Westward, Ho!

An eye-witness account of Ferrari’s first race on America’s West Coast.

Westward, Ho! 0
April 12, 2013

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.

We immediately wondered, Who is this substitute Lewis, and what kind of a driver is he, if any at all? Little was known about him at the time, but a piece by Gloria Dearborn in the June 1951 issue of Road & Track helps paint his profile: “Marshall Lewis. The shy guy from Chi,” she wrote. “All we could find out about him was gleaned from Edna his charming wife, Jimmy Williams his co-mechanic, and the morgues of St. Louis newspapers, in whose region he was ace-hi driver with midget fans between ’32 and ’38.” Much more than Kimberly’s wrench, then, the guy was a former midget racer, very adept at sliding a car through the corners. In fact, Lewis’ first-ever sports-car race had occurred just six weeks earlier, when he co-drove s/n 0010M with Kimberly at Sebring to finish second overall (positions were then scored on index) and first in class.

Westward, Ho! 1

The night before the race, event promoter George Cary, Jr. and his gorgeous wife Leslie, who would become shining social beacons of sports-car racing in Palm Springs, hosted a dinner party. There, speculative gab predicting the next day’s winner swung from Jack Armstrong, Michael Graham and Basil Panzer in their Allards with whopping Detroit-built V8s to Phil Hill in his big “two-nine” Alfa Romeo, Sterling Edwards in his Ford-powered Special, Don Parkinson’s speedy Jaguar XK-120 and anybody else one cared to name.

Oh, and let’s not forget the little Ferrari roadster hauled out from the Midwest for these blistering desert games. General consensus: The big-mill boys would blow it into the weeds—er, sage brush. Really, how could this piccolo Italian intruder possibly outrun the Yankee machines muscled with triple the displacement? My father laughed, imagining that even his hot-rodded MG would beat Kimberly’s Ferrari.

In spite of its impressive performances in Europe and the eastern U.S., the Barchetta did not offer impressive specs. Its smallish, single-overhead-cam V12, nursed by a trio of 32DCF Weber carburetors and fired by twin magnetos, made only 140 bhp at 6,600 rpm—not much in cubic Allard speak. In addition, while strikingly handsome in its Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera alloy bodywork, the Ferrari displayed to most American hot-shoes a frailty ascribed to the puniest player on a college football squad.

However, looking deeper into the Barchetta’s anatomy revealed a tubular steel frame and a Formula 2-style aluminum fuel tank. Along with Ferrari’s superlative-for-the-day drum brakes, the car featured undeniably road race-worthy suspension: front independent double wishbones with transverse leaf spring and a rear rigid axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs. Lightweight and well put together, the 166 that had already done much to establish the Ferrari name was not to be denied at least a fighting chance.

SATURDAY NIGHT’S PARTIES, not lacking in Sunday’s race drivers, petered away into dawn, when the bark of hoarse engines woke us all to why we were there. Breakfast undertaken, we joined the herd to the Palm Springs airport, where the 2.3-mile, multi-turn course was arranged on service roads and taxi strips—none of the runways that would be used in later years.

Motorsport historian Jim Sitz, then a car-crazy 12-year-old who’d arrived in his dad’s old Packard to watch his first race, recalls, “All of the cars I’d seen in Road & Track and Motor Trend were suddenly there! I had no idea the Allards accelerated so damn fast. I was impressed.”

And Kimberly’s Ferrari? “It was really tiny,” says Sitz, “but the sound of it was fabulous. It was a whole new world, something you never forgot. There was nothing to compare it to.”

The 65-lap main event saw 31 cars ready to start. Truman Vencill, steward of the meet, presided over what was called “an Australian pursuit,” which gridded slower cars up front and the fastest ones in back. Starter Ludwig Lesovsky waved the green among gunning engines, and the race was on.

Westward, Ho! 2

Marshall Lewis’ solo Ferrari, Phil Hill’s big red Alfa and several mighty Allards roared from behind into the pack of slower cars at Turn 1. The Barchetta, chased by the Ford-motored Edwards Special, quickly got around a Crosley, three MGs and a Singer roadster.

Then the attrition began. On Lap 3, Hill, who had come from 25th to a strong third place, abruptly lost one of his Alfa’s rear wheels. Road & Track writer Henry Manney III’s supercharged Crosley—prepared, like our MG, by Ernie McAfee—got loose and overturned, while another Crosley’s engine seized and a Riley dropped out with a broken throttle linkage.

By then, the #25 Ferrari had already taken the lead. The tiny Barchetta displayed unmatched handling and braking, and Lewis ran a fluid, steady pace lap after lap.

It was assuredly Jim Kimberly’s kismet to have him. The story goes like this: Kimberly and sports-car racing legend Fred Wacker were sailing buddies at the time that Kimberly bought one of the first Jaguar XK-120s in Chicago. When Max Hoffman’s shop there couldn’t get the Jag running right, Wacker told Kimberly to come meet his mechanic: Marshall Lewis. Kimberly, used to getting what he wanted, grabbed Lewis from Wacker—and here he was at Palm Springs, driving the Ferrari like the pro piloto he in actuality was.

At one point around mid-race, the Edwards Special, with its Ardun overhead-valve conversion bumping the Ford powerplant’s output well above its original 60 hp, got past the Ferrari. But Edwards’ lead on Lewis lasted only seconds, and the V8’s residual race potential was ephemeral at best; when a header stud broke, the overly-stressed Ford engine began losing water, and speed.

Jack Armstrong’s Cad-Allard also came close to making a move on Lewis, but Armstrong soon got off course. Post-race rumor had Armstrong eating an apple with one hand and steering with the other, when biting into a worm sent him up an escape road.

Back on track, the Allard driver cooled it to ensure his second-place finish—miles behind the winning Ferrari. Lewis and the Barchetta averaged 55.1 mph over the turn-laden race’s 2 hours, 42 minutes and 39 seconds. The Ferrari trespasser which so many had doubted had done it!

A pair of XK-120s (Robbie Robinson’s and Don Parkinson’s, respectively) followed the Cad-Allard, and behind them, in fifth overall, came our Jack McAfee-driven MG TC, one of the loudest cars in the race. The other hot MG, John von Neumann’s unblown TD, was sixth overall. In the end, no other car at Palm Springs was fast enough, durable enough and well-balanced enough to catch Marshall Lewis and the Kimberly Barchetta. How the sports-car press hailed the Italian marque’s first start and first-place finish!

Westward, Ho! 3

The victory dinner that night was held at the Palm Springs Racquet Club, which actors Ralph Bellamy and Charlie Farrell had founded during Palm Springs’ movie star-populated heyday in the 1930s. But this Sunday, it was all about racing. In Kimberly’s absence, the evening’s kudos went to shy-guy Lewis—who proved himself as humble as he was quiet. Drawing again on Gloria Dearborn’s R&T story: “He claims the Kimberly-owned Ferrari won by itself, he was just along for the ride,” and “Because southern California is the home of the souped engine, Lewis expected to be trounced by western Cad-Allards.”

Young as he was in ’51, Jim Sitz was one of those who believed that if Phil Hill’s wheel had stayed on, he would have given Lewis a run for his money. “There’s no doubt about it in my mind,” Sitz says. “Even though the Alfa was 13 years old, it was fast.” So too was its helmsman, who, ten years on, would win the World Drivers’ Championship in a Formula 1 Ferrari. Much later in life, Hill told Sitz that the 2.9 Alfa he drove at Palm Springs was the best car he ever owned.

There’s a postscript for scribe Henry Manney, too. He was so impressed with Kimberly’s Barchetta at the Springs that, a year later, he would buy his own Ferrari roadster, sloughing off his souped-up Crosley Hotshot for a specially groomed 340 America that heated desires at the 1952 Milan Show. Outcome: The torrid 4.1-liter roadster petrified Manney and he sold it—to my father, another Palm Springs Ferrari convert. [We told the story of that 340 America in issue #51’s “One Hot Cookie.”—Ed.]

A month after Palm Springs, Kimberly was back in action in his Barchetta at Pebble Beach, only to flip the car on Lap 27. This non-injury shunt was helped by a kiss from Ginger Rogers; it was one of those classically Kimberly moments that certain elements of the media lived for. He would sell the Barchetta later that year, but will always be remembered as the man who brought the first racing Ferrari west.

After Kimberly’s custody, the Barchetta was purchased by Jim Simpson, who grabbed third with the car at a March 1952 race in Vero Beach, Florida. Less successful were Simpson’s outings in it that year at Sebring (DNF), Bridgehampton (13th) and, late in October, Sowega, Georgia (DNF). In 1953, the Ferrari, destined to a life of many owners, passed to Ebby Lunken, who raced it once at Smartt Field in Missouri before it went to Denny Cornett, and was then traded even for an Arnolt Bristol.

More time and more owners came and went before collector Jon Shirley and his wife, Mary, bought s/n 0010 at Christie’s Pebble Beach auction in August 1996. The Barchetta is a luminary in his already remarkable collection, and in the 16 years Shirley’s had it, he’s shown it, raced it and rallied it. Half a century after Scuderia Ferrari’s Felice Bonetto and Francisco Carpani piloted s/n 0010 to second place overall in the Mille Miglia, Shirley and his sons, first Peter and then Erikson, twice returned the car to Italy for homecoming adventures in the Mille Miglia Storica. What provenance. What fun! [For more information on s/n 0010M’s history, see “The Ambassador” in FORZA #69.—Ed.]

I recently asked Shirley to comment on s/n 0010, one of three raced by the factory in 1949. “Ferrari did not get famous from Grand Prix racing,” he replied, “but from these ‘little boats.’ When you are driving one, you are really driving history.”

I, for one, will never forget seeing this archetypal Barchetta race and win at Palm Springs. It was yet another magnificent performance for a car that had already done so much to establish the Ferrari name.

This story is dedicated to Mary Shirley, who passed away on January 23, 2013. “It was her favorite car, hands down,” Jon Shirley told me. “She made me promise to never sell it.”

Also from Issue 126

  • Preview: LaFerrari supercar
  • Twin-turbo 348 Challenge
  • 250 GT Speciale
  • Tony Southgate interview
  • Privateer businessmen: Formula 1 Enterprises
  • ALMS season preview, 12 Hours of Sebring
  • F1: 2013 Season opens down under
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