The Experiment

New rules forced Ferrari to try a different approach to race-car design.

Photo: The Experiment 1
November 30, 2017

Enzo Ferrari’s stated belief that “aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines” served him very well through the 1950s, but in the winter of 1960-61 it was clearly time to reconsider. The issue was the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The FIA had just announced that, beginning in 1962, the Manufacturer’s World Championship would be contested in production Grand Touring cars rather than the sports-racing cars of previous years. As always, winning Le Mans was going to be essential. Les 24 Heures had always been the supreme test of racing cars, not only because of its grueling 24-hour duration, but also because the 3.7-mile-long Mulsanne Straight put a premium on absolute top speed. Almost half of each lap was spent with the car going as fast as it possibly could.

Ferrari had introduced the “Short Wheelbase” 250 GT Berlinetta for the 1960 season as the standard bearer for defending its GT-category championship. The SWB proved to be a formidable competitor, easily holding off the challenge from Aston Martin’s DB4 GT, but its blunt nose and corresponding higher drag were a liability at extremely fast venues like Le Mans. The clincher came in March 1961, when Jaguar unveiled its new E-Type, sending shock waves through the Maranello factory. Enzo himself reportedly said the Jag was the most beautiful car ever made. It was clearly an aerodynamic masterpiece: The stock E-Type was supposedly capable of 150 mph, while Ferrari’s fastest competition SWB had managed just over 155 mph on the Mulsanne.

Photo: The Experiment 2

It was unquestionably time to build a serious single-purpose racing car that met the GT rules; from that point forward, Ferrari officially decided there would be no more “dual purpose” factory racers. Production of the SWB would continue in both competition and street versions until it could be replaced with the road-oriented 250 GT Lusso, and a purpose-built, visually distinct GT racing car could be developed.

Ferrari quickly devised a two-pronged strategy to respond to the new challenge. The first, immediate approach was to take an SWB chassis, make mechanical changes to it as required for the mission at hand, then ship it off to Pininfarina to be bodied in a more aerodynamic manner. The idea was to create a sort of closed-body Testa Rossa, and it had to be ready to run at Le Mans in June.

The second, longer-term strategy was to have Ing. Giotto Bizzarrini and team manager Carlo Chiti assemble a small, secret team to design and build a GT racer that would incorporate everything they were learning from the first approach, and be ready for the 1962 season. That new model would be the 250 GTO.

Photo: The Experiment 3

SWB s/n 2643GT was selected as the basis for the immediate project and delivered to the competition department. There, its frame was strengthened, and its front shock towers lengthened and rear pickup points altered to allow a lower ride height. Next, the car received a 1961-spec Competizione gearbox and a dry-sump Type 168/61 Testa Rossa engine with six 38DCN Weber carburetors, rated at 300 hp.

The dry sump was an essential part of the equation, due to a very painful lesson Ferrari had learned at Le Mans in 1959. That year, it entered a trio of TR 59s with wet-sump engines (like all previous Testa Rossas), only to discover that, while the V12s were able to rev to 8,500 rpm down the Mulsanne, their lubrication systems weren’t up to the task. Ferrari’s team manager imposed a 7,500-rpm limit, but of course the drivers ignored it, and all three cars failed due to problems associated with the sustained high revs. This cost Ferrari both the race and the 1959 Marques Championship, and from then on all factory racers were equipped with dry sumps.

Though earlier dry-sump cars carried their oil tanks in the front fender, s/n 2643’s sat just forward of the rear axle on the right side, most likely in an attempt to better balance the car. This apparently worked well, as it became the tank location on the GTO.

Photo: The Experiment 4

When the competition department was done with it, the prepared chassis was sent to Pininfarina in early April. The completed car was returned to the factory in mid-May, a build time of just about five weeks. (Tell that to your restoration shop!)

Pininfarina had been developing what it considered to be aerodynamically slippery designs for a number of years, particularly with the big-engined Super America and later Superfast series of Ferraris. The design for s/n 2643, though entirely fresh and unique to this car, was an evolution and adaptation of the themes from those earlier cars.

At the time, the Italian approach to aerodynamics for automobiles was far more of an art than a science. In England, Jaguar had been using aerodynamic theory and wind-tunnel testing in designing its racers since at least the C-Type, but Italian designers were more inclined toward an intuitive, “beautiful and smooth is fast” approach. An airplane wing was the primary touchstone, so the Superfast designs tended toward a blunt, rounded front and a long tapering tail.

Photo: The Experiment 5

Though s/n 2643 kept the scoops, openings, vents, and details that characterized Italian coachbuilding at the time, as a bespoke racer it got none of the bumpers, sound deadening, or road equipment of the “ordinary” Superfasts, and was built of very thin aluminum sheet over a thin-wall chrome moly tubular substructure. The interior was simple and almost Spartan in keeping with the pure racer criteria. At 2,100 pounds, it weighed about 700 lbs. less than a street 400 Superfast, 300 lbs. more than a Testa Rossa.

The color specification was a light cobalt blue with a red stripe on the hood and along the sides, though the car emerged with a French tricolor red, white, and blue hood stripe. The speculation on why this happened centers around the fact that s/n 2643 was to be driven at Le Mans by Fernand Tavano, a Frenchman of Italian descent.

Why the car was painted blue rather than Corsa Red when it was destined to run for the factory team is another interesting question. S/n 2643 was a one-off experiment (hence its semi-official moniker “250 GT Sperimentale”) that was neither a contender against the Testa Rossas Ferrari hoped would win the race (which they did) nor a legal-production GT like the SWBs. Given that it really didn’t have a suitable class in which to compete, and was in any case entered to test new ideas, not win, the factory may have felt it was best the car not be red. At any rate, the Sperimentale remains one of very few Ferraris, and possibly the only one, to have competed as a factory team entry in a color other than red.

Photo: The Experiment 6

WHEN LE MANS PRACTICE BEGAN, the TR 61s were well-sorted and ready to go, so required little attention. This gave Bizzarrini and Chiti plenty of time to see how the Sperimentale experiment would play out. It turned out there was a lot to learn.

S/n 2643 initially proved unstable at the very high speeds of the Mulsanne, the apparent result of lift at both the front and rear ends. It was 8 seconds a lap slower than the GT-class SWBs in the dry and even worse in the wet. The whole idea behind experiments is to learn lessons and fix problems, so with only a few hours left before the start, Bizzarrini and Chiti fabricated and installed canard “dive planes” on either side of the nose and fitted a simple, relatively crude spoiler just behind the rear window.

These fixes proved effective: S/n 2643 was able to improve its lap times by 13 seconds. In the race it ran as high as 8th place before oil loss caused the engine to fail in the early morning hours.

Photo: The Experiment 7

Le Mans was the only time the car raced in 1961, as well as the only time for the factory team, but it had been well worth the effort. There were several lessons Bizzarrini heard loud and clear and would apply to his secret project back in Maranello.

First, the blunt, rounded airplane-wing nose shape just didn’t work. It didn’t penetrate the airflow well at high speeds, limiting top speed, and it allowed too much high-pressure air to accumulate under it, creating lift and instability. Second, the long, sloping rear deck with a rounded ending may have been beautiful but, like a wing, it created lift. In addition, the long back section induced parasitic drag. Dr. Kamm’s theories in this regard were being explored with the TR 61’s chopped “Kamm tail,” with evident success. The dive planes and rear spoiler of the Sperimentale had helped, but the basic problem was the design itself.

The lessons learned from the Sperimentale can be seen in the 250 GTO’s shape: a low, penetrating nose followed by a gradually rising hood to force high pressure to the top of the hood, and a relatively high rear profile to keep the airflow attached so the (now incorporated) spoiler really held the back of the car down.

Photo: The Experiment 8

AFTER LE MANS, the factory had no real use for the Sperimentale. The car was kept around and apparently used some by the GTO design team, but there were no changes made to it beyond removal of the dive planes and spoiler. In late 1961, it was sold to Luigi Chinetti in New York, where it was used as a street vehicle for a short while before being sold, in January 1962, to a Chinetti client, George McKelvy of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for $4,000. This appears to have been a sale of convenience, because the car was immediately entered by Chinetti in the Daytona Continental with Stirling Moss driving.

The Sebring 12-hour race in March was well-established as an international affair, but Daytona was very new. Bill France of NASCAR had built the track in 1959 primarily as a high-banked tri-oval speedway, but an internal road-course segment had been included to allow sports cars to race there as well. For 1962, France had persuaded the FIA to add a second American race, the Daytona Continental, to the World Sportscar Championship schedule. It was originally sanctioned as a three-hour race and was run in late January, the first event of the year.

Few European teams sent cars across the Atlantic for Daytona, but they all had American surrogates with excellent cars to enter. With the name drivers happy to exchange the European winter for the Florida sunshine, the entry list was impressive. Ferrari (entering through Chinetti) had four sports-racers with drivers like Phil Hill and both Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez, and four GT cars, with Moss in the Sperimentale and Glenn “Fireball” Roberts in an SWB.

Photo: The Experiment 9

As expected, the sports-racers took the first three finishing positions, but Moss brought s/n 2643 home fourth overall and first in GT. (Over the winter, Ferrari had managed to get the Sperimentale accepted by the FIA as a “special bodied” SWB, thus it was legally homologated for the GT class. The upcoming 250 GTO would be homologated in exactly the same manner, thus avoiding the minimum production requirement, as would Aston Martin’s “DP” series racers and Jaguar’s “Lightweight” E-Types.) Since this was the first race of the Grand Touring Championship, the win was particularly valuable to Ferrari.

The Daytona Continental was also the source of what is to me one of the most iconic racing photographs of all time: Stirling Moss leaning over the passenger seat looking backward while driving well over 150 mph. I was 17 in the spring of 1962 when the photo appeared in Road & Track, and it’s one of the images that hooked me on automobile racing.

The Sebring 12-hour came along just over a month after Daytona, but by then Chinetti had a GTO to enter in the GT class. The Sperimentale was instead entered by McKelvy for American drivers Ed Hugus and George Reed. At the relatively low speeds of the airport track, s/n 2643 was thought to be a bit over-geared, but it still worked very well. The Sperimentale crossed the line eighth overall and third in GT behind the new GTO and an SWB, giving Ferrari an important one-two-three sweep toward the championship.

Photo: The Experiment 10

June is the month for Le Mans, and everybody wanted to be there. Between Scuderia Ferrari, Luigi Chinetti’s NART, and various private entrants, there were 15 Ferraris entered in the race. The Sperimentale was once again entered by McKelvy for Hugus and Reed in the Under-3,000cc GT class, which also contained six GTOs and a single SWB. Running without the dive planes and spoiler used the previous year and now painted white with two blue stripes, s/n 2643 performed admirably, finishing ninth overall and third in class (behind two GTOs).

There is some confusion as to whether the car finished third or fourth in class because a third 250 GTO actually finished ahead of it, in sixth overall. However, according to Janos Wimpffen’s Time & Two Seats, that GTO was categorized as experimental because of non-standard brakes and thus competed in (and won) a different class.

After Le Mans, the Sperimentale returned to the U.S. and the end of its international racing career. Chinetti quickly sold it to a Roy Porta, who apparently painted it red and entered it in the June 1963 USRRC race at Laguna Seca with Stan Peterson driving. In early 1964, Porta sold it to Walter Luftman of Rye, New York, who raced it in various SCCA races on the East Coast and was responsible for the first and only serious transgressions against the Pininfarina bodywork.

Photo: The Experiment 11

According to Luftman’s son, while they were at Bridgehampton they decided to fit the Goodyear “Speedway Special” tires that were just being introduced for sports-car racing. These were substantially wider than the “L Section” Dunlops the car had been designed to run, so the Luftmans took tinsnips and cut both front and rear fender wells at several points, then bent the aluminum fenders out to create room for the fat tires, covering the result with red tape. S/n 2643 was, after all, just an old racing car.

In December 1964, Luftman sent the Sperimentale back to Chinetti, who immediately resold it. S/n 2643 spent the rest of the 1960s bouncing around from owner to owner; like many obsolete competition Ferraris, it was considered beautiful and fun but old and high maintenance. It was even used for drag racing in 1970 before being put away in a warehouse. Through it all, the Sperimentale remained a running, complete car, never taken apart and scattered to the winds, or suffering the indignity of an American V8 transplant.

A San Franciscan named Bob Taylor bought s/n 2643 in 1979 and began a partial restoration, rebuilding the mechanicals and painting the car dark red with a silver stripe. Taylor was an active vintage racer and drove it at various events, including the 1980 Monterey Historics. From there, it went to Italy, to Giuseppe “Beppe” Lucchini, who restored it more carefully, repainted it Corsa red, and kept it for 16 years. He participated with the car in both the 20th-anniversary GTO Tour in 1982 and, a decade later, the 30th-anniversary GTO Tour in Italy.

Photo: The Experiment 12

Symbolic Motors purchased the Sperimentale in 1996 and brought it back to the U.S., where it was traded among a series of investors before settling permanently with its current owner, Bruce McCaw, in ’99. After a few years of enjoying the Sperimentale in red, McCaw decided it needed to be returned to its most historically important livery, that of Le Mans in June 1961. The car was entrusted to Brian Hoyt of Perfect Reflections in Hayward, California for a complete cosmetic restoration. The original color was known from the Ferrari records (Max Meyer Cobalt Blue #10776), but it was particularly rewarding to find exactly that color at the bottom of five coats of paint when the bodywork was stripped.

Since having been brought back to its original Le Mans livery, the Sperimentale has been extensively enjoyed both at track events like Monterey and road ones like the Colorado Grand, and has been displayed at concours and museum displays in both the U.S. and Europe. Its historic importance both as the last Pininfarina prototype built and as the mechanical and design experiment that presaged and profoundly influenced the 250 GTO is unquestioned. This car is where the 250 GTO story began, the first prototype of what was to become the ultimate racing GT automobile.

Photo: The Experiment 13
Photo: The Experiment 14

Also from Issue 163

  • 458 Speciale A
  • 166 F2
  • Ferrari sweeps IMSA GTD titles
  • Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion
  • F1: End of the Line
  • FORZA Tifosi Challenge: The End
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