Classic test: NART Spider

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At first you think you recognise the badge.  It would be hard not to, with its black cavallino rampante at its centre against a familiar yellow background. But something is different here: above said stallion is a truncated flag, a representation of the American standard, featuring the stars of 48 of its states. Below the horse are four red letters on a blue background. Together they read: N.A.R.T. The name of the North American Racing Team. This then might be a Ferrari 275GTS/4, but so too is it more properly the NART Spider. And it is one of the rarest and most valuable Ferraris ever created.

writer Andrew Frankel | photographer Matthew Howell

Luigi Chinetti and Enzo Ferrari went way back. They met when Chinetti went to work at Alfa Romeo as a teenager in 1918 and remained acquaintances, business partners and sometimes bitter enemies until time called the Old Man aloft some 70 years later. Chinetti and Ferrari were both tough old Italians, men who suffered fools not at all and each other only some of the time. They had tempers and could trade insults as easily as do deals, but their histories were intertwined. If ever Ferrari had a friend it was probably Chinetti, though the latter was once heard to remark, “I don’t think he liked anyone.”

Like Ferrari, Chinetti was a racer, better behind the wheel than the man he would come to depend upon, but not quite top drawer. As Brock Yates says in his masterly Ferrari polemic, “He [Chinetti] had never been a sprinter, never particularly fast in the twitchy, pitiless single-seat Grand Prix machines. But give him a full-fendered Alfa Romeo or Ferrari sports car and he could run like a marathoner… crushing the opposition with his sheer grit.” Chinetti won Le Mans in 1932, though illness meant his superb co-driver Raymond Sommer did most of the work. The following year he was beaten by mere seconds by Sommer and none other than Tazio Nuvolari. But in 1934, sharing his Alfa with Phi-phi Étancelin, they dusted the field, putting 13 clear laps between themselves and the second-placed Riley.

But Chinetti would have to wait until 1949 for his finest hour: driving Lord Selsdon’s 166MM for more than 22 of the 24 hours, he won Le Mans all but single-handedly at the age of almost 48. Although Ferrari had nothing to do with the entry, it meant Maranello was the first company to win the world’s greatest race at its first attempt – if you exclude Chenard et Walcker’s win in the inaugural event in 1923. It is a feat that has been repeated just once since then, by a works McLaren in 1995. Two weeks later Chinetti won the Spa 24 Hours. He went on, aged 50, to win the 1951 Carrera Panamericana with Piero Taruffi.

***

By then Chinetti was a naturalised American citizen who had arranged with Ferrari to be the first to import his cars into the US, deliveries beginning in 1949 from premises in New York.

The story that leads to the NART Spider began in 1957, when Chinetti set up the North American Racing Team that in time would join Britain’s Maranello Concessionaires, Écurie Nationale Belge and Scuderia Filipinetti as the private teams most favoured by Ferrari. Chinetti still had to fight (and pay) to ensure he wasn’t fobbed off with tired, clapped-out factory hand-me-downs. But while the cars supplied by Maranello were never as good as those the Scuderia kept for itself, by and large they were the next best thing.

NART scored its first big victory at Daytona with Pedro Rodriguez winning the 3 Hours in 1963 and also the 2000km event it became in 1964, driving a 250GTO on both occasions. But its finest hour came at Le Mans the following year, when the young Jochen Rindt and ‘Kansas Flash’ Masten Gregory spared Maranello’s blushes. Once the factory Ferrari and Ford efforts had failed, they drove a 250LM to what remains to this day Ferrari’s most recent outright victory at Le Mans.

By 1967 Chinetti’s currency at Ferrari could scarcely have been higher. America was Ferrari’s most important export market by far and it was Chinetti that had put the prancing horse on the US map and kept it there. At the same time, Ferrari had just put on sale its new 275GTB/4 Berlinetta. This was essentially the same as the 275GTB that had first been shown in 1964, but with a more refined driveline and, crucially, a four overhead camshaft engine based on the unit seen in the 275 P2 prototype racer in 1965.

What the new model lacked was a convertible option. Originally Ferrari had made an open 275GTS, but it had completely different bodywork from the 275GTB, was much less sporting in outlook and regarded as softer, flabbier and less of a driver’s car. When the 275GTB/4 came out, the GTS was replaced by the 4-litre 330GTS that continued in a similarly unexciting vein.

Over in the US, Chinetti spotted what he saw as a gap in the market. What if Ferrari were to make a series of convertible 275GTB/4s to be sold only to Chinetti’s most valued customers? Using as much of the GTB/4’s existing bodywork as possible, the car could hardly fail to be beautiful, and with the new powertrain and the Berlinetta’s lightweight construction and sporting suspension settings, it would not be dull to drive. Perhaps surprisingly, Enzo agreed.

Although Ferrari has made special one-off cars throughout its history, and indeed supplied such machines to Chinetti’s customers before the NART Spider, so far as I am aware this is the first and to date only time a foreign importer had been able to persuade the factory to put into production a series of uniquely styled vehicles, exclusively for that market.

Originally Chinetti planned to produce 25 Spiders and the popular belief is that they were so expensive there was demand for just nine cars, although a 10th – this car as it happens – was sold in Europe. One owner claims the reason so few were built had nothing to do with demand and everything to do with the fact they took so long to arrive. By the time new Federal standards came into force in 1968, outlawing the car on engine emissions grounds, only 10 had been constructed, forcing Chinetti to cancel orders for the remaining 15.

Either way, what no one disputes is that just 10 NART Spiders were built, which makes them almost four times more scarce than a 250GTO and more than five times rarer than the much-vaunted 250 GT Spider California. Even by the standards of Ferrari’s most exotic production models, the 275GTS/4 (as the NART Spider is described on its chassis plate) is as rare as powdered unicorn horn.

Which is why on the extremely rare occasion one comes up for sale, records tend to get shattered. The most recent I know about was auctioned by RM in the US in 2013, selling for $27.5 million. It remains the largest sum of money ever paid at auction for a car intended for road use.

***

That comes under the category of things best not thought about when contemplating driving a NART Spider around a tree-lined test track with no barriers, gravel traps or other ways of mitigating any mistake you might make.

I’ll confess now quite a large part of me didn’t want to drive it at all. Usually the way a car looks is of almost no importance to me relative to the way it drives, but when a car is so utterly, almost unbearably gorgeous I fear it makes a promise to which the engineering beneath can never aspire. I also know that when Ferrari instructed Sergio Scaglietti to start decapitating 275GTB/4s to satisfy Chinetti’s demands, he felt no need to tell him to embark on an exhaustive test programme to ensure as little of the car’s rigidity was compromised as a result of having such a large hole cut in its structure. I feared it would wobble uncontrollably.

Besides, it’s such a lovely place just to sit. The interior architecture is classically Italian, with those eight Veglia dials, the chromed five-speed gate, the alloy-spoked wheel and vertical handbrake. All the details from the door handles to the tiny shield on the transmission tunnel are just perfect.

The driving position is predictably Italianate too, but doesn’t require the almost freakishly long arms and abbreviated legs of some of its countrymen. And I love the fact that through the windscreen I can see the gentle power bulge in the bonnet, signifying that thereunder lies the full-house, four-camshaft engine.

Incredibly this engine can trace its roots back to Ferrari’s earliest post-war history, indeed to the very 166MM in which Chinetti won Le Mans back in 1949. Made with a variety of bore widths but the same 58.8mm stroke throughout the 1950s and early to mid ’60s, it was only when the 275GTB was introduced in 1964 that, with nowhere to go horizontally, the engine became enlarged vertically with a 71mm stroke. With the four-cam heads added in 1967, the 3286cc V12 produced fully 300bhp at 8000rpm, rather better than double its output as a 2-litre racer in the late 1940s. The 275 was Ferrari’s first pure road car to feature a five-speed gearbox and its first to locate that gearbox between the rear wheels. It was the first to use fully independent double wishbone suspension at each corner too.

I had expected the NART Spider to be a museum piece, an ornament cajoled into action for long enough to take these pictures. I knew it would function, I knew I’d be able to tell you truthfully that I’d driven a NART Spider, but beyond that I didn’t hope for too much, because so often that way lies disappointment.

But then I looked a little closer. The Spider seems perfect from 10 paces, but move just a little nearer and you discover it’s not: there are tiny stone chips on the bonnet, and minute fragments of paint have been shed along the trailing edge of the driver’s door.

I didn’t need a deerstalker to tell that, oh the horror of it, this is a car that’s not been a glass box these last few decades, but used and enjoyed as Chinetti intended.

***

Use your foot to allow just a little air into the six twin-choke downdraft Weber carburettors platooned between the valve chests angled at 60 degrees, turn the key to send electrical pulses shooting from twin distributors to a dozen spark plugs and, as the V12 eases into life, listen to the kind of noise road cars don’t make any more. It’s not loud, but nor is it muffled. In fact each component of the sound is incredibly crisp but, layered among all the others, difficult to discern at first. It’s a hackneyed word to use in this context, but it is the right one too: this engine has an exquisitely orchestral texture to it.

Watch the dials. Water temperature is reasonable and there’s no oil temperature, but only because the gauge is the only thing on the Spider that does not work. Nor do you need it: if the oil pressure drops as you reduce the revs to idle, that’s a sure sign there’s thin, hot oil circulating the engine.

The clutch engages sooner than expected and the engine revs fall away to nothing. But so smooth and balanced is this motor that instead of stalling it just pulls away gently. For an engine designed more than half a century ago and reputed to rev to 8000rpm, it is staggeringly forgiving.

We start to lap the track together, the NART Spider and I. There’s not much springing in the gearbox so you have to aim with accuracy, but the quality of the change is well oiled, rifle-bolt perfection. I can feel the anticipation building within me for that moment when I shift down to second and throw open the taps. And when it comes, the Spider does not disappoint. In that instant, the engine ditches its cloak of effortless urbanity and reveals the competition motor beneath. A yowling, howling crescendo of symphonic sound is spat out via the effective medium of four ANSA exhausts. A GTO is louder than this, but its tone is no better.

You are moved in time and space. You are no longer a hack negotiating his way around a concrete test track in Surrey, you are Pedro, blasting across Wisconsin en route to a rendezvous with the P4 prototype NART has taken to Elkhart Lake for you. Needles race around their dials, the gearlever flashes, the wind rushes and the engine sings that haunting song. With a little imagination the Spider will take you anywhere you want to go.

Back in the real world, I am impressed by how little the Ferrari has suffered in the conversion from closed coupé to open roadster. There’s one combination of bumps that sends ripples right through the car but otherwise there’s just a little steering shake, and the occasional shiver from the suspension. I’ve driven ordinary convertibles designed within the last 20 years that are no better.

And when I summon the nerve to test the chassis just a little, I find a car with fine inherent balance, surprising traction given its modest 14in, 205-section Michelin XWX shoes (at least until I remember the gearbox integral with the rear axle) and superb steering. Only the brakes disappoint, or would had I not experienced that dead pedal feel on other road Ferraris of the 1960s and early ’70s.

In the end I drove the NART Spider quite quickly and now, a few days later, that seems an outrageous thing to have done with a car of such unimaginable value. But at the time it seemed nothing other than right, the way the car wanted – insisted, even – to be driven. The only way to drive it properly. It occurred to me also that no one other than those who’d driven NART Spiders have ever heard that four-cam motor in its full outdoors, unadorned glory. And that’s a pretty special club to which to gain such undeserved access.

To me what makes the NART Spider so much more desirable than all those other 1960s drop-top Ferraris is neither its looks nor its scarcity, though to the market both are likely to prove compelling. Instead I loved it because it’s the real deal, first, second and third a Ferrari for driving, fourth, fifth and sixth one to be seen in. Among open Ferraris of that era, that makes it unique. I just hope that when the hammer falls in Monaco later this month, its new owner realises as much. For if all he or she ever does is look at it, they will see only a beautiful design and never the unique, extraordinary machine beneath.