Fantasy Overture

Rebuffed by the authorities, orphaned and winner only by default at Le Mans, Ferrari's 250 LM had a sticky start. Laurence Meredith recalls boyhood dreams of Maranello's misnamed missile.

Most folks, if pressed, can remember one childhood Christmas that was better than all the others, and as I am no exception I fear that it is now time to make a painful confession. The plain truth of the matter is that I spent quite a number of weeks during the ninth year of my life thinking that I actually was a 250LM Ferrari — and with good reason too, for an eight-year-old. December 25 1966 dawned, and, delving into the thick woolly sock that doubled as my Yuletide 'prezzies stocking and at other times as one of a pair my father wore inside his wellies while out rallying in a Cooper S, I discovered that Santa Claus had brought me the Corgi 1:43-scale Ferrari 250LM, complete with its little blue and yellow box.

It was the most exciting miniature I'd ever seen; bright red, of course, with blue tinted windows, wire wheels, number 4 on its doors, opening engine lid and the famous yellow and black Prancing Horse motif on the bonnet. But a problem arose. As the initials of my name are LM, I thought this car had been made specially for me and, over the ensuing weeks, ran everywhere at high speed making irritating 'vroom vroom' noises in imagined imitation of the chromed plastic V12 which lay ahead of the spare wheel beneath the bulbous, swooping engine lid. And it made no matter where I was. The V12 vroom just kept vibrating my vocal chords. I was a 250LM Ferrari.

Against all the odds, Jochen Rindt won the 1965 Le Mans 24 Hours in a 250LM, and the thrill of receiving a model similar to his car — and a good one at that — has remained with me for 30 years. Which is why I wasted no time at all in driving 90 miles for the opportunity to 'play' with Brandon Wang's pristine, real 250LM. And before we go any further, I did eventually discover that LM actually stands for Le Mans. So there!

One of just 32 LMs, Brandon's 1965 example was restored in Italy to its current pristine condition back in 1982, and is one of three left-hand drive cars, which also has the revised long nose. Its now scriptural form, penned and created by Pininfarina, is almost indescribably beautiful, a true icon of the art of Ferrari. Most folks are agreed that the 250 GTO was tops, but for me, Christmas 1966 has dictated otherwise; the 250LM is just the most sensuous Ferrari, its feminine lines belying the 300 horses — and real horses too, not ponies — under the rear lid.

From the shark-like upper lip on the radiator opening at the front, through the massive wraparound windscreen to the cylindrical rear wings with their 'nostril' air intakes, this automotive creature breathes a courteous, irresistible charm. In Ferrari lore the 250LM is something of an oddball, because for a start all 32 LMs except the first one should have been called 275LMs. At this stage, the Commendatore generally referred to his creations by the cubic capacity of their engine cylinders — 250cc in the case of the first V12 3-litre LM. But, as all subsequent 250LMs had 3.3-litre V12 engines with 275cc cylinders, one might have supposed that 275LM would have been the likely appellation bestowed upon the LM series. No.

Of course some cars were actually known as 275LMs, but never officially at the factory. But anyone who is prepared to argue about this car's 'proper name has rather lost the point. Actually, it was Enzo Ferrari who lost the point where the 250LM is concerned. Through his heavily tinted sunshades, he saw it as little more than a modified 250 GTO: had the CSI agreed, it would have been eligible for the international GT class.

But they didn't. Enzo had not built the 100 cars necessary for homologatIon in this category, and, having already turned a blind eye to the shortfall on GTO production, the rule makers were not for further bending. So the 250LM was homologated into Group 4 with 'big bangers' like our 'Enery's GT40, against which it stood no chance. Signor Ferrari was not amused. He should have been relieved. Group 4 was for manufacturers who had built 50 cars of the same type and our Enzo also fell short of this figure by quite some margin — 18 cars to be exact. And Enzo was not for being told what to do by anybody — especially the international 'anybodies' responsible for world motor sport; with the result that no 250LM was ever officially entered for competition of any kind by the factory. Even Commendatori sulk occasionally.

So, throughout its comparatively long motor racing career between 1964 and 1967, the 250LM was successfully campaigned by Ferrari importers, the US NART outfit, Ecurie Francorchamps, Maranello Concessionaires under the command of Ronnie Hoare, and Scuderia Filipinetti. And, of course, there was a string of privateers including Paul Vestey, Peter Clarke, David Prophet and, among many others, David Piper, who to his eternal credit continues to campaign his wonderful car in historic events today.

After the inevitable round of teething troubles, the 250LM's first success came in 1964 when Graham Hill and Jo Bonnier (Damon's late godfather) scored an outright win in the Reims 12-Hour race, despite a major gearbox problem that appears to have afflicted these cars throughout. It was no fluke win either; John Surtees and Lorenzo Bandini brought their similar car home in second. Later that same year Scarfiotti and Stewart finished third in the Paris 1000kms, which, all in all, was a fair acquittal for a new car without official factory backing...

Then during the first race of 1965 at Sebring, David Piper really set the cat among the pigeons. By any standards his little car was outclassed by the 'big boys', and despite a problem with the sparking plugs, which saw them down in 54th place at one stage, Piper and co-pilot Tony Maggs drove a magnificent race to finish third.

A similar situation arose at Le Mans in June; the GT4Os and prototype Ferraris were out in force, but so was our old friend — well known to everyone in motor racing circles — Dr Sodt. All the Fords had fallen by the wayside by one-third distance, and the prototype Ferraris were experiencing all kinds of problems, which left the Ecurie Francorchamps 250LM out in the lead. Until a puncture put an end to its chances at any rate, and Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory inherited the top spot in the NART-entered car. Theirs was a fine victory and one which put an enduring, if cursory, smile on the face of 'our' Enzo. And why not? After all, the CSI had insisted on enforcing the rules when it came to homologating these cars, which upset the Commendatore a bit in the process. Damned impudence!

David Piper finished a magnificent fourth in the 12-hour race at Reims in 1965, but the 1966 season was something of a washout for the 250LMs. The two great 24-hour races — Daytona and Le Mans — saw Rindt (the highest finisher) place ninth in the former, and the sole 250LM entrant for Le Mans driven by Gosselin/de Keyn, failed to finish. David Piper and Mike Parkes did, however, win the Paris 1000kms later in the year.

By 1967 it was virtually all over for the 250LM. Richard Attwood, who went on to score Porsche's first outright victory at Le Mans in 1970, won the British Grand Prix supporting sports car race, and David Piper (that man again), partnered by Attwood, took seventh overall at Le Mans 1968, a great achievement considering that the opposition consisted of GT4Os (yet again), Ferrari P4s and a string of 8-cylinder 908 Porsches.

In between all the major events there were, of course, dozens of placings and victories in Minor events, in addition to some fairly poor finishes in major competitions. Which brings us nicely back td Brandon Wang's delectable car, chassis 5903. Regrettably, its competition career was undistinguished and short-lived. The Italian pairing of Toppetti/Grana entered it for the Targa Florio on May 9 1965 but failed to finish. A year later, it was back for the Targa and fared better in the hands of Ravetti/Starraba who finished 16th overall. An improvement. And then it 'went to ground' for a couple of years before being brought out for 1968 Stallavena Hillclimb event, where it finished first in class and fifth overall. Excellent.

Since Brandon Wang acquired it in the spring of 1994, it has been right up there with the historic best; victory in the 1 Hour Montlhery GT Endurance race, second overall in the Tour de France and then... the gearbox broke — a familiar LM problem. However, this car's Spartan race history in no way denigrates Brandon's cherished possession; it remains, after all, one of just 32 examples of the 250LM, and this in itself makes it sufficiently important to warrant a very high place indeed in the global pecking order of coveted. desirable classics.

What makes it particularly special is its docility; this is the last purpose-built Ferrari racer that can also be used as a road car. Naturally, it's not the sort of vehicle that can trickled through slow-moving heavy traffic, but show it an open twisting road, and it's everything that Ferrari stands for. What more, there's just enough room under the bonnet to accommodate an overnight bag in front of the huge intakes which feed fresh air to the cabin.

Its specification is, of course, classic 1960s; an all-alloy body clothing a steel tubular-frame chassis, with suspension by wishbones and coil springs front and rear. Ventilated disc brakes were employed all-round, the rears mounted inboard.

Although Enzo Ferrari didn't especially like the engine being in the 'wrong' place, he was getting used to it by the mid-1960s, and this V12 was mounted between the two large alloy fuel tanks and bolted directly to the 5-speed gearbox/transaxle assembly. Three optional final-drive ratios were catalogued in addition to the standard one.

The engine pushes out a fairly remarkable (by 1960s standards) 300bhp at 7500rpm, but then it hasn't got a lot of option considering there are no fewer than six twin-choke downdraught Webers feeding fuel to the twelve cylinders at a rate of 9mpg. And just like all Ferrari V12 racing engines, it sounds! My God it sounds — a real 'chin-dropper'.

The four white-painted tail pipes emit an amazing combination of harmonies at both ends of the audible keyboard. Inevitably, there's the familiar ground-rumbling burble and a powerful mid-range monotone but, on top of these is a spine-tingling scream that changes pitch depending on the position of the driver's right foot. Mix all that with the usual mechanical thrash from the camshafts — one per bank, of course — and elsewhere, and you get a fairly explosive cocktail of cacophonous cackle that, really, can only come from a Ferrari V12.

Brandon reckons that the gear change — a typically crisp bang-in, bang-out affair — is difficult until you're used to it, as is the handling in wet weather. "Tricky," he says. But to be fair to the LM it, like all mid-engined machines with a relatively low polar moment of inertia, will behave like a Scalextric car — as if guided in a slot — until the chap in charge of the controls attempts to defy the laws of physics.

The roadholding today is also enhanced by modern, ultra-grippy tyres, which is why this car is fitted with cast-alloy road wheels similar to those David Piper runs on his car. The original wires don't stand up too well to the increased cornering forces and, rather than risk breaking the spoked Borranis these alloys, which also look superb, do a better job.

Incidentally, the cabin is not built for big fellas. The passenger seat, although just useable for its intended purpose, is something of a token gesture, and the drivers seat is, in McLaren F1 mode, very close to the centre of the car. It doesn't take long to get comfortable in a place like this, though. But not too comfortable. It's difficult to imagine what it must have been like to compete in the Targa or at the Sarthe 30 years ago at the wheel of one of these cars, but I know precisely the excitement I felt when Santa Claus brought me that wonderful Corgi model all that time ago. And I still have it, proudly displayed in a wooden case next to the 250 GTO, Daytona, 512S, Lancia D50 et al. I only hope that Brandon Wang derives the same pleasure from his 250LM over the next 30 years.

Thanks are due to Brandon, and John and Gary Pearson who are responsible for fettling the car.