The It Car

In the late 1950s, Ferrari’s stunning success in the Tour de France made its long-wheelbase 250 GT the car to have in European sports-car racing.

The It Car 0
July 20, 2012

To adequately describe this car, we’d have to call it a 1957 Ferrari 250 GT LWB Berlinetta Scaglietti “Tour de France,” three-louver version. That’s a bit of a mouthful but necessary, because cars produced in small numbers by specialist constructors—especially those involved in racing—tend to constantly evolve, and very few are the same.

Ferrari was still quite young in 1957, its first car—the 125 S—having been built just ten years earlier. Nonetheless, the company’s first decade had yielded an impressive tally of racing successes: three Grand Prix World Championships, three World Sportscar Championships, a staggering seven victories in the Mille Miglia and two at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

During this early period, Ferrari labelled its cars with a number—rather strangely, this reflected the capacity of just one of the engine’s cylinders—followed by some form of meaningful identification such as F1, F2, Indy or GT, or Monza, Mexico or Mille Miglia. Thus, our featured car, a 12-cylinder 250 Gran Turismo, has a displacement of 3.0 liters—2,953cc, to be precise. The LWB reference, for long wheelbase, is to differentiate this 2,600mm car from the later 2,400mm SWB versions. Berlinetta, the car’s closed-cockpit, two-seat, fastback-style configuration, and Scaglietti, its coachbuilder, are straightforward, but Tour de France, often shortened to TdF? That calls for a bit of explanation.

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THE FERRARI TDF’S LINEAGE begins with the 250 S, a special or prototype built for the 1952 Mille Miglia. This Berlinetta was fitted with a new 200-plus horsepower 3.0-liter version of the Gioacchino Colombo-designed, 60-degree V12 engine. A smaller, 2,562cc 150-hp version had powered the not-dissimilar 212 to victory in the 1951 Carrera Panamericana, so great things were expected of the 250 S.

Ferrari wasn’t to be disappointed: The 250 S, driven by Giovanni Bracco and Alfonso Rolfo, fended off the might of the Mercedes works team and its 300 SLs to take a glorious win in atrocious conditions. In honor of this triumph, the 250 MM (for Mille Miglia) Berlinetta emerged in 1953 with 240 horses under the hood and a sleeker body by Pinin Farina.

In ’54, the Colombo V12 was first installed in a street car, the 250 Europa GT, kicking off that famous line of road-going 3-liter Ferraris. For 1956, Pinin Farina started production of its replacement, the 250 GT coupe, and Scaglietti created a matching race car, the 250 GT Competizione.

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One of these Scaglietti-bodied 250 GTs (s/n 0557GT), driven by sporty Spaniard Alfonso de Portago and his American bobsled buddy Ed Nelson, raced for the first time in that September’s Tour de France—an arduous, 3,740-mile blast around the Gallic countryside, with nine timed stages and special tests at famous venues and race circuits thrown in along the way. The race’s 105 starters tackled the hillclimb at Mount Ventoux, acceleration tests at Aix Les Bains and multiple flat-out laps at Le Mans, Montlhery and Rouen. The quality field included Stirling Moss, Jean Behra, Olivier Gendebien, Maurice Trintignant, Harry Schell, Paul Frère and Louis Rosier.

Portago was at the top of his game, having recently become part of Ferrari’s Formula 1 squad and finishing second in July’s British Grand Prix. In the Tour de France, he wrung the neck of his new steed and won the 12-lap tests at Le Mans and Reims and the eight-lapper at Rouen en route to claiming the overall victory. The Mercedes 300 SLs of Stirling Moss and Rene Cotton finished second and fourth, sandwiching third-place Gendebien and co-pilot Michel Ringoir in their Ferrari 250 Europa GT (s/n 0357GT, the first-ever 250 GT produced, which had also been displayed at the 1954 Paris Salon). Only 37 cars finished this tough event.

However, Ferrari’s win raised a few eyebrows. Autosport magazine was not alone when it pointed out that “the ACI rally regulations seem to be interpreted rather liberally—particularly in respect to Ferrari. It is difficult to understand how a manufacturer who has openly admitted that his yearly output of vehicles of all types does not exceed 90 can satisfy the output of 100 vehicles of one type during a twelve-months period as demanded in regulations for GT machines.”

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The result stood nevertheless. This was an important victory to be trumpeted by Ferrari, and there were more to come. In the 1957 running of the Tour de France, Ferrari 250 GTs took first, second, third and fifth places, with Gendebien the victor. He repeated his win in ’58, followed home by three more 250 GTs, and again in ’59, making it three all-Ferrari podiums in a row.

Though never officially designated as such, the car became known as the 250 GT Tour de France by popular consensus. Its incredible run of success was carried on by the shorter-wheelbase 250 GT SWB and then the fabled 250 GTO, which won the Tour a further five times between them.

STILL, IT WAS THAT 1956 TOUR VICTORY that made the 250 GT the race car to have in Europe, and in 1957 accomplished Belgian gentleman racing driver Leon Dernier decided to get one for himself. Heading off to his local authorized Ferrari dealer, Jacques Swaters’ Garage Francorchamps in Brussels, Dernier bought the car you see here (s/n 0763GT), taking delivery that October.

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S/n 0763 is the 25th of 72 TDFs built and the seventh of 18 “three-louver” cars. TdFs had anywhere from zero to 14 such louvers in their bodywork, and this car has three on each side above the rear wheel arch. These louvers provide ventilation to the cabin and can be opened or closed via a lever inside. This car also came with streamlined covers over the headlights.

Not unusually for the time, Dernier raced with Swaters’ Ecurie Francorchamps team under a pseudonym, going by “Elde”—effectively his initials, LD. Dernier won with s/n 0763 his first time out, racing in May 1958 at the Cote d’Herbeumont Hillclimb at Les Maugires. Later that year, he raced the Ferrari at Spa, finishing fifth in class. He also competed in some Belgian hillclimbs, and is believed to have finished third in class at Cote de la Roche in the Ardennes and third at Cote de Born.

Sometime during this period, s/n 0763’s sloped headlight covers were removed and the car was reconfigured to run with open headlights. More on that later.

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Dernier’s highlight with the Ferrari came in June 1959 at the ADAC 1,000-kilometers at the Nürburgring. Sharing the car with Lucien Bianchi, Dernier finished second in class and 14th overall.

Just a fortnight later at Le Mans, Dernier and Jean Blaton steered another Ecurie Francorchamps Ferrari 250 GT to a brilliant third-place overall, first in class behind a pair of Aston Martin DBR1s. A further trio of 250 GTs followed “Elde” and Blaton home.

Dernier raced at Le Mans six times before he was killed driving a Mazda in the 1969 Spa 24 Hours. However, he’d sold the TdF six years earlier, passing it to fellow gentleman racer Hugo Schumacher. From 1963 to ’65, Schumacher raced the Ferrari at Zolder, Zandvoort and several other Belgian circuits, notching up several class wins and podium finishes.

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S/n 0763 then passed through four owners in the next nine years, recording no competition history. In 1974, it took up residence in Toulouse, France with Jean-Claude Bajol, who enjoyed it on many Tour Autos and Mille Miglia Storica rallies, as well as various Ferrari events. Bajol kept the car until his death in May 2011. Last September, England’s David Cottingham, owner of Ferrari restoration shop DK Engineering, acquired it from Bajol’s estate.

“I knew Jean-Claude Bajol for over 30 years and I’ve known this car for many, many years,” says Cottingham. “I raced with him a lot. He did quite a few rounds of the Shell Ferrari Historics. After the day’s racing, I spent lots of time with Jean-Claude at the bar, him having a big cigar and a glass of cognac and cracking brilliant jokes. He was a great guy, a lovely man. When he died, I was offered the car by the family through Jean Guikas, Bajol’s godson.

“I knew what a lovely old original thing it was,” he continues. “I am particularly fond of Ecurie Francorchamps cars; I have a 500 TRC which was a Francorchamps car, and that has given me lots of contact with the Belgian guys. I think the Jacques Swaters story is a fantastic story, equalled I’d say by Chinetti and NART.”

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WHEN S/N 0763 ARRIVED IN ENGLAND, Cottingham had some decisions to make. “It was mechanically very tired,” he recalls. “The suspension and brakes were tired, the back axle was very noisy and the engine was a bit smoky. But they were all original parts, and when we looked underneath, the chassis was in fantastic condition. My sons Jeremy and James said that we really ought to leave the body alone. I thought about it, and once I saw how solid it was underneath, I quickly agreed with them.”

The body remained on the chassis as the mechanicals were stripped off. Cottingham and sons found no sign of accident damage nor any rust or corrosion. “It was absolutely sound, which is so unusual for a car of that age and with that motorsport history,” Cottingham says. “Most old race cars you see have had loads of repairs to the chassis.”

The Cottinghams rebushed the suspension, crack-tested the steering parts and rebuilt the engine, leaving the crank standard while polishing the journals and replacing the bearing shells. The cylinders didn’t need to be rebored, just honed, and the pistons only needed new rings. The cylinder heads got new valve guides and valves. Further downstream, the gearbox was found to be in good condition, but its bearings were replaced nonetheless. A new limited-slip differential was installed in the rear axle.

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On the outside, the Cottinghams weren’t sure whether to restore the headlight covers, which had been lost during Dernier’s ownership, or leave the car as-is. So, they called Dernier’s son, Philippe. “He told us the reason they had the headlights changed was because Leon collided with a big dog,” says Cottingham. “It did quite a lot of damage to the front, so the car went back to the factory to be repaired. At that point in time, even though the car was only 18 months old, Ferrari was fitting open headlights to cars, so Leon said, ‘Let’s have an open headlight front for better light.’ That’s how it came about. Also, the Italian law changed, so that’s why ’59 cars had a different front.”

Elsewhere, Cottingham says, “We welded up a couple of minor splits in the body and that was about it. It’s mechanically sound now with a very old paint job and loads of patina.”

These restoration choices will undoubtedly divide opinion. Some will love it, while others will shudder and say, You can’t possibly leave a Ferrari like that! S/n 0763’s paint is thin in places, crazed and chipped, the once-bright red carpets are faded and threadbare in patches, the headliner is a bit stained and the webbing door hinges and seat belts are frayed. Also, the seats were re-covered in non-original black vinyl many years ago.

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Still, this Ferrari looks and smells like an old car should, and even retains several of its old Mille Miglia and Spa Ferrari Days stickers. This lady has grown old gracefully: She may not have had a face-lift, but she’s got new knees, hips and a stent, and is raring to go again.

“I’ve driven lots of TdFs and this is probably the best one,” Cottingham effuses. “On the track, it’s very nimble. Yes, it understeers on the track, but on the road it’s great. The roadholding is good. The shock absorbers leave a bit to be desired because they are so basic, but it handles well and stops well enough. And when you get a few revs on, past 3,500 rpm, it really sings. It’s a relatively quick car.

“The gearbox spacing and ratios seem just right,” he adds. “It’s nice and light, the synchromesh is good and it works perfectly. It’s quite a long-legged car. I did 300 to 400 miles to run it in, and then drove it on the Ecosse Tour a few weeks ago and had a fabulous time around Scotland. Every time I drive it, I really enjoy it.”

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As I slide into Ferrari’s cockpit, I also expect to enjoy myself. The bucket seats are snug but have no high back support. In order to depress the long-travel clutch, I have to sit far too close to the three-spoke wood-rimmed steering wheel. With my left leg at full stretch on the clutch pedal, my right leg on the throttle is way too bent, and I find myself sitting askew.

“That’s a typical TdF position,” Cottingham tells me. “They put up with that for years, that’s how it was. But when we prepare one for competition, we can alter that.”

As I set off, the noise from the willing engine is sublime, and the gearbox is indeed light and pleasurable to use. The steering, very heavy at parking speed, soon lightens up, and the ride on English country lanes is quite supple, with no trace of crashing, creaks or groans. The cabin is functional but very basic, with a crackle-black painted metal dash, plain black-faced instruments and a row of toggle switches. It’s fairly sober, but this is all you need in a race car. Besides, it’s how it goes that counts, and the TdF’s race record speaks for itself.

So what’s next for s/n 0763? “It has been accepted for Pebble Beach this year, so we hope to be there in the Preservation class,” Cottingham concludes. “There’s a few minor things that I’d still like to do, but we’re certainly not going to make it bright and shiny.”

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