In the beginning...

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There was Enzo, and Enzo created the 125 and the world was made good. Peter Robinson drives the first Ferrari

Perhaps it’s expecting too much to hope that the 125 looks like a Ferrari. Truth is, apart from the small black-and-yellow badge above the smaller of its two grilles, the first Ferrari is visually indistinguishable from many of the sportscars introduced in that first flush of creativity after the fighting stopped in Europe.

The visual link with the pre-war designs is obvious: the front guards still sweep back from the front wheels and — like the headlights protruding from the body on either side of a simple yet heavy-handed grille — have yet to be merged into the flanks. Felice Bianchi’s “Superleggera” design for Touring of Milan is uncomplicated: it lacks bumpers, has but one door (for the passenger; the driver climbs over a lowered panel), and a tiny flyscreen.

The 125 is more aerodynamic but perhaps rather less pretty than the Auto Avio Costruzione 815, the car built by Scuderia Ferrari in 1940 for the Mille Miglia but not badged Ferrari because of a contractual obligation to Alfa Romeo, Enzo’s former employers.

But the family resemblance ends when you open the bonnet. Where the 815 was powered by a 1.5-litre straight eight Ferrari created using as many Fiat bits as possible, in the 125’s engine bay you gaze upon a powerplant profoundly different in all except capacity. But then Enzo Ferrari perfectly understood the makings of a legend.

“I have always loved V12 twin-six engines, ever since I saw photographs of the first V12 Packard at Indianapolis back in 1914,” he would explain in his autobiography My Terrible Joys. “I have always loved the song of the 12 and I must confess that it was the fact that, at the time, only one company in the whole world made V12 engines that drove me to imitate them.”

These are not the words of a modest man. Nor should they be taken as accurate. Yes, Packard did build V12s but of far greater importance to Ferrari’s decision were the various V12s that Vittorio Jano designed for Alfa’s Scuderia Ferrari racing team during the ’30s.

Whatever the motivation, Ferrari determined that his first car would use a small-capacity V12. He engaged Gioachino Colombo, the designer of the Alfetta 158, to create the sportscar, though ultimately it was Aurelio Lampredi who must be credited with developing Colombo’s basic design into the progenitor of the entire Ferrari V12 family.

Ferrari’s simple brochure for the 125, entitled Programma di fabbricazione, for 1946/47 lists three versions of the 125: Sport, Grand Prix and Competition.

Ferrari’s priorities were already clearly defined, indeed, the first 125s actually came with racing cycleguards. Nor did these early cars bother with a speedo.

The 125 I drove is a replica of the original, faithfully, lovingly created from the original engineering drawings by the apprentices at Ferrari Engineering in the late ’80s. When it’s not living in the Galleria Ferrari museum, in via Dino Ferrari, midway between the Maranello factory and Ferrari’s nearby Fiorano test circuit, the 125 is occasionally pulled out and driven, mostly at Fiorano.

True to its heritage, Ferrari chose to duplicate the competition engine of the first 125s for the replica (engine number 01/88), so the tiny 60deg V12 with a single overhead camshaft per cylinder bank — and featuring a then unusual oversquare bore of 55mm against its 52.5mm stroke — is fed by three Weber 28DCF carburettors to give 118bhp at 6800rpm on a 9.5:1 compression ratio. The Sport had a single 30DCF carb and developed just 72bhp at 5400rpm, and the Gran Premio an unspecified output at 8000rpm.

In 1947, 79bhp per litre from a normally aspirated V12 was an astonishing achievement and, combined with a weight of just 750kg, it promised serious performance. Yet today’ the 125 also feels tractable and remarkably smooth too, perhaps because the replica enjoys the benefits of modem metallurgical skills.

Clutch aside, there is nothing complicated about driving the first Ferrari. The clutch is finicky as befits Ferrari’s reputation through the first decades of its existence its travel is about as short as the reputed life of the clutch plate. Inevitably, it’s spring-loaded and, therefore, either in or out with no margin for error. I reckon even Schumacher would be troubled persuading the 125 to move off smoothly, first time out. I’ll admit to stalling three times before the 125 finally stumbled out on to Fiorano.

The mechanically driven rev counter needle fluctuates around 850rpm when idling and then jerks around the dial in 500rpm segments. Feed the power in progressively and the engine pulls willingly; too much accelerator and it hiccups. Nor does it feel especially strong, at least until the revs pass 2500rpm. Only then does the energy and character of the engine justify Ferrari’s faith in the daring concept of a V12.

From 2500rpm to my selfimposed 6000rpm limit Ferrari says the 125 regularly goes to 7000rpm the engine is eager and the performance spirited, stirring, surely, by the standards of 1947. More than the power, though, it is the V12’s instant throttle responses that make the 125 such a joy to drive. It’s obvious, and not just from the benefit of of hindsight, that there is rather more development in the engine than the chassis.

Gear changing isn’t helped by the awkward angle of the clutch and brake pedals that protrude up through the floor while the throttle hangs from above, making heel and toe changes all but impossible. Still, the long gear lever, linked to a fivespeed ‘box with synchro on the top four ratios, shifts positively as it moves up the gears. Coming down a cog is less easy and demands trial and error before you can co-ordinate engine, clutch and gears to prevent the new ratio arriving with a bang and a chirp from the rear wheels.

Lovely though the three-spoke alloy and wood-rimmed steering wheel is to the eye, it’s connected to the front wheels via a simple worm and peg system. Unsurprisingly, the steering is direct but it also loads up as the front wheels generate lateral forces and suffers from excessive friction, so that it sticks if any position is held for more than a second or two. Nor do the brakes feel especially powerful or consistent.

The crude suspension unequal length A-arms at the front with a transverse spring, and semi-elliptical leafs at the back with an anti-roll bar running across the frame through one of its tubes doesn’t cope well with bumps. Nor do the 5.50-15 Pirelli tyres generate much adhesion, even on a smooth surface. It’s the rear boots that let go first, progressively and with plenty of warning. On a wet circuit… well, those early Ferrari drivers were brave men.

Like many later models, the 125 illustrates Ferrari’s ingrained, unspoken philosophy of a great engine in search of a chassis of equal ability.

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