Marzotto's Bet

In 1950, 22-year-old Giannino Marzotto figured he could build a better Ferrari than Enzo. With the help of an obscure coachbuilder, he created the one-of-a-kind Uovo.

Photo: Marzotto's Bet 1
February 27, 2018

In 1949, after a couple of years building cars with seemingly random body styles, Ferrari introduced its first model with a clear “Ferrari” identity: the Carrozzeria Touring-bodied 166 MM Barchetta. The so-called “little boat” quickly took the racing world by storm, winning that year’s Mille Miglia and 24 Hours of Le Mans.

It’s no wonder, then, that the new car attracted the attention of young gentleman racer Giannino Marzotto, who put in an order for one. Marzotto came from a wealthy, respected family of textile magnates, a stroke of luck that allowed him and his brothers—Vittorio, Paolo, and Umberto—to pursue their dreams of racing. Although he divided his time between his passion and the family business, and never became a full-time racer, Giannino always caused a sensation in the races he entered.

Famously, the sartorial 22-year-old appeared at the start of the 1950 Mille Miglia in a double-breasted brown suit, a shirt, and a tie—and he was still wearing them 13 hours, 39 minutes, and 20 seconds later, when he reappeared in Brescia as the race winner. Driving a Touring-bodied 166 MM/195 S Berlinetta (s/n 0026M), Marzotto had beaten the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Clemente Biondetti, and Luigi Fagioli.

Photo: Marzotto's Bet 2

By that time, together with his brothers, Giannino was one of Ferrari’s biggest clients. However, the car featured here proved to be a serious source of strife between him and Enzo Ferrari.

The Marzottos had purchased two Barchettas: s/ns 024MB (the B denoting the car’s engine and chassis numbers were synchronized, a new practice which would continue on future Ferraris), built in February 1950, and 0034M, built in March. While they enjoyed much success with s/n 0034, including Giannino’s victory at that year’s Coppa d’Oro delle Dolomiti, the young pilot thought the car could be better. Since Enzo Ferrari wouldn’t listen to suggestions voiced by a 20-something amateur, Giannino decided to prove him wrong. In his mind, he had a clear vision of a sleeker, better-balanced car based on a mix of Ferrari mechanicals with some high-tech materials and creative design solutions. He also had in mind a particular coachbuilder: Carrozzeria Fontana.

CHOOSING FONTANA Choosing Fontana for such job was a bold move, especially since the company, which is almost totally forgotten today, had never before bodied a Ferrari—nor a memorable car of any sort. But even if the Padua-based coachbuilder wasn’t a popular choice even at the time, it was one of the longest operating names in the business.

Photo: Marzotto's Bet 3

Fontana’s history can be traced back to the middle of 19th century, when it was set up by Antonio Fontana as a coachbuilder of horse-drawn carriages. As with many similar companies, over time the carrozzeria fluently moved into dressing cars. Brothers Paolo and Piero, Antonio’s great-grandsons, took over the family business after World War II, and with a bit of luck, good contacts, and bold decisions, they would create some of the most frenetic designs to ever wear a Ferrari badge.

Besides the Fontana brothers themselves, the key architect of Giannino’s plans was Franco Reggiani. Still in his mid-20s in 1950, Reggiani was already highly regarded as an engineer, having worked in the aeronautical industry since the age of 14. After serving a stint in the Italian Air Force after WWII, he moved to Padua, where he met some people that would change his life: namely the woman who became his wife and the Fontanas, who convinced him to join their enterprise.

Reggiani proved a fortunate addition to Carrozzeria Fontana. A native of Reggio Emilia, he had a sophisticated taste for aesthetics and an almost artisanal approach to design, using sculpting techniques to shape his cars’ designs. (Over the course of his life, Reggiani would become a respected sculptor, as well.)

Photo: Marzotto's Bet 4

In 1950, when Reggiani crossed paths with Giannino Marzotto, the wealthy racer realized that a talented engineer with aeronautical experience was just what he needed. Before the end of the year, Giannino placed an unprecedented order with Carrozzeria Fontana for two special cars for him and brother Vittorio. The first would be a lightweight Spider for hillclimbs, the second a radical coupe for high-speed races. The bodies were to be built around a pair of Ferrari 212 Export chassis purchased specifically for this purpose: s/n 0084E for coupe, s/n 0086E for the Spider.

According to Giannino, s/n 0084 arrived from Maranello first, and the experimental “Jet” design, as it was then called, was installed. Marzotto had originally envisioned a slicker nose, with a low-mounted radiator sourced from a single-seater. The ordered part didn’t arrive on time, however, so Fontana’s sculptors had to raise the hood by six inches to house the standard 212 Export cooling system. The competition setup was completed with twin shock absorbers and Formula 2 drum brakes, whose balance the driver could adjust sitting behind the steering wheel.

The Ferrari’s 2.6-liter V12, which showed 157 hp on a dyno, allowed the 1,765-pound (dry) car to cover the standing kilometer in 26 seconds and reach a top speed in the region of 137 mph. The engine’s single Weber 36 DCF carburetor was soon replaced with a triple-carb setup, boosting output to 186 hp and top speed by about 6 mph. In this configuration, the coupe was finished (barring some corrections to its still-unpainted body) just in time for the 1951 Giro di Sicilia, a grueling 700-mile race run in a loop around Palermo, Sicily.

Photo: Marzotto's Bet 5

S/n 0086 was delivered just three weeks before the event, giving Fontana little time to complete its bodywork. Nonetheless, both Ferraris were ready for the race, and it was soon decided that Vittorio would drive the Spider while Giannino would pilot the coupe.

WHEN THE NEWLY FORMED Scuderia Marzotto arrived in Sicily in late March, its two new extraordinary Ferraris caused quite a stir. Not everyone was a fan of the cars’ controversial design, and the biggest detractor was Enzo Ferrari himself.

As Giannino would later recall, after test-driving the cars in the mountains near Fontana’s home base in Padova, he and Vittorio had taken their new race weapons to Maranello to get the official blessing of Il Commendatore. Enzo, for his part, was outraged by the sight—and maybe even more so by the fact that a pair of young dandies were trying to teach him how to make cars.

Photo: Marzotto's Bet 6

Leaving aesthetics aside, Ferrari was concerned about the solidity of the fragile architectures and forecasted complete disintegration of both machines during the race. Besides, the Marzottos would face the might of Scuderia Ferrari, in the form of Piero Taruffi driving a triple-carb 212.

Enzo’s antics discouraged the older Vittorio but didn’t harm the confidence of Giannino, arguably the best driver of the Marzotto brothers. He liked the quirky coupe, which was quickly nicknamed the “Uovo” (Egg) for its shape, and believed it would be a perfect fit for the tricky event, which featured some 8,000 corners.

The Uovo had been designed around a novel strategy: maximize the car’s agility by moving as much of its weight as far back as possible. As a result, both the spare tire and the 41.5-gallon fuel tank (which would allow the car to cover the full Mille Miglia distance with just one refueling stop) were packed behind the rear axle.

Photo: Marzotto's Bet 7

The driver was pushed further back than usual, as well, an idea Marzotto recalled came from Enzo Ferrari. Ferrari believed that positioning the driver’s seat closer to the front made piloting the car easier, but was ultimately less effective since the driver received less information about the car’s dynamics. Moving the driver closer to the rear wheels allowed him to feel all of the forces with his whole body, and therefore react faster and more accurately.

However, this rearward position made the Uovo considerably trickier to drive, with a reportedly oversteery nature. Giannino didn’t care. Instead, he was very impressed by the car’s behavior and took full advantage of the race, pulling out a huge lead over the rest of the field. Victory would elude him, however, as first he had to fix a crack in the fuel tank (with chewing gum, no less), then later retired due to differential failure (the unit had been incorrectly assembled in Maranello).

There was still reason to celebrate in Palermo, however, as Vittorio drove the Fontana-bodied Spider to outright victory, with the factory’s Taruffi in second. Adding to the Marzotto celebrations was brother Paolo, who finished sixth overall in their second Barchetta (s/n 0034).

Photo: Marzotto's Bet 8

Giannino’s run in the Mille Miglia later that month proved to be a similar mix of promise and frustration. Nearing the race’s mid-point, he and the Uovo had formed a convincing lead over a pack of the factory’s new 4.1-liter cars. Then, hearing a noise he took for a blocked differential, he retired from the race. Just a few days later, however, Marzotto discovered he had made a mistake; the only thing wrong with the car was a tire with tread separation, which he could have fixed on the spot.

The Uovo’s huge potential was finally exploited properly at early June’s Coppa della Toscana, where Giannino scored his only victory with the car. Two weeks later, Vittorio added a second-place overall finish in a race at the Circuito Internacional do Porto.

THE HISTORY of the two Fontana-bodied Ferraris has always been a bit convoluted, due to the Marzottos’ love for both coachbuilding and racing. Following its win in Sicily, s/n 0086 would, before the end of the year, be rebodied three more times: first as an Export Spyder (by Vignale), then as a shooting brake (which Fontana would build around the Vignale body), then, finally, with a more refined version of its original Fontana Spider bodywork.

Photo: Marzotto's Bet 9

Where the Spider’s story is straightforward, the coupe’s has never been entirely clear. That’s because it has long been known the Uovo body is mounted not on s/n 0084 but on s/n 024MB—the chassis of the Marzotto’s first 166 MM Barchetta.

When delivered in 1950, s/n 024 was scheduled for an intensive year of competition that never fully materialized. In its first race, the Targa Florio, the Barchetta retired with clutch failure. In its second, the Mille Miglia, the Ferrari was involved in such a strong collision it was literally torn apart.

Why, one might wonder, would anyone move a body from a newer, undamaged chassis onto the repaired remains of an older, heavily damaged one? The answer is that they didn’t.

Photo: Marzotto's Bet 10

Beyond Giannino’s claim, and contrary to those of some historians, the belief the Uovo body debuted in Sicily on the s/n 0084 chassis is photographic; the car was wearing the 212’s registered license plates at the event. According to the car’s current owner, a recent investigation that included sending a representative to scour Ferrari’s archives confirmed this was part of the then-common practice of swapping license plates and ownership documents, which allowed racing cars with different engines and bodies (changed due to upgrades or repairs) to travel more freely.

What really happened is that Fontana’s craftsmen realized s/n 0084 would arrive too late, so in January they started their work on the repaired Barchetta chassis. When the 212 chassis arrived, on February 22, they simply appropriated its engine for the Uovo (and evidently later endowed the 212 with s/n 024’s repaired Barchetta bodywork), carried on, and soon sent the unique machine to Sicily for its debut.

The Uovo returned to action at the 1952 Mille Miglia, from which it retired after competing for the top spot early in the race. In the middle of the season, the car was fitted with an older 2-liter Formula 2 engine (originally installed in a 1948 166 F2, s/n 012I). Otherwise, s/n 024 recorded a few more DNFs, an outright win at Trento-Bondone in May, a class win at Coppa della Toscana a few days later, and a solid fourth-overall finish in the Avus Grand Prix in September.

Photo: Marzotto's Bet 11

All of these races were contested by other drivers, however, as the Marzottos gradually advanced to newer, more powerful Ferraris. As Giannino spent more and more time managing the family business, he left his cars in the hands of his most trustworthy and likeminded friends, who he wanted to become the next generation of Scuderia Marzotto. In this mission, they failed.

Giannino himself competed in only two races in 1952, then won the 1953 Mille Miglia in a Ferrari 340 MM (s/n 0280AM). He also had s/n 024 serviced at the factory prior to the ’53 season, where it received a newer 212 Inter engine (from s/n 0107ES) that still lives under the rounded hood, and in the second part of the year had it shipped to Mexico for the Carrera Panamericana. Although the car was reportedly used in practice, neither the Marzottos nor the car participated in the race itself.

Its aborted Mexican odyssey proved to be a turning point in the Uovo’s history, as the car ended up staying in North America for the next several decades. Its first post-Marzotto owner was Carlos Braniff, who soon resold the Ferrari to Ignacio Lozano of Southern California. Lozano raced the car at Pebble Beach and Willow Springs in 1954, although without major successes.

Over the next 25 years, s/n 024 had four further California owners. Then, in 1981, it was purchased by a collector from Florida, who not only moved the car to the other coast of America, but then sent it all the way to England, where it was restored by D.K. Engineering. By 1986, the Uovo had returned to Italy, where it became a regular in the reborn Mille Miglia until the late 1990s.

AFTER BEING MOSTLY OUT of the public eye for nearly two decades, the extravagant Uovo once again hit the headlines in the summer of 2017, when it crossed the block at RM Sotheby’s Monterey auction, selling for $4.5 million. It was purchased by Klaus Werner, the founder of classic-car brokerage KW Autos, who invited me to accompany him in his first drive of the car back in Wuppertal.

Although the car looks rather clumsy and poorly proportioned in photos, in the metal it quickly reveals its pure competition nature. Even if Marzotto claimed his inspiration was indeed the shape of an egg, the design was dictated by Reggiani’s aeronautical experience. It gave the car not only its fantastical shape, but also the clever architecture that allowed it to weigh as much as 330 pounds less than the usual Ferraris of the time.

The traditional Gilco frame supports a sophisticated tubular structure bonded with body panels made from Peraluman, a light and strong but difficult-to-handle material derived from Duralumin. Opening the door reveals weight-saving perforations decimating virtually every free surface, as in any period racing car. And now you can really see the most ingenious detail of all: The traditional front pillars have been replaced with a pair of thin, woven metal cables that keep the lightweight, tent-like roof in place. This solution obviously has nothing in common with safety, but it, together with a slippery windshield made out of crystal (“It didn’t leave any annoying reflections in sight,” Marzotto said), proved effective in giving greater forward visibility.

The design reveals its aeronautical roots in many more areas. For one, the car has a sleek, aerodynamic underbody; for another, the round rear window was filled with a light sheet of Perspex. It would be many more years before the benefits of wind tunnels would be introduced to the motorsport scene, so the Uovo’s creators based their work on what they called “optical intuition.”

Some of the car’s body details changed over the years. At its first race in Sicily, the Uovo turned up equipped with an enormous headlamp lifted from an airplane and rear fenders that exposed the wheels in order to aid brake cooling. Both of the solutions were judged noncompliant with the rules, and had to be altered.

This extraordinary car manages to create an impression of being both frail and raw at the same time. It’s visually so far away from the glamorous Vignale and Ghia-bodied berlinettas of the time, yet surprisingly so close to them underneath. The no-nonsense interior initially seems coarse, but once the twelve cylinders are up and running, the Uovo is unmistakably 1950s Ferrari: mechanical, authentic, and superbly sophisticated. It’s still a fierce race car, first and foremost, and as such it makes a huge impression—now maybe even more than ever.

History has since proven young Giannino Marzotto’s vision of a sports car, that light weight and aerodynamics were as fundamental as power to racing success. And as the Uovo casually passes the contemporary traffic on German roads, wearing its original VI 19370 Italian license plate, it looks as otherworldly as it did nearly seven decades ago on its maiden outing.

Also from Issue 165

  • F12 Buyer's Guide
  • F12tdf
  • 24 Hours of Daytona
  • Owning a Ferrari 643
  • Dino 246 GT restoration
  • Ferrari in Formula 1: 1961-1988
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