The crazy world of Jim Glickenhaus

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Inspired by Ferrari, this New York racing fanatic collects famous cars and builds his own outside any known rulebook. It’s just not normal…

Writer Damien Smith | photographer Hide Ishiura

This wasn’t so much an interview as a monologue. It started the traditional way, sat down face to face over a table. I pitched an opener and off he went without missing a beat, until a critical phone call stopped the flow. Thereafter, the rest was captured on the hoof – down some stairs, through a pit garage and out on to a mobbed Nürburgring grid. 

Along the way, I lost my subject twice as he cut through the throng, but once I bustled back to his side he’d pick up as if I’d merely pressed pause. There was nothing normal about this interview because there is nothing normal about Jim Glickenhaus – he’s frankly too weird for such banal adjectives. Instead, he’s an inspired visionary powered by a genuine love of motor racing history, with the means to do exactly what he wants (that always helps) – and apparently zero interest in conforming to expected rules of engagement, whether it be in the matter of a simple conversation or homologating high-performance racing cars for the international stage.

Have you heard of Glickenhaus? You could be forgiven if not. He’s a 55-year-old New Yorker with a successful background in the movie business (even if his film credits appear some way short of Oscar material). He’s also an avid car collector who owns, among many gems, what’s reputed to be the oldest surviving Ferrari, the 1947 Turin Grand Prix-winning 159S 002. Glickenhaus doesn’t pretend to be a racing driver, but he’s not averse to a spin on the road in his cherished prizes. So if you’re in the Big Apple and spot the yellow Ford MkIV Bruce McLaren and Mark Donohue drove to fourth at Le Mans in 1967 touring down Fifth Avenue, you’ll know who it is…

As I discovered on the Nürburgring grid, he’s something of a cult hero in certain automotive quarters, thanks to his penchant for creating tailored supercars under his own name. Autograph and ‘selfie’ hunters were plentiful and reverential as he stood proudly beside his lead entry. Both SCG003s would prove to be among the most spectacular cars out in the forests of the Nordschleife and they stood out from the (enormous) pack as clear fan-favourites, too.

***

My encounter with Jim begins a couple of hours before the start, in a hospitality unit on top of the main pit building. The first question is almost my last: where did the love of cars come from? His answer reveals the influence of a first-class primary source.

“I loved mechanical things when I was young,” he says from under his trademark wide-brimmed hat. “Whenever I got something I loved to take it apart. I lived in an area luckily that was not too far from Mr Chinetti and when I was a kid I’d ride my bicycle over there and stand outside.” Yes, that Chinetti – Luigi, equal parts Le Mans hero and, as founder of NART, resentful Enzo’s American-based saviour.

“He allegedly didn’t really like children, but he sort of looked at me and after a while grudgingly let me inside and would let me sit in the cars. Then the deal was I could touch the steering wheel but not the stick shift. For years I would go there and see the amazing things he did. He really impressed me because here was a guy who took Ferraris and frankly made them better. The wiring in a lot of those cars was crap and he would go to the local hot rod store and buy good quality ignition wires.

“Here’s a truth: if it wasn’t for Mr Chinetti there wouldn’t be a Ferrari. No question about it.”

The stream continues. “The first car I built I wasn’t allowed to drive. I was 15.” I sit back and listen, realising my work here is done. “I bought a ’54 Studebaker and went to the junkyard and bought a 421 Catalina Pontiac motor. I’d go to the JC Whitney catalogue, which was the size of a phone book. They would sell you an engine adaptor that would allow you to put anything in anything. So you want to put your Merlin aircraft engine in a Duesenberg? Here you go… You’d send off your postal order and you’d get this part back. It wouldn’t work, but you’d weld it and get it in. I built a street racing drag car and I’d go up to the local drag strip and drive it.”

From the start, off-the-shelf had little meaning to young Jim Glickenhaus. 

Inevitably he found himself in racing paddocks and recalls an evocative memory from Bridgehampton in the Can-Am days: “The circuit had these wonderful sand dunes and the access road off the highway was sort of obscured by them. Once we were in the pits and Bruce [McLaren] looked up from his car and started staring. What we saw was a white wing flying over the sand dunes, then a white pick-up truck with Midland, Texas licence plates driven by a guy in a cowboy hat and [pulling] an open trailer. That was Jim Hall and the Chaparral, the first time I ever saw a wing on a Can-Am car. And it was a wing that moved. We all knew the world had changed.”

Apocryphal? It sounds like something a movie man might create from genuine memories. Whatever, he sure paints an appealing scene.

Jim recounts other personal experiences and tall tales gleaned from veteran Ferrari mechanic Alberto Pedretti – “Mr Ferrari sent him to the US ostensibly to work with Chinetti, but frankly more as a spy.” When eventually the car collecting began Pedretti would become their guardian, beside his protégé Sal Barone. “My dream was to take race cars and convert them for the street,” says Jim. “The thing about the 1960s race cars was they were street-legal. They had headlights, tail lights, two seats, windscreen wipers, they even had to have a spare tyre. They basically could be driven to the track and raced. These were wonderful times.”

***

The SCG story began in 2005. “One day I got a call from an emissary of Andrea Pininfarina asking if I’d entertain a proposal from them,” he recounts. “They asked if I’d consider commissioning a one-off car. What exactly did they have in mind? Whatever I wanted to do. So I said I wanted to take the newest Ferrari supercar, which at the time was the Enzo, and make a homage to my Daytona-winning P3/4.”

Ah yes, the 330 P3/4 chassis 0846… for some, including our own Nigel Roebuck, the most beautiful car ever created and vanquisher of Ford on home soil in 1967. Glickenhaus, who had completed a sedate lap of the Nordschleife in the glorious P3/4 just the day before we met, is defiant about a car that has long inspired raging controversy.

“People ask ‘what’s original?’” he says. “You make a race car, it comes off the trailer and it’s changed. Is that car as it left the factory in 1966? Of course not. But who cares? It’s what’s left of the car after flipping, crashing and burning at Le Mans, being thrown in the garbage by Ferrari, having the parts collected by me and being put back together… What does Ferrari say about it? ‘You should not have gone into our trash bins to resurrect a car that we threw out.’ And what happens? Nino Vaccarella, at 81 years old, drives that car on the Targa Florio [course] when they shut the road for us. Then I did a lap here in it. The last person who did that was John Surtees. What’s not to like? It was incredible. You’re in the woods, you can smell the barbecues, you rev that motor out because it needs to be above 7000rpm to make any torque… The sound is glorious, it brings tears to your eyes. Not because I’m driving it or any bullshit like that, but because you know what it means.”

The homage he commissioned was the Ferrari P4/5 by Pininfarina. “It was a time when people were saying Pininfarina had lost it and Andrea just wanted a customer who would do such a thing,” says Glickenhaus.

He revels in the story of how then-Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo reacted to the car. “It got a little wacky,” says Jim. “When they heard about it they went rip-shit. ‘How could you have done such a thing?’ Andrea told me he knew it was serious when Luca flew there in a helicopter and shut the engine off. Normally he would leave it on, he’d come out, scream, yell and rant, get back in and go.

“Luca said, ‘It’s not a Ferrari, you have no right to call it one.’ Andrea looked at him and said ‘I don’t think you understand. It is a Ferrari. Jim bought a new Enzo and we rebodied it like we’ve been doing for years. You’re screaming at the wrong person – and the person you’re going to scream at completely doesn’t care what you think about anything.’ Luca didn’t really know what to say. ‘Well, let me see it,’ he demanded. Andrea said ‘I can’t show you, it’s his car. I’ll have to call him and ask him.’ Now this was all theatre. Andrea had already asked me if he could show Luca and I’d said sure. So he went to his office, had a cappuccino, read a magazine… came back and said ‘OK, I called Jim and he said you can see it.’ 

“They went upstairs and of course the car just happened to be on the roof deck, on a turntable… And Andrea told me it was the only time in his life he ever saw Luca di Montezemolo stop talking. Then he said ‘Oh, it’s wonderful, it is a Ferrari.’ Eventually he agreed it could be called the Ferrari P4/5 by Pininfarina. I believe it is the only Ferrari that’s an officially recognised car that was not made in the factory, except for the original Enzo it was based on, of course. They had nothing to do with the design.”

***

At this point, Glickenhaus’ phone rings. The cars are being led out on to the grid for the start of the marathon and Jim wants to be there at the front. “Walk with me,” he says, and heads for the stairs.

He recounts how he almost bought Pininfarina in 2008, only for Andrea to die in a traffic accident, and how Le Mans and IMSA spurned his advances on homologation grounds when he approached them to race his competition version of the P4/5. The Nürburgring, in contrast, had no such constraints for its 24-hour classic. 

I follow him through the garage and lose him among the mechanics as he strides to the pitlane to wave the pair of SCG003s through the sea of humanity. I catch up with him as he leads the car down to its grid slot. “Great moment,” I say. He smiles and nods, then dives into the story of this bespoke creation. 

“This is where we are today – a car built on the ideas we used to have; easy to work on with normal tools, that a human being can take apart. There are no bonded surfaces on this car, you can take it apart with wrenches. Something breaks, you send for another part and bolt it on. Now we are making a road version.” That will follow this autumn, powered by a 4.4-litre twin turbo of unattributed German origin.

I get in a rare question: how many will you build? “As many as we can sell,” he fires back. “My dream would be 20 cars. If we can do such a thing we can keep racing. That’s all I want to do. I’d love to build a car for Le Mans, and I want to race at Sebring and Daytona.”

But you don’t play by their rules, I say. “That’s the point. But when the organisers here say ‘Jim, we think you put 30,000 people on our gate’ who knows where it could go? If it’s a disaster I’m just ‘crazy Jim’. But if it works… It’s what Carroll Shelby did. The first Cobra, they didn’t let him put the word ‘Ford’ on it either.”

He’s keeping an eye on the new privateer P1 rules due for 2018. “They have to get the costs down,” he says. “We looked at a programme and it was €40-60 million. I don’t know how much money they think I have, but I don’t have that. If it’s €15-20 million, they let us race the car for three years, and I can then take it back to New York and get a licence plate on it, I’ll do it…”

To hell with convention. Mr Chinetti would surely be proud.

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