Born in Modena, Italy he grew up with little formal education but a strong desire to race cars. During WW I he was a mule-skinner, his father and brother died in 1916. Leaving the army, the family firm had collapsed and Ferrari sought work with Fiat but could only find it with the small firm CMN. He took up racing in 1919, initially with little success.
He left CMN in 1920 to work at Alfa Romeo, racing their cars in local races he had more success. In 1923, racing in Ravenna, he acquired a Prancing Horse badge (a WWI pilot symbol), although this did not make it onto a car until 1932. In 1924 he won the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara. His successes in local races encouraged Alfa to offer him a chance of much more prestigious competition and he was lauded by Mussolini. Ferrari turned this opportunity down and in something of a funk he did not race again until 1927 and even then his racing career was mostly over. He continued to work directly for Alfa Romeo until 1929 before starting Scuderia Ferrari as the racing team for Alfa.
Ferrari managed the development of the factory Alfa cars, and built up a team of over forty drivers, including Giuseppe Campari and Tazio Nuvolari. Ferrari himself continued racing until the birth of his first son in 1932 (Alfredo, known as Dino. Died in 1956). The support of Alfa Romeo lasted until 1933 when financial constraints made Alfa withdraw, it required the intervention of Pirelli for Ferrari to receive any cars at all. Despite the quality of the Scuderia drivers the company won few victories (1935 in Germany by Nuvolari was an exception), Auto Union and Mercedes dominated. In 1937 Alfa took control of its racing efforts again, reducing Ferrari to Director of Sports under Alfa's engineering director. Ferrari soon left, but a contract clause restricted him from racing or designing for four years.
He set up Auto-Avio Costruzioni, a company supplying parts to other racing teams. But in the Mille Miglia of 1940 the company manufactured two cars to compete, driven by Alberto Ascari and Lothario Rangoni. during WW II he firm was involved in war production and following bombing relocated from Modena to Maranello. It was not until after WW II that Ferrari sought to shed his fascist reputation and make cars bearing his name, founding Ferrari in 1947.
The first race was in Monaco in 1947, but the first victory was not until the British Grand Prix of 1951. The first championship came in 1952-53, when the Formula 1 season was raced with Formula 2 cars. The company also sold production sports cars in order to finance the racing endeavours not only in Grand Prix but also in events such as the Mille Miglia and Le Mans. Indeed many of the firm's greatest victories came at Le Mans (14 victories, including six in a row 1960-65) rather than in Grand Prix, certainly the company was more involed there than in Formula 1 during the 1950s and 1960s despite the successes of Juan-Manuel Fangio (1956), Mike Hawthorn (1958), Phil Hill (1961) and John Surtees (1964).
In the 1960s the problems of reduced demand and inadequate financing forced Ferrari to allow Fiat to take a stake in the company, Ford had tried to buy the firm in 1963 for $18m but had been rejected. The company became joint-stock and Fiat took a small share in 1965 and then in 1969 they increased their holding to 50% of the company (In 1988 Fiat's holding was increased to 90%). Ferrari remained managing director until 1971. Despite stepping down he remained an influence over the firm until his death. The input of Fiat took some time to come through however, it was not until 1975 with Niki Lauda that the firm won any championships - the skill of the driver and the ability of the engine overcoming the deficiencies of the chassis and aerodynamics. But after those successes and the promise of Jody Scheckter in 1979 and Giles Villeneuve in 1981 the company's Formula 1 championship hopes fell into the doldrums from 1983. Ferrari did not live to see the resurgence of his team, dying in Modena in 1988.
Together with his honours of Cavaliere and Commendatore in the 1920s, he was made a Cavaliere del Lavoro in 1952 received a number of honorary degrees, the Hammerskjold Prize in 1962, the Columbus Prize in 1965, and the De Gasperi Award in 1987.