Leader of the Peloton

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In Walt Disney’s fantasy world this Ferrari 250GT Tour de France was beaten by a VW Beetle, but in reality there’s little to touch it
Writer Richard Heseltine
Photographer Michael Ward

There is a very real possibility that this will end in tears. The McLaren GT test team is making its presence felt trackside, a blur of orange and black streaking past us as though we’re standing still. It’s followed shortly thereafter by a Porsche of some description, the eejit at the wheel receiving high-performance-driving tuition. Judging from his inability to locate the apex – any apex – thus far, heaven knows he needs it. Past the paddock area and… Oh good, the West Surrey Racing British Touring Championship team is descending upon us, a trio of bespoilered BMWs filling the mirrors of our mobile chicane. There is a time for heroics and clearly this isn’t it. Nobody else out there has insured a car for eight figures – and that doesn’t include a decimal point. Now might be a good time to stop for lunch.

The funny thing is, ‘our’ Ferrari 250GT Tour de France isn’t embarrassed out there despite the considerable age gap between equipment: the issue is the paucity of balls on the driver’s part. This glorious machine might have matured, but it certainly hasn’t diminished: it’s quick for its age, quick for any age. But then that is to be expected as the ‘TdF’ in marque speak was a major weapon in Ferrari’s period arsenal. Driven by a roll-call of stars and gentlemen drivers alike, it claimed more than a few scalps – and not just on the circuits.

It might be ‘only’ a GT, but this category took on greater emphasis following the horrific accident that claimed about 80 lives at the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours, where Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes was cannoned into the crowd. As we all know by rote, the after-effects of this blackest of black days were seismic, with everyone from politicians to the Pope passing judgement. In order to curb speeds, the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) governing body responded the following year by placing greater emphasis on the Gran Turismo category. Production-based machines would once again take centre stage. Ferrari had just the machine for the job, having unveiled its new series-manufacture 250GT at the March 1956 Geneva Motor Show, complete with a 220bhp 2953cc ‘Colombo’ V12.

The car on display in Switzerland featured an elegant body by Felice Mario Boano. This would in turn act as the jumping-off point for homologating a competition variant, the chassis and running gear providing the basis for a new strain with bodywork designed by Pinin Farina – still two words back then – and shaped by favoured panel beater Carrozzeria Scaglietti. And what a body, the coupé outline being both muscularly elegant and reasonably light thanks to the use of thin-gauge aluminium and other weight-saving measures such as partial Perspex glazing. Officially known as the 250GT Berlinetta, the prototype placed fourth overall and first in class on the April ’56 Giro di Sicilia thanks to the efforts of Olivier Gendebien and Jacques Washer. Later that same month, the Belgian duo was fifth on the road on the Mille Miglia while once again claiming category honours.

However, the event that would come to define the model occurred in September of that year. The Tour de France Automobile was a gruelling week-long event that encompassed six circuit races at venues such as Rouen and Montlhéry, two hillclimbs and several high-speed road sections.

Just to finish was an achievement.

The event wasn’t staged in 1955 following the Le Mans disaster, but it returned in 1956 with Marquis Alfonso ‘Fon’ de Portago and Edmont Nelson driving chassis 0557GT to an outright win following 3600 competitive miles. And, at a stroke, the car became colloquially known as the 250GT ‘Tour de France’.

Just to prove the model’s prowess as a long-distance racer, Gendebien went on to take a hat-trick of wins on this event from 1957-59 while also finishing third overall on the ’57 Mille Miglia. If that wasn’t enough, he teamed up with Paul Frère to win the ’57 Reims 12 Hours outright, the duo repeating the feat a year later in the same car. Not bad for a Gran Turismo.

Indeed, following Gendebien’s 1957 Tour victory, Autosport commented: “Undoubtedly, the 250GT Ferrari proved itself to be an ideal machine for an event that places a premium on performance on race circuits and speed hillclimbs. The Trophy de Portago, awarded by the Parisian Los Amigos club for meritorious performance, was given to Gendebien.” Following his third straight win, its report was rather less effusive. Bored would be closer. “Olivier Gendebien has won his third Tour de France in succession. Driving a 250GT Ferrari with Lucien Bianchi, he finished more than five minutes ahead of his nearest rival, Willy Mairesse, also in a Ferrari.” What it failed to mention was the fact that the car driven by ‘Jellybean’ boasted a new body style which, in a roundabout way, foretold the car that would replace the TdF towards the end of ’59: the 250GT ‘SWB’ Berlinetta.

Following the introduction of the new strain of Ferrari GT, the outgoing platform became retrospectively known as the ‘long-wheelbase’ version. And, as is to be expected, no two TdFs were ever truly alike. Through its brief production run (1956-59), it went through various physical reconfigurations which ultimately resulted in four different series-produced body styles (and that doesn’t include as many as five Zagato-bodied cars). These divergences are most obvious when viewing the rear bodywork, in particular the C-pillars: early cars had no louvres, the second-series strain had 14, the third strain had three and the final run featured just the one louvre either side. Of the quartet, 14-louvre TdFs are the rarest, with only nine examples made, and many arbiters of beauty believe they are the best-looking. It’s all relative.

The example pictured here was the first constructed of the second series design. It was delivered new on November 15, 1956 to racer/entrant Tony Parravano. This West Coast construction magnate was well known for fielding a mouth-watering array of exotica in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events. That, and for disappearing from view four days before he was due to appear in federal court to face charges of tax evasion. Chassis 0585 GT was entered for the Palm Springs road races in early April of 1957, only to be disqualified because the SCCA refused to recognise it as a production car. Following its owner’s vanishing act, the car remained in Southern California (unlike some Scuderia Parravano racers that surfaced years later in Mexico…). It subsequently changed hands a few times before making its bid for motor sport immortality on being acquired by Walt Disney Studios for use in the 1968 film, The Love Bug.

After having its backside handed to it by Herbie the all-conquering Volkswagen Beetle, 0585GT fell on hard times. Once the film was in the can, it passed through various hands before being reputedly spotted abandoned by the side of the road near Hollywood in the early 1970s. Fast-forward to 1994 and the car resurfaced and was restored in the UK, the TdF making its big re-entry at the 1997 Coys International Festival race meeting at Silverstone. It was sold in October of that year to American enthusiast Jon Masterson for $925,000. The California-based collector drove the car in numerous historic events including the Tour Auto, the Mille Miglia retrospective and the 2000 Shell Ferrari/Maserati Historic Challenge race at Le Mans. It was then sold for $6.71m in 2012 via RM Auctions, and more recently by marque specialist Talacrest.

Which brings us to today. With the track free and clear, it’s time to venture out once again. From inside, the Ferrari’s cabin is spartan, clean; no frills. The driver’s bucket seat is mounted relatively low, the view beyond the wood-rim Nardi wheel – past the vast rev counter and speedo – and across the acreage of bonnet being life-affirming before you so much as crank the engine. It’s quite a sight. And what an engine: there’s always a sense of theatre when starting a classic Ferrari and this one doesn’t disappoint. The V12 fires with fanfare but without the expected histrionics. There’s merely a slight ticking from the fuel pumps followed by the briefest of churns before the engine catches. It sounds epic, all gnarly, pent-up fury. As such, it’s the polar opposite of modern day Ferraris with their parpy flat-plane-crank emissions.

Press in the somewhat abrupt clutch, select first and, following a clumsy bunny hop, we’re moving. The Tour de France feels as though it is straining at the leash. It wants to move quickly, and it wants to do so now. Once on the circuit, it accelerates with enthusiasm: in period, Ferrari claimed the TdF produced an honest 260bhp, enough of the good stuff for a 0-100mph time of 16sec and top speed of about 140mph. For once, the factory stats appear believable. While it might not be the easiest of cars to drive slowly, not least because it’s clearly unhappy chuntering away in a low gear, it’s pretty easy at speed. Anyone well versed with old cars could drive it someway south of ten-tenths without tripping over themselves so long as you don’t think of the eye-watering price tag.

The engine dominates the experience. It’s vocal, that’s for sure. Hit 5000rpm in second and it sounds as though the V12 is spinning off its axis. It’s probably a case of perception rather than reality, but there appears to be little rotational inertia. It just revs and revs and then revs some more. You just don’t expect it to be so smooth. Under advisement, you don’t explore the upper levels of the rev range, but then you don’t need to.

Some reports claim the gear change is ponderous and notchy, but that just isn’t the case. You cannot make lightning changes – it won’t let you, but nor can you afford to be tactile. You have to be firm and expect some resistance across the gate, but it’s next to impossible to grandma a gear shift. The steering is predictably heavy at walking pace but lightens appreciably at speed. It’s well weighted, but you change the car’s direction as much with the throttle as the wheel: arrive at a corner, lift a little, hit the apex and then power out with the tail stepping out ever so slightly. This isn’t the driver acting the big man and coming over all ‘Earl of Oversteer’. There are no heroics here. It’s merely the car’s natural cornering attitude and it isn’t remotely intimidating.

Once the tail starts moving, it’s predicable to the point that only a little winding of the steering wheel is required to straighten the line. As for the drum brakes, they’re heavy in the paddock, and require quite a shove when scrubbing off speed, but they do eventually bite and don’t threaten to fade.

It’s an inconvenient truth, but some early Ferraris are – whisper it – unpleasant to drive. If experience teaches us anything, it’s that most of them don’t get driven much further than the end of their owner’s driveway and, as such, they tend to throw hissy fits when pressed into service. That isn’t the case here. This car feels beautifully set up and, as such, you want to keep driving it. The prospect of doing a Gendebien and racing one flat chat for 3000 miles or more is perhaps pushing it, though: the cabin gets very toasty very quickly as there’s little in the way of meaningful ventilation, and you would probably be deaf by flag fall. But, and it’s an important but, we’re struggling to think of another GT car of the period that can match it for either pace or beauty. It really is in a class of one. It always has been.

Thanks to John Collins, www.talacrest.com

*****

An unsung hero

Olivier Gendebien is rarely mentioned as a racing great, despite his extraordinary record of sports car success

Few drivers have ever been more closely identified with a particular car than Olivier Gendebien. The Belgian’s glittering résumé includes victory in several classic motor races, but his successes aboard the 250GT Tour de France in all of its many flavours did much to burnish his reputation as an endurance specialist.

That said, the signs were there early on. Born into wealth in Brussels on January 12 1924, Gendebien had been a paratrooper during WWII before working in the Congo. There, he met Charles Fraikin with whom he would act as co-driver on returning to Europe. They stayed together until 1955, the year in which they won the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally in a Mercedes-Benz 300SL. By this time, Gendebien had already achieved much as a driver, not least sixth place in the GP des Frontières at Chimay in 1952 aboard an Écurie Francorchamps Veritas, and overall honours in the following year’s Coupe de Spa.

In 1954 alone, he notched up class wins in the Round Italy Rally, the Tulip Rally and the Northern Roads Rally.

In 1955 Gendebien was offered a seat with Scuderia Ferrari, although his spell didn’t begin well as he crashed out of practice for the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod. A year later he belied his lack of single-seater experience to finish fifth and claim a point on his World Championship Grand Prix debut in Argentina. He also furthered his reputation as a sports car star with second place finishes in the Buenos Aires 1000Kms (with Phil Hill) and the Nürburgring 1000Kms (alongside Alfonso de Portago), third at Le Mans (with Maurice Trintignant) and fourth on the Targa Florio (with Hans Herrmann). Not only that, he finished third on Liège-Rome-Liège Rally and the Tour de France aboard Jacques Swaters’ 250GT.

Gendebien would claim countless scalps the following season with the fastback Ferrari, but he was only just warming up. He claimed his first win of the 1957 season with victory on the Giro di Sicilia in an Écurie Francorchamps 250GT TdF and a year later scored his first victory on the Targa Florio, sharing a works 250TR with Luigi Musso. He would take a repeat win in a 246SP in 1962 alongside Willy Mairesse and Pedro Rodríguez. Other major wins included the Sebring 12 Hours in ’59 (with Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Chuck Daigh), ’60 (in a Porsche, with Herrmann) and ’61 (with Hill) plus the Nürburgring 1000Kms in ’62 (with Hill). Not forgetting his four wins at Le Mans (‘58, ‘60-62).

For all his many achievements in sports cars, Gendebien never won a World Championship GP. He started only 14 between 1956 and 1961, his best results being accrued aboard a Yeoman Credit Cooper T51 in 1960. He finished third at Spa, the race in which his team-mate Chris Bristow perished, and second to Jack Brabham at Reims. Following his final triumph at Le Mans, Gendebien retired from racing at the grand old age of 38. He died on October 2 1988, aged 74, his legacy as one of the sports car greats not fully having been recognised during his lifetime.

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