It’s not often you go out to dinner and find an ex-González works Ferrari Le Mans car on the guest list too. But that’s what happened last week when I was invited by Robert Brooks and Jamie Knight of Bonhams to dinner in their New Bond Street offices. I thought I was going to see the results of the spectacular £30 million refurbishment of the inside of the building – and I was – but I wasn’t expecting to be joined by one of the rarest and most enigmatic of all the Scuderia’s sports racing cars.
It’s a 375 Plus of which just five are believed to have been made. One of them – not this one – won both Le Mans in 1954 with Froilán González and Maurice Trintignant driving while another claimed the final Carrera Panamericana at the end of the year with Umberto Maglioli driving for over 3000km at an average of over 107mph – far further and far faster even than managed by Stirling Moss in the quickest ever Mille Miglia the following year.
Why this car is significant
The principle claim to fame of this car is that it González used it to win the support race to the International Trophy race at Silverstone in 1954 and, Umberto Maglioli driving, was lying second in the Mille Miglia that year and gaining fast on Alberto Ascari’s leading Lancia when the gearbox failed.
At the time its 4.9-litre V12 was the largest, most powerful engine Ferrari had ever built and while the rest of the car was fairly agricultural – drum brakes, leaf springs, four speeds, ladder chassis and all – when balanced by a gearbox between the rear wheels (the transmission of the standard 4.5-litre 375MM was attached to the engine) it was a sufficiently effective weapon to see off the new D-type at Le Mans despite filthy weather playing into Jaguar’s hands.
The reason it’s here is that it is to be the star lot at Bonham’s forthcoming Goodwood Festival of Speed auction and the reason it is now for sale is almost as extraordinary as the car itself. After its works career, and cutting a very long story very short, by the end of the 1950s it found itself parked, uncovered, on a trailer outside the house of an Ohio-based nuclear physicist. And there it sat for 28 years. It might still be there now had it not then be stolen from the trailer. Or at least some of it was. The physicist had stripped various parts from the car – engine included – in the hope this would then deter anyone from nicking it.
The car then resurfaced having been bought in good faith and found its way into the hands of none other than Jacques Swaters, founder of Ecurie Francorchamps and one of Enzo Ferrari’s closest friends in the business. He then had it restored into the form you see here, complete with a new engine built for the car by Ferrari. And this is what the late Swaters’ daughter is now selling.
A question of ownership
Except it’s not been as simple as that thanks to the fact that as a result of its highly unorthodox history, its ownership has been contested for many years. However Brooks tells me that what Bonhams has been able to do is get the interested parties around the table and hammer out a deal that lets the car now be sold with its title intact and undisputed.
The lot is incredible for it comprises not just the car with its new body, but the original body in much the same condition as would have been when it stolen. Moreover the original works engine is now back in the car leaving the new engine as a complete spare, alongside many other items including its original fuel tank (still in remarkable condition) and many pieces of trim and unattached bodywork.
So while the car as it stands cannot claim to be entirely original, when you add in those components that will be sold alongside it, it is fair to say the car is essentially complete. Indeed, bodies in far worse condition than this have been repaired and reunited with their chassis, so it’s possible that a new owner will do so with this one.
One final twist in the tale. I guess because all parties want matters resolved, the Ferrari is to be sold without a reserve so unless no one puts their hand up, sold it will be.
I should perhaps now mention I once drove a 375 Plus on public roads in Italy. To be honest I didn’t much care for it because it neither steered nor stopped correctly and when you have an unsilenced 350bhp V12 in a tonne of priceless Ferrari, such considerations are important. A D-type feels more than a decade younger. But what the drive did do was make me respect even more the heroes and nutcases who flogged these things around entire countries as fast as they could make them go.
Robert Brooks estimates the 375 Plus will sell for between $10-15 million. Not bad for a car that spent nearly 30 years rotting in the garden of a nuclear physicist from Ohio.