When someone talks about a Mondial, most Ferrari enthusiasts think of the Pininfarina-designed V8-powered mid-engine 2+2 coupes and Cabriolets of the 1980s and early ’90s. But the fabulous red 500 Mondial pictured here isn’t that.
No, this compact, jewel-like roadster’s engine sits up front, and the car offers no hint of rear seats or a top of any sort. This is the “original” Mondial, from the mid-1950s, and it’s a sports-racing car. Pure. Simple. Gorgeous. Fast. Noisy. Expensive. And did I mention it only has four cylinders?
In the late 1940s, around the time both Ferrari the company and Gioacchino Colombo’s seminal V12 engine were born, Enzo Ferrari brought on a second engine designer: Aurelio Lampredi. Born in Livorno, Lampredi’s pre-Ferrari resume includes stints as an engineer and engine designer at Piaggio (Vespa), Isotta Fraschini, and an aircraft company called Reggiane. He’s best known to Ferraristi for his V12 Grand Prix engines, which were used in a handful of road cars, but was also the father of an entirely different engine line.
Although Ferrari made his name with 12-cylinder engines, he wasn’t blind to the possibilities of other configurations. Thus, in the early 1950s, he and Lampredi divined that a four-cylinder engine could win big in open-wheel racing. It proved to be the right call, as Lampredi’s dual-overhead-cam inline four powered Ferrari to consecutive World Championships in 1952 and ’53.
In the interest of amortizing the new engine architecture, Ferrari also elected to employ it in his sports cars—which, depending on the season or the weather or his mood, alternately got more attention than his single-seaters. In essence, Lampredi was deployed to design and develop what became a small family of four-cylinder racing engines.
The 500 Mondial (so named for those two World—“Mondial”—Championships) boasts one of these fours: an all-aluminum 1,985cc unit running twin Weber sidedraft carburetors and two spark plugs per cylinder ignited by a large pair of Marelli magnetos. With a 9.2:1 compression ratio in sports-car trim, the engine belted out 170 horsepower at 7,000 rpm.
While today we might think of 2.0 liters as pretty small, perhaps just right for a compact economy sedan, the Tipo 110 racing engine was fairly substantive for the day, with many road-going sports cars running in the 1,500-1,750cc range (or smaller). Even Alfa Romeo’s “big” four at the time was 1,900cc. Lampredi’s four was later developed into 2.5- and 3.0-liter variants, the latter powering the much-heralded 750 Monza.
The Mondial’s chassis is a welded-up tubular steel affair with a 2,250mm wheelbase. (That’s a very compact 88.6 inches, which is about an inch and a half shorter than the wheelbase of small-block Shelby Cobra.) Front suspension is an unequal-length A-arm setup with a transverse leaf spring—the later Series II cars have coil springs—while a de Dion axle hung by another transverse leaf resides in the rear. Each corner wears a Houdaille lever-action shock absorber, an aluminum brake drum with an iron surface liner, and a 16-inch Borrani wire knock-off wheel. The rear-mounted transaxle contains either four or five forward gears.
Pinin Farina designed the Mondial’s tidy, curvaceous coachwork and built the first series of 20 examples. Fashioned out of aluminum, the body features beautifully prowed front fenders and sinuously arched rear fenders that give it a distinctly feline quality. The split windscreen is low and frameless, the single door vestigial; it’s a racing car, after all. The cockpit is as spare and businesslike as you’d expect, although it offers a full complement of those handsome, classic, chrome-ringed gauges with the Art Deco typeface. The finished product is as light as it is pretty, with Ferrari claiming a curb weight of just 1,600 pounds.