Red dragon

The secret of race success for the Ferrari 375Plus was finding drivers capable of controlling it. Andrew Frankel climbs aboard and find time has not calmed it’s wild ways

They sent the children inside when we started the Ferrari 375Plus and when its motor fired, such was the bolt of pain that shot through my ears, I briefly wished I joined them. It was the sound of the largest engine Ferrari had then made and, some say, the most powerful too. The noise was born in the combustion chambers of the 5-litre V12, clothed in the thrash of cam chains and suck of quadruple choke Weber carburettors and spat down the manifolds and out of exhausts entirely unencumbered by silencer boxes. A V16 BRM is not a lot louder than this.

The difference is, you’d no more attempt to drive the BRM on the public road than take to the track in a pedal-car; if I was going to drive this Ferrari, the public road was all there was.

Looking back, it is perhaps as well that the 375Plus scared me so comprehensively before I sat in it; it was perfect preparation for what followed. Happily, experience of one of its closer relatives, the 340 Mexico (Motor Sport, January 1998) gave some idea of what was in store but nothing you could read and no experience could convey the enormity of the occasion and the sheer bloody difficulty involved in driving car. As a device to show the limitations of yourself and mid-’50s technology, it knows no equal. Except this is only a car from the mid-’50s insofar as that is when it was built. At Le Mans in 1954 it went into battle against the D-type Jaguar, a car with disc brakes, independent suspension, a syncromesh gearbox and part monocoque construction. Look at the specification of the Ferrari and you will see it differs in no particular detail from that of racers almost since the dawn of the sport: a ladder chassis suspended by leaf springs, slowed by drum brakes and powered by an engine which transmitted its output to the wheels via a crash gearbox. The 375Plus is effectively prewar in both concept and execution.

Why, then, did it beat the new-fangled D-type (driven by the same drivels who’d won the race the year before), despite appalling weather playing directly to the Jaguar’s most conspicuous strengths? Read the race reports and explanations are plentiful; but the real reason is the same as that which ensured the Ferrari also claimed fastest lap: that monstrous motor under the bonnet.

Flames are flicking from the exhausts as its owner blips the throttle. The engine is the ultimate development of Aurelio Lampredi’s mighty V12 which found fame in Ferrari’s 375 Grand Prix car, as the first (and last) car to beat the all-conquering Alfa-Romeo 159 in a straight fight. It was used in various sizes and states of tune for Formula One, sportscars and his fledgling roads cars too. There was nothing revolutionary about its construction, even in 1954; a 60 deg V12 operated by a single camshaft per bank and two valves per cylinder, cast in aluminium and displacing 4954cc.

But it was powerful. Ferrari claimed 344bhp at 6500rpm and this may be the one of the few times such figures could be relied upon, particularly as it was a scant 4bhp more than that alleged by its 4.5-litre predecessor. More power was easily achievable at the expense of mid-range torque and figures in the high 300s were bandied about at the time and seem plausible. The owner of this entirely rebuilt car says its motor now gives a nice, round 400bhp; the car weighs exactly a tonne. Perhaps you’d like to to know this gives it a better power to weight ratio than any roadgoing Ferrari ever built, F40 and F50 included.

Walk around the 375Plus and the differences between this, Pininfarina-styled car and Michelotti’s 340 Mexico could scarcely be more striking. Where the coupe is pugnacious, yet curiously avant-garde, the 375 has the effortless beauty of the world’s premier styling house. If it looks big in the photographs, that’s because it is, but the proportions are perfect, the bodywork flowing and the overall effect suggests a car radically less scary than it actually is.

But while it is large on the outside, within it is depressingly cramped. There’s more room than in a C-type Jaguar so at least I can drive it but a D is an upgrade to first class compared to this. You feel exposed, particularly when compared to its British rival which cocoons you away from the elements. The Ferrari’s driving position is very upright, the vast wheel resting in your lap.

The time for poring over its shape is gone. With a deep breath and a firm hand, first is selected and the heavy, multi-plate clutch raised. It engages smoothly and we pull away from the garage where it lives with a tractor of similar vintage and out into the sunshine.

I should mention now we’re in Italy, for this is not a stunt I’d consider in the UK. To say this car is loud is to suggest Oliver Reed was partial to a glass of wine once in a while. If we’d run this car in England, I’d have been arrested before I got into second gear.

Happily, however, this is not just Italy but Brescia, home of the Mille Miglia. As you will read in Peter Robinson’s accompanying story, Giuseppe Farina didn’t get far but the car remains one of the crown jewels of Ferrari’s sportscar history. No one is going to give you even a dirty look.

On the contrary, as we drive out to the hills, we’re cheered by all whose path we cross. Even at this pace, the car is difficult; partly this is because racing cars rarely like being driven slowly and this one took unusual exception to our modest pace. The Webers, never happier than with the throttles cracked open, spat dissent while even the torque-laden engine blared at us with grudging tolerance. This was a car born for better things than this.

An opening plateau at last provided something approaching an environment to the Ferrari’s liking. Free of traffic and wide of road, I could at last discover the true nature of the 375Plus.

Some racing cars, most in fact, are easier to drive fast than slow. Certainly more modem machinery with slick tyres and carbon brakes, truculent and tricky when cold, become model citizens once heat has been injected into such items. And even older cars stop feeling like a collection of unrelated components and unite into an harmonic whole once driven as intended by their manufacturer. There are exceptions to this rule, however, and you’re looking at one of them. The harder I drove the 375P1us, the more respect I had for Froilin Gonzalez and Maurice Trintignant who drove its sister for so long in such terrible weather at Le Mans.

Put simply, the car is vastly overpowered or, perhaps more accurately, under chassised. Find a straight road, select second gear and kick the throttle to the floor and it will take you to the other end of it faster than most could imagine any car going, let alone one built over 45 years ago. In the marque bible, Hans Tanner’s Ferrari, a 0-60mph time of 4sec flat is quoted despite the traction limitation of its skinny, tyres (it would spin its rear tyres all the way to 60mph and beyond if allowed). I have no better idea than you of its true top speed, but ratios were available to provide over 210mph in top, though, in reality, I expect its primitive aerodynamics would call it a day at around 180mph.

It’s enough, particularly if you’re expected to do as much in a rainstorm for 24 hours. Today speeds are more modest but still I find my work more than usually cut out for me. The problem is not the engine or its gearbox which slices between its ratios easily if you stab the clutch twice between ratios. It’s the steering and brakes, the latter seemingly almost as adept at changing the car’s direction as the former. The helm is heavy and controls your direction more by way of outline guidance than total command. The brakes? They’re just unreliable, sometimes slowing with consistency, sometimes pointing the nose towards the hedge as if to suggest this might be a rather more efficient means of losing speed.

In a car such as this pushing further on public roads was not on the agenda. As it was, it still provides an insight into Ferrari’s way of racing. And if it seems brutish and curious today, you need to temper that with the unarguable fact that it also worked and that easily its most limiting factor was the bloke behind the wheel. It made its debut at Agadir when Farina won. In the Tour of Sicily Maglioli was leading when he crashed, and did so again while second in the Mille Miglia. Gonzalez then won the support race for the Daily Express Trophy and again at Le Mans. Finally it entered the last Carrera PanAmericana. Maglioli won outright The Ferrari 375Plus may not be the most accommodating thing in which to stooge around the roads, but when it mattered, when the agenda was that for which it was born, it was just about unbeatable. Jaguar was not alone in discovering this the hard way.