Picture Puzzle

What’s the right way to restore a one-off Ferrari that its creator kept changing? It all came down to the photos.

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July 20, 2017

Belgian privateer Jacques Herzet was in a big hurry. He was scheduled to race his new Ferrari in the 1953 Coupes di Spa-Francorchamps on May 17, but, with six weeks to go, he didn’t yet have the car. Given the time frame, Ferrari workshop manager Amos Franchini decided to cut a few corners. He sent Herzet’s chassis (s/n 0300M), equipped with a race-spec 2-liter V12, to Carrozzeria Vignale on April 1, noting on the build report, “Sent to the coachbuilder without testing.”

Vignale wrapped s/n 0300 in an elegant berlinetta skin (one of only two such examples the coachbuilder created for the 166), finishing the job by early May. The Ferrari was then shipped to Jacques Swaters, who had brokered the sale out of his Brussels-based Garage Francorchamps. Herzet, who had originally wanted a barchetta but apparently decided not to quibble, managed to get the car tested and sorted sufficiently to finish the Coupes di Spa in second place, behind Olivier Gendebien in a 166 MM.

Herzet continued to race his berlinetta throughout the 1953 season. Co-driving with Lucien Bianchi, he won his class in July’s Rallye International des Alpes, repeated that feat in the Liege-Rome-Liege rally the following month, then finished second in class in September’s Tour de France Auto. Late in the year, Herzet had the Ferrari shipped to Brazil. There, in December and January, he contested four Grands Prix with co-pilot Octave “Johnny” Claes, their best result being a fifth at Rio de Janiero .

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By the time the Ferrari returned by steamer to Belgium, it had significant pedigree—and it showed. So Herzet turned to Martial Oblin, a Belgian coachbuilder known to have produced only three cars: a Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport, a Jaguar XK120, and our featured 166.

Oblin removed Vignale’s sculptural bodywork and unceremoniously trashed it to make way for his own vision. The Ferrari’s new body turned out to be a work in progress. Over the course of the ’54 season, Oblin made ongoing changes to the car’s hood scoop, rear deck, and sides. Finally, with the coachbuilder apparently satisfied, s/n 0300 was displayed at the Brussels Motor Show in April 1955.

Herzet raced the car for the rest of the ’55 season, throughout ’56, and into early ’57. His last known race in the Ferrari was the 1957 Cote de Bomeree hillclimb, where he finished fifth in class. After that, he sold the car to fellow Belgian Jan de Dobbeleer.

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In the mid 1960s, s/n 0300 came to the United States. It passed through a few hands before landing, in 1977, with Florida dentist Bob Selz, who would end up keeping it for more than three decades. Selz had the car’s bodywork restored by Bob Smith Coachworks, which retained many of Oblin’s unique elements but changed the nose and hood scoop and painted the Ferrari red. In this form, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Selz displayed s/n 0300 at the Cavallino Classic, the Ferrari Club of America National Meet, and Amelia Island, and, in 2005 and ’09, drove it in the Mille Miglia.

THE FERRARI’S NEXT OWNER, real-estate developer and classic-car dealer Dennis Nicotra, discovered the car in 2012. “I found s/n 0300 amongst a collection of cars that was acquired by a California dealer,” he remembers.

Nicotra then turned to Ferrari historian Marcel Massini, who had an extensive collection of photographs and historical data on the car. “Massini’s meticulous record-keeping over many years allowed me access to all the available documents on the car, and from his [hundreds of] photographs I was able to appreciate the car in many forms. So I bought it along with four other cars from that collection, including a nice 1929 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Supersport.”

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After taking possession of the Ferrari, Nicotra contacted Automotive Restorations, Inc., in Stratford, Connecticut. As ARI founder Kent Bain recalls, “We had a long discussion about what period in time we would restore [the car] to. And it centered on the fact that the Oblin-Brussels Auto Show design [from 1955] was the most recognizable format and also the most successful form. Although it would have been possible to [re-create] the original Vignale body, everyone thought it would be disingenuous to the history and provenance of this car.”

With the plan of attack decided, ARI started work on the Ferrari in August 2012. “Generally, after researching a car like the Oblin Ferrari, we completely disassemble it,” says Bain. “Disassembly entails careful inspection and confirmation of [our original] evaluation, which is done in the form of a 35-page ‘book report’ that includes such meticulous details as lab analyses of all fluids.

“Component rebuilding—for instance, a tachometer, or parts that need re-chroming—is usually done by specialized vendors,” he continues. “We send critical suspension parts, like this Porsche 911 upright [he points to a part sitting on a nearby table], out to an aircraft metal testing lab. The owner said, ‘Oh, you never have to crack-check these.’ Guess what? Crack right there.”

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ARI found no structural surprises with s/n 0300, perhaps because the car had been restored twice before. There were many other issues to address, however.

“Bob Smith Coachworks [had] reconfigured the nose, hinged it to open forward, and took the doors out,” Bain explains. “Luckily, a wise person put all the parts from the Oblin version, one-off parts made specifically for this car, in a box—and we got that box! We were so lucky. The box included the headrests and the original boot and hood hinges.”

Corresponding holes in the car’s body confirmed these were the original Oblin pieces. Further examination of the car’s frame and available period photos allowed the restorers to determine the original contours of the nose. The hood scoop proved more challenging, since Oblin himself took several months refining the best configuration. Eventually, after poring over photos of all the various versions, Bain and Nicotra settled on what they felt was the most correct assortment of details.

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Given all the changes over the years, the nose required extensive fabrication. “We basically had to build the nose again, using our in-house associates, The Panel Shop,” explains Bain. [We visited The Panel Shop in issue #140’s “Beat It.”—Ed.] “We also built the grille from scratch.”

When the bodywork was completed, it was time for paint—but which paint? Although Massini had provided hundreds of photos, few were in color, and those that were had discolored or faded over time. What was perhaps the most useful image, which came from the 1955 Brussels expo, clearly showed a two-tone paint scheme, with a shiny red stripe front and center bordered by a dull-looking black. The precise red would not have been easily defined, but luckily, during disassembly, the restorers discovered a patch of the color, buried for decades on a portion of the dashboard.

Further research revealed the unusual-looking black paint was actually, and very unusually for the period, matte finished. “And that’s really tricky to paint,” says Bain, “because it’s very difficult to apply. It’s got to come out of the gun just right, and if it doesn’t, there’s no compounding or polishing that can fix it. We had to have a second painter in the booth with a little suction gun following the key painter to meticulously remove any puddling or dust particles.”

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While the Ferrari’s paint may be au courant by today’s standards, its wiring is not. Accurate restoration often requires strict adherence to old-world customs and technology. Unlike modern wiring, which employs color-coded insulation and printed identification labels, the wiring of 1950s Ferraris was all black with no labels.

“All of the wiring was redone,” Bain says. “We used the same system as the manufacturer, wherein all the wires [were] identified with small tags at each end, then the harness was wrapped with strips of drapery tape. And just like the manufacturers [of the period], and just as frustrating for the next restorer, all the tags were [then] removed.”

In this case, the current restorer didn’t have to rebuild s/n 0300’s engine. “A predecessor had done a lot of work on the car for a previous owner and probably did the engine then,” says Charlie Webb, ARI’s Ferrari engine guru. “It was in such good condition only a major service was needed.”

Photo: Picture Puzzle 8

As the finished car came together, just a few details remained. “Some of the pictures showed a tonneau cover that was absolutely wrinkle-free,” recalls Bain, “but who’s ever seen a perfect tonneau? The photo made us suspicious. Research proved it was a metal tonneau covered with leather, so we made that.”

Last but certainly not least, one indispensable item was missing entirely: the original Oblin badge. In period, Oblin would have had the badge hand-cut from a billet, then sent it off for the cloisonné to be applied. ARI found a different solution.

“We sent one head-on photograph of it to a medical-tool machinist in our neighborhood, who was able to remanufacture the base in brass using laser cutting technology,” says Bain. The orange hue was determined by compiling all available period images and “averaging” the colors, then comparing the result to a Pantone reference of an original badge located by a faraway enthusiast.

Photo: Picture Puzzle 9

THE ENTIRE RESTORATION took an exceptionally short seven months. Despite the brief timeframe, ARI was careful to ensure s/n 0300 drove as good as it looked.

“There’s a lot of restoration that goes on that looks wonderful, maybe wins Pebble Beach, but you get in and drive and it feels like nobody ever drove it—and in fact nobody did!” Bain says. “We try to go beyond just aesthetic perfection. We try to make the machines really work the way they were intended to work, be it for just the enjoyment of driving or for historic rallying and racing.

“I like to use the term, ‘practical engineering,’” he adds. “It’s an English term that expresses the need to look at how something was made, why it was made that way, what went wrong and right in that design, and then to re-create it as accurately and [to be] as reliable as possible.”

Photo: Picture Puzzle 10

ARI’s best efforts in that regard unfortunately eluded Nicotra, in 2013, when he took the finished Ferrari to England. “We were invited to show the car at the 2013 St. James Concours d’Elegance, which included a slow parade around the Queen Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace,” says Nicotra. “It is very difficult to drive a real race car like s/n 0300 at parade speed, and, as luck would have it, we stalled—right in front of the palace!”

Naturally, the Oblin-Herzet race car became the most photographed automobile at the show. “Many people thought I staged that,” says Nicotra, laughing, “but the real problem derived from the 30-some buttons and switches on the car’s dashboard, none of which were labeled. And I hadn’t actually driven the car in some six months!”

While s/n 0300 became a bit of a crowd favorite at Buckingham, in some ways it hasn’t really been judged by the experts. Typically, the final step in an extensive restoration of an historically significant car is a major concours, where the experts have the final say. “So [in 2013] we took the car to the Cavallino Classic, a terrific meet,” Bain recalls. “But they said they wouldn’t judge it! Their reasoning was that it was not restored to the original Vignale body. [We] argued that the body was built in 1954 and [that the car] has a full racing history as a barchetta, but they never relented.”

Photo: Picture Puzzle 11

To this day, then, the final judgement on the only Oblin-bodied Ferrari has not yet been rendered—and it seems it may never be. Nicotra sold s/n 0300 a few years ago, and the current owner might not have been particularly pleased with ARI’s interpretation. Says Nicotra, “He repainted all the flat-black surfaces in high gloss!”

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Also from Issue 160

  • Flavio Manzoni on 812 Superfast
  • Novitec Rosso 488 N-Largo
  • 308 GTB QV
  • Strong Ferrari sales at Villa Erba
  • F1: The kid gloves come off!
  • FORZA Tifosi Challenge: F430 suprise
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