Mexican knave

With looks you had to learn to love, and a chassis you have to learn to exploit, Ferrari’s 340 Mexico was a specialised device. Andrew Frankel relives the 1952 Carrera PanAmerica

You cannot imagine what it’s like in here. First of all it is appallingly hot. The air is thick with heat and the stench of oil, as it fills my lungs without fulfilling my need for oxygen. I can’t open the windows, which is fair enough as I deem it unlikely its original driver would have chosen to as he skimmed through the Mexican dust at 160mph. This, however, is not Mexico, this is a cool autumn day in the English Home Counties. And still I’m stifled and stuffed in this Ferrari.

You may already have spotted from the photographs that I do not fit this car either, which is ridiculous. This is a huge car with a colossal wheelbase and an insanely ill-judged proportion of its size given over to the interests of those who have to drive it. The glass area is tiny, the footwells smaller still. Were it not for the mercifully compliant head-lining, I would have no chance of driving this Ferrari.

Its original driver, the man for whom it was built, would have fared rather better. He was short, stocky Alberto Ascari, and it was he who was at the wheel of this Ferrari 340 Mexico when it flew off the road and into a bank during the 1952 Carrera PanAmericana. Climbing from the passenger seat, and similarly unharmed, came one Giuseppe Scotuzzi. The following year Scotuzzi was to die when his Ferrari left the road.

It is a fearsome looking device, this 390 Mexico. Giovanni Michelotti styled it for Vignale with the strangest looking nose ever to grace – or otherwise – the prow of a Ferrari. The long, razor-edged wings extend beyond the headlights to protrude as far as the huge and gaping grille. That nose is a shame, as from the front wheels aft it has a wonderfully purposeful, even beautiful shape. Note the wild distance from the leading edge of the door to the start of the front wheel arch, and those vertical metal bars dropping down the side of the car as a crude and wholly ineffective method of channelling air onto the rear brakes. Most of all, note its tiny rear fins. These played no aerodynamic role at all, but instead nodded towards the North American continent and the money of its rich inhabitants which Mr Ferrari sought. Interestingly, the Mexico pre-dated most of the US’s indigenous befinned monsters, for while Harley Earl had kicked up the rear wings of the Fastback Cadillac in 1949, they only became de rigueur some years after the Mexico’s light had been extinguished.

But if the styling appeared as something of a shot in the dark for Maranello, the mechanics it clothed were anything but. For all its visual adventure, the 340 Mexico was built to do a job which involved pounding for hour upon hour over some of the worst roads ever to see competitive motorsport. Under the circumstances, mechanical forays into the unknown weren’t even on the agenda.

The chassis followed typical Ferrari practice and was built principally from steel tubes. The front suspension was taken care of by double wishbones at each corner joined by the faithful transverse leaf spring. The rear was no more adventurous, with its live axle located by twin trailing arms and suspended by parallel, longitudinal leaves. Houdaille lever arm dampers were used all round, while Borrani wire wheels were clothed by 6x16in rubber at the front and 6.5×16 at the back.

For the engine, Ferrari eschewed the Colombo-designed 2.6-litre V12 which had powered the 212 Export to a 1-2 victory in the Carrera the previous year and chose instead Aurelio Lampredi’s altogether more substantial motor. Multiplication of the eponymous 340cc cylinder capacity by twelve comes close to its true 4101cc achieved from an oversqttare 80mm bore and a 68mm stroke. Following the practice that would stay with Ferrari sportscars for well over another decade, each bank of six cylinders was operated by a single overhead camshaft with two valves and a single spark plug sitting atop each combustion chamber.

Using just three twin-choke downdraught Weber 40DCF carburettors, this engine produced 280bhp at 6600rpm, an impressive output at an impressive engine speed for a car of its age designed to last throughout such an event.

Just three Mexico coupes were built for the ’52 Carrera to be piloted by Ascari, Villoresi and Chinetti while one Spyder was built for American Bill Spear but never actually started the event. While the car pictured here, chassis number 0222AT, never made it past the first stage, Villoresi’s car, 0226AT, was fastest on the second day and through much of the third until the distributor packed up and eliminated the car from the contest. 0224AT, with Chinetti at the helm, was Maranello’s sole representative on the podium with third place behind the victorious Mercedes 300SLs of Kling and Lang. And even this position can be seen to be a little fortuitous as it was achieved at the expense of Bracco’s heroically driven 250MM which had retired having led for over 1000 miles.

However, talking down this extraordinary Ferrari is not what we’re here for. It was hardly the car’s Fault that Ascari made a mistake and, had it lasted as Chinetti’s car did, would you have bet against its driver coming home in front of the Mercedes? Having driven it, neither would I.

That said, if you’re expecting me to tell a tale of a car that drifts through curves on just a whiff of opposite lock, streaming from apex to apex through seemingly telekinetic force, I have to let you know you are reading the wrong story. The Mexico is not like that. The chassis was crude and brutish at the best of times and requires strict management if the best is to be made of its modest abilities.

The engine knows no such limitations. Starting it asks for no more effort or thought than, say, a carburettor-fed 308. Having pumped the accelerator a couple of times to prime the Webers, you just turn the Magneti Marelli key two clicks, press it forward and, after only a brief chum, the motor fires at once and on all twelve. Even at idle, the noise is a richly mechanical amalgam of whizzes and rumbles and as redolent of the traditional racing Ferrari V12 as any you can name.

Just listening to it, it’s hard to credit that this engine was designed in the immediate post-war period. In its timbre you can hear the song of the P4, the sound of the competition Daytona.

Once your left leg has recovered from the shocking weight of the clutch pedal, the gearlever clunks easily into the first of the box’s five ratios. There’s no exposed gate to guide you through the ratios nor syncromesh to ease the lever’s passage but, for an old crash ‘box, it’s pretty straight-forward. It requires double-declutch changes to be made in both directions and reasonable attention to be given to matching revs to ratio, but with a little attention upon first acquaintance you soon learn its ways well enough not to have to think consciously about each change.

And even if you’re less than keen on rummaging around for ratios you will find the engine an unlikely ally. For all its power, wide bores and stubby stroke, this racing motor will pull without protest from 2000rpm up to its power peak and beyond. I’m told it will go safely to 7000rpm, though there’s little point pushing this 45-year old motor to such an extent today. Though there is no officially quoted torque peak, it pulls hardest at about 3500rpm and, for your information, that’s extremely hard.

For all its outlandish proportions, this Ferrari actually weighs just a little less than a ton, giving a power to weight ratio identical to that of the fastest road-going Ferrari made today, the 550 Maranello. Forget its age altogether; by any road-legal standards at all this is a ferociously fast car. In a surge punctuated only by short but well-defined pauses between gears, the Mexico will streak into three figure territory and beyond at a rate that seems quite at odds with its age. It comes from an era when the fastest production road cars from the likes of Jaguar and Aston Martin would struggle to reach 120mph; yet the stories say that, given the space, the Mexico will reach 6600rpm in its indirect fifth gear, by which time the wheels would be eating the tarmac at the rate of close on 180mph half as fast again. Apply the same maths to road cars of today and you’ll have perhaps as close an idea as is possible to knowing how the Mexico’s performance must have appeared back in 1952.

That said, just because the Mexico was the quickest sportscar in the world in a straight line, did not mean in any way that this outstanding ability applied to its talent for hauling itself through any given corner. Quite the reverse. Know the hoary old Ferrari adage about the purchase price buying the engine and Ferrari throwing the rest of the car in free? I’d scarcely raise an eyebrow if I was told that the person who coined the phrase had just stepped out of a Mexico.

To be fair, this Mexico, while beautifully presented and possessing a wonderfully strong and sweet engine, had not yet had its chassis adjusted to optimum settings, but its fundamental nature under load was still clear. As you can see from the photographs, progress through turns is always dramatic and capable of concentrating the mind like few other cars. And while this means that you are unlikely to be bored, it’s not difficult to think of better ways in which it could have earned your attention.

The chief problem is a manifest reluctance to change direction in a hurry and, looking at the ratio of track to wheelbase, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised by this. At first, it seems unruly to the point of wildness, rolling heavily and only being saved from further excesses by picking up an inside wheel and spinning away all the power it is unable to handle which, in low gear corners, is almost all of it. Aim it at a fast curve at a modest speed and the sense of instability as you turn in is enough to dissuade you from trying harder. Respect for Luigi Chinetti, who actually guided his Mexico successfully through the entire Carrera, grows with every turn.

In fact, once you have learned to accommodate its highly individual nature, the Mexico can be hustled from one place to another at a speed quite beyond that suggested by initial impressions. The trick is to drive more smoothly than any other car you have satin. With an engine such as this, the almost overwhelming temptation to kick the throttle to the floor on the way out of every bend is to be resisted if composure is to be maintained. Similarly, as you choose your line into a corner, your orders should be sent to the steering on satin cushions if they are to be executed to your satisfaction.

Do this and you will learn that not only can the excesses of the chassis successfully be reined but also that the steering, while hardly a bubbling cauldron of information, is at least direct and as precise as reasonably possible given the limitations of the chassis with which it must work. It can then be settled with some confidence into a curve and, so long as there are no further changes of plan, cornered with something approaching conviction.

Better news still lies under the brake pedal. At first there are natural reservations about how successfully four drum brakes can look after the interests of a one ton missile capable of 175mph, but, once they have warmed up a little, they offer stable retardation, a firm pedal to greet your foot and as much deceleration as you can reasonably expect from any car from this era. It’s not like having discs, and I would not be surprised to learn that, were you to force the issue, they would overheat in short order, but of their type they serve the Mexico as well as you could hope.

And once you have finally pieced the puzzle together, understood the complex nature of this simply specified car, there is real joy within. Strip back the intimidation created by its size, its power, the heat and lack of space and you soon learn that this beast is not one to be mastered by man-handling. Any attempt to subjugate its curious will are inevitably doomed. This is not a car to collect by the scruff and hurl about, it is a car to treat with a great deal of respect and more than a little humility. Giving in one hundred per cent to its will, doing things exactly in the way it wants and regarding your own preferences as an impertinence, is the way to extract the most from this Ferrari.

Whether that makes the 340 Mexico a great car, or even a great Ferrari, is something I find more difficult to judge. I am quite sure that it’s not a good car in any conventional sense, but then again such cars were never built to be either conventional or conventionally good. This car was built for just one purpose, to win a race, and in all the time I spent discovering it, I failed to find a factor to take the blame for its failure. Ascari simply made a mistake and that was that.

Its compelling appeal to me stemmed from its looks and that engine. Though I reached an accommodation with its chassis and even grew to like its steering and brakes, they are as nothing compared to its power and shape.

The love for the engine is straightforward and you’d have only to hear it from a distance to know what a masterpiece Lampredi had produced. In its way and for its time, it’s a rival for any of the Colombo V12s. It must have done as much as any to establish for the fledgling, five-year-old marque the reputation it holds to this day for designing and building the finest engines in the world.

I can’t say I love the way it looks in quite the same way. In my more lucid moments, I suspect it’s actually quite hideous. I just wish I could have seen the look on the faces of those who drove fat American saloons in the ’52 Carrera when they saw that gaping face in the mirror as it bore down on them, travelling at three miles a minute. There is something so focussed, so aggressive and single-minded about its shape.

What I like best is that the styling reflects the car inside with a rare honesty. Hopefully what you have read provides some slight idea of what this motorcar is like to drive but all the words in the world cannot describe the character of this car as well as one glimpse of its shape.

If you really want to know what the Ferrari 340 Mexico is like to drive, just take one long look at it and let your imagination do the rest. It is how it appears; a fearsome device capable of taking you to the highest and lowest points and very rarely staying anywhere between the two. You will love it and hate it in the same moment, and as you do, you will be affected by it. Is this a great Ferrari? In its own truculent, ugly, glorious way, of course it is.