When Ferrari finesse met American muscle

After the P4 was made obsolete in sports car racing, Can-Am offered a lifeline. Two cars were converted; one survives in that form

Can-Am. Brute force and - well, quite a lot of technological ingenuity, actually. Yet it’s the hub-twisting torque of an enormous V8 Chevy we think of, or perhaps the kilo-horsepower of those ‘to hell with self-restraint’ 917/30 Porsches. Not much room for the operatic sound of high-revving quad cams or the gluttonous gurgle of a dozen Dellortos. Dress code was big boots, not sharp suits. That’s the way we see it now, knowing that capacity and power spiralled into Richter-scale excitement and then, with the odd aftershock, burned itself out. But look at the picture on this page: it’s delicate, has fine Italian bodywork and packs a modest 4.2-litre V12. It’s a Can-Am Ferrari.

In 1966 when the series was born the route was not mapped out. The American fondness for sheer cubic inches over engine complexity had been shown to work – witness Bruce McLaren’s Zerex-Oldsmobile Special – but surely a sophisticated European vehicle with pedigree racing power would show them the way home. And if that vehicle also sold for the road, then cue a queue outside the showroom.

Luigi Chinetti, Ferrari’s East Coast importer and NART team owner, had broken the trail, modifying NART’s 412P (the simpler non-injection privateer version of the Ferrari P3) and running it in two Can-Am races in 1967. The one time it finished it ran out seventh – not the best augury.

Gambling tycoon Bill Harrah was on the same wavelength. Ferrari factory pilot Chris Amon is the only man who drove the car in these pictures, chassis 0858, in its several arenas - prototypes, Can-Am and Libre sports cars, and he already had Can-Am history with McLaren in the debut season.

“Really the impetus came from Bill Harrah, who was the West Coast US Ferrari importer,” he says, speaking from his New Zealand home. “There was a bit of a debate at Ferrari about Can-Am – I was keen but not everyone was. Of course there were only about 100 people there and they were already looking after Formula 1, F2, sports cars and Tasman racing. However, Bill persuaded Ferrari it would help sales, and once it started everyone was very enthusiastic.”

There was another factor tipping Maranello this way during ’67: the most suitable car it had was the 330P4, currently fighting Porsche for the Makes’ title, and it would soon be redundant.

Smarting from Ford’s Le Mans 1-2-3 the year before, Maranello had cheered when its new contender copied that in the Daytona 24 Hours, the ’67 opener, two of the factory cars followed home by NART’s 412P.

Boasting a few more ccs than the P3, a little wider track, 30 more horses and a dozen extra valves – now three per pot – Mauro Forghieri’s design also received a new five-speed gearbox, with the brakes moved outboard to accommodate wider Firestone tyres. Nipped and tucked from the similar P3, the body was if anything slightly more beautiful, and when Amon and Lorenzo Bandini won at Monza it must have seemed surrounded by a scarlet halo. But Ford still took victory at Le Mans, the 7-litre MkIV heading the P4 of Scarfiotti and Mike Parkes by four laps, with 0858 third in the hands of Willy Mairesse and Jean Blaton.

However, the Makes’ title lay open right up to the last round, the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch. Bandini had died in his F1 Ferrari at Monaco, so to partner Amon Forghieri called in Jackie Stewart. “Mauro called and offered me the drive,” he says, “and I immediately said yes. I liked the car – I’d already driven a P1 for Maranello – and I liked Mauro. That was the best car I ever drove around Brands. It was bumpy back then, but Mauro got it just right – the springs and dampers were perfect and it handled beautifully.”

They were up against tough American opposition – and it wasn’t from Ford but Chaparral: the 2F of Phil Hill and Mike Spence. It was a tense race: Lolas beside the Chaparral on the front row, and frequent lead changes. Paul Hawkins, sharing 0858 with Jonathan Williams, led for a while, as did Amon in 0860, but despite a late sprint from Stewart the chequered flag fell on the winged white 2F.

“That car was just so fast, there was never any question of beating it,” says Stewart today, who finished second. What counted, though, was that the first Porsche was behind him. The title was Ferrari’s. Scarfiotti and Peter Sutcliffe took fifth in 0856, while 0858 placed sixth after a minor collision which meant a stop to bash out the tail. Williams remembers it: “Paul made a pre-emptive strike on Franco Lini [the team manager]. He rolled into the pits and before Lini could speak he said ‘sorry about the little ding, Franco’. And that was the end of that. A good car, but hard work – the clutch and brakes were heavy, but then it was designed to race for 24 hours.”

Though often called the most beautiful sports-racer ever (and today desperately valuable), the three P4s were now likely to be unceremoniously scrapped. Worried by the speeds the big Fords were reaching, the CSI had decided to run the International Championship for Makes for 3-litre Gp6 prototypes from 1968. The bigger cars weren’t banned – as long as 50 had been built. That saved the GT40 and Lola T70, but it cut the airline for the P4. Though it closed the season draped in glory, it became from that moment just an out-of-date racing car. Ferrari, whether the man or the company, was never sentimental, says Amon. “When I got there I was surprised there wasn’t a museum, but the cars were just gas-axed when they were finished with. A few engines were put in a shed – literally. I went poking around in there. Sports cars were sold sometimes, but mostly things got the chop.”

But Can-Am, whose races were late-season, brought a lifeline for a brace of these precious cars, chassis 0860 and 0858, the car here. In a lightning turnaround the racing department devised a Group 7 version, the spec for Can-Am. Gp7 had arisen to accommodate non-homologated big-engined specials, popular in both the UK and US, in races which were nearer sprints than endurance events. There was no pretence that you were racing a fast road car, as Gp4 and even Gp6 implied. That had in any case become by this time rather a delusion.

Really a sports car Formule Libre, Group 7 required two seats but no fixed windscreen height, lights, luggage space or spare wheel, and engine size was free. So the two P4s were stripped of the most seductive bodies ever to tote a suitcase and reshaped. Instead of the voluptuous convexity of the P4, the new line was much lower and tighter, with reverse curves where the lights used to be, a Lotus-like modesty panel of a screen, full-width rear spoiler and a fetching pair of low-line air intakes to cram more air down the injection trumpets.

There was little spare room in the V12 block, but they managed to bore it out to 4.2 litres, which together with increased compression liberated an extra 20 or so bhp over the P4’s 450. Sitting on wider wheels and slightly lightened, the modified version was titled Can-Am 350.

The cars were sent over for the 1967 season, running under Harrah’s Modern Classic Motors banner, with white stripes. If they didn’t win, they were privateer entries; if they did, it would be Enzo’s way of thumbing his nose at the CSI, having already elected not to contest that season’s Makes series. Amon drove 0860, while 0858 was steered by Ferrari’s frustrated F2 signing Jonathan Williams. He’d already driven it in the Brands finale, but he wouldn’t get the Can-Am 350 version any higher.

“It had no vices,” says Amon of the modified car. “They got some weight out of it and it was more compact, but I can’t say there was a lot of difference from the P4. It just wasn’t quick enough. Lots of top end but it didn’t have the torque of the American stuff, and the cars were heavier. They were designed to last for 24 hours.” Chris managed a fifth at Laguna Seca and eighth at Riverside before crashing out at, ironically, Las Vegas. Harrah’s gamble didn’t pay out. McLaren had perfected the recipe with the M6A and M8A, and was set to steal the show.

0858 had a rougher time in the US. Eighth at Laguna, Williams didn’t finish either of the other races, retiring after collision damage in one and a pile-up at the other. However, he reckons the problems didn’t all lie with the power: “I did all the testing at Monza, where you didn’t learn much, and at Riverside. There we were faster on the straight than the Yankee stuff, but lost out in the corners. It just didn’t handle. It was still heavy to drive – the gearlever would break your wrist if you timed it wrong – and the tyres didn’t fit on the wider rims. They were running on the shoulders. We had more grunt but less grip. Still, it was a great effort on a small budget.”

And most of that budget came from outside. “Oh, the Harrah money made it happen,” says Williams. “He was an interesting guy, but in all the Can-Am races I never saw him smile once. I don’t know if that was his way, or if he was thinking he’d wasted all this money…”

The whole project was an unexpected failure for Ferrari, says Amon. “It was a surprise to them, but no surprise to me…” While Ferrari hauled off to develop its new 3-litre prototypes, David McKay bought 0858 to race in Australia in Scuderia Veloce colours, bearing a green noseband. The perfect driver for it? Ferrari’s Chris Amon, down there through (our) winter for the 1968 Tasman series.

“I’d raced for McKay in earlier days,” Chris says. “He wasn’t wealthy, he was just good at making deals. Scuderia Veloce was a good operation, well run.”

Local regs leaned towards Europe in requiring a spare wheel – but with the new shrink-wrapped bodywork there was nowhere to put it. So McKay bolted a bracket on the tail where the fat black slick hung upright, as on a vintage car. Despite the ungainly look, Amon doesn’t recall that it upset the handling too much. Lights were also inserted, smaller and neater than what reaching 180-plus on the Mulsanne straight at night required.

As there was usually some sports car racing alongside the Tasman race itself Amon was on hand to pilot 0858 round Sandown, Bathurst, Warwick Farm and Longford. A true road circuit, Longford steered between buildings, kerbs, ditches and telegraph poles; watching a Can-Am car round there must have been pretty spectacular. It was also the scene of a disappointment for Amon, who only had one serious rival for his exotic machine.

“I was up against Frank Matich with his Can-Am car. The only place I felt I could beat him was Longford with its long straight where the Ferrari could really get going – but the bugger didn’t turn up! Still, I got some sort of record.” Indeed – 182mph on that straight and a lap of 122.2mph, an Australian track record not beaten until 1996. McKay and then Bill Brown also drove the car, but Australia was not to prove fruitful.

There were more passport stamps and new paint for 0858 when Paul Hawkins bought it and entered the Springbok series in South Africa. It was here that the CA350 at last found its niche. Running in Team Gunston livery, Hawkins and John Love were third in the Kyalami 9 Hours, and thereafter Hawkins scored a run of victories through 1968. He also raced it briefly in Europe, but in ’69 he was killed in his Lola T70 at Oulton Park.

The next owner would be British privateer Alastair Walker. “I bought it from Hawkins’ vicar father after he was killed,” he says. “It needed a total rebuild - luckily it came with spares so I could do that.” In late ’69 Walker also tackled the South African series, often sharing with Robin Widdows, but apart from a second place in the 3 Hours of Lourenço Marques it did not prove reliable. “Then I blew up the engine at Bulawayo,” he recalls cheerfully, “but I still had enough spares to fix it. It seemed to run fine afterwards!”

Walker later sold the car to David Piper (Piper having raced against it in his own P3/4), and from there it went to an American collector. That was 38 years ago, and it hasn’t changed hands since.

Of the two CA350s, 0860 has been returned to P4 spec with a new nose and tail and is in a French collection. Thankfully for all of us who love pedigree racing cars, the third P4 which completed the 1967 Ferrari trinity avoided the executioner’s axe; the only one in its original state, it lives in Canada.

And 0858 remains as the only intact example of Ferrari’s first foray into a very foreign field. There were a couple more tries, with the very handsome 612 and the brutish 712, neither quick enough, but Can-Am was never high on Ferrari’s list of ‘must dos’. It clearly required a huge engine, but for the Italian maker there was no road car spin-off. Enzo did not want to sell booming 7-litre road cars, he wanted to hear his engines shrieking to an ear-piercing red line. Engines which derived from racing cars, not the other way round.

Can-Am never expanded to Europe as originally intended (although Interserie offered a haven for Gp7 cars) and until Porsche became involved Europe’s input to this dramatic and innovative series was restricted to chassis, not power units. Ferrari wanted to change that, but perhaps not quite enough.

The car is currently for sale through RM Auctions