The Beast

The 412 MI combined Maranello’s most powerful engine with a one-off sports-racing chassis. Today, it stands as a ferocious reminder of an era of hot-rod Ferraris.

Photo: The Beast 1
August 31, 2010

Saturday night, mid-October, 1958. The Presidential Bar at Riverside’s historic Mission Inn is jammed with people talking about tomorrow’s race, the first Los Angeles Times U.S. Grand Prix. Masten Gregory and Carroll Shelby sit at our table; both will drive cars—a Ferrari 410 Sport and a Maserati 450S, respectively—brought by my father, John Edgar. The rest of the racing talent is just as impressive: Jean Behra, Roy Salvadori, Ken Miles, Lance Reventlow, Chuck Daigh and Dan Gurney, driving a mix of Ferraris, Maseratis, Aston Martins, Jaguars and Scarabs.

And then there’s 31-year-old Phil Hill. Hill, who had won both Sebring and Le Mans earlier in the year, will be driving John von Neumann’s Ferrari 412 MI (s/n 0744MI). The red, alloy-bodied Scaglietti Spyder is Maranello’s most potent sports-racer to date, its 4,023cc V12 delivering a factory-claimed 447 horsepower at 8,500 rpm.

West Coast Ferrari distributor von Neumann paid twice the price of a new 250 TR for the 412 MI, built expressly to beat Reventlow’s Scarabs. Hill’s first outing in s/n 0744, in a Formula Libre race three weeks earlier at Watkins Glen, was plagued by handling problems (“The roadholding of my car was diabolical, behaving as if the left-rear shock was not working properly, and I slid off the road five times before I finally retired the Ferrari,” he wrote), but the car’s brute strength was dramatically evident. With its suspension now sorted, the one-off 412 MI appears poised to end Scarab supremacy.

Sunday morning at the track brings 70,000 spectators and scorching heat; the mercury hits 100 degrees before the green flag waves. Hill, in black helmet, red polo shirt and chinos, sits in s/n 0744 on the front row. He is bracketed by a pair of blue 5.5-liter Scarabs—Reventlow in powder blue to his right, Daigh in an orange jump suit on his left. A legendary duel is about to begin.

Straight from the start, nose-to-tail and side-by-side, Hill and Daigh swap the lead lap after lap. They once trade places twice in the same turn. The unimaginably loud Ferrari V12 can be heard above all of the other 42 starters, its radical firing order based on that of Maranello’s four-cylinder engines.

Shockingly, Hill pits on Lap 21—the afternoon’s severe heat had caused vapor lock. The 412 MI, like many Ferraris of the era, has both a mechanical and an electric fuel pump. If the mechanical pump gets too hot, the driver has to turn on the electric pump. He only has a short window to do so, however, before the electric pump can’t save it, and that’s what happened at Riverside.

Photo: The Beast 2

Daigh pulls out a commanding lead as the Ferrari returns to the pits twice more. Finally, on Lap 58, with only four to go, Hill parks s/n 0744 and climbs out. Daigh wins, and Scarab again proves itself mightier than Ferrari.

HILL LATER DESCRIBED this exact 4-liter four-cam V12, developed by Vittorio Bellentani and other engineers at Ferrari, first as the Tipo 136, then 140 and 141, as “my favorite engine.” The V12 has a fascinating history, one which involves three chassis—two of which Hill drove.

The four cam was first fitted to the 335 S (s/n 0646) driven by the Marquis Alfonso de Portago in the 1957 Mille Miglia. But the car crashed on a fast straight just short of the finish at Brescia, killing de Portago and his navigator, the American Eddie Nelson, along with 10 spectators. The engine was removed from the wrecked chassis, then repaired and hopped-up at the factory with higher compression, hotter cams and bigger carburetors.

The following year, the V12 found a new home in a 375 F1 monoposto for the Race of Two Worlds. Held at Monza in June, this unusual 500-mile race featured American Indy roadsters and drivers taking on the best that Europe had to offer. Ferrari entered two cars for the contest: the 375 F1, piloted by Luigi Musso and Mike Hawthorn and called the 412 MI for 4 liters, 12 cylinders and “Monza Indianapolis,” and a reworked F2 single-seater powered by a 3-liter Dino V6, driven by Hill.

When his car retired, Hill joined Musso and Hawthorn in the 412 MI. In the third and final 63-lap race, Hill, deafened by the engine and thoroughly beat-up by the rough track and extreme banking at 170 mph, pushed the car to its best finish, third overall, behind two Indy roadsters.

After the “Monzanapolis” race, the 4-liter engine was pulled from the 375 chassis and shelved—but not for long. Like the possessed Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s monster tale, Ferrari’s engineers stitched together a new 412 MI for von Neumann, combining the four-cam V12 with an experimental Tipo 524 312 S chassis that had been raced as a works entry by Olivier Gendebien at Spa-Francorchamps in May 1958. Personally tested by Hill in Modena, the intended Scarab killer was christened by the factory as 412 MI s/n 0744, and freighted off in late August to Ferrari Representatives of California—ready to enter the battle it was created for.

Photo: The Beast 3

Before its trip overseas, however, the four-cam twelve was reworked for its new role. For example, the six twin-choke Weber 42 DNC carburetors had been bored out to 46mm for the wide-open Monza, but were sleeved back to 42mm for von Neumann.

The 312 S chassis featured a transverse four-speed gearbox in unit with the differential and a rear-mounted starter activated by a lever between the seats. Suspension in back was classic Ferrari de Dion with transverse leaf spring and Houdaille hydraulic-lever shock absorbers. Upper and lower A-arms, coil springs and another pair of Houdailles resided up front. The car was delivered to von Neumann with drum brakes, but these were converted to Dunlop discs after Hill’s race at Riverside. Some time later, the center throttle was moved to the right of the brake and clutch pedals.

RICHIE GINTHER WAS NEXT TO DRIVE the 412 MI. The car returned to Riverside in 1959 for the Kiwanis Grand Prix. Now part of a divorce settlement and sporting silver and red livery, the Ferrari was entered by Eleanor von Neumann. Despite being as slight as a thoroughbred jockey, the 28-year-old Ginther manhandled the big Ferrari to the fastest qualifying time. In the race, he outlasted the attrition that claimed Jim Jeffords’ Scarab and the other major large-bore contenders to win the 150-miler at a blistering average speed of 88.75 mph. This would be s/n 0744’s sole victory in period.

Ginther and the Ferrari returned to Riverside later that year for the second Los Angeles Times Grand Prix. As with Hill in ’58, however, Ginther couldn’t go the distance; he retired when the engine let go on Lap 35.

At the end of 1959, after being refreshed at the factory, s/n 0744 went to Nassau, Bahamas, where Ginther drove it to second overall in the 5-lap Governor’s Cup at Oakes Field. In the big Nassau Trophy race, the 412 MI’s Englebert tires lasted only 15 laps on the harsh coral; ten laps later, the gearbox died. Adding insult was yet another Scarab class win. As one observant race reporter wrote, “This machine has been more than a headache.”

Was s/n 0744 getting too old? The von Neumann camp obviously thought so, and after Nassau the 412 MI was sold in a multi-car deal to Jack Nethercutt, who kept it for nine months before letting it go to Fred Knoop.

Photo: The Beast 4

Knopp raced the Ferrari in a Cal Club event at Riverside in February 1961, delivering a credible third in Saturday’s race and second on Sunday, trailing Bill Krause’s Corvette-motored 300SL to the finish. But Riverside’s back-straight speed-trap record of 173 mph was still held by Ginther.

Three months later, Knoop gifted s/n 0744 in a tax deal to Bill Harrah, who would drive it on Nevada’s roads with a miles-per-hour translator gizmo attached to the tachometer to tell him how fast he was going. Harrah hired Skip Hudson to pilot the Ferrari on track, but results were poor in the few races entered.

Meanwhile, Charles “Pinky” Pinkham of Redwood City, California had developed a love for the 412 MI, so he traded Harrah a couple of Bugattis and cash for the now seven-year-old Ferrari. The Pinkhams showed the car at Pebble Beach and Hillsborough, had the engine rebuilt and very much centered their lives around it.

When Pinky died about a decade later, Monterey Historic Automobile Races founder Steve Earle made his widow an offer. “I said to Millie, ‘Why don’t we co-own the car?’” says Earle, who had seen Hill race s/n 0744 at Riverside in 1958. “That got her into circulation again, to go with it to the first Historic races at Monterey. We also took the 412 over to Pebble Beach for display that weekend in ’74.”

Earle paid off Millie a year later and became s/n 0744’s sole owner. “Dick Troutman helped me on the car, because we had to put the hood scoop back the way it was [Harrah had changed it], and the body back, too, and we painted it,” says Earle. “When I drove it at Laguna Seca, it felt like I was driving a water bed—the thing wanted to roll and lean out and all that. I could see why Ginther drove the Testa Rossa at Laguna when he had a choice of the two cars.”

Earle kept s/n 0744 for a couple of years, and raced it several times. “I’ve only seen one true race in my life,” he says, “ and that was Daigh and Hill having at it, the hero back from Europe driving this super Ferrari against a really amazing American car, duking it out. In my lifetime of cars, I’ve always thought there were two great Ferraris: Bill Doheny’s 4.9 Superfast—the ultimate road car with that 410 Sport motor in it—and the 412 MI.”

Photo: The Beast 5

IN 1976, THE FERRARI WAS PASSED from Earle to an old school chum, Chris Cord. From Cord it went to Bob Donner, then Carle Conway then Joseph Williams III. In August 1982, Jarold “Jerry” Evans of Palo Alto traded Williams his SWB Cal Spyder and some cash for s/n 0744.

“I was in a ‘let’s-go-vintage-racing’ mode at the time, and thought it would be fun to have—but it was a handful,” says Evans. “The good drivers can do it, but for guys like me, who are pretty much rank amateurs, sitting on the wrong side with the shift pattern reversed [first is where third would normally be, second is where fourth would be, and so on] and changing gears with the wrong hand…a lot of things had to go right to get it around the track.”

Evans’ 330 P3/4 was a far easier car for him to race, so he relegated s/n 0744 mostly to concours duty, picking up a second in the Ferrari competition class at Pebble Beach in ’88. To bring the car to this degree of show quality, Evans had it completely disassembled and restored; Paul Sauer did the mechanicals, Clairence Daniels worked on cosmetics and Phil Reilly rebuilt the engine. A fuel cell was also added.

Early in 1989, a few months after Enzo Ferrari died, Evans sold both the 412 MI and his 330 P3/4 to David Livingston, who showed s/n 0744 at Pebble Beach in ’92. A year later, Southern Californian Bill Bauce bought the one-off Ferrari.

Bauce asked Robert Lamplough to drive s/n 0744 at the 1993 Monterey Historic. There, it shone against Lamplough’s own 335 S Speciale (s/n 0764), which features the same engine specs as s/n 0744 and was assembled at roughly the same time for East Coast distributor Luigi Chinetti. Says Bauce, “Robs got my 412 MI down to 1 minute 58 seconds at Laguna. Jack Gordon, in Lamplough’s 335 S Speciale, was seven seconds slower.”

Phil Hill was a fan of both of these 4-liter specials: “They were basically 250 Testa Rossas with enough power,” he wrote.

Photo: The Beast 6

ROB WALTON BECAME THE NEXT OWNER of the 412 MI, in 1994. Shortly after purchasing the car, he drove it in the Colorado Grand road rally. The car performed fine overall, but, says big-bore Ferrari authority Dyke Ridgley, who oversaw the Ferrari’s care for Walton, “it didn’t help the clutch a lot.”

S/n 0744’s clutch is a unique pull-type: Instead of pushing against the pressure plate, the pressure plate is pulled to release it. This had always been a vulnerable point in s/n 0744’s performance, especially during hot standing starts. In addition, the dry clutch is packed away in the back of the car along with the flywheel, making it hard to keep cool. “That clutch is almost identical to a D50 Lancia’s,” says Ridgley. “It is very consistent with Vittorio Jano and his design parameters.”

When the pressure plate failed, Ridgley had a new one made. There were other issues, as well. “We never made the effort to develop the chassis,” he says. “Phil Hill told me he felt that was the weak link in the car, and that nobody ever developed it. When we found the shocks were somewhat weak, we bought a shock dyno and adapted it to do Houdaille shock absorbers. That made a dramatic difference.”

Whatever s/n 0744’s chassis may lack, says Ridgely, its engine makes up for. “The 412 MI is very aggressive, but smooth at low speed, not a hard car to drive at all. Then, at about 6,000 rpm, it just goes nuts, and is extremely strong from there to 8,000. I’ve driven [Walton’s] Scarab [Reventlow’s practice car at Riverside in ’58] a lot, and even with the power that modern vintage racing-legal small-block Chevys make, which is way more than they ever did in their day, I’d still take the 412 in a drag race.

“The 412 MI,” he concludes, “is one of those cars where you go out, scare yourself almost silly, bring it back and it looks at you and says, ‘I’m not even warmed-up yet. When are we going to get going?’”

IN JUNE 2005, S/N 0744 RETURNED to the Ferrari factory, this time for a Sotheby’s auction held in the Logistics Building, adjacent to the Fiorano test track. “That was the first time I saw the car,” says current owner Chris Cox of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “And as soon as I saw it, I was in love with it.”

Photo: The Beast 7

At the time, Northern Italy was suffering a brutal heat wave, leaving a number of the auction’s 600 seats empty. Bidding for top items like s/n 0744, which was expected to fetch as much as $10 million, was almost non-existent, but Cox’s offer was still not enough to take the car home.

One year later the Ferrari was back on the auction block, this time at RM in Monterey. Cox was there and, having recently sold his ex-Edgar 410 Sport (Gregory’s ’58 Riverside ride), was eager to buy the 412 MI. And buy it he did, for less than his bid at Fiorano.

Better still, he says, s/n 0744 has more than lived up to his expectations: “It’s much more car than any of the other larger displacement Ferraris that I’ve had. Compared to the 410, it’s like night and day. The 410 was a fast car [Shelby and Ginther won many races driving it] but you can get around the track much quicker in the 412.”

Cox demonstrated how fast the car is at the Monterey Historic in 2008, in a replay of the storied Hill versus Daigh battle at Riverside. In Group 4A, Cox in s/n 0744 faced former IMSA champion John Morton in a Scarab. “I was so pleased to see Chris Cox drive the 412 MI at Laguna Seca,” says Steve Earle. “His performance was very good because he used the car, and that was a treat to see and fun for people to hear the engine in full song.”

As good as Cox and s/n 0744 were, Morton and the Scarab won. “The Scarab was a little faster on the straightaways,” Cox admits. This time, however, the Ferrari finished second in a brilliant display of great vintage racing.

When I tell Cox about the popular consensus that he drives s/n 0744 faster than anyone who’s raced it since Hill and Ginther, he laughs. “I try—let’s put it that way,” says Cox. “It’s got great handling and all the power in the world. When you have torque and horsepower, that really helps.

“Ferrari took the 335 S and upgraded it, and tried to make it as powerful and as fast as possible,” he continues. “You have to throw the 412 MI around more than the TR [Cox also races his 250 Testa Rossa]—it’s not as nimble as the pontoon-fender car—but the MI is much faster. At Laguna Seca, I was five seconds or more a lap quicker than in the TR on the same day.”

More than 50 years have passed since s/n 0744 shocked West Coast racing fans at Riverside, becoming an instant legend despite its overall lack of racing success. Today, the 412 MI is owned by a man who hadn’t been born when it was new, but who pushes it like the drivers of its era. “It likes a long, fast track,” Cox says with a smile, “but, most of all, the car just wants to go. It’s a beast.”

Also from Issue 104

  • 599XX
  • F1 race report
  • 412 MI
  • Daytona Spyder
  • Ferrari’s engine innovations
  • 24 Hours of Le Mans
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