Brute force is not generally a description associated with Ferraris. Lithe, delicate, stylish maybe, but definitely not brutal. And yet the early Ferraris in particular were inclined to put power before finesse, pragmatism ahead of styling. As the years progressed, the sports racing models became more and more refined and certainly more stylish, but one of the best examples of when Enzo Ferrari made sheer engine size a priority over other considerations such as handling and tractability is the monstrous 375 Plus, a one-year wonder campaigned by the Scuderia in 1954.
The model itself was a continuation of a theme, particularly with regard to the engine. The single overhead-camshaft V12 unit was from the hand of Ing Aurelio Lampredi which had first seen the light of day in 1950 as a 3322cc unit in the 275S. Before the year was over, though, it had already been bored out to 4102cc and then to 4494cc by increasing the stroke. Development did not finish there, however, for it was again bored out, this time to 84mm while still retaining the 54.5mm stroke, to give it a displacement of 4954.34cc becoming in the process the largest engine hitherto seen in a Ferrari. This was the engine which was fitted to Ferrari’s challenge to the omnipotent Jaguars — the 375 Plus.
In overall dimension the car itself was more compact than the previous 4.1-litre Ferrari while the chassis was almost identical in layout to the old 41/2-litre Formula One car. It had the normal Ferrari-type independent front suspension and transverse leaf spring, but broke new ground for a Ferrari sports car by utilising a de Dion rear axle with the gearbox in unit with the differential.
“The general build of the car was massive and, in contrast with the sleek Jaguars, the Ferraris were unashamedly brute force machines, thrusting themselves through the air by sheer power and looking ready to devour anything that might be in their path.” Thus DSJ described the 375 Plus in 1954.
The omens were good for the model when it won first time out at a race meeting in Agadir in February. Fresh from this success Giuseppe Farina then took this same car to Dakar a week later where he broke the lap record but ultimately retired while in the lead.
From North Africa, it was back to Italy for the model’s next two outings: the Giro di Sicilia and the Mille Miglia. The car’s forte, however, was not able to come to the fore on these twisty, demanding and bumpy courses. After their defeat in the Sicilian event when Umberto Maglioli, who had been entrusted with a 375 Plus, overturned the car trying to keep up with Taruffi’s 3.3-litre Lancia, Ferrari were determined to exact their revenge in the Mille Miglia.
Pitted against the trio of 3.3-litre Lancias were four of the open two-seater 4.9 Ferraris which were entrusted to Farina, Maglioli, Gianni Marzotto and Paulo Marzotto, and a number of 4, 3 and 2-litre cars. While all the Lancias were running without passengers, only Maglioli in the Ferrari team went solo, his car having a faring over the passenger’s side and a large streamlined headrest behind his own seat. According to reports of the time, his car looked more purposeful than many contemporary Grand Prix cars.
While speeds of 192 mph for the big Ferraris were being spoken of, it was reasonably estimated that 160 mph was top speed, some 5 mph more than the Lancias, but the large Ferraris lost out to their smaller capacity rivals on handling. In the event, it turned out to be an epic race. The three Lancias took an early lead while the Ferrari challenge was dented when Farina went off the road early in the event, breaking an arm and writing off the car. As the event continued, though, the sheer power of the Ferraris began to make some impression, but it was never enough to haul the leading Lancias in. At Aquila, almost half way round the 1597 kilometre course, Taruffi still held a four minute lead over his team-mate Ascari, and then came Maglioli followed by Paulo Marzotto. His brother Giannino had retired after just 400 kms almost admitting that his 4.9 was more than he could cope with!
As the cars sped north on the return leg, the Ferrari drivers used all the power and torque at their disposal as they climbed up through the mountain passes and finally the pace began to tell on the Lancia drivers. Taruffi went out of contention when he went off the road on the approach to Siena and broke an oil pipe, and Ascari had his lead cut to just 53 seconds ahead of Maglioli. As the cars swept towards Florence Marzotto overtook his teammate for second place and looked set to reel Ascari in, but it was then that it all started to go wrong for the Ferraris and their onslaught broken. Maglioli ran off the road and damaged the car too badly to continue while traversing the Raticosa and Futa passes between Florence and Bologna while Marzotto retired with a broken gearbox. Ascari thus came home an impressive winner ahead of Vittorio Marzotto in a 2-litre Ferrari.
It was back to the track for the 375 Plus’ next major outings. At Silverstone Froilan Gonzalez took one to victory in the Daily Express sports car race and proved the car’s phenomenal speed by putting in several laps at 85.67 mph, which was exactly equal to his best laps in the 1954 Formula One Ferrari in the previous race. It was the next race, though, that was to count as the most important of the year.
Le Mans has always outweighed the rest of the season’s races in prestige and importance, and 1954 was no exception. In the Fifties, Jaguar were busy making the Sarthe circuit their own, and this Ferrari were determined to deny them.
Initially it was thought that Jaguar were going to have a walk-over: Lancia had withdrawn and Ferrari seemed undecided on what model to enter. At scrutineering, though, any such thoughts were quickly disabused.
Instead of Ferrari entering a plethora of models, they had decided on entering just three 375 Pluses, for P Marzotto/Maglioli, Gonzalez/Trintignant and Rosier/Manzon, these three cars upholding Ferrari’s honour against the C- and D-type Jaguars. And it was this confrontation which made the race that year so memorable. On the one hand were the Jaguars which had been built with Le Mans as the main objective and were therefore designed to run on an almost flat, well surfaced track at high average speeds, while on the other hand were the Ferraris which had been built to withstand almost anything and everything, from the rough tracks of Sicily, with average speeds in the region of 50/60 mph, to the mountain passes of Italy, to the long straights and undulating curves of racing circuits. Le Mans that year had shaped up to be a battle between brute force and science.
Initially it seemed that brute force was going to have it easy. Not only did the three team Ferraris assume a 1-2-3 formation at the head of the field, the three Jaguars were detained with, electrical problems within a couple of hours of the start which allowed the scarlet opposition to build up a temporary cushion of two laps.
Their problems sorted out, the Jaguars resumed the race and were on such good form that by midnight the Whitehead/ Wharton car had worked itself up into second place behind Gonzalez/Trintignant and ahead of Rosier/Manzon. By this time, though, the Marzotto/Maglioli car had unfortunately succumbed to gearbox problems and retired while the Moss/ Walker Jaguar was effectively out with brake problems.
As night began to turn to dawn, the battle intensified. The second placed Jaguar went missing with gearbox problems but the odds were evened up again when the Rosier/Manzon Ferrari had a gearbox malfunction before dawn. The leading Ferrari, though, was not to have it easy for the remaining works Jaguar, driven by Hamilton and Rolt, was going like a train and going ever faster despite the appalling conditions. A timed kilometre down the Mulsanne Straight showed that the Jaguar was reaching speeds of 251 kph against the 245 kph of the Ferrari, but since the scarlet car’s enormous Grand Prix 4½-litre type hydraulic brakes were proving better than the Jaguar’s disc brakes, and the larger engined Ferrari was better on acceleration, the lap times were not greatly different, the Ferrari, in fact, being just slightly quicker each lap.
By this time the Jaguar was just over a lap behind and as the rain continued to plummet down, the situation remained the same. It was the Ferrari, however, which showed the first signs of the wear and tear of the fast pace — each time it pitted, it took longer and longer to fire up. It had, nevertheless, still been able to stretch its lead to just under two laps.
At 2.30pm, with just 1½ hours to go, the Ferrari came in to re-fuel but when Gonzalez hopped back in, the engine refused to fire. As he evacuated it to allow the mechanics to work on it, Rolt appeared in sight and started to make for the pits as he needed some new goggles. He was frantically waved on by the Jaguar pits to continue on and unlap himself so shot off down the road again.
Still the Ferrari would not start. Rolt ploughed on as fast as he would dare, knowing that the race could be his, but frustrated at the lack of vision from his misted goggles. He had almost completed another lap when the Ferrari at last fired up and Gonzalez was off, the tyres scrabbling for grip as he floored the throttle.
The gap between the two cars was now just 1 min 37 sec, but it was soon extended. It was when the race entered the final hour that the Ferrari pit were given another scare — Gonzalez was slowing dramatically, lapping at 5 min 30 sec enabling a determined Hamilton to reduce the gap once again. It was only after frantic pit signals to inform Gonzalez of his predicament that the Argentinian sped up again and yet again increased his lead to 1 min 44 sec.
At 4.00 pm the chequered flag was held out. Gonzalez had done enough to claim a famous victory, despite not eating or sleeping for the 24 hours which, it transpired, were the reasons for his sudden slower laps speeds at the end of the race, while the Jaguar came in second, just 4.09 kms separating the two cars after 24 hours of racing. It was the first victory in the 24 Hour race by a works Ferrari.
Altogether there were five 375 Plus Pinin Farina spyders made. 0386 AM which was crashed on the Mille Miglia by Farina; 0392 AM, the Louis Rosier/Robert Manzon Le Mans car which Maglioli used to win the Carrera Panamericana later in the year, although by this time, it was owned by Erwin Goldschmidt and which is now in Australia; 0394 AM which was damaged in the Mille Miglia and then which won the Silverstone Daily Express Trophy Race in the hands of Froilan Gonzalez but was the Maglioli/Marzofto car which retired from Le Mans; 0396 AM, the Le Mans winner, but which was rebodied by Scaglietti as a spyder in 1955 after it was damaged in the Carrera Panamericana, and then rebodied yet again to its original shape; and 0398 AM, the car contested by a former owner to be the Le Mans winner, which had an early South American history before appearing in Texas in the hands of a Ferrari collector.
It is this latter car which has recently had a three year sojourn in Britain undergoing a restoration in the hands of DK Engineering of Watford. When it was purchased by the present owner from the Texan collector who had run into financial trouble, the car was found to be ridded with problems.
It looked reasonable but was mechanically dreadful and had been tarred up to make it look better than it was. The engine was broken internally, there were several non-original parts, such as the propshaft, and it was altogether a basket case. Everything had to be stripped, but not everything thrown away.
The aluminium body, for example, was found to be in a good state and did not need to be replaced. It needed some work to replace the slots and grooves that had appeared on the car over the years, but there was nothing on it that beating and welding would not cure, but all the original flaps on the bonnet which open to reveal the oil tank, dipstick and radiator were naturally retained.
The long twin-tube, chassis, unique to the model and quite an unusual design, was in a poor state, not through accident damage but through fatigue, was repaired and strengthened with plates where necessary. One area in particular found to be cracked was that around the rear frame members which support the 60 gallon fuel tank. The biggest problems, though, were neither the chassis nor the bodywork.
It was the final drive and gearbox which were to give DK Engineering their biggest headache in the restoration. Not only was the gearbox broken inside, someone over the years had bodged it up to make it appear sound, which inevitably made it even more difficult to restore. By the end of the restoration, however, all the internals of the 4-speed box and the transaxle had been renewed.
Everything was likewise replaced on the engine: the crankshaft, rods, pistons, liners, valves, springs — every moving part, but nothing presented particular problems as the supplying companies, such as Cosworth with the pistons, had the originals from which to work. The pipework needed replacing, the yellow and brown piping bought by DK in Brescia from the original manufacturers who still had it in stock.
What was more difficult to replace were those items which had been removed from the car before it came to England. The propshaft present in the car, for instance, was an American made affair and gave no clue to the correct size and dimension of the original. Research by David Coilingham of DK Engineering and help from present owners of two of the 375 Plus’ showed what diameter the shaft should be. Likewise the fuel tank. The car was delivered to England with an unoriginal steel petrol tank. Help from Australia and France with patterns enabled a new tank to be made to the original specification but the huge fuel filler cap, which sits in the centre behind the driver’s left shoulder, was original.
All the back plates to the massive brakes had cracks in, the drums had broken fins, the liners in the drums were oval and the twin brake master cylinders needed to have new internals, but did not actually present too many problems.
Re-wiring was not a problem, but DK had luck when it came to finding the lights. They were satisfied that the front lights they had were good enough to use when Cottingham heard that a contact in Seattle possessed both the correct sidelights and headlamps, items he had previously acquired from a garage near Le Mans.
Naturally these were acquired by DK and fitted to the car. All the electrics are mounted on the bulkhead inside the cockpit as on the original.
The seats were upholstered in the correct leather trim on the evidence of a Mrs Day of the USA who has had a 375 MM since new and who had original colour pictures as proof. The gear lever and three-spoke steering wheel with Prancing Horse insignia were both original but restored as were the knock-on hubs, except for the centre disc which was brassed in before plating.
The instrument panel, which reads from left to right: fuel, oil pressure, tachometer, (to 8000 rpm with no red line), water temperature and oil temperature, is original but all the dials have been refurbished. The driver is protected by a curved perspex windscreen which continues onto the aluminium tonneau cover which itself is bulged to accommodate the large air filter.
The handbrake was correctly positioned on the right and the gear lever on the left, but what was missing, though, was the padding mounted on steel brackets to protect the driver’s knees and legs, as On the original Mille Miglia cars.
The most impressive thing about this Ferrari on the road is the fantastic torque. Other than a 340 MM, there is no other Ferrari of this era which accelerates as hard as the 375 Plus. The gearbox is much easier than expected and the handling nothing like any earlier Ferrari. Most are nervous when cornering hard and you have to be really awake to cope with it, but not with the 375 Plus. With its tendency to understeer, the only way to get it round quickly is to power it around the corner by sliding the tail whereas with the more nervous 340 MM, which has a lot of castor angle and very heavy steering, the only way to go through a corner quickly is to four-wheel drift it.
Now three dozen plus one years old, this car still looks, sounds and performs as well as any modern supercar. The only sad thing about it is the realisation that although we have the F40, the 348, the 288 GTO etc, we no longer have a Ferrari made in the true sports racing tradition. Part of the aura of the 375 Plus’ greatness is the fact that this car, and its sisters, were being campaigned at Le Mans, on the Mille Miglia and on the Carrera Panamericana — and winning. That is something that the F40 will never achieve. That is why the 375 Plus is a great car, something the F40, no matter how desirable, can never be.