacturers like Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Auto Union started to make cars specifically for racing. Their engineers designed and built these cars only for the track, even with official racing teams.
What car manufacturers really wanted was to sell cars, and racing them was a great way to promote the brand. Though the term “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was officially coined only decades later, the principle was already true. But then came World War II and motorsports stopped. The war ravaged Europe, but just a few years later car races were on again. And at that time one man started to make headlines in Europe: Enzo Ferrari. First with Alfa Romeo cars before the war, and than as the owner of his own scuderia, Ferrari. Though in the beginning scuderia Ferrari used Alfa Romeo cars, right after WWII he started to make his own cars.
In 1946, a new organizing body appeared, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). FIA replaced AIACR and created the new Formula 1 racing series, with the first World Drivers’ Championship in 1950. At the time, all the big names in F1 were from continental Europe, like Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari. However, by the mid 50s many small British teams entered the stage. These race teams/manufacturers were always a very small affair, with low budgets. To compensate their lack of funds, they used creative innovations. And they were winning races.
With that, Ferrari with its huge budget but a closed mind to new technologies and lateral thinking, started to loose. These small teams began to whip Ferrari, the aristocracy of F1 (according to Enzo Ferrari, at least). Il Commendatore sniffily dismissed these teams as “garagisti”. In Italian, a garagista (garagisti = plural) is somebody who works in a garage, a simple mechanic. What we would call today a “grease monkey”. But derogatories notwithstanding, the garagisti were responsible for most of the technical innovations of the era.
The term caught on, but not as something derogatory. Today, a garagista refers to a small manufacturer that brings something new to the table. The garagisti, even without a huge budget or engineering department, stand tall against the big manufacturers. And like David against Goliath, many times a garagista surprises the big dogs.
Speaking specifically about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, maybe the most prominent garagista of all was Jean Rondeau. With just sheer will and up against mighty Porsche, he made his own car and won the 24 Heures du Mans. But he was not the only one. Gordon Spice, with his Spice Engineering, was also a garagista. As were Hap Sharp and Jim Hall from Chaparral Cars. And Derek Bennett from Chevron. The Le Mans race is ripe with stories of Davids going up against Goliaths. And many times the small guy came out on top.
Unfortunately though, the garagisti are a thing of the past. Now you need very deep pockets to race at La Sarthe. With the technological demands of high-level racing, it’s just impossible to prevail without a LOT of money. And who has a lot of money? The big corporations. Nowadays, Goliath always finishes in first place.
Personally I think that the garagisti stories will always be the most interesting. Since in 1:43 you can have most of the cars that raced at La Sarthe, you can have the garagisti too. For me it’s always a plus when I get a car from one of the underdogs. So what was once meant as an offense, now is almost a badge of honor. And in my collection a garagista car will always have a special place.
In the end, even if the era of the garagisti is long gone, they’re certainly not forgotten.