Cars with curves in all the right places

Motor racing history is punctuated by a series of landmark cars, events and seasons. One such landmark season was surely 1970 when the so-called folded paper school of aerodynamic body design really began to engulf the long-distance sports car genre. A dealer and I were pondering recently on how it could be that the magnificent ‘P’ series V12-engined sports-prototypes of 1963-69 remain so much more highly prized than the markedly more successful flat-12 ‘PB’ series of the early ’70s.

Certainly nostalgia for the 1960s remains inflated compared to the 1970s but clearly this is a generational thing, and every successive crop of race enthusiasts will regard the great contenders of their own youth in a more rosy glow than the older junk which excites their dads. When Phil Hill was loudly aghast at young Damon Hill declaring that he just couldn’t understand how his father and Graham’s contemporaries had been able to race “these things” – referring to a Ferrari 250GTO which he found compared to a 1990s F1 car had no power, no brakes and no grip – it was Frank Gardner who gave Phil a crucial heads-up. He said something like, “Now come on, Philip – you can’t expect a young blade to get horny over a 50-year-old woman”. It made the point, even though – ahem– I know a few who’d challenge his premise.

But where the sea change between sports-prototypes of the ’60s and their successors of the ’70s is concerned, I think a big factor involves the way in which body ‘styling’ was replaced by predominantly aerodynamic ‘design’. Consider the immensely tactile curves and swells of the 1960s P cars, especially the Drogo-bodied P2s-3s-4s, and compare their form to the wedgy flats and edges of the 312PBs. As the dealer put it, “…they look like 2-litre Chevrons or Lolas wearing a Ferrari badge” and their value-interest seems to level out accordingly.

Perhaps forgotten here is the 3-litre V12-engined Ferrari 312P of 1969. I thought the open Spyders built as that year’s works cars were simply lovely, and the closed-cockpit Berlinetta version for Le Mans one of the most subtly perfect long-distance cars ever created. Ferrari built chassis ‘0868’ and ‘0870’ for the season, but after Pedro Rodríguez crashed ‘0868’ heavily in the Monza 1000Kms a third was built, which inherited the identity perhaps because an entry had already been made for Le Mans under that serial number. It became Chris Amon’s 312P Berlinetta which had to run through the wreckage of John Woolfe’s crashed Porsche 917 on the opening lap. A burning Porsche fuel tank jammed beneath the car which then ignited and burned as well. Amon happily escaped, unlike poor Woolfe.

Aerodynamic and bodywork development at Ferrari remained surprisingly suck-it-and-see in that period, and during the earliest Berlinetta version tests at Monza the 312P was a Spyder modified merely to carry a full-sized windscreen, plus hand-beaten aluminium roof and tail dorsum panels. They were roughly riveted into place, but as Chris Amon pulled out of the Monza pits for the Berlinetta’s initial test running, the 312P still looked like a beauty which would endure…