My father, John Edgar, drove and my mother, Gerry, rode next to him, on his left. I sat in back thinking about the weekend’s sports-car races in Palm Springs, where we were headed. It was the end of March and I’d just turned 18—maybe a little old for riding around with my parents, but we often did that and, besides, that day we were in our Bugatti Type 57C drophead coupé. It made the best sound ever and was terrifically chic going down the road in those days. We’d passed through miles and miles of California orange groves and then it was all desert and hot, but Mount San Jacinto, seen out the Bug’s half-open top, still had snow on the summit. It all seems like just yesterday, not 62 years ago.
I’d missed the inaugural Palm Springs sports-car races, but at least would make the second annual meet, again put on by the California Sports Car Club, on April first—April Fool’s Day, 1951. My father’s supercharged MG TC would already be there, trucked in from North Hollywood by tuner Ernie McAfee for Jack McAfee to race in the main. Even more exciting, team and brand loyalty apart, was a car that came out from Chicago trailered behind a ’51 Buick station wagon—Jim Kimberly’s Ferrari 166 MM Touring Barchetta (s/n 0010M).
Powered by a 1,995cc Gioacchino Colombo-designed V12, the Barchetta, only the third Ferrari exported to the U.S., was called “a two-liter” and left at that—virtually no one then referred to chassis numbers. This Italian “little boat” had, for Scuderia Ferrari, placed second in 1949’s Mille Miglia (after leading until Rome), crashed out at Le Mans and won the 24-hour Grand Prix of Belgium at Spa-Francorchamps co-driven by Luigi Chinetti, Sr. and Jean Lucas. Next owned and raced by Kimberly, who had recently driven it to fourth place at Bridgehampton and victory at the first Elkhart Lake race, the Barchetta would be the first Ferrari ever to compete west of the Mississippi.
ANTICIPATION RAN HIGH as we rolled into the desert resort community under street banners hailing the big race. Palm Canyon Drive, the main drag, was jammed with sports-car traffic converging from all over southern California. We stopped off at the swank Desert Inn, where scads of race cars were lined up, to see who was in town—rival drivers like John von Neumann, Roger Barlow, Don Parkinson, Mike Graham, Sterling Edwards—before checking in at Bon Aire Village, where room and pool parties yapped on into the night.
Ferocious and fun: It’s what the sports-car racing scene was six decades ago. The code of behavior was to party on. Had we had an ounce of sense, of course, we’d have pulled the drapes and turned in early.
The next morning’s sun sizzled on Palm Springs practice, and Kimberly’s little Ferrari howled—_screamed_—like an alien critter’s cry. I was stunned at what I heard. Until then, the only V12 I knew was the one in my father’s ’48 Lincoln Continental, which wheezed blue smoke and clattered. But this small-bore European import sang a perfect aria in pitch and timbre unheard before out west.
Like his ear-catching Barchetta, Jim Kimberly was an elite sort. Tall, handsome, wealthy and smart, he lived a life of sailing yachts, driving stunning automobiles and courting movie stars. (Swimsuit film beauty Ester Williams was one; Ginger Rogers, who’d danced herself to fame on screen with Fred Astaire, was another.) This playboy scion of the paper-based Kimberly-Clark empire was assuredly a man of the hour, but he would not remain in Palm Springs that weekend. When Kimberly was called back to Chicago on family matters, he announced that his mechanic, Marshall Lewis, would take over the Ferrari’s seat on Sunday’s starting grid.