A renowned and sucessful endurance racer and busienssman, Luigi Chinetti was both Enzo Ferrari’s great friend and adversary
Enzo Ferrari was a man with few friends. One of the most enduring – on-again/off-again love/hate relationships over many years – was with Luigi Chinetti. The enigmatic American Ferrari importer – as he became in the 1950s – was absolutely out of the same mould as Il Drake of Maranello. He was a single-minded businessman-turned-racer, and which side of his capability took precedence tended to vary from month to month and from week to week.
He had grown up in Jerago con Orago, north of Milan, and became an apprentice mechanic at the Alfa Romeo company’s Il Portello works in 1917, aged 16. As a young man he leaned politically to the left, which made him uncomfortable – to put it mildly – with the rise of Mussolini’s fascist movement in his native country. Ultimately, he voted with his feet, moved to France and settled in Paris, building a living servicing and wheeling and dealing Alfa Romeo cars.
He also began driving them in sports car competition, sharing most notably at Le Mans in 1932 with wealthy (and talented) owner-driver Raymond Sommer in an Alfa Romeo 8C-2300. They won outright. Back again at La Sarthe for 1934, co-driving with another very capable and well-heeled owner-driver, Philippe ‘Phi-Phi’ Etancelin from Rouen, he won his second Le Mans 24 Hours. In between these two signal successes in 1933 he had done the trick yet again, in the Belgian Spa 24 Hours, again in an Alfa Romeo – shared with the dashing Monegasque playboy/professional Louis Chiron.
Chinetti had built a reputation as a reliable and mechanically sympathetic endurance racing specialist driver. He was also a renowned Mr Fixit within the high-performance sports car and motor racing world, with extremely strong and influential contacts – outside the political sphere – in Italy.
When World War 2 engulfed Europe in 1940, Chinetti decamped with another well-heeled client-driver, Rene Dreyfus, sailing to America where they would participate in the year’s Indianapolis 500. As the situation in Europe worsened, Chinetti – no friend to fascism, remember – built his future in America, working and making new contacts with fellow Italian wheeler-dealer/technician Alfred Momo, who would tie-up with Briggs Cunningham post-war.
With the war over, racing resumed in Europe and Chinetti began to split his time between Paris and America, reviving his multiple connections with the French and Italian racing fraternity. In particular he revived a relationship with Enzo Ferrari which had endured since their days together at Alfa Romeo and within the Milan motor sporting community. He encouraged Ferrari to build his first sports cars with promises of finding him buyers – on both sides of the Atlantic. And he put his driving ability where his sales talk came from, winning the 1948 Paris 12 Hours at Montlhéry as well as running strongly before retirement in the season’s Spa 24 Hours.
When the Le Mans 24 Hours was revived post-war – in 1949 – Chinetti entered a Ferrari 166 with the British former Frazer Nash exponent, Peter Mitchell-Thompson – Lord Selsdon – and they won, Chinetti driving some 23 of the 24 hours. Selsdon promptly purchased the car, while back at Spa for yet another 24-hour race Chinetti won again – co-driving a 166 with Jean Lucas.
He became a great ambassador for Ferrari, encouraging any sports car-minded American with money to ‘go Ferrari’. In the 1951 Carrera Panamericana he rode as mechanic/navigator to Piero Taruffi in the winning Ferrari 212 Inter Vignale coupé.
He would continue to drive and/or act as entrant, preparer, team patron for what became the North American Racing Team (NART) which became one of the ACO’s firmest friends and supporters – finally winning the Le Mans 24 Hours with its Ferrari 275LM shared by Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt in 1965…
Enzo Ferrari made Chinetti his American Ferrari agent – his territory becoming all areas east of the Mississippi, although he dealt with plenty of Californians and Texans too – including Phil Hill and Carroll Shelby…
Chinetti remained based in Greenwich, Connecticut after his retirement before dying in 1994, aged 93.
Enzo Ferrari and Luigi Chinetti did considerable business together – and the latter worked wonders to help the former’s marque establish its largest export market – in the USA. But disputes between them would often flare, Ferrari refusing Chinetti’s repeated exhortations to adopt automatic transmissions, air conditioning and electric windows – and after almost total early domination of 1950s American road racing, Ferrari stopped making cars capable of competing at the top level in the major US road racing series.
Into the 2000s, Luigi Sr’s son, Luigi ‘Coco’ Chinetti Jr, was having restoration work carried out in Modena at Marco Baldi’s specialist workshop. The cars involved were two Ferrari P-series sports-prototypes – chassis ‘0812’ and ‘0814’, and a 275 GTB. The open-cockpit P-cars were both important historically – ‘0812’ having won at Sebring and Ste Jovite while ‘0814’ is thought to be the winner of Le Mans, no less, in 1963 while in 250P spec, although that understanding has recently been challenged.
In February 2000, Ferrari – remarkably – publicly accused Chinetti of building replica Ferraris and had the authorities impound the cars. The Fiat-background general motor industry apparatchiks of Ferrari were flexing their muscles, but they had chosen the wrong guy to push around. A two-year legal battle ensued, during which Chinetti Jr made his case for having purchased the two cars from Ferrari in 1964, and having owned both cars ever since. He produced the original Ferrari shipping documents as proof. Game, set and match. The factory was hoist by its own paperwork. After Chinetti Jr was cleared by the ‘Fiscal Police’, the cars were returned to him in late 2002. But the Ferrari-Chinetti litigation ground on….
When Luigi Sr died in 1994, Luigi Jr became his sole heir and executor. Some sympathetic soul then tipped off the Internal Revenue Service of further estate assets in Europe. Luigi Sr had indeed loaned a 1951 2-litre V12-engined Ferrari 166 Formula 2 car to Ferrari for display, initially in the Monza museum and then at the Dino Ferrari Technical School in Modena before being shown in the Ferrari Museo upon its opening in 1990. When his dad died, Luigi Jr was unaware that Papa had never signed the car over to Ferrari, which was why it was not included in his original list of estate assets.
The IRS investigation then found that Ferrari had no documentation proving it owned the car. For a time, Ferrari seemed to agree. In a fax dated 21 September 1997, Ferrari Affari Legali sent a declaration for Chinetti’s approval, signed by Avvocato Mauro Cavadini. It read: “Whereas Ferrari SpA has had in its possession a Ferrari motor vehicle known as Ferrari F2 chassis nr 122 (year 1951) (hereinafter, ‘The Vehicle’), which once belonged to Mr Luigi J Chinetti, Sr.
“Whereas, Mr Chinetti has now passed away and his estate is claiming ownership of The Vehicle. Now therefore, the undersigned on behalf of Ferrari SpA acknowledges no ownership of The Vehicle and specifically releases, quits claims, and conveys or otherwise transfers to the estate of Luigi Chinetti Sr The Vehicle, at no cost or expense to the estate with the exception of transportation costs and customs duties, and that Ferrari SpA shall make no further claim to The Vehicle.”
Consequently, in 1998 Chinetti Jr was charged additional tax due on the Formula 2 car and also upon Luigi Sr’s ownership of a Milan apartment, in which first his parents, and later his sister, had lived. Jr paid up. But when he asked Ferrari to return his Formula 2 car to him, Ferrari reversed the Cavadini release and claimed that Sr had in fact transferred ownership to Ferrari. It couldn’t support this claim with any paperwork, so in July 2011, Chinetti Jr sued Ferrari in a Florida Court – in an action later transferred to a Modena court, in Italy…
While the suit dragged on for seven years, the car remained in the Ferrari Museo. And on June 19 this year the Italian Judge came down on Chinetti Jr’s side – in Modena – against Ferrari… She not only awarded Luigi Jr the car but charged Ferrari €23,500 for costs.
The Old Man – Chinetti that is – would surely have been proud of yet another victory.
Doug Nye is the UK’s most eminent motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s
IMAGES: LAT, Lyndon McNeil