A Ferrari for Fangio…

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This rare 290MM had a relatively short racing life, but consider the stars who drove it. The Maestro was just the start

There are several elements that gild the story of any competition car, which highlight its innate abilities, pedigree and rarity. One factor is its success – did it win any significant races? Another, its pilots: did any famous bottoms wriggle down in the captain’s chair, reach for the ignition and look up tensely for the starter’s flag, tach needle quivering and clutch leg tensed…

And, assuming it’s a 1950s Ferrari, if you had to choose a driver you’d like to have steered your car you might well choose Juan Manuel Fangio. Or Eugenio Castellotti. Or Luigi Musso, Peter Collins, Phil Hill, ‘Taffy’ von Trips…

Or all of them. For here is a sports Ferrari with a works career of a single year, but one packed with top-level sports car activity, with impressive finishes and all those famous drivers at its helm. And despite contesting some of the most gruelling races of the time, followed by a second life racing in privateer hands, it managed to avoid that almost inevitable fate of any competition vehicle, the Big One. Through 1000 miles of Italian high roads, 1001 kilometres of Argentinian airfield and thousands more miles of attacking driving against clock and competition, 290MM chassis 0626 escaped major impact. Sixty years on, it still combines the same elements that Ferrari’s and Scaglietti’s artisans carefully assembled into the next round in Enzo’s assault on the World Sportscar Championship. 

It’s not a name that pops up first when you focus the mind’s crosshairs on the mid-Fifties and sports car racing. Monza, Mondial perhaps, but not 290MM. Is that merely because it gained no title of its own? The model’s achievements are impressive and visually it boasts all the fluid aggression that Latin panel-beating could apply to the job of clothing a racing car, yet its identity seems to have become lost in that welter of models issuing from Maranello at the time. Another jumble of numbers and letters that the only initiated can decode into capacities and cylinders. Enzo was not concerned about historical clarity. 

A shame, because the 290MM deserves its own niche; designed to conquer the Mille Miglia, it did that and more. But it also marked a return to Ferrari’s core strengths.

If there’s one engine associated with Maranello in the 1950s it’s the V12, but there was a crossroads moment when if things had gone a different way we might be looking back on 12-cylinder Ferraris as a quaint cul-de-sac compared with the legendary straight fours and sixes. With Grand Prix racing conforming to Formula 2 rules for 1952 and ’53, both of Ferrari’s V12s, the supercharged 1.5 and the unblown 4.5, were suddenly irrelevant, while Aurelio Lampredi’s 2-litre four, designed for second-rank competition in F2, found itself carrying the flag to the front line. Reliable and adaptable, these twin-cams not only developed into the 625 for Formula 1 but also sired a line of four-cylinder machines that would dominate much sports car racing through the mid-Fifties. Great names such as Mondial, Monza and the first of the Testa Rossas all capitalised on the torque benefits of an oversquare four in a compact, light spider body, helping bring the 1953 and ’54 world sports car crowns to Maranello. Which was some compensation for a poor F1 campaign in the latter season. Not that Lampredi was ignoring the virtues of a dozen pots – his 375 MM and 375 Plus models conquered the Mille Miglia and Le Mans races, after all – but the simpler fours were a strong selling point for the privateers who boosted both Ferrari’s funds and its points tally.

It was the relentless Mercedes challenge in 1955 that caused a misfire in Ferrari’s sports car surge. To counter it for the following season the Italian marque went scattergun, fitting its conventional chassis designs with a pick and mix assortment of ever-bigger fours and inline sixes – and also a new strain of V12s. Thanks to the acquisition of Lancia with all its engineering skills, Ferrari now had the talents of Vittorio Jano and Andrea Fraschetti to hand, and their preference was a reversion to 12 cylinders, a happy notion to Il Commendatore

After an unsuccessful adventure with a 5-litre V12 in the Sebring race which opened the ’56 season, a new engine labelled 130S arrived in a barchetta that had one specific target – Italy’s greatest event, the Mille Miglia. It appeared on the entry list as 290MM. Some Ferraris were labelled following a particular success, such as the Monza; some in expectation of victory, and such was the 290MM. Justifiably. 

Combining elements of previous Ferrari V12s, the new unit was a 3.5-litre dry-sumped 60deg vee with single-cam valvegear, twin plugs and three twin downdraught carbs, adding up to 320 horsepower. There was nothing remarkable about the chassis, though Ferrari, ever resistant on the innovation front, had by now got as far as coil-sprung wishbones at the front and a de Dion holding the rear wheels upright. Disc brakes, of course, would have to wait a bit longer until Jaguar’s lesson was finally absorbed.

That was the Jano angle, but the Lampredi camp had its parallel offering, the 860 Monza, a very similar four-cylinder machine extracting 280bhp from its 3.4 litres and using essentially the same chassis. Centre-bonnet air intakes distinguish the models, the V12 trying both a dainty twin-nostril version and a less elegant square scoop. Two impressively capable machines that seemed to have every chance of matching the mighty Mercedes – except there weren’t any. Having trumped everyone else throughout 1955, the German concern withdrew, leaving Jaguar and Maserati as Ferrari’s more accessible targets in a short season following safety reactions to the Le Mans tragedy. And after all, the victory charts don’t rate the strength of the opposition…

Both barrels were readied for the 1956 Mille Miglia, two 290MMs and two 860s, and the line-up was impressive: the departure of Lancia and Mercedes allowed Castellotti and 1955 F1 champion Fangio to join the Maranello squad in the V12s, while Musso and Collins made do with four cylinders. In the afterglow of his record 1955 victory Stirling Moss looked strong if his Maserati 300S held up, but he, with Motor Sport’s DSJ aboard, would slide off the road at Antrodoco. Brake trouble snuffed out a brief Maserati lead for Taruffi, leaving the four Ferraris to debate the win. In filthy weather, Castellotti – Il Bello they called him, handsome and wealthy as he was – gave the 290 its intended MM garland, but almost two drenched hours slower than Moss’s record. 

The two 860s came next, but Fangio’s fourth place in our studio car, its nose blazoned with blue and yellow in national pride, had not been a pleasure to him. No fan of the 1000-mile marathon, the Argentinian ace later related in his book My 20 Years of Racing how mechanics had made an access hole to repair the fuel tank and in the relentless rain it was letting in so much water that, so goes the legend, he asked mechanics at one control to drill him a drain hole. On the other hand, as Jenks describes, their Maserati was also awash so this was hardly confined to Fangio. So uninterested was the champion in unnecessarily risking his neck in the downpour that when he came across Moss and Jenks standing in the rain by their wrecked Maserati he offered them a lift. “You’re still racing,” they called; Fangio merely shrugged.

Nevertheless the big V12 had proved itself as a strong weapon in the return to sports car success, and for the Nürburgring 1000Kms Phil Hill, Olivier Gendebien and Alfonso de Portago shared 0626, with yellow noseband instead of Argentine branding. This was not a Ferrari triumph, an astonishing fightback from Moss bringing Maserati victory seconds ahead of Fangio, unhappy with his 860’s balance, but the US/French/Spanish trio brought their V12 a respectable third – valuable points for the title.

De Portago climbed back into our car for the sports car GP at an extended Rouen circuit, but this time it was fitted with a 3-litre V12, which as Jenks noted, “was very unsuitable, having none of the punch of the four-cylinder car to help up the hills”. Hence a disappointing ninth – but Castellotti won in the four-cylinder.

With the safety panic having knocked Le Mans, Targa Florio and the Tourist Trophy out of the title series, the Swedish 1000km race at Kristianstad a month later was Ferrari’s last chance to seal its narrow lead over Maserati. It was the turn of dashing Englishman Peter Collins and Wolfgang von Trips to steer 0626 – the first drive in a Ferrari for Enzo’s new German protégé. This season finale blew away any doubts over which make would be champion. Ferraris steamrollered it 1-5, a pair of 290MMs heading an 860, a 750 Monza and a 375MM. Enzo didn’t just mistrust one basket for all his eggs, he liked to try duck, goose and quail in any holder going.

For 1957 the Scuderia would concentrate on its 12-cylinder heartland, handing on the fours to privateers; the torque/revs trade-off had been successful but the inline units had been stretched about as far as they could go. Now it was the turn of quad-cam variants of Jano’s V12 once again to bring the world sports car title to Maranello; the 290MMs would be sold on, but for 0626 there was a last hurrah to kick off ’57 in the shape of the Buenos Aires 1000Kms.

Though now technically a privateer machine, 0626 reverted to works status for this one race through the vagaries of crews switching from car to car. Purchased by Temple Buell Jr, a wealthy Colorado man setting up a race team, it was entered for the Argentine event to be driven by his friend and protégé Masten Gregory. Though the Missouri driver was in the early years of his career, his talent showed as he worked his way into the lead. Meanwhile Ferrari’s latest contenders, a pair of the quad-cam 290S models, had both retired, so both Musso and Castellotti joined the privateer crew and shared first place to propel the marque towards another title, a major outright victory
to wrap up the works chapter of the car’s life.

Now painted blue with a white stripe, the Ferrari brought Gregory second places at Boavista and Spa before yet another important driver settled into the brown cord seat – Jo Bonnier, who enjoyed the balmy Bahamian climes of Nassau Speed Week without conspicuous success. 

From here the car changed American owners several times, often through Chinetti in New York, racing less as it became a period curiosity until in 1970 it returned to Europe to feature in Pierre Bardinon’s legendary Mas du Clos collection. A sojourn in Italy led to it being tidied back to its initial specification and livery, and not until the 1990s did it relocate again, this time to a British collector. A committed historian of racing, this current owner has assembled an impressive dossier on the car’s life and has not been shy of using what has become a staggeringly valuable example of Maranello’s output, though for security in extremis the period centre-throttle layout has been altered to conventional ‘right for go’. Having driven it in both the Phil Hill and Juan Fangio tributes at Goodwood and taken it back to its raison d’être, the Mille Miglia, still a demanding mechanical challenge even if no longer the half-day flat-out blind it once was, as well as many concours events he now feels he has done everything he wants to in it. Soon it travels back to New York to be sold, not this time by Chinetti but in RM Sotheby’s ‘Driven by Disruption’ auction.

Only four 290MMs were constructed, two from scratch and two converted from 860 Monzas, and this was the first. With its astonishing roster of top-line drivers and its careful preservation it represents a significant moment in Maranello history – even if no one saw fit to give it a true name of its own.

Our thanks to RM Sotheby’s for its help with this feature. The Ferrari 290MM will feature at the company’s New York auction on December 10.