Whether it’s owning them, encountering them, or just reading about them, powerful historic cars have an ability to transport you to a bygone age. They can also be a welcome form of escapism in these dark and difficult times. When I say powerful, I don’t only mean horsepower, I also mean power of character.
In my book, SuperFinds, I researched many tales about sports cars and race cars of the 1930s, ’50s and ’60s that had been hidden, abandoned or lost, only to be discovered once more. I featured more than 600 of them.
The lives that some of these cars had lived were indeed amazing. Some of them are very significant and important cars – real survivors, found in the most incredible of circumstances.
Take for example, the 1960 Ferrari 250 GT SWB Competizione that was discovered under the mayor’s house in Lima, Peru. It was shipped, not in the protection of a container, but on the deck of an oil tanker on a two-month voyage back to Italy. It was then delivered by rail from Genoa to Monaco. Covered in dirt and surface rust, it sat in ‘safe-keeping’ on a rooftop behind the Monaco-Monte-Carlo train station because the new owner was too ‘busy’ to collect it. Apparently he wished to go sailing for a few weeks in the Mediterranean before taking it home – unthinkable today. It’s remarkable too, that nobody stole it. These days, it is one of the priciest Ferraris out there.
Above: 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB Competizione. Discovered in Lima, Peru, the rare SWB found its way onto a rooftop close to the train station in Monaco.
In researching the many stories, I learned a few things about the longevity of old race cars and their natural ‘energy’. Even after decades of total neglect, race cars found in scrap yards came back strongly in the 1970s, more or less directly after their rescues. The first club races show these pre-war racers on the starting grids, standing on their wobbly wire wheels, engines revving hard on full methanol power, exhausts fuming like chimneys. All very lovely.
You could see and hear them on the race tracks, pretty much as they were discovered in places such as Argentina, Uruguay or Madagascar. Restoration wasn’t yet an activity generally associated with cars. Some fiddling and cleaning of the engines was mostly enough to get them going again. After a few weeks of work, the old racers were back, operating at full capacity as if nothing had ever happened to them. Many of these were Alfas, Maseratis and Ferraris.
Above: Ferrari 166 Touring Barchetta. Named ‘Chiodi’ had an illustrious race history with the Marzotto family and was discovered in an old barn near Rome.
I often wondered how the old machines could be so durable and feel so incredibly well built? After spending a lot of time with the 1932 Alfa Romeo Tipo B (P3) Monoposto, s/n 5003, I had the feeling the old Alfa had an everlasting soul.
Above: Ex-Caracciola/Sommer and ex-Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeo Tipo B/P3 in front of Enzo Ferrari’s house in Fiorano, Maranello. In 1938, accomplished test pilot and successful motorcycle and car racer, Chris Staniland used the chassis and engine in the last record run at Brooklands, almost beating the Napier Railton. As the ‘Multi-Union’, it set the Class D lap record for the Outer Circuit at a very fast 141.45mph.
From 1996, we raced the Robert Fink-owned Monoposto for 12 seasons on tracks across Europe. We did the very first Goodwood Revival in it, as well as the first Monaco Historic Grand Prix. Monza, Nürburgring, Montlhéry and Fiorano – circuits we drove regularly. It was the beginning of the Ferrari Historic Challenge. Unlike today, Alfa was considered an important part of the Ferrari story. It was a great time.
Above: In the late 1990s, we started to race the P3 everywhere. It was the beginning of the Ferrari Historic Challenge and a great time to travel to all the great races. The sheer power of this old warhorse was just one of its impressive attributes.
The car never let us down once. Still with its original engine, untouched internally since being overhauled prior to the war. I know this for sure because all the pre-war lead seals were still in place.
The hardest thing was to get the methanol, acetone and toluene mix to the race tracks – 500 litres for every event. The big barrels were like bombs, very explosive and it was a truly dangerous occupation, especially when filling the P3 in the pit garage using a hand pump with everybody smoking around you.
Above: For the Alfa P3, the team carried 500 litres of a methanol-acetone-toluene mix to every event. Here, owner Robert Fink (right) is preparing to refuel the Alfa, with Michael Kliebenstein behind, holding the hand pump.
You simply cannot see a methanol flame when burning. It’s a very risky business, but the fuel is super-effective at cooling down the old Alfa’s race engine. The noise was different too; much more aggressive. Besides that, I enjoyed the smell of methanol in the cold mornings before the race.
Talking to seasoned collectors suggests I’m not alone in thinking some cars are alive in a way, as if they have a soul of their own. These collectors are quick to furnish various emotional tales about their cars. For them, automobiles are not just mere adornments in a garage, they have personalities, and when you experience them in that way it becomes possible to build a relationship with them.
In some way, caring for the old warhorses helps to escape from today’s sometimes brutal reality. A collector friend once told me that in some of his lowest moments, thinking about his cars gave him emotional strength and support.
Does that sound strange to you? Possibly, but certainly not to me. I knew what he was talking about. Forget for a moment the purely rational side of our business, it really is an emotional thing to care for old cars. To prove the point, nobody really needs classic cars, we buy them for other reasons, and not just as investments.
There are so many tales where a car has played a significant role in a childhood, a romance, a marriage, a magical memory, or even a painful experience, such as a war. The car becomes inextricably woven into the fabric of an owner’s past. Recognising this allows you to see true collectors a little differently. Many view themselves as custodians of history. Meet one of these people, and you can expect some fascinating stories...
For example, there’s the Alfa Romeo P3 that Tazio Nuvolari drove to one of the greatest victories ever, beating the combined German might of seven Silberpfeile (silver arrows – five Mercedes and four Auto Unions) at the Nürburgring in 1934. The many Nazi officials in attendance must certainly have not been amused. We know and love all these stories, the heroic drivers and the races. This car, by the way, is still around and in good shape – another survivor, found, I think, near Buenos Aires.
The same applies to luxury cars that survived the war as trucks or utility vehicles. I have found a few Mercedes-Benzes, Maybachs and Bugattis that were modified in this way. To earn its keep after the war, one Maybach DSH, the very rare six-cylinder model made from 1934, was turned into a mobile bandsaw. It still has the saw in the back. It still has the saw in the back, though these days it’s powered by a Mannheim two-cylinder diesel engine.
Above: This Maybach DSH, one of just 50 manufactured, became a mobile bandsaw after World War II.
Above: Original six-cylinder engine swapped for a more agricultural Mannheim two-cylinder diesel motor.
The now 100-year-old cars from before World War I also have crazy tales to tell. I love the story of a 1912 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost that was proudly driven to the war by its officer owner from London. After he was killed in the trenches of the Somme, the car was thought lost, only to reappear in Belgium as an ambulance.
After the war, it was repatriated to the UK to serve as an armoured military vehicle in Northern Ireland and was later used, briefly, as a wooden-bodied Safari car for the Prince of Wales in Kenya. After that, it became a cheap school bus in Africa and went to war again in World War II. As a military command car in Africa, it carried baskets of homing pigeons on the roof. Pigeons were used to pass frontline information between garrisons, or to guide artillery units. There was no radio communication in the jungle or the desert.
Later, the car continued its school service into the late 1950s. Only this time, the homing pigeons returned carrying the scores when football or cricket games were played with other schools – its roof-mounted pigeon baskets were still in place.
In 1957, the wooden body was discarded and the rolling chassis was raffled for £400 to raise funds to build a school chapel.
Back in the UK, the Silver Ghost became a splendid Wilkinson Tourer and is currently used extensively on big continental tours – all the way down to Monaco, from what I hear, and still on its first engine. Typical for a Ghost, I would say, and not bad at all for an old school bus!
Above: 1912 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, with officers on board ready to drive to the Somme region during World War I. It returned as an ambulance only to become an armoured car in Northern Ireland.
Above:The same Silver Ghost in Africa, serving first as a school bus, then as a military command car in World War II. It carried baskets of homing pigeons on the roof for communications.
I have another, more recent, Ferrari story for you...
Warm sunshine, waves lapping the shore, the feel of white sand underfoot – such were the surroundings of a Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder when I found it. It was one of the rare LWB models with the open headlights. Why was it still there? Because it had a secret.
Its aristocratic first owner was killed in a crash while driving the Ferrari in the 1960s. It had only 5,000 miles on the clock and was secretly taken into custody by the old cook of the house, who was obviously quite taken with it.
He hid the Ferrari for decades, repaired it quietly and only drove it at night along the sandy beaches nearby, sometimes getting stuck in the dunes. He never registered it.
Above: The very dusty cockpit of a Ferrari 250 GT LWB California Spyder. The car had a secret and was passed on without anyone revealing it.
Before I could get my collector client to view the car, a helicopter from one of the big auction houses landed on the front lawn early the next morning.
Out came a crew of three with a lot of paperwork to secure the deal and guarantee a minimum result of $4 million. I was flabbergasted. An expert, whom I trusted, had spilled the beans after I asked him about the internal engine number. And I hated him for that.
Needless to say the fully matching car made much more money. But the catalogue failed to mention the cook, nor the death of the first owner. The buyer probably still has no clue about its real history. Before it went to the sale, it was painted, waxed and fitted with new wire wheels. It seems historical details that might dissuade buyers, or reduce bids are sometimes quickly deleted – a habit not unknown in the trade.
It’s true, some cars have secrets you will never know about. In some cases, it’s probably better that way.
It was converted back into a school bus and was later raffled off as a bare chassis.