Shark Tales

The story behind this 156 F1 re-creation is as impressive as the car itself.

Photo: Shark Tales 1
September 30, 2010

The subject of automotive re-creations is usually a contentious one, but for those purists who frown upon such machines, I would ask what happens when the real cars no longer exist or are no longer usable? To my mind, the motoring world is a richer place for having glorious devices like Audi’s Auto Union re-creations out on track. These cars bring otherwise-lost history alive—as does this meticulously built-from-scratch Ferrari Sharknose.

The Carlo Chiti-designed Dino 156 F1 “Sharknose,” so named for the shape of its snout, was Maranello’s first rear-engined Grand Prix car run to the new-for-1961 1.5-liter Formula 1 regulations. Pit-lane pundits predicted that Ferrari would lag behind Cooper and Lotus, which both had a head start in rear-engined design, but they were wrong: Phil Hill and Ferrari won both ’61 World Championships.

Alas, by virtue of racing accidents and deliberate destruction, none of the original eight cars survive. Enter Jan Biekens, who had both a dream to own a Sharknose and the resources to build the next best thing.

Photo: Shark Tales 2

AS A BOY, I used to go to Spa-Francorchamps for the Grands Prix, so I have always liked racing,” explains Biekens, who has been historic racing a 500 Mondial (s/n 0536MD) and a 275 GTB for the past decade, as well as a single-seat Stanguellini Formula Junior since 2006. “I am Dutch but I live in Belgium, and I started to read about the Belgian drivers from the period between 1955 and 1965. I like that period very much.”

This interest led to three events which triggered Biekens’ desire for a Sharknose. The first was watching Chris Rea’s 1996 film La Passione, about a young boy, Jo Maldini, who became fascinated with Ferrari, Wolfgang von Trips and the Sharknose. The second was a visit to Villa Trips, a German museum dedicated to Wolfgang. The third was reading Ed McDonough’s book, Ferrari 156 Sharknose.

“After this, the idea of re-creating a Sharknose became a bit of an obsession, similar to Jo Maldini’s dream in Chris Rea’s film,” Biekens explains. “I started collecting photographs of the Sharknose and I read Olivier Gendebien’s memoirs, and then started to read more about him. I don’t think Gendebien got the attention he deserved. He won almost every long-distance race that existed in those years and had a great ability to bring a car home.”

Photo: Shark Tales 3

Belgian aristocrat and World War II resistance fighter Gendebien was a world-class sports-car driver. During his years with Ferrari, from 1955 until his retirement in ’62, he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times; the Targa Florio, Tour de France and 12 Hours of Sebring three times each; the 12 Hours of Reims twice; and the Tour of Sicily and the Nürburgring 1,000-kms once.

Gendebien also occasionally drove Ferrari Grand Prix cars, and it was this that Biekens focused on: “I decided that I would like to build his yellow car.” That would be Sharknose s/n 0002, which was driven by Gendebien in the ’61 Belgian GP at Spa; he briefly led his home race, but dropped back to fourth at the finish, behind three works Sharknoses, due to an oil leak. This was the only occasion that the car (which would also carry Hill to the title at Monza later in the year) was liveried in yellow, Belgium’s national racing color.

HAVING DECIDED WHAT TO BUILD, Biekens needed to find the right person to build it. In late 2003, he visited Jim Stokes Workshops in Portsmouth, England: “I read an article about Stokes building [replica] Lancia D50s, so I went to see him.”

Photo: Shark Tales 4

It didn’t take long for Biekens to realize he had found the right partner for the project. “I was very impressed by his enthusiasm for wanting to do the project perfectly, and by the very skilled people in his team,” he says.

“We will not cut corners on anything,” says Stokes. “There is only one way to do it, and that is to be millimeter perfect. We spent the first 12 months just doing research, looking for photographs, drawings and components, and acquainting ourselves with the vagaries of Sharknose Ferraris.”

Biekens, Stokes and his team went shopping for parts around the world. A correct five-speed gearbox came from Sir Anthony Bamford in England; when opened up, it was like new, still retaining some of its original cotton seals. Two Weber 42 DCN carburetors were found in Los Angeles, and the third, unexpectedly, in a small shop in Modena. The brake reservoirs came from Holland, the distributors from Essex, England. Original cylinder heads, block, sump, cam covers, starter, fuel pump and many other correct parts were also located, along with $7,000 in photographs.

Photo: Shark Tales 5

Most important, they obtained copies of original Ferrari chassis drawings. However, these were pre-production drawings, from 1960, created before construction of the cars actually began. As a result, they showed tubes that never made it onto the race cars, as the Ferrari engineers experimented with things like driveshaft and fuel-tank location.

“We used the drawings for the basic dimensions, but there were seven revisions of the information before we got to the definitive drawing that we used to make the chassis,” explains Stokes. “That was all done from photographs. We got to the point where we were examining cars with a magnifying glass and looking at the welds to see which chassis it was.”

This lengthy and involved process proved critical to getting the final product right. For example, Ferrari fitted the Sharknoses with two variations of its 1.5-liter V6 engine: one with a 65° engine vee, the other with a wider 120° vee. It had long been thought that chassis fitted with the narrow-angle V6 had straight tubes running past the engine, while the tubes jogged around the 120° unit. Gendebien’s car at Spa used the 65° version.

Photo: Shark Tales 6

On the very day that Stokes was going to start cutting the tubes to the “straight” design, a new batch of photos arrived from the Klementaski Collection. One of them showed Gendebien’s car on the grid at Spa, with bent tubing visible around its engine. Says Biekens, “The chassis drawings we had showed straight tubes. I contacted Klementaski again, and asked them to look at photos of the same car at Monaco [its first race, where it was also fitted with a 65° engine], and it also had bent tubes. That was nice to discover, because it wasn’t in any literature I had read.”

THE ATTENTION TO DETAIL on the car is truly impressive, in some cases astonishing. Consider the brake calipers: “The Dunlop originals had reinforcing webs on them,” says Stokes. “You can buy cast-iron calipers of the same design but without these additional webs. We got a pair of those and actually modeled how the original ones looked from plastercine. Then we gave those to our model maker, who took silicone molds and generated the resin pattern work for the investment castings. We then cast them and had them X-rayed and HIP’d [Hot Isostatic Pressing, a process for reducing porosity] so that we would end up with a casting that was the same quality as the original forgings and to exactly the same design.”

The steering is another example: “I dread to think how much it cost to make the steering rack, and you can’t even see it in the car,” says Stokes. “But we know it’s exactly as the original because there are some beautiful photographs of 156s actually being worked on at the factory, and we could scale and measure everything. No part of that is a commercially bought item; it’s all been made.”

Photo: Shark Tales 7

The battery was also made from scratch—the casing was machined from nylon, the terminals cast and the correct labels reproduced—and there’s even a story behind the shock absorbers. Says Biekens, “Koni had their own drawings and reference numbers, but they thought they had destroyed the information up to about 1970 that cross-referenced them to the cars they were meant for. They put me in touch with a man who worked there in the hope that he may remember. He said, ‘But I didn’t destroy the information, it’s all at my house.’ He looked up Ferrari 156 and it referred back to the Koni numbers, so they could make them exactly per the originals.”

Not everything went to plan, however. After a time-consuming and costly process of model making, tooling, casting, X-raying and machining, the front suspension uprights were sent to a specialist firm for heat treating. “It was the very last operation,” says Stokes. “They put five uprights into their heat-treatment plant, but they cooled them too much, cracking every one. They destroyed two years of work.”

Rather than redo the cast uprights, Stokes decided to make new ones from solid billet material. “We are going to stick with these because it cost something like $15,000 to produce those cast uprights,” he says. “Even with all the modern computerized equipment and technology and rapid prototyping, you still have to revert back to the black art of foundry work and heat treatment somewhere along the line, and you are still relying on skills that we are now losing. This is why we do as much as we can do in-house.”

Photo: Shark Tales 8

BODYWORK IS ANOTHER ONE of those black arts, and while the Sharknose’s shape may look clean and simple, it is deceptively complex. In the early stages of the project, Biekens and Stokes went to look at two other Sharknose replicas. The first was the car made for Chris Rea’s film.

“We spoke to the guy who built it because I was told that he’d had cooperation from Ferrari,” explains Stokes, “but he said they wouldn’t help at all. When I showed him how much data we had accumulated, he said we were light years ahead of him. He basically built that car from a very few photographs; the chassis that he manufactured was based on a photograph in one of the books that shows one of the cars upside down.”

The second replica was never completed, due to a change of heart by the client. But a superb wooden body buck had been built, and while it wasn’t quite right, says Biekens, “we bought it anyway because it was such a beautiful piece of art.”

Photo: Shark Tales 9

After Stokes finished the chassis, he shipped it to Vintage Cars in Lymington, England, which built a rather more utilitarian buck from plywood and hand-crafted the aluminum bodywork. The new panels were rolled on an English Wheel, although the originals were hammered. “The Italian method of making bodywork is completely different,” says Stokes. “The panel work is hammered in approximately foot-square panels over wooden blocks and leather pads with soft mallets, and then they literally weld the thing together like a patchwork quilt. Then they file it.”

While the construction method wasn’t authentic, Biekens was more concerned with getting the proper result. “We knew the skills of Vintage Cars and let them work to their own methods to build the body as close to the original as they could,” he says.

Next came the tricky issue of color. There were very few period color photos of s/n 0002 at Spa, and they all looked slightly different. In addition, since the car had been painted red for its previous race, at Monaco, the actual shade of yellow could have depended on how many coats of fresh paint it received over the existing color. As this was a “one off” appearance, it was possible the car had been done quickly, in which case the yellow might have had an orange tinge.

Photo: Shark Tales 10

However, thought Biekens, Gendebien was running his national colors against three red works cars, so he would probably have insisted on a meticulous job. Therefore, Biekens opted for pure Belgian yellow, with no hint of red, which was applied by Anson Autos Ltd.

AFTER 9,000 PLUS HOURS OF LABOR (not including the bodywork!), the Sharknose re-creation was finished in September 2009, one week before the Goodwood Revival. There was little time to shake-down the car, but, luckily, no serious issues cropped up. In fact, the only problem was a faulty starter motor, which was fixed.

Recalls Stokes, “We did a brief test on Sir Anthony Bamford’s private track, but the only chance Jan got to drive the car before Goodwood was the day before, up and down the road in front of my workshop. The first time he drove the car in anger was in practice at Goodwood—and he’d never before driven at Goodwood, either.”

Photo: Shark Tales 11

The Revival was a daunting event to first try the new car. “On the out lap, I thought, ‘Wow!’ but then I had to concentrate on the mirrors because the other cars were a lot faster!” says Biekens. “I’ve been driving my Stanguellini Formula Junior for four years now and I know it, but my Sharknose is a new, undeveloped car. I still have a lot of work to do to learn the car and learn how to set it up properly.”

Nonetheless, Biekens was thrilled with the finished product. “It lived up to my expectations, and was worth all the blood, sweat and tears,” he says. “It is so much faster than the Junior that it’s like I’m starting from zero again. The braking is much trickier, and you have to get heat into it. Phil Hill always said that the gear shifting was very difficult, but I find it quite easy to shift.”

Biekens has since raced the Sharknose at Silverstone, where he learned more about the car’s behavior. “The Sharknose was known to be a good car for the faster, longer circuits,” he explains, “and it definitely feels better and more stable on the faster, more sweeping corners than the tighter ones. It revs to 9,500 rpm and the sound is fantastic, especially down the long straights. Not quite like a rocket, but close to it.

“When I first started the project, I didn’t really think much about driving the car,” he concludes. “It’s been such a long time finishing that, now that I am driving it, it somehow doesn’t seem real. I still don’t believe we did it. But I am very enthusiastic about it, and it has got great attention from everyone who has seen it. The highlight for me will be driving the car at Spa.”

When Biekens takes his Sharknose to the Historic Grand Prix Association’s Spa 6 Hours Meeting in September, it will be a sort of rhetorical homecoming for this re-creation. Would the car’s inspiration, Olivier Gendebien, who passed away in October 1998 at age 74, approve? Even if he was an automotive purist at heart, I bet he would.

Also from Issue 105

  • 156 Sharknose re-creation
  • F1 race report
  • Driving a California at Goodwood
  • 512 BB
  • 458 Italia, Italian ceramics
  • ALMS: Season to date, test session
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