In 1949, Ferrari burst onto the world motorsport stage by winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A few years later, the fledgling company won the Grand Prix World Championship. It was the beginning of three-quarters of a century of multi-disciplinary racing success, as well as the start of a legend that continues to this day.
Back then, racing was an extremely expensive sport, but today’s sponsorship deals were still decades in the future. To fund his motorsport addiction, Enzo Ferrari reluctantly began to build road cars. Rudimentary dual-purpose sports cars like the 125 S, 159 S, and 166 S and MM came first, then were joined, beginning in 1949, by GTs. The 166 Inter was first, and it was followed by the 195 and 212 Inters before the arrival, in 1954, of the first 250 GTs.
Due to their tiny production numbers, as well as the huge success and enduring legacy of the later 250 GT series, most of these earlier models aren’t that well-known, and are therefore rather underappreciated in the company’s genealogy. Consider, for example, the 195 Inter. Just 27 examples were built between early 1950 and mid-1951. As was usual at the time, Ferrari outsourced the cars’ bodywork to nearby coachbuilders, or carrozzerie. Vignale took 12 of the 195s, completing 11 as coupes and the final car as a berlinetta. In spring 1951, our featured car (s/n 0103S), the sixth such 195 built, was delivered to its first owner, in Portugal. The Ferrari has spent its entire life in Europe’s western-most country, and not only is it Portugal’s oldest Ferrari, it may be the world’s longest-serving Ferrari museum exhibit: It’s been on display since 1968!
The road to the Meseu do Caramulo is one of those serpentine strips of tarmac that cries out for a special car. The higher I follow the twists and turns out of the central valley, the better the views of the northern Portuguese landscape become, until I arrive at the hilltop town of Caramulo. The museum’s classical columns combine with the curious streaks of rubber that all start at the same spot on the road outside to create a sort of Back to the Future feel about the setting. And it really is a flashback to the past when I was directed to a shady maple grove on the museum grounds where the immaculate Ferrari had been wheeled outside just for me.
S/n 0103 is, by more than 30 years, the oldest Ferrari I’ve have the pleasure to thoroughly peruse—and at first glance, the understated curves are less of what I think a Ferrari should look like and more like an Aston Martin DB2 or perhaps a Maserati 2000 Zagato (both contemporaries of the 195). Put another way, unlike the models of the 1970s and ’80s I grew up with, Vignale’s certainly wasn’t a ground-breaking design. That said, it’s quietly stately in its own way and has a few handsome elements, such as the way the bodywork tapers in just above the grille to direct air into the engine compartment. Vignale’s front-end treatment is certainly much better looking than the overbearing whale-mouth grille of Ghia’s version of the 195.
Joao Maria Lacerda is the automotive curator, a mantle he inherited when his grandfather passed away in 2003. His great-grandfather, Jerónimo Lacerda, created the town in the 1920s as sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. In the 1950s, Jerónimo’s sons, Abel and Joao, planned the museum, which, unusually, is split between art (Abel’s passion) and cars (Joao’s). The museum currently holds a total of 100 cars, and the younger Joao gives me a quick history of the 195 so I know exactly what I’m looking at.
S/n 0103 was delivered on the April 17, 1951 to its proud first owner in Lisbon—but instead of being treated like a treasured possession, the Ferrari spent the first few years of its life being passed around different owners like a hot cake. Less than two years later, its second owner raced the car in an event around the streets of Lisbon, where it finished fourth behind three other Ferraris (a pair of 225s and a 166 MM). This was the only time it was ever used in a competition, aside from the time one owner decided to take part in an impromptu street race in the middle of winter. He didn’t pre-heat the engine, though, which caused it to break. Unimpressed, he sold the car on without repairing it.
That sounds weird today, but Portugal in the 1950s and ’60s wasn’t the country it is now. The horrors of Francisco Franco’s Spain take up a lot more space in the history books, but Portugal’s Antonio Salazar was an equally impervious autocrat, and he drove the economy down to such depths that an aging Ferrari was worth about as much as a Fiat 600. S/n 0103 was considered virtually worthless, and for most of the 1960s it was actually abandoned, until it came into the possession of the Lisbon Mercedes-Benz dealer.
The Inter remained on the dealer’s property, unsold, for a couple of years until Lacerda’s grandfather, Joao, decided it would make a worthy addition to his museum, which he founded in 1959 (a few years after his brother Abel’s death). Unfortunately, the original paperwork didn’t come with the car, so no one knows which of the previous owners had covered the original two-tone paint with a more traditional bright red.
In an archive room off to the side of the airy entrance hall, Lacerda showed me the thick folders full of paperwork for every car in the museum, all kept updated for nearly 50 years. “The first thing my grandfather loved was art, and there are some cars, especially Ferraris, that transcend their normal function as just modes of transport and can be appreciated as real works of art. Mobile sculptures, he use to call them.”
Leafing though the folder for the 195, we find hand-written logs from the late ’60s and through the ’70s, always in the summer, of delightfully detailed little trips to visit friends with all the mileage jotted down and committed to history. There are also receipts for regular servicing and maintenance at local workshops, and notes from a 1981 visit to UK-based Ferrari specialist David Clarke. A letter from Clarke’s workshop explains that an engine-smoking issue came from abnormally worn piston rings, despite the car then having only a scant 6,000 kilometers [roughly 3,730 miles] on the clock. The day trips seem to get less and less frequent from here on, although this might be because, as the collection grew towards it current number, Joao simply had more options to choose from for his summer afternoon jaunts.
The mid-1990s saw another big change for s/n 0103, when the museum’s workshop repainted it in its original two-tone hues. “Since all the paperwork from before the time it was with the Mercedes dealer was lost, we couldn’t tell what the original colors were,” says Lacerda, referring to some period black-and-white photographs. “But the instrument dials are [painted] blue and grey, and because it seems natural that the [interior and exterior] colors would match we used them for the tones ofthe paint.”
TODAY, IN THE LATE AUTUMN SUN, the Ferrari sits waiting, ready to drive. Despite a full busload of tourists standing nearby, however, only a few amble over to ask what the cars is. These particular visitors must have been fine-art fans, come to see the Dalis, Caravaggios, and Picassos. Unassuming exterior aside, the Ferrari contains its own piece of art: Gioacchino Colombo’s legendary engine—which has been pre-heated this time, of course.
I lift the hood to reveal something quite special. It’s a 2,300cc engine that makes just 130 hp, yet it’s also a wonderfully over-engineered V12. A line of three carburetors sit snugly in the valley, topped by a long, obviously handmade air intake that’s angled toward the slot in the nose.
Apart from the paintwork, this is the only modification the car has ever had. The engine was originally fitted with a single carb, but Lacerda’s grandfather thought it would benefit from a little extra power. Since a triple in-line setup was a period factory option, that’s what he chose to do. The upgrade was performed at a workshop in Switzerland, with the intake being made from scratch, and all the original parts were kept in case someone someday wants to return the car to stock.
Inspection done, we climb inside and Lacerda cranks the engine over. I’m expecting an almighty roar, but once the V12 catches and fires it’s surprisingly quiet—so much so that I have to climb out and stand by the exhaust pipe to properly hear the subdued note.
Lacerda engages reverse with a clunk, and the rear springs creak a few times as he pulls off the grass onto the tarmac. Then we’re off, both our heads nudging against the headliner, surrounded by a beautifully crafted interior that’s as fresh and clean as it was the day it was made.
Local drivers are protected by the hill’s huge drop-offs by double armco, and most apexes are lined with strips of black. The reason for this, and the streaks of rubber outside the museum, is that the museum hosts the famous Caramulo hillclimb. Many of the most glorious classic sports cars from all over Europe have graced this sinuous piece of tarmac.
The 195 wouldn’t be Lacerda’s first choice for blasting up the hill, however. “I love the car for what it is, of course, but for me it doesn’t feel like such a special car when I’m driving it,” he says, shrugging. “My favorite Ferraris are the Testarossa and the F40, which both feel like half car/half spaceship when you’re behind the wheel, but even comparing it to some other cars of the same period, the handling of the 195 isn’t so wonderful. The body rolls around each corner, the steering is heavy, and, unless you are concentrating completely it’s very easy to miss a gear.”
Right on cue, there is a horrible sound of miss-meshing metal from between us. As if to prove his point about the body roll, he turns into a corner a little sharper than seems necessary; I have to fumble for the ornate door handle to hang on.
At the top of the hill, we pull into the parking where the hillclimb cars regroup before heading back down to the paddock by the museum. Lacerda turns off the engine and looks at me expectantly. It’s my turn to drive.
I climb out, walk around, slide in behind the oversized steering wheel. “You know how to start it?” he asks, perhaps testing how intimate my knowledge of classic Ferraris is. I’ve no idea, and am instructed to turn the key the wrong way until it clicks further into the ignition barrel before turning it back to make contact. I’m not sure if this is a quirk or a security feature, and I’m too busy to think about it now that the engine’s fired. Instead, I’m feathering the throttle to see how easily the revs rise before letting out the clutch.
There’s no lurch, no sense that the car is straining at the bit. Every other Ferrari I’ve driven, or just been a passenger in, has offered a raw, visceral experience. As I feel around for a clue to where second gear resides, my mind scans through my life’s driving experiences for a comparison. The closest I come up with is my grandad’s Chrysler Avenger, although that had a much smoother gearbox. The Ferrari’s steering wheel feels far too big, but without power steering I suppose it needs to be. All in all, for someone barely used to cars from the 1970s, driving the 195 is a very strange, and frankly unremarkable, experience.
As we drive toward Lacerda’s proposed photo location, the tarmac suddenly ends and we’re barraged with the sounds of stones pinging off the undercarriage. It’s the worst noise ever: This isn’t just a classic Ferrari, it’s not just in concours condition, it’s a literal museum piece that I’m driving like a Land Rover! Lacerda appears completely unconcerned, but, with the rear wheels spinning as I reverse towards the edge of hill and images of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off flashing in my mind’s eye, I bail, and let him position the car.
Another heart-stopping moment comes a half-hour later, as Lacerda pulls a three-point turn in a tiny village. A man chopping wood at the side of the road decides not to wait for the Ferrari to move on, raises his huge axe, and splits a log—the two halves of which fly through the air and clear each side of the car by inches. We all stare at each other in disbelieving silence for a moment, but then Lacerda finds first gear and we head straight back to the safety of the museum.
While Enzo’s race-car program hit the ground running, his GT project needed a few attempts before it was perfected. The 195 Inter was perhaps a bit of a false start, but while it might not be remembered for its game-changing performance or race results, it’s nonetheless a glorious reminder of the past, the now-distant time when everything was purely mechanical and body panels were beaten by artisans with hammers and anvils.
In 1950, the 195 Inter might not have been a world-beater but it was certainly a piece of art. So it’s appropriate that we wheel the Ferrari back into place between a Pegaso Z102 and an Lancia 037. I put the information plaque back in place, stand back, and wonder when s/n 0103 will get to stretch its legs again.