Second-chance SWB

When Doris Blackwood arrived in Maranello and found that her promised car had been sold to someone else, she turned to Enzo Ferrari for help. A few months later, she was the proud owner of s/n 3113GT.

Second-chance SWB 0
November 30, 2012

At the 1959 Paris Auto Show, Ferrari unveiled its latest V12-powered two-seater. The company’s sales literature, brochures and factory manuals identified the car as a 250 granturismo berlinetta, but today it is commonly known as a 250 GT short wheelbase, or SWB, berlinetta, an eminently collectible car with an eminently escalating price tag.

In the early 1960s, Ferrari built 158 of them, a miniscule number by Detroit standards but a significant amount in Maranello. Sergio Scaglietti’s shop in Modena bodied 88 SWBs in steel for ordinary highway use, and wrapped the rest in lightweight aluminum alloy for track action.

Every one of these beautifully proportioned GT machines has a story to tell: many delightful, some tragic, but all fascinating. This is the story of one of those berlinettas, s/n 3113GT, the 46th of 88 steel-bodied SWBs (as well as the second one finished in 1962). S/n 3113 has flown low, under the radar, all its days: It has no race history, it’s never been on the field at Pebble Beach or Amelia Island and no famous celebrity hands have ever gripped its steering wheel. Nonetheless, it is as beautiful an example of a ’62 SWB as you’re ever likely to encounter—lovingly, exactingly and painstakingly brought to its current condition by long-term owner Jim Wickstead.

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WICKSTEAD HAS OWNED s/n 3113 since September 1987, but the car’s history, and our story, begins several decades earlier, in the fall of 1961. That’s when Doris Blackwood of Metamora, Michigan, who was travelling in Europe at the time, decided to pay a visit to the Paris Auto Show. Of all the cars on display, the one that grabbed her attention was a silver-grey Ferrari SWB (probably s/n 2935).

An interest in Italian exotic automobiles might have seemed out of place for a woman in her early 60s, but Blackwood and her husband, James, had earlier owned an Aston Martin and a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. Following a conversation with the people baby-sitting the Ferrari, Blackwood understood that she had bought the car and could pick it up at the factory 10 days later. However, when she got to Maranello she learned the car was not there and had already been sold. As you might imagine, this did not go down well with her, so she demanded an audience with Enzo Ferrari—and got it!

The upshot of their meeting was a promise from Enzo that Blackwood could have the next silver-grey SWB berlinetta that wasn’t presold or destined for a Ferrari concessionaire. And so, the following February she returned to Maranello, accompanied by her nephew, a student at the University of Sweden, to pick up her new Ferrari: S/n 3113. The plan was to spend two weeks touring Europe in the SWB, then ship it back to her home, Redhouse Farm, outside Metamora. However, during a stop for some skiing in Kitzbuhl, Austria, her nephew broke his ankle, so he headed back to Sweden, leaving Blackwood alone with her new Ferrari.

Second-chance SWB 2

She then turned toward France, heading for Paris to visit friends. I got to know Blackwood in the late 1960s through our mutual interest in Ferraris, particularly the SWB, and she later wrote to me of her not-entirely smooth journey: “I’ll never forget stopping at a light in Orleans and a young lad coming over from the curb and reaching in and slapping my face. Ah, the adventures one has in a Ferrari!”

She also wrote that, alone in the Ferrari, she got lost in Paris and asked a total stranger for directions to her friends’ address near the Bois de Bologne, which he gave. Reflecting back on this, she added, “What a foolish thing to do.”

By 1975, Blackwood, now in her 70s and with a new interest in horse-drawn carriages, decided to part with her Ferrari. She advertised it for sale in the Ferrari Club of America Bulletin, looking for a then very optimistic $20,000; the electric fuel pump was not working, and the car needed a good detailing, new shocks, a tune-up and a new exhaust system. Nothing happened initially, but a reduced price soon attracted some potential buyers.

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First in line was Ferrari collector Bobby Jones of Hobart, Indiana, who agreed to buy the SWB. Blackwood accepted his $500 down payment with the balance due by the end of that week. Then, as she wrote to me, in the meantime, “I just went completely to pieces and four days later called the man and told him I just could not part with the car, now or ever.”

Blackwood returned the deposit, but a lawsuit resulted. On the advice of her lawyer, she drove the berlinetta to a friend’s home in Tryon, North Carolina, for safe keeping. This must have been some trip, because the car proved difficult to start. In another of her letters, she wrote, “Every time I stopped for gas I left the motor running because if I didn’t I would have to put ether in the carburetors.” Now there’s a picture: a 78-year-old woman priming her Ferrari’s three Webers at a gas station.

The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court in early 1977. Blackwood retained possession of the car, but had to pay $2,500 in damages plus costs. With her legal difficulties behind her, she now wanted the Ferrari back home, but her health was declining and she could not manage the drive north. That’s when she wrote again, reluctantly asking me to drive the car for her: “I’ll never forget Mr. Ferrari telling me not to let anyone else drive it.”

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As luck would have it, my wife and I and our two kids were vacationing on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, that June, and our drive from Illinois and back would take us quite near Tryon. Knowing what shape the SWB was in, we stopped on the way down to assess the situation. The car still did not have a working electric fuel pump, among other shortcomings. Nevertheless, a week later we were back in Tryon to see if the tired, old Ferrari could handle the 800 north-bound miles back to Michigan, with my family following behind in our Datsun wagon.

The SWB started up okay and everything went well—for the first five miles! Heading out of Tryon and up the long Saluda Mountain grade on I-26, the Ferrari stalled; the uphill grind was too much for the mechanical fuel pump alone. However, the car restarted after sitting for a half-hour, and managed to power through a heavy thunderstorm and get into Kentucky for an overnight stop.

The next day’s adventure got us through Cincinnati and as far north as Sylvania, Ohio, near the Michigan border, where the SWB contracted a terminal case of failure to proceed; the mechanical fuel pump had finally had enough. Try as we might, we couldn’t fix it at Bryan’s Automotive on Alger Street in downtown Sylvania (not a big surprise), so the Ferrari had to be flat-bedded the last 100 miles to Metamora.

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The last letter I received from Blackwood, whose health continued to decline, was dated April 13, 1978. In it, she informed me that the SWB had, sadly for her, been sold to a new owner in Tacoma, Washington.

Over the next decade the Ferrari traveled widely, spending some time in Sweden where, by 1985, it had been repainted blue. S/n 3113 then found its way back to the U. S., and in September 1987 was advertised for sale by Ferrari South in Jackson, Mississippi. By this time, it had been repainted in its original silver-grey, and that brings us back to Jim Wickstead.

LIKE SO MANY OF US, a teenage Wickstead started out with an interest American cars. His first was a 1936 Ford, which he hot-rodded, then came a Crosley station wagon, which was to become a Wickstead-designed, fiberglass-bodied sports car. Wickstead won his high-school science fair with the latter car, which eventually led to him enrolling in the Pratt Institute to study industrial design.

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Another formative high-school experience for Wickstead, who was still too young to have a driver’s license, was his introduction to Tony Pompeo in New York City, whose premises were overrun with Ghia-bodied Fiats, a Cisitalia or two, Abarths and an occasional Bandini. This exposure to Italian aluminum bodies changed young Wickstead’s outlook on the hierarchy of the automotive universe.

Then came a fateful trip to Florida in 1960 for the 12 Hours of Sebring, where Wickstead first spotted a Ferrari SWB. Four were entered in the race, but the yellow s/n 1773 really caught his eye—it was love at first sight. The memory of that car never left, causing Wickstead to launch a search for an SWB of his own many years later.

The cars he found either needed too much work or were over-priced, but finally, through a friend and broker, he was directed to s/n 3113, sitting in Ferrari South’s showroom. After a test drive and some creative financial maneuvering, Wickstead became the car’s new owner. Soon, the SWB was headed back to the Wickstead homestead in Cedar Knolls, New Jersey.

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To his surprise, Wickstead soon learned that his new Ferrari had some significant problems.  “I drove the car before I bought it, and with the exception of the front end, which felt pretty loose, it seemed to be in excellent condition and only had 30,000 miles,” he recalls. “Then, when I got it home, I noticed there was an exhaust leak at the head. When I pulled the manifold, I discovered two broken studs. So I figured I would remove the head, but that didn’t want to come off, so I decided it would be easier to work on the car if I pulled the engine. Then, when I got the head off, I noticed that the valves were a little loose, and one thing soon led to another.”

Wickstead had already restored his first Ferrari, a 330 GTC, so the SWB soon became a largely at-home, hands-on restoration project. Yanking the head revealed that the valve guides were showing wear, the valve seats needed work and the top compression ring grooves were out of spec, so Wickstead decided to completely rebuild the V12. The heads and block were sent off to a machinist who had worked on the GTC. New pistons and liners were employed, the connecting rods’ small-end bushings were replaced, new rod bolts and nuts were fitted and the crank was cleaned and magnafluxed. The timing chain was replaced, and the crankshaft and camshaft journals were line-honed. After dialing in the cams and adding new seals where required, the engine was buttoned up.

Wickstead later replaced the ignition wiring, rebuilt the generator and starter motor, refurbished the distributors with new seals, points and caps, and bolted on new, custom-made stainless-steel headers. After the radiator was reinstalled, the engine was cranked over sans spark plugs to show oil pressure. The rebuilt FISPA fuel pump then went in, the coils and distributors were hooked up and, after five cranks, the 3-liter engine fired.

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Wickstead had long ago removed all the suspension componentry, replacing the original plastic kingpin bushings with bronze items. The original Koni shocks needed only new seals, and the leaf springs were cleaned up. The fuel tank and fuel lines came out for refreshing. Wickstead also rebuilt the brakes and brake booster, and fitted a new master cylinder.

The transmission was in fine condition, so Wickstead simply installed new seals. The clutch was refaced and united with a new disc, pressure plate and throw-out bearing, while a new rubber driveshaft donut was fitted.

The single most time-consuming task, completed over three cold winter months with Wickstead lying on his back beneath the car, involved removing the SWB’s black-tar undercoating in a search for rust—but all he found was sparkling, corrosion-free metal. So far as he can tell, all of the Ferrari’s body panels are original.

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The Ferrari’s interior is mostly factory-original. The original seats, dash and door panels cleaned up nicely, though some leather had to be redyed, and Wickstead purchased new red floor mats to replaced the old, worn grey items.

More than ten years on, all that remained to be done were a chassis alignment and the installation of a new set of Michelin XWX tires; the original, rock-hard Pirellis were still on the car. The berlinetta’s paint was then treated to a high-caliber wax job—no rechroming of the bright work was required—and, with that, the restoration was finished.

“I think it probably took 12 to 14 years to get it back on the road,” Wickstead says. “I loved the process—it’s a great time to go learn the car and make sure everything’s perfect—but if I wasn’t having fun, I didn’t work on it. Plus, I had a job, so when I came home, if I was up to it, I’d work on the car for a few hours at night, then do more on the weekends.”

Wickstead’s aim in restoring the SWB was to return it to mechanically sound condition, not create a show car. But it takes only a quick look to see that s/n 3113 could hold its own at a concours. However, the greatest reward for the long restoration is driving the Ferrari, which he does weekly.

“Compared to a lot of the other Ferraris, the SWB is light and nimble, very responsive,” says Wickstead. “It’s totally neutral in handling—maybe it understeers a little bit at the limit—and it’s no surprise to me it was such a great racing car; it’s very controllable at the limit. The engine does not have a lot of torque compared to the 4-liter cars, but it revs very fast, it moves very quickly.”

Wickstead is less complimentary of the gearbox. “It’s a four-speed, so, depending on the ratio, you’re running at high rpm at high speeds,” he says. “It’s also very slow to upshift; it’s almost as fast to downshift if you double-clutch. It’s the iron-case transmission, instead of the aluminum case found on the comp cars, so there may be some differences there. But, overall, I love the car. I think the SWB is really a racing car, very thinly disguised for road use.”

Looking back to the early 1960s, no one was doing it better than Pininfarina and Scaglietti. Ferrari’s 250 GT SWB was the perfect realization, with voluptuous curves, of the classic long-hood, short-tail fastback body style, and there were perhaps only one or two cars of the period that offered styling close to that of the short-wheelbase berlinetta (Jaguar’s XKE coupe and Aston Martin’s DB4 come to mind).

Add to those looks one of the greatest automotive engines of all time, the Gioacchino Colombo-designed 3-liter V12, and classic bits such as the wood-rimmed steering wheel, multi-gauge instrument panel and leather interior, and the total package was in a league of its own. And, of course, all the SWBs, like s/n 3113, have great stories to tell.

Also from Issue 123

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  • 308 GTB restoration
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  • Driving a Ferrari in the movie "Le Mans"
  • Concours-preparation struggles
  • Extreme Speed's 458 GT wins Petit Le Mans
  • Formula 1: Fernando Alonso falls to second
  • Ferrari and AIM Autosport sweep Rolex GT
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