One of the surprises to be found in Ferrari: Under the Skin, currently showing at the Design Museum in London, is a short film from 1976 which, if it were made today, would provoke outrage. Another surprise is how, among the great swathes of Cardinal-red sheet metal, an almost sacrilegious splash of deep blue tells a story that’s as gloriously British as Italian. For these reasons and many others, a visit to the exhibition is a worthy way of walking-off Christmas calories.
The exhibition’s justification for showing the film C’était un rendez-vous is its soundtrack, composed of the music made by a Ferrari V12. This raw example of cinéma-vérité was shot in a single take from a forward-facing camera mounted low on the nose of a car that blasts through the streets of Paris at dawn. The road surface blurs beneath the camera so hurriedly you might suspect the film is sped-up, but it isn’t. The driver, whose face we never see, is crazy.
What we do witness is how the car scatters pigeons in sleepy alleyways, disobeys red lights and ‘No Entry’ signs, hurtles down narrow back streets constricted by parked cars, swerves on to the pavement in avoidance of an oncoming dustbin lorry, and swings to a halt with back turned to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica and nose facing the top of a flight of steps which drops out of view. In the film’s closing moments a pretty young thing hurries up the steps towards the driver and the unexplained rendezvous. It leaves you breathless - and astonished that anyone could perform such a risky stunt and then go public with it.
The identity of the film’s car and driver remained a mystery, perhaps for good legal reasons, for decades. There were rumours, but nothing more, that producer Claude Lelouch had handed-over his own Ferrari 275 GTB for this creative enterprise to former F1 and sportscar racer Johnny Servoz-Gavin. Years later, however, Lelouch claimed he’d driven the car himself - and what makes the film’s appearance at the Design Museum surprising is the fact that Lelouch also confessed to dubbing the soundtrack from his Ferrari but recording the 35mm footage from a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9.
A more fulsome Ferrari connection, in another of the exhibition’s surprises, sets onlookers thinking about a British rather than Italian legend. Sure, the 1960 250 GT SWB under the spotlights is a star in its own right, but in the dark blue colours of entrant Rob Walker this car’s magic is in recalling the other-worldly talents of Stirling Moss. This is chassis number 2119 GT, driven by Stirling to such a commanding victory in the 1960 Goodwood Tourist Trophy, the exhibition explains, that he allegedly kept track of the opposition by listening to Raymond Baxter’s live BBC commentary on the car radio. Little more than two months earlier, thrown out of his Lotus-Climax at the Belgian Grand Prix in a crash caused by axle failure, Stirling had broken both legs - but his recovery from these injuries was so determinedly and unexpectedly rapid that Walker had to gee-up delivery of the 250 GT by telegraphing Ferrari with the urgent exclamation ‘Moss is fit!’
This beautiful car went on to contest another seven races and score another five victories, two for Moss and three for Mike Parkes. The full story can be found in Doug Nye’s definitive history, Ferrari 250 GT Short Wheelbase - The Autobiography of 2119 GT. And if the accomplishments of Moss fire your imagination, Philip Porter’s landmark book - Stirling Moss - The Definitive Autobiography, Volume 1 - recounts Stirling’s racing exploits from 1929-1955 in one of the most intensively researched motoring biographies ever written. Porter’s definitive tome - which debunks myths, corrects untruths and adds much new information - is another great way of enjoying the New Year break.
If the social whirl of the holidays deprives you of the time for reading Stirling Moss or visiting the Design Museum, it’s worth knowing that the book is one you’ll want to keep for dipping into and that all of those gorgeous red (and blue) cars will be in Kensington until April 15th.
By Phillip Bingham