Tribute TR

Peter Giacobbi couldn’t afford an authentic 1950s sports racer, so he made his own.

Tribute TR 1
August 20, 2015

Peter Giacobbi is one of the most accomplished car guys you’ve never heard of. He was director of engineering for John DeLorean’s ill-fated car company, he’s won multiple SCCA season titles racing old Alfa Romeos, he’s owned a smorgasbord of great cars (including a pair of 250 GTs) and he’s even designed and built his own Ferrari. More on that last one momentarily.

But most of all, Giacobbi is a serious enthusiast. He’s bonkers mad about cars, car people and the car business. Giacobbi’s fertile mind has dreamt up countless cars, and a few have made the transition to the real world, and real metal.

One of his late ’60s ideas centered around locating a Lancia horizontally opposed watercooled four-cylinder engine amidships in a slinky sports coupe. At the time, the mechanical engineer lived in Turin, Italy, and he’d gotten to know many of Torino’s automotive designers. One of them was American-born Tom Tjaarda, who, while working for Pininfarina, designed the original quad-headlight 330 GT 2+2 and the rare, flamboyant 365 California—who better to design the Lancia-powered exotic?

Tribute TR 2

While Tjaarda drew, Giacobbi developed all the mechanicals, from the central spine chassis frame up. The resulting racy sports car was named the Synthesis 2000; hand-built in Italy, the complete, running machine made the international auto-show circuit and magazine-cover tour in 1970. Today, it lives in Giacobbi’s Southern California garage, next to a pair of Alfas, a Toyota pickup and our featured car.

For the longest time, Giacobbi has been deep-down smitten with the Ferrari 250 TR59 sports racer, calling it the “prettiest racing car I’d ever seen. And all of my heroes drove them,” including Phil Hill, Cliff Allison, Olivier Gendebien, Pete Lovely and Paul Frere, to name a few. With only a few examples built by Ferrari and bodied by Fantuzzi, he resigned himself to the fact he’d never own one. Unless, of course, he built his own.

WHILE VISITING ITALY in the early 2000s, Giacobbi was introduced to “a somewhat crazy guy” at the latter’s massive barn just outside of Lake Como. The building was “just packed to the ceiling with car stuff,” he recalls, “parts cars, engines, you name it.” And stacked atop a high shelf was a glowing alloy body that looked for all the world like a Ferrari.

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Giacobbi inquired. It turned out the guy had built the body himself by hand a few years earlier, apparently in the hopes of creating his own TR replica or perhaps building a small run of bodies to sell. Whatever the case, the venture never went further than this single set of panels (with no frame or powertrain beneath them) so the project was shelved, literally. Giacobbi was hooked. He reasoned, or convinced himself, that he could design and build a worthwhile car around the forgotten coachwork, so he made a deal to buy the body. After it was crated and shipped to America, the real work began.

Giacobbi set out to inspect and photograph every TR59 he could put his eyes and camera on. Photographer David Gooley supplied detailed photos of the TR Pete Lovely once raced [“The Loveliest TR,” FORZA #81]. Giacobbi’s ultimate goal was to round up and employ as many original, or original-style, components as he could find in order to make the car as genuine as he could.

“My goal was to stay as true to the original Ferrari principles as I could,” he explains, “within the limitations of what was available, and certain parts that I needed to integrate into the car.”

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One thing certain to not be available was an original TR59 chassis, so Giacobbi had to make his own. He located diagrams of the original Testa Rossa chassis and, taking a little creative license where needed, built a frame from scratch.

“I designed the chassis to be as accurate as I could reasonably make it,” he says. “The chassis tubes and members you see in the cockpit are virtually identical to the authentic TR pieces. The small chassis tubes are very close to the original spec, as are the large tubes, but perhaps the latter are slightly thicker because my car weighs more than an authentic TR.”

Giacobbi’s suspension solutions are unusual yet make complete sense: Most of the front suspension came from a 330 GTC while the entire rear suspension came from a 400i. (The front crossmember is stamped with the GTC’s serial number, and the car is registered as a “rebodied Ferrari 330,” says its owner.) It’s definitely different hardware than that of an pukka TR, but pure Ferrari all the way.

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“I chose to use the 330 front-end bits because they seemed as close as I could find to the originals in terms of architecture, components and geometry,” explains Giacobbi. “I used the front A-arms and spring mounts and such, but modified the saddle and mounts so I could get the engine to sit back just a little bit further, and a tiny bit lower.”

The same thought process lies behind the independent rear suspension. “The 400i |rear end was also close in terms of principle, if not exact in detail,” Giacobbi says. “Plus, all this stuff was relatively affordable and available as compared to sourcing authentic TR bits. I’m certain I could have found a variety of A-arms, springs and shocks, for a lot less money, from hot-rod component shops and catalogs, but it was critical to me to use only Ferrari parts where possible.”

One big difference with the 400i setup is that it utilizes forged arms instead of the TR’s tubular ones. “I thought about designing and building tubular pieces to more accurately replicate the original, then figured I couldn’t make new pieces any stronger than the factory’s [later] forged arms,” he says. “I wanted the car to be really strong and super reliable, so it just ultimately made sense to leave them. And they work great.”

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As if all this suspension engineering doesn’t sound challenging enough, Giacobbi says the hardest part of making it all work together was the half shafts. “I originally bolted it all up with U-joints,” he recalls. “It fit and looked like it would work geometrically, but ended up vibrating like crazy. So I had to go with CV joints instead, and that cured the problem. Other than countless hours of fine detail cutting, fitting, fabrication and tuning, that was really the only major problem I had building the whole car. And in case you’re wondering about the torque-tube driveshaft, I had to shorten it by several feet from its original length in the street car. Now it’s only about a foot long.”

The ZF steering box is much the same as on the original race car, and the aluminum snap-open fuel filler and round Carello taillights are authentic items. Of the million other bits needed to create a credible replica, everything that could not be located or afforded was designed by Giacobbi and made by hand, including the four-muffler quad-pipe exhaust system. The instrumentation is restored but period correct looking in nearly every way. The Dunlop wheels and bias-ply racing tires are the correct size and spec. You get the idea.

While the one-off TR body was, at a distance, a thing of beauty, it was hardly a thing of precision. Giacobbi describes it as being “beaten by hand, using only hammers, rubber tires and sandbags,” and measured by eye rather than instrument. As a result, one of the fenders sat a couple inches higher than the others, and most of the pieces were assembled “the lazy way, with lap welds instead of more precise butt welds.” Giacobbi and friend and team crew chief James Warden had to painstakingly cut out all bad welds and ugly seams in order to clean up the unpainted body’s appearance.

Tribute TR 7

For power, nothing but a proper Ferrari V12 would do. Rather than wait to find the perfect, and very expensive, 3.0-liter Colombo unit, Giacobbi settled on a 4.4-liter V12 from a 365, Ferrari’s last single-cam V12.

It’s been suitably dressed-up to closely resemble the TR powerplant, running a sextet of Weber 40 DCN carbs beneath Daytona intake stacks and a handmade cold-air plenum. An Accusump oiling system ensures the engine has full oil pressure at startup.

The V12 is generally stock inside, although this means a compression ratio bumped up to 10.0:1, super-tight tolerances and blueprinting and balancing to within “tenths of grams” for smoothness. The five-speed manual transmission was also donated by a 365.

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GIACOBBI THUMBS THE HANDMADE STARTER BUTTON. The V12 whirs with the usual Ferrari starter noise then lights with a seriously loud and aggressive bark—could we be in the pits |at Le Mans in 1959? He gently strums the throttle pedal as the engine clears its considerable chest and warms up. The shifter fits tightly into the handmade shift gate and slides into first with a metallic clack.

Braaaaaaaaap, shift, braaaaaaaaaaaaap, shift, braaaaaaaaaaaaaaap, rev-match downshift — brap brap — and then it’s foot to floor again. The engine’s heat is already making its way through the thin aluminum bulkhead; the noise is all-encompassing and never-ending. Were Giacobbi ever to take this car on a long drive with a passenger, both would need helmets and an intercom system.

At a stop sign, I ask Giacobbi what sort of horsepower this hopped-up thoroughbred combination is good for. He replies, “350 at the rear wheels on a dyno, which means about 400 at the flywheel.” He then revs the fully warmed lionhearted V12 to about 4,000 rpm, dumps the clutch and burns Dunlop rubber for at least 100 yards.

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Giacobbi races his creation extensively, at private club days and VARA events, so he’s very familiar with the car’s handling and surprisingly high limits. This Ferrari is nose heavy and mighty torquey, so tail out through corners is the norm. Soft-spoken and in his mid-70s he may be, but Giacobbi’s still a racer at heart. He keeps the car completely under control, with two tires turning and two burning through the curves. Period-correct drum brakes are well up to the job of hauling the 2,300-pound roadster to a confident stop. The ride is very firm without being punishing.

Near the end of our drive, I wish I had an Accusump because my heart stopped pumping blood a few fast corners and burnouts back. We come to a stop and I see wisps of smoke curling up the side of the car; is something on fire? No, it’s just pent-up tire smoke making its way out of the wheel wells. Wow.

Perhaps the most complex aspect of this amazing machine is how to categorize it. Some people have used less-than-complimentary labels for it, like “clone” and “fake.” Don’t even think of it as a kit car; if so, it’s one that came with 95 percent of the parts missing and no assembly instructions. Giacobbi, who never for a moment pretends the car is authentic, thinks of it as a “tribute”—specifically his own, very personal tribute to great Ferrari race cars and the people who built and raced them. In any event, he’s having too much fun with the car to care what anyone else thinks of, or calls, it.

In closing, I ask Giacobbi if he’s ever going to paint his tribute. “No, people seem to enjoy it the way it is,” he replies, smiling, “and it would be a tremendous amount of work to make the hand-hewn body smooth enough to ever look good painted. Besides, if I made it all pretty and then painted it, I’d have to park it. And that’s not going to happen.”

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