Ferrari 212

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This early road-going Ferrari is a tricky beast to handle but impressive for one built in the Scuderia’s formative years

By Richard Heseltine
Photos by Neil Godwin-Stubbert

Oh the humanity. It was a harrowing scene, punctuated only by copious amounts of cuss words. But then it’s not every day that a car draws blood on first contact. Pressing in the dainty button, a slender hitherto flush-fitting lever reveals itself – then promptly ratchets back with a pincer-like movement. Cue a torrent of claret – it’s a gusher – from a forefinger and what from a distance very likely appears to be some sort of primitive rain dance. Cue utter indifference for a fallen comrade, the snapper lowering his camera only long enough to shout, ‘stop dawdling’, or words to that effect; damn velvet-panted art boy.

If nothing else, this act of bloodletting ensures a certain degree of deference for this seemingly malevolent Ferrari. But then esteem was never in short supply. Purple gush is synonymous with the marque, each generation exhausting the world’s supply of superlatives. Yet within Ferrari circles, it’s the old stuff that garners near-hysterical levels of reverence. Early examples of the breed are rare – they were coachbuilt in penny numbers, after all, and bred with the singular purpose of going very quickly. Posing was secondary. But then Enzo Ferrari was notoriously ambivalent about road cars and made few concessions to civilising them. They were a means to an end, a method of raising revenue to fund his nascent Scuderia. Which makes survivors all the more precious.

Thing is, even among Ferrari aficionados there’s a pecking order, and the 212 Inter Berlinetta was never among the more memorable models. To a degree it has remained the poor relation of the earlier 166 which spawned it and the 250-series cars that followed. All of which is a pity, as the 212 deserves a degree of flag waving as it’s really rather splendid. This one in particular.

It has quite a lineage. Having made a small fortune maintaining Alfa Romeo’s relevance in motor sport with his eponymous race team, only to see it effectively stolen from him in 1939, Il Commendatore had bigger fish to fry: he was going to manufacture his own car.

The only impediment was that, under the terms of his severance agreement, Enzo was barred from building one under his own name for a further four years. Undeterred, if embittered, he nonetheless pushed ahead, forming a new firm, Auto Avio Costruzioni, that same year. But as storm clouds gathered over Europe, the dream of taking on the world from Maranello suddenly seemed a long way off. Factories were being handed over for the production of armaments and shortages of raw materials drastically reduced the Italian automobile industry’s capacity to manufacture civilian vehicles. Just two Touring-bodied Tipo 815s were made using Fiat 508C chassis as a basis. Both led the 1500cc class of the 1940 Mille Miglia, only to retire. The dream would have to wait.

With a small but talented team behind him, Enzo started work on a new car as soon as Milan was liberated. This time it bore his surname. A new 1.5-litre V12 was designed by Giacchino Colombo (whose earlier credits included Alfa’s Tipo 159 unit and the firm’s unraced blown Flat 12) and tested in September 1946. In March of the following year, the initial prototype was running under its own steam. Two months later, Ferrari the marque scored its first race win in only its second start as Franco Cortese triumphed in the Rome Grand Prix aboard a cycle-winged 125 Spider.

By early 1948, and following a concentrated period of troubleshooting, the 125 gained an engine capacity hike to 1995cc (from 1946cc) and morphed into the 166. This model would establish Ferrari as a major player in international motor sport, winning that year’s Targa Florio and Mille Miglia. And in November 1948, the marque was first represented at a motor show. On display in Turin was a 166 Inter coupé and a 166MM
(for Mille Miglia), the latter being altogether better known by the sobriquet Barchetta, or little boat. This glorious Touring outline would in time become enormously famous, covering all manner of Ferraris – and not just 166s – while being cribbed wholesale by AC for the Tojeiro-derived Ace.

And then, predictably, it all gets a bit complicated. Endless permutation on the 166 composition followed. First there was the larger displacement 195 which came in two configurations: Sport with triple Webers and Inter with just the single carb. Then there was the 2.6-litre 212, introduced in 1951. For this, the final variation of Ferrari’s first-series production car (production being a relative term…), Colombo’s versatile V12 was housed in a long-wheelbase (2600mm) chassis in road-going trim, with the stumpier Export edition being typically sold as a competition tool.

Churning out around 150bhp at 6500rpm from 2562cc in road-spec trim, the Inter was reputedly capable of a heady 120mph at a time when the average British saloon car struggled to reach 70mph. And this being Ferrari during its boutique era, most were sold as rolling chassis with punters choosing their own couturier to clothe them. Of the 79 cars believed made, all bar one were locally bodied (the sole exception being an eye-watering confection conjured by Abbott of Farnham). Touring of Milan accounted for six, five of them being closed Berlinettas as here, using its patented Superleggera (Super Light) method of construction – effectively a latticework of thin steel tubes – which was subsequently licensed out to Aston Martin.

And what was intended as a road car predictably made its way into competition. Or at least this example did. Chassis 0215EL was sold new in March 1952 to Jacques Swaters’ Garage Francorchamps concern, which went on to become the Belgian Ferrari concessionaire two years later. Distinct from other Inters, it featured a raft of competition-inspired mods, not least a high-compression (8.5:1 rather than 7.5:1) engine fed by triple Webers: according to the build sheets, it produced around 165bhp. In addition, there was a five-speed close ratio ’box, 15-inch Borrani wires instead of the usual 16-inch items; twin rear leaf springs for extra stiffness and Perspex side glazing for additional weight saving. Chrome trinkets were also junked.

Bought by André Meert in August of that year, this bulbous coupé was campaigned in numerous rallies, races and hillclimbs until 1954, often under the Ecurie Francorchamps banner, with perhaps its greatest result being third place overall in the 1953 Coupe de Spa behind two 166MMs. After Meert chopped it in for a 250GT in the mid-50s, the 212 was sold to a Dutch doctor. It’s currently owned by a hugely enthusiastic American collector who routinely exercises it in the Pomeroy Trophy and Mille Miglia retrospective.

Yet for all the competition-inspired additions, it remains very much a road car. Denuded of its bumpers, the Inter looks purposeful, the large egg-crate grille and deliciously delineated beltline being Touring constants. Though perhaps not as pretty as the open, shorter-wheelbase racers, it’s still handsome and deceptively small by contemporary standards.

Less so inside, conversely, as there’s plentiful headroom and a fair amount of elbow space. Sparse but far from austere the cabin is handsome: combination instruments and body-coloured dash are fronted by one of Enrico Nardi’s classic wood rim steering wheels – the size of which dictates a slightly skewed driving stance. It’s not uncomfortable, but its far from a natural fit. Behind sits the spare wheel, other competition reference points being hard to miss.

And then you fire it up. Once the initial coughing and fluffing is over, it settles down to an almost muted burble. On the move, it’s anything but quiet: it would be disappointing were it otherwise. At slow speeds, the 212 seems ponderous and slow-witted; almost vintage in make-up. It’s all down to confidence. Drive through the initial thump-thump over typically zitty British back roads, and it gets more overtly racer-like the faster you go. The steering initially seems vague even by standards of the day but it soon tightens up: though the 212 requires more guidance on the straight ahead than you might expect, it meters out enough feedback for you to try that bit harder. Then you’re rewarded.

This is a car that is patently happiest at high speed; one that doesn’t really respond to tactility. The gearchange is hefty with a satisfying meeting of metal on metal, the need to double de-clutch being debatable but it sounds so blisteringly intense that it’s all too hard to resist giving it a blip. And the sound really makes the car. That classic Colombo unit screams its heart out: even short-shifting at 5000rpm (red line is 6500rpm), the Inter feels implausibly potent but without the artificially amplified acoustics that typify most modern V12s with their trick exhausts and bypass valves. Here it’s anything but contrived. And, as we soon learned, 120 decibels is enough to upset half of Bedfordshire.

The flip side to the ‘be thunderous, be quick’ stuff is the lack of stopping power. Braking technology being what it was in 1952, the drum anchors are slow to react. They certainly focus your attention.

But having started with a negative, let’s not end on one. The appeal here goes beyond the outer glamour. It’s exotic, yes, but what really strikes you is that this car was made barely five years into Ferrari’s existence as a manufacturer. What impresses about this car is how quickly you become attuned to its foibles. It seems entirely natural to drive it at silly speeds. You don’t really notice the point at which the 212 becomes non-threatening: you’re just aware that there’s been one.

Thanks to Daniel Ghose and Greenwood Motorsport, www.greenwoodmotorsport.com