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Chassis discovery

The FAKE or the FALL Guy, by Martin Emmison

First published in Sports Car Market, December 2003.

The Villain dreams up a deceased uncle, who was friendly with the racing manager at the Ferrari factory team in the late '50s, and was given this tired and clapped-out team car in exchange for a couple of cases of Valpolicella.

Imagine how you would feel. You spot an advert for your dream car, an Etceterini Double Bubble Coupé by Zagato. The price is just about affordable if you clear out the children's bank accounts. The chassis and engine numbers tie in with what The Official Price Guide to Everything Collectible On Wheels suggests they should be. You test drive the car, the mechanical checkover is fine, and so you take the plunge.

Three months later at the annual Concours of the Etceterini Enthusiasts’ Club, your car is placed next to a pleasant chap who has a similar model and very soon you are swapping Zagato anorakia. ‘What's your chassis number?’ he asks. ‘EZ44073.’ ‘Sorry, old boy,’ he replies, ‘that can't be right, because that's the number of my car. My father bought this coupé new from the factory in 1958. This meeting is its first time out in 25 years.’

The following week the club guru examines your car in detail and concludes that it is not an original Zagato Coupe. It started out life as a Berlina Normale. The chassis has been shortened and wrongly re-stamped, it has the incorrect engine and the entire body frame and skin are new. In short, it is a fake, worth perhaps a tenth of what you paid for it. Horrors!

Over the past 15 years of my legal practice in collector cars, I have dealt with many sad stories like this, to the extent that I can see a clear pattern as to how these situations generally come about. While the following story is a composite, consisting of bits from various cases I have been made aware of or involved with, it provides a clear example of the process of creating a collectible car out of thin air.

Ferrari 166 Le Mans Berlinetta

Above image taken from SuperFinds (to be published in October 2020)



An enthusiast decides that he wants to have a copy of a rare and special car made for his own enjoyment. Perhaps it's a rebodied Ferrari SWB. made from a 250 GTE, to use on events where his real SWB might run the risk of being damaged. Or perhaps it's an Alfa Romeo SZ, because he has a decrepit Sprint that he wants to turn into something fun.

A specialist carrozzeria, probably in Northern Italy, builds the replica to the order of the customer. The body, trim, dash and interior are perfect—correct to the exact, let's say, original Zagato specification. Whether it derives its identity from a genuine car of a different model (properly called a rebody), or a wholly new chassis and body unit with no previous past identity (a replica), as far as being a true collectible, it's a fake.


Above image taken from SuperFinds



The car is delivered and registered, and the proud owner starts using the replica/rebody. It soon acquires stone chips and oil leaks, the seats get scuffed, the paint fades and the trim starts to deteriorate. He then gets bored with it, and the car sits idle for a few years, unloved and gathering dust. Eventually the owner sells it, honestly representing it as a fake. Normally, the selling price will be far below the cost of creating the car, in this case let's say $125,000 for a counterfeit SWB.

Ferrari 166 Touring Barchetta

Above image taken from SuperFinds 



Our fake SWB bounces around the trade for a bit and is spotted by the ‘Villain’. He recognises that this is such a good copy, with such superb patina, that it could be passed off as the real thing. However, to give him a decent profit it will need a ‘genuine’ identity. This is where the tricky stuff starts.

The Villain does his homework, and discovers from The Official Book of Numbers the chassis numbers of those original cars (of which the fake is a copy) that are known to have been destroyed or broken up, or are shown as ‘lost’.

The easiest identity for our Villain to choose is a car known to have been written off in a racing accident many years ago. A more sinister example is where the Villain picks on a specific chassis number, which he knows exists as a real car, but is on the other side of the world, or perhaps is owned by a reclusive or a very old collector, so that it never really sees the light of day. He calculates (quite accurately) that by the time the owner of the genuine car finds out that his car has been cloned, the Villain and his bag of gold will be long gone.

Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 GS Zagato

Above image taken from SuperFinds 



Having stamped the chosen chassis number of the fake in all the right places, and made up a fake chassis plate, the next issue for our Villain is the imaginative part: where has this car been all these years? He dreams up a deceased uncle who was friendly with the racing manager at the Ferrari factory team in the late '50s, and was given this tired and clapped out team car in exchange for a couple of cases of Valpolicella.

Uncle put the retired racer in the family's barn in Umbria, forgot all about it, and died 10 years ago. Our astute Villain 'found’ the car five years ago, at which point he took some (brilliantly contrived) ‘barn find’ photographs and, after a sympathetic restoration, he has been using the car, which explains the delightful patina, etc., etc.

He has also obtained a set of FIA papers under the car's newly assumed identity, complete with its stolen racing history. This is achieved through the good offices of a none-too-careful friend, who luckily is an official in an (unidentified) European historic motor association.

Hey Presto! Our Villain owns a historic race car, with documented provenance. $125,000 has suddenly become $1,250,000. Beats working for a living. [Remembering this was written in 2003]

Alfa Romeo TZ1

 Above image taken from SuperFinds 



Next task is to find his gullible Fall Guy, preferably a private individual rather than a trader, and resident in a different country. If he is smart, our Villain may be a virtual villain, operating through mobile phones, with no premises, just a website and multiple identities. Typically the sale is arranged and carried out through his appointed agent (who may not even know the car is a fake) in the motor trade, so that our evil Villain never appears in the flesh. His identity as the real seller of the car is never disclosed. The Fall Guy buys the car, described as a genuine and historic something or other with great history. The Villain pays off his agent, pockets the money, and moves on to the next fake

Yes, this is very nasty, but it happens. Indeed, it has been happening along these lines for many years in the world of fine art. With cars, it was the skyrocketing values of the late '80s that caused the fake and fraud artists to start creating collectibles out of thin air. And what about the current day?

Ferrari 212

 Above image taken from SuperFinds 



The basic answer of course is models that are attractive, rare and valuable — no point in faking a car that no-one loves.

Leaving aside fake Cobras and their obviously ‘replica’ equivalents, I believe Alfa Romeo is the marque that has suffered the greatest number of deliberately deceitful fakes. The pre-war models are especially vulnerable, because of the exquisite bodies created by the original designers, such as Touring of Milan and Zagato. Unfortunately, as this coachwork was handcrafted, it is all-too-easy to hand-replicate.

Therefore, before you buy any Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Gran Sport or short chassis 8C 2300, 6C 2300 or 6C 2500, be certain to investigate the car's history and provenance very carefully. Post-war Alfa Romeos have also suffered serial faking, mainly the Zagato competition versions of the Giulietta and Giulia models. Various shops in Italy have over the years turned out dozens of replicas of the SZ and TZ1, and to a lesser extent the SVZ and TZ2 models, all of which have to find homes somewhere.

Next most frequent candidates for cloning are the desirable sports and grand touring V12 Ferraris from 1950 to 1964. Particular favourites are the 250 GT models because of the ready supply of previously unloved 250 GTE 2+2 saloons, and the astronomical values of the genuine article. The 250 SWB Berlinetta is an obvious target, particularly where the body is in alloy. Next up is the Tour de France, and then the SWB Spyder California.

If the genuine car is worth a million dollars or more, the temptation to clone is huge. The Bugatti T35, Maserati A6GCS, Bizzarrini, and Porsche's 904 and 911 RS Touring models all spring to mind as being frequently cloned.

Of course, Jaguar is not free from fakes that occasionally masquerade as the real thing. That is not surprising, given the large number of replica C, D and Lightweight E-types that have been built over the last 25 years. I know of at least one D-type replica whose condition and patina after 15 years was so good that it was readily passed off as an original, and even fooled some experts. Aston Martins can also change their spots occasionally, DB4 becoming DB4GT or even our old friend the Zagato. Lola T70 comes in the door; Ford GT40 goes out?

Before buying any of these, the Golden Rule is to do your homework thoroughly, go and see as many as you can, and take the advice of an acknowledged and independent expert. Every marque and model has its specialist guru, someone who knows all there is to know, which cars are good and which to be avoided.

Be especially careful if tempted to buy at auction an Italian car that has recently come from Italy, especially if it is claimed to have ‘just been discovered after many years being hidden’. Insist that the seller signs a sale contract or bill of sale in which he warrants (i.e., promises) that this is the true and genuine car, chassis no. X, and that (at the very least to the best of his knowledge) no-one anywhere in the world owns a car claiming to have the identity. If he refuses, walk away from it.

And finally, never forget that if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don't wire money to someone just because they have a fancy website, and have somehow selected you to be the lucky guy who can buy a Cal Spyder for half price.

By Martin Emmison

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