In 2004, The New York Times published a story about high-end automobile mechanics and restorers. The piece begins, “‘I was worried,’ David Letterman said, ‘that he wouldn’t see me when I called him.’” The “he” Letterman was referring to was François Sicard.
Sicard, who speaks English with a very strong French accent, is 77 years old yet has the lean form of a marathoner and moves impishly around the cars in his care—which at the moment include a 750 Monza, a 250 GT PF Cabriolet, two 330 GTEs, a 365 GT and a 512 BB. He got his start in the Ferrari world working on Luigi Chinetti, Sr.’s Le Mans cars in the 1960s, then moved in and out of the racing world, working on everything from sports cars to Can-Am, from Formula 5000 to Formula 1, before opening his current business in 1979. Although Sicard counts Letterman and Larry Auriana as his primary clients, he’s far from a mechanic to the stars; he works for people he likes who really like their cars.
Passion, not money, motivates Sicard, which is why he usually doesn’t answer his telephone, preferring instead that his apprentice, Tom Yang [“Against All Odds,” FORZA #87], screen potential customers for their suitability. He lives and works deep in the woods at the end of a gravel driveway which has no markings or address off the main road. Even with directions, it’s easy to get lost trying to find him.
FORZA visited Sicard at his secluded home and modest-looking workshop to talk with him about his decades of working on Ferraris.
How did you get started as a mechanic?
Originally, I wanted to race. My father told me if I wanted to be a race driver I should learn mechanics. I was racing bikes [motorcycles] and one of the guys who took care of my bike taught me everything you need in four years—but he taught me in two years. I passed my professional certification as a mechanic. Then I did my two years in the Army where I never touched a car.
After the Army, you got a job as a mechanic?
Yes, I started to work for Mercedes in Paris. After six months, they sent me to school in Stuttgart, where I learned to prepare rally cars. I was doing the assistance in rally and, as an Inspector Technic, I went around to the dealers in a truck and taught the dealer mechanics. Then Mercedes gave up rally racing.
When did you start working on race cars?
In 1962 and ’63 I was doing some rallies with Audi; the car was an Auto Union. I was working with a good French driver, André Guilhaudin. He was my teacher, he won Le Mans in ’62 [specifically the Index of Performance] in a C.D. Panhard, and the year after. That was the first car I built for Le Mans.
Tell us about the Panhard.
It was a very low-profile car because Charles Deutsch was an aerodynamic aircraft designer. He designed a lot of cars for C.D., Par, Matra. With the 700cc [engine, the Panhard] got up to 200 kilometers per hour on the straightaway at Le Mans.
When the GT40 was passing the car, the car was moving so much that we had to put some fins on the back to center it. We used little bits of yarn taped all over the outside of the car to see which were straight and which were out. Then we changed the shape of the body to make sure all the yarns were running straight.
After Le Mans, where did you go?
I went back to Mercedes because they had a new car, the 600. It was nice to work for a year on the prototype car, but I wanted to get back to racing. So I went to Matra and worked on Formula 3 and 2 with [Jean-Pierre] Beltoise, [Henri] Pescarolo, Jo Schlesser and Pedro Rodriguez. I left Matra in mid-season because it was a nightmare to work for that company.
After that, I met Colonel [John] Simone, who was the sponsor for Maserati and owned a few cars. While I was working for Simone on the Le Mans Maserati, in 1965, he introduced me to Chinetti, who hired me to work for him, whenever he was in Europe, on the Le Mans Ferraris. [Chinetti also sent me to] the Ferrari school, and I learned on the production lines in Modena and Maranello. In Modena then, there was a Corse Clienti service for customers and also for the race team.
Was there anyone at the factory who served as a mentor like Guilhaudin?
Yes, there were a few guys, particularly Nereo Iori. At the time, Iori was working on the Formula cars. He was the engine tester and he knew all the tricks because he was working with [chief designer Mauro] Forghieri. A lot of times, if I had a problem, he would tell me what I needed and help me a lot. We’d talk and talk and solve the problem. I miss him.
And now you’re the teacher, with Tom Yang.
I’ve tried to help some people who come and try to learn something, but Tom, he likes to learn everything—not only the engine but the body, the seats—and that’s the way it was in the factory. I started by learning the engine and gearbox, and after that I had to learn everything in the car. They send you out on the assembly line and you do every job until you learn the whole car by heart. First at Mercedes and again at Ferrari, you learn all the tricks that way.
How long would this take? Years?
No, no! Two, four months. The dealer—Chinetti—sends you to the factory at his expense, and he can’t afford to have you at the factory long.
I think of young mechanics like Tom [Yang] here, and the ones Tom will train: They have a lot more to learn to be great mechanics. Some guys have the instinct. They can hear what’s wrong with a car. Phil Hill had a stethoscope and he would put it around and tell what was wrong by just listening. He taught that to me.
When I was at Le Mans [for the 2005 Legends race] Derek Hill was driving for Auriana, we had an Alfa Romeo 3000 CM—Juan Fangio’s 1953 car—we had a problem with the carburetor and the generator. Phil puts a screwdriver [to his ear] against the car and says, ‘The [timing] chain is missing.’ And he was right! Phil was a very, very good mechanic.
[At this point, Yang walks over and says, “I still can’t hear what François hears. I still have a lot to learn. A lot to learn.]
When did you come to the U.S.?
It was very difficult to get a visa to the U.S. because I was born in Vietnam. It took me two years of applications, but eventually I came in 1968 and worked for Chinetti in Greenwich, Connecticut. During the week I worked on customer cars, and on the weekends the NART racers.
Was that kind of split normal with Chinetti?
I liked the old guy, but it was not in my contract to be working on street cars. Eventually we had a big fight at Daytona in 1968; we had four mechanics and six or seven cars! So I left and went to Greg Young on the Formula 5000 and Formula B. After that, he bought a Can-Am and then some Ferrari prototypes to race at Daytona, Watkins Glen, Sebring. After that, he bought two McLaren team cars. François Cevert bought one of those and was [Young’s] top driver.
After working with Young for three years, you went back to Chinetti.
Yes, because he wanted to prepare some race cars for Le Mans. Back then, it was always back and forth with Chinetti.
How many times did you go to Le Mans with Chinetti?
Four times: 1968, ’69 with a 250 LM, ’70 and 1980 with a BB/LM.
When did you start your own business?
I went into business for myself after Cevert was killed at Watkins Glen [in 1973]. I didn’t want to work in racing any more, so I opened up a shop with a partner in Westport [Connecticut].
In the meantime, Chinetti wanted me to work on his car. He sent me [and driver Ricardo Rodriguez] to Mexico with the Daytona and we won the race. After winning a couple of races for Chinetti, finally the ball swung back and we closed the shop. Around this time I met [major Ferrari collector Paul] Pappalardo. He had a race collection and I started to work for him.
And then [in 1979, with Pappalardo], I opened my own shop, and a new customer brought me in to work on his race cars. That was Larry Auriana, and I took care of his race cars and street cars.
You left racing for awhile after Cevert died. Do mechanics tend to form close relationships with drivers?
You spend a lot of time together when you work on Formula 1. In the old days, driers and mechanics were always together. Some drivers, like Jackie Stewart, were very distant. He did his job, dined alone, went to bed early every night and was very private. But when I stayed with Graham Hill, he was a party guy. And Jim Clark, a party guy. We had a lot of good times together. I was in Formula 1 [with the Ferrari factory team] until Chris Amon quit in ’69.
I lost two good friends to racing. One when I worked for Matra—Jo Schlesser—and a lot of people then said, “Don’t be friends with a driver. You will be hurt.” When Cevert died, it was worse. We were very close.
Now I’m more professional. I’ve seen a lot of people die, it doesn’t bother me so much any more. Now I [work with vintage racer] Derek Hill [the son of 1961 World Champion Phil Hill. He’s a very nice guy, but we don’t get very close. I don’t want it to happen again.
You’re working on F1 cars again, right?
Right. We have a ’64 Formula 1, a 1512 F1 driven by [John] Surtees and [Lorenzo] Bandini, owned by Auriana. That car’s running pretty good now.
You may recall that Enzo had a falling out with the FIA in 1964 and quit F1 in the middle of the season. He sent his F1 cars to Chinetti, who campaigned them in Canada, Watkins Glenn and Mexico. Servio Mazzali was the chief engineer.
Isn’t there a story behind that car’s restoration?
In the beginning the factory wanted to [restore the car], but I said, “Over my dead body!” There was a lot of engine work to be done: crankshaft, foundry [cast aluminum parts], gears. Ferrari had problems with the car [in period]; Iori told me the engine was blowing up on the dyno “like crazy.”
The only thing I did, when we were restoring the car, was send it to Forghieri, because he designed it [but was not involved with the car after it was built]. Forghieri brought in fuel-injection expert [and former Scuderia Ferrari chief mechanic] Giulio Borsari, who got it up to 12,000 rpm. But again, the car had problems on the dyno.
We had a lot of problems. It took two years and we did just two laps at Monte Carlo [Historic Grand Prix] two years ago. I was never so disappointed in my life. It was a nightmare.
So Auriana gave the engine to another guy, who redid the crankshaft and other things and got the engine to run nicely at 12,000. No more dyno problems. After that, the car ran very well until we broke the second gear last year. Now I’ve got to redo the whole gearbox again.
Do you work with any of the newer F1s?
No. The ’75s or ’78s, you can’t work on them; too many computers. The ’80s cars you also need a lot of computers. I know a German guy who had a few newer F1s, and at Monte Carlo he had a car that wouldn’t start. He had four or five guys on a computer, and they said, “You can’t run the car, the car is no good.” He asked, “Why?” and the guys said, “Because the computer tells us the car is no good.” They argued and he demanded to start the car. They did. We were behind him, and a big noise came out and a pile of water came out of the exhaust, and that was it.
Duncan Dayton [of Highcroft Racing] called me once. He had a Michael Schumacher car from ’90, and he wanted me to start it. I said, “Forget it. You have to call the factory.”
Are there any models you particularly like or dislike?
I like the old cars. The last modern car I worked was the F50. I have no desire to work on the new cars.
Is that because of the computerization?
No, computers have nothing to do with it. We always use computers now, on the vintage racers, to set up the suspension, shocks, brakes, things like that. My passion has always been around working on the race cars, those I worked on for Mercedes, Matra, Maserati and Ferrari. My favorite thing is to go racing. In racing it’s not the car, really, it’s the driver. If I give the driver a good car, like the Maserati last year at Goodwood, we came in second in the big race. Three more laps and we could have won the race. [At Goodwood, Derek Hill drove the last remaining Maserati Tipo 151; Sicard had campaigned a different example in the 1960s.]
How has the restoration business changed over the years?
In the old days, people bought the cars, restored them and used them. Today, the cars are so expensive that people are not using them any more. You know, I restored a 275 GTB for a customer a couple of years ago. The car was very cheap, it was Miles Davis’ car, and the customer was driving everywhere with that car. Then, one day, he decides to restore it. At that time, the car was worth $800,000, and then he said, “I can’t drive it any more. If I have an accident….” I think he only paid $8,000 for that car, and I said, “Enjoy the car! If you have an accident, you have insurance to repair the car. It will cost a lot of money to repair but you still make money.” Now the car is worth $1.8 million, yet he still drives it.
The other thing is that, in, say, the 1970s, people could restore a car for $150,000. Everything is so expensive, you spend double now. I’m doing a 275 GTS, and the guy is up to something like $230,000. Now a restoration can cost you $200,000, $300,000, $400,000. This guy bought the car for about $250,000, and if he spends $350,000 he still makes money because the car is worth over $2 million now and going up. It’s a good investment for people who have money.
Do you own a Ferrari?
I own a 308 Fiberglass, but in 25 years I’ve never used it. A customer owed me money and gave it to me as payment. Many people have offered to buy it but I don’t want to sell it. I have so many Ferraris to use but I have no time to use any of them.
That sound like the best of both worlds: You don’t have to pay for all these Ferraris in your shop, but you get to drive them whenever you want.
No. No. I don’t ever have the time! That’s the problem. I never have enough time to drive the cars. Even my customers. One customer goes three or four months between drives, even after he retired.
In the old days, the Daytona, the Dino, the 330, they were even driving in winter, in salt! That’s why you see a lot of 250s and 330s with so much rust. I remember when I was with Chinetti, there was a guy who came in with snow tires on his Ferrari.
In those days, the cars were not considered so special.
Correct. They were just expensive sports cars. People drove them every day.