When you use a MOMO steering wheel, you remember it. The tight diameter, the beefy, ergonomic grip, and supple leather wrap make any car feel like a Grand Prix car. Before MOMO arrived in the mid-60s, steering wheels were mostly an afterthought, but MOMO ushered in a new era with its advanced design that gave the driver a performance advantage.
The man behind the wheel was the charismatic Gianpiero Moretti, an amateur racer who was all of 24-years old when he came up with the design. For decades, he was a popular fixture in the pitlane at races across the U.S. and Europe. In fact, he accrued so much influence that he was able to cajole the Ferrari factory into building the dominant 333P in the mid-90s, which was the last car from Maranello to win overall at a major 24-hour race.
It has been a decade since Moretti’s death due to cancer, so what better time to get a grip on his innovation, passion, and legacy!
Moretti was born in Milan in 1940 and always had a fascination with cars. The son of a wealthy pharmaceutical family, he was an ambitious young man. While at university in Pavia pursuing a degree in political science, he simultaneously found his way into amateur auto racing.
Back in those days, steering wheels were all the same whether you were in a Formula One car or a road car. The had three or four spokes, were built of aluminum with a few holes drilled out, and had a thin wooden rim with a 15-inch diameter (plus or minus). Despite having the dimensions of a pizza plate, they were all standard issue, did the job, and, frankly, no one gave it a second thought. No one but Moretti, he had a better idea.
In 1964, he had a friend build a custom steering wheel. He wanted more feel, so his design took a different approach. It was a tighter design, 13 inches in diameter, with a significantly thicker grip encased in leather.
This radical wheel design caught the immediate attention of all the other drivers who were clamoring for them, so he did his best to fulfill their requests. One driver in particular, heard about it and asked for it. It was John Surtees, the motorcycle world champion turned Ferrari Formula One driver. Despite the protestations of Enzo Ferrari himself, Surtees used that steering wheel to become the 1964 World Champion behind the wheel of the Ferrari 158 Formula One car.
With that notoriety, Moretti started his company MOMO, which is short for “Moretti Monza,” in 1966. For the first few years, it was manufacturing steering wheels strictly for the racing industry. Seemingly overnight, every race car from single-seaters to prototype sports cars, had small, chunky, black steering wheels. They were a sensation!
Built on the success in racing, road car manufacturers were knocking on MOMO’s door. The company, then based in Verona, was building light-alloy wheels for road cars. Its first customer: Ferrari, naturally. Through the 1970s and 1980s, MOMO was working with a “who’s who” of carmakers, including Aston Martin, Citröen, Daihatsu, Fiat, Honda, Isuzu, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Opel, Porsche, Peugeot, Renault, Rolls-Royce, Saab, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo.
However, MOMO never stopped focusing on motorsports, and continued to have success. Drivers like Andretti, Lauda, Mansell, and Schumacher (plus so many more) all used MOMO. By the early 90s, the company had expanded its offerings with fire-resistant clothing, gloves, shoes, and helmets.
MOMO’s founder Gianpiero Moretti continued to race and as his fortunes improved, he also became a team owner from the 1970s through the 1990s. He was referred to as "the last of the gentleman racers" because he was refined and determined, yet he only won on rare occasions.
His cars were instantly recognizable with their red and yellow livery and huge MOMO logo emblazoned on the side. In 1970, Moretti raced in the U.S. for the first time at the 24 Hours of Daytona, earning an inauspicious 32nd place driving a Ferrari. This started his quest to win this iconic race.
In the 1990s, he was in his late fifties, and his career was winding down. He persuaded Ferrari, along with then Ferrari North America president Gian Luigi Buitoni, to build a car that could win the famed American endurance race at Daytona. The Ferrari 333SP was born, the project carrying the codename "The American Dream." It had a V12 with five valves per cylinder that could produce 641 bhp. The chassis was a carbon tub built by Dallara, with the car being prepared by Doran.
Oh my, did that plan ever work out! Team MOMO won the 24 Hours at Daytona in 1998 with the driver line-up of Mauro Baldi, Arie Luyendyk, Didier Theys, and Moretti. With a healthy lead in hand, the Italian team owner/driver arranged to be behind the wheel to take the checkered flag at the finish. What emotions the 57-year-old must have been feeling after winning on his 15th attempt! Moretti ended up having a historic year. He also conquered the 12 Hours of Sebring as well as the Watkins Glen Six-Hour race in the same year. He is the only driver to have accomplished that feat.
MOMO has experienced a lot of change in recent decades. First, Moretti sold it to the American outfit Breed Technologies, which was subsequently acquired by the private equity firm Carlyle Group. In 2003, the group was purchased by another group of investors that wanted to preserve the company’s heritage.
The company is now headquartered in Milan and sells performance and aftermarket products. New additions to the line-up include tires and alloy wheels. However, they still focus on motorsports, and have leading drivers using their steering wheels and other equipment across GP2, all the way to NASCAR.
Gianpiero Moretti lost a long battle with cancer in 2012. While he is no longer with us, his legacy lives on as he truly revolutionized what a steering wheel could be. His innovation became the template for nearly all that have been produced since.