Italian Invasion

America discovered Ferrari following its one-two finish in the ’51 Carrera Panamericana.

Photo: Italian Invasion 1

The Ferrari 212 Inter of Piero Taruffi and Luigi Chinetti takes the overall Carrera win, with the sister car of Alberto Ascari and Gigi Villoresi visible just behind.

July 18, 2019

Piero Taruffi was to blame. The experienced Roman engineer-racer, 45 years old and a sports-car competitor since 1930, paved the way. In 1951 two Ferraris would enter the second running of the 2,000-mile race from one end of Mexico to the other—the Carrera Panamericana—and he would drive one of them. The other would be in the hands of new Italian star Alberto Ascari. It would be Ferrari’s boldest racing effort abroad in the company’s brief life, and one very far from the comforts of home.

Taruffi had shown the way by taking part in the first-ever Mexican Road Race in May 1950. The race, he said, was “organized with Government support to publicize the opening of the Mexican section of the Pan-American highway that was eventually to link the continents of North and South America. This was the first section completed in Central America.

“The idea of holding a motor race,” Taruffi added, “came from my friend Attila Camisa, an Italian journalist and tremendous racing enthusiast who had settled in Mexico some years before. He persuaded Bruno Pagliai, an Italo-Mexican business tycoon, to invite Alfa Romeo to enter two cars. They hoped to raise the prestige of Alfa Romeo and of the Italian motor industry with a view to establishing an assembly plant there.”

Photo: Italian Invasion 2

The experienced Felice Bonetto was recruited as Taruffi’s teammate, and the entries were made by the Automobile Club of Italy, which testified to the eligibility of Alfa Romeo’s Freccia d’Oro (Golden Arrow) model, powered by a twin-cam six of 2.5 liters. As to the rules, wrote Roland Goodman, “the basic idea was that the race was open to any five-seat closed-body passenger automobile, as long as it had factory equipment without changes or special added equipment. The AAA Contest Board’s definition of a stock car was adopted: at least 50 must have been produced of any one model with another 500 on order.”

“The race was divided into nine stages,” Taruffi explained, “comprising five days of racing, touching, among other places, Tuxtla, Oaxaca, Puebla, Mexico City, Leon, Durango, Chihuahua, and Ciudad Juarez. Of the 1,930 miles the two-thirds lying north of Mexico City are fast and the southern third is mixed, with a dreadful surface which is terribly hard on tires. In this first race of the series Bonetto and I learned this the hard way. On two of the sections we had to stop twice within a few miles and fit complete new sets of tires.”

Accompanied by works mechanic Isidoro Ceroli, Taruffi was the highest-placed non-American entry in the grueling contest, finishing fourth behind an Oldsmobile 88 and two Cadillacs. In the final stage, said Taruffi, “we might easily have been put out by the bad state of the roads, which had only recently been cut through the forest and were not yet properly graded or tarred. We were obliged to drive in the ruts left by the other vehicles, scraping our sumps on the central ridge because of our low ground clearance. As a matter of fact both our crankcases did break. We reached the finish just as our last drops of oil dripped on the road. In the general classification I was placed fourth, Bonetto eighth.”

Photo: Italian Invasion 3

212 Inter chassis and mechanicals.

Locals found it noteworthy that Taruffi was the only driver in the top ten who improved his position on every stage of the race. And their good handling qualities placed the two Alfas first and second in the demanding final stage, which Taruffi won, taking home 2,000 pesos, worth $231. For his second place and winning the seventh stage, Bonetto was awarded 3,000 pesos, or $347.

“We were not completely happy about the technical verification that all the entries were 100-percent stock cars,” Taruffi admitted. “We did feel that if the officials had been a little more strict we might have bettered our final positions and won a bit more of the prize money. We suffered through keeping strictly to the regulations, which as it turned out were interpreted pretty freely. Had we known in advance we could have run the two-carburetor model of the Freccia d’Oro instead of the single-carburetor version, our race strategy would have been quite different and we might even have won.”

TARUFFI WOULD HAVE a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of these observations, for he was back in Mexico from November 20th to 25th, 1951 for the second Carrera Panamericana. While the inaugural race was run from north to south, the direction was reversed for subsequent Carreras, which placed the more challenging roads early in the contest and the faster sections later.

Photo: Italian Invasion 4

Alfredo Vignale specially raised the roofline of the Carrera-bound Ferraris.

This second bite of the Mexican apple was in a car that must have seemed an unlikely proposition. In fact, the race organizers questioned the entry as being beyond the scope of the rules, but received reassurances from the Italian racing authorities. Taruffi therefore would drive one of a two-car team of Ferraris: the recently launched 212 Inter model. Successor to the 195 Inter of 1950, it further enhanced the ability of Ferrari to appeal to wealthy buyers of road-going sports cars, and thereby subsidize his increasingly costly racing.

Though Enzo Ferrari was reluctant to be drawn into such a costly and risky venture so far from home, he drew reassurance from Taruffi’s experience, the support of sponsor Italian Sports Center, and the commercial and technical involvement of Luigi Chinetti, who argued that a Ferrari entry in Mexico would have a positive echo in the United States at a time when he was setting up in business there to import and sell Ferrari’s cars. They chose the 212 Inter as a suitable and well-proven model for the Carrera.

Rolling on a 2,600-mm wheelbase, the 212 Inter was just long enough to accommodate a second seat in the rear. Its X-braced tubular frame carried independent front suspension and a live rear axle which was built in two variants: a semi-elliptic leaf spring and radius rods or two semi-elliptics at each side above and below the axle. The transmission held five forward speeds, with fifth an overdrive and third and fourth synchronized. The Inter’s engine was Ferrari’s largest version yet of Gioacchino Colombo’s original 1.5-liter V12, its dimensions of 68 × 58.8 mm giving 2,563 cc. In standard single-carburetor trim, this produced 130 bhp at 6,000 rpm.

Photo: Italian Invasion 5

Vignale’s standard 212 Inter bodywork successfully married sporty with elegant.

In the 1951-53 period Ferrari produced 78 of its 212 Inters, enough to qualify for the Carrera’s volume criterion. Their chassis were bodied predominantly by Vignale, Ghia, and Pinin Farina. Closest to a house designer at this time was Turin-based Alfredo Vignale, to whom Enzo Ferrari and his chief engineer Aurelio Lampredi turned for bodies that would meet the Carrera’s stipulations.

Although Vignale was responsible for some of the most spectacular bodies ever to grace Ferraris, at that time he was also supplying a more sober 2+2 enclosed notchback body that was basically suitable to the Carrera requirement. The chassis supplied were s/ns 0161EL and 0171EL, which, although separated by ten digits, were roughly five cars apart in Ferrari’s production. Vignale gave special attention to their shape, which had a higher roofline than his standard model to give more rear-seat headroom, aiming to approximate the “five-passenger” requirement.

Ferrari relied on Taruffi’s observations from the year before in specifying the drivetrains of the two Inters, which took advantage of their racing sister, the 212 Export. This had a compression ratio of 8.0:1 instead of 7.5:1 and three twin-throat Webers replacing one, helping to extend its power peak to 6,500 rpm; Taruffi quoted the output of the two cars as 160 bhp. An even higher 8.4:1 compression ratio was available, but this was avoided to keep the V12s happy with the obligatory 80-octane Super Mexolina supplied to all the entrants. The fuel tank held 105 liters, or 27.7 gallons.

Photo: Italian Invasion 6

Similar attention was given to the transmission and axle. The latter had a higher ratio, noted as “_Per Messico_” on the build sheets. Gearboxes had the closer ratios of the racing Exports, starting from a first gear of 2.41:1 instead of 3.16:1. This brought top speed to nearly 130 mph with acceleration to 60 mph in 9 seconds, and 14 needed to reach 80 mph. Said a driver of a similarly equipped car, “Unless one is very careful with the throttle the getaway is accompanied by two well-defined black marks. Actually, if one tries it is possible to leave rubber behind in all the gears, including fifth!” This added up to a lively package equipped to surprise quite a few people in Messico.

Preparation of the cars for racing was by Scuderia Guastalla, run from Milan by Ferrari dealer Franco Cornacchia, and overseenby the experienced Luigi Chinetti, who had won Le Mans in 1949. A major sponsor was America’s Sinclair Oil, which provided lubricants. The privately-held company was most active in the American west, near Mexico, with both fuels and oils. Sinclair adopted its distinctive dinosaur emblem after a successful exhibition in Chicago 20 years earlier that highlighted the (later discredited) notion that decomposed dinosaurs were the source of the globe’s oil.

Taruffi was paired in s/n 0171 with Chinetti, who was also responsible for maintaining the cars. Guastalla provided no mechanics, so the drivers did their own servicing under Chinetti’s direction. The other crew, in s/n 0161, was the star pairing of Alberto Ascari and his friend and erstwhile mentor Gigi Villoresi. Their car was #9, the other wore #34.

Photo: Italian Invasion 7

Villoresi tends to his 212’s engine.

As Taruffi knew well, the challenge they faced was no walk in the park. “Everything was extremely difficult,” recalled 1951 first-timer John Fitch. “The vast country, the lack of supplies, the endless road. Even gasoline and food were not easily found where you may need them.”

A rival team’s engineer said that, before the start of the Carrera, “Villoresi seemed very unhappy and talked rapidly to his co-pilot, Alberto Ascari, second-ranking driver of the world.” This could have concerned their disagreement over the exhaust system. “Alberto wanted to get rid of the steel wool from the silencer and free the exhaust pipe,” Villoresi recalled. “He was sure that not only would the car make more noise but it would also go much faster. I thought exactly the opposite. I knew from experience that one drives faster in a quiet car, for the simple reason that noise increases the impression of speed. Without the wool our Ferrari would only have made more noise.”

The noise the Ferraris made was impressive enough. An observer recalled them “winding out in a banshee scream with the gear shifts coming so rapidly as to be indistinguishable.”

Photo: Italian Invasion 8

The Ferraris used less of the Carrera’s mandatory 80-octane fuel than their American competitors.

THE TWISTY, MOUNTAINOUS FIRST LEG from Tuxtla Gutiérrez to Oaxaca was expected to be a gift to the nimble Ferraris, competing against American sedans weighing twice as much. It became a nightmare instead, with the Pirelli Supersports shedding tread after tread.

“If Ferrari had seen us on the first leg he would have put us on the Grand Prix tire-changing team,” Ascari joked. “We were fast and good. First one then another, six times we jacked up the car and changed tires during the first leg. And each time the operation went faster. Unfortunately, however, this forced the car to slow. We reached Oaxaca at a few dozen miles per hour.”

They finished the leg 45th among 91 starters, but fortunately within the minimum time that allowed them to continue. “Gigi was driving on that now-famous first leg,” Ascari added. “He was really good and managed to salvage the salvageable.”

Photo: Italian Invasion 9

Works drivers Ascari (at left) and Villoresi.

“We Ferrari drivers had expected the first stage to be all plain sailing,” Taruffi recalled, “but we were held up because the high speeds caused stripping of the tire treads. This trouble afflicted both our cars and was aggravated by the fact that there were no tires at our depots along the course—we had only the two spares carried on each car.

“When the first tire shed its tread only a few miles from the start,” he continued, “I slowed considerably, as I could hardly tackle the tortuous middle stages on tires that were down to the canvas. This cut down our speed on the straight, but I reached the middle stretch with tires in reasonably good order and they remained sound for the fast straight roads at the end of the stage. Ascari and Villoresi were less fortunate. They lost some more treads, including those of their spares, and were down to the canvas when they came in much later.”

This was a strange lacuna in the team’s arrangements. From his 1950 experience, Taruffi was well aware of how hard the Mexican roads could be on tires. However, his Alfa Romeo had 17-inch wheels and tires which coped well with the conditions, forcing only a few changes during stages. In contrast, one of the speed secrets of the Ferraris was their light and fast-spinning 15-inch wheels, which aggravated the wear of high-traction tires. Only a month earlier, Ferrari and Ascari had lost the World Championship because they used 16-inch wheels and tires on their Grand Prix cars at Barcelona instead of the 18-inch size that Pirelli recommended.

Photo: Italian Invasion 10

Early stages of the race ran on rudimentary surfaces.

Luckily, Chinetti had anticipated this possibility and contacted Mexico’s largest tire maker, Compañía Hulera Euzkadi SA. The company’s motto was “lasts longer”—for Mexicans, durability was far more important than the cornering grip favored by Europeans. The next stage therefore began with Euzkadi tires, which utilized technology from minority shareholder BF Goodrich, being fitted to the Ascari/Villoresi car, while the Taruffi team tried some of the few pure Corsa racing tires they had imported.

“Being farther behind,” explained Taruffi, “Ascari and Villoresi were given the job of testing the Mexican tires over the Oaxaca-Puebla and Puebla-Mexico City stages which took place on the second day. The problem of wear was worrying me as I started the first of these stages. The roads were notoriously bad and the racing tires that I now had on were thinner in the tread. To reassure myself, I stopped at a particular point where the road was likely to be hardest on the tires and Chinetti inspected the treads. There was a good deal of wear so I decided to take things more easily.

“Ascari won that stage and I won the next,” Taruffi continued, “beating all previous records for the Puebla-Mexico City run. On the long and twisty run down from the highest point on the course, a pass more than 10,000 feet above sea level, I came up on Troy Ruttman in his Ford Special. I was much impressed with his style, which I had read a great deal about in the American papers and in Indianapolis reports. However, when it came to overtaking I had no difficulty, owing to the better roadholding and brakes of the Ferrari.

Photo: Italian Invasion 11

Pirelli Supersport tires fared poorly on rough Mexican roads.

“Trévoux [in a Packard], the winner of the first stage, had fallen back,” he added. “Having whittled some precious minutes away from Ruttman and Ehlinger [also in a Packard], I managed to make third place in the general classification, 12 minutes ahead of the former.”

“The second leg—and first victory—was mine,” Ascari confirmed. “Then we alternated for the rest of the race, a stretch for one and then a stretch for the other. The Americans and Mexicans didn’t expect such performance from the Ferraris. They were all convinced the Italian cars would be better on the mixed portions, but no-one believed our cars could also dominate on the endless, fast straights. When the straights began, we astonished competitors and spectators. Gigi and I both got a kick out of it as one by one we gobbled up the other cars. A real good time at over 120 mph.”

“The engines ran perfectly without as much as a sneeze,” said Villoresi. “In adjusting the carburetion, Ascari was great. He became the expert on jets, air horns, and choke tubes” to adjust the engines to cope with the huge altitude variations from one end of Mexico to the other.

Photo: Italian Invasion 12

Ascari stops for a mid-race credential check before being waved on to next stage.

“At the end of the third day,” said Taruffi, “although driving rather warily I managed to reach first place overall. By winning the fourth, fifth, and sixth stages, Ascari worked his way up to second place by the end of the fourth day. On the eighth and last stage we let Tony Bettenhausen and his Chrysler blast through to win it with an average of 112 mph.

“The order of starting for each stage was decided by the overall classification,” he added. “Ascari and Villoresi thus set off one minute behind me, but I let them catch me up so that we covered the last stages in formation. The final placings gave the outright victory to me, 8 minutes ahead of Ascari, 16 minutes ahead of Sterling [in a Chrysler], and 20 minutes ahead of Ruttman.”

The total time on the road for the winners was just under 22 hours, for an average speed of 88.07 mph. This was vastly faster than the inaugural race’s winning 78.42 mph.

“Alberto and I had complete faith in each other’s driving skills,” Villoresi recalled after the demanding event. “We both accepted constructive criticism from the other and there was never a cross word. This was the result of a long friendship and mutual respect. Every now and again we played jokes on each other. I remember a buffet in a big hotel in Mexico City. Out of curiosity, I tasted a kind of Mexican chilli. It was so hot I thought I would die. I turned toward Alberto, who liked his food, and pointed to the deadly chillies. He bit into one boldly. He nearly killed me.

“We left for Milan the day after the prize giving,” continued Villoresi. “There was never any time and we had to live economically, especially during the years with Ferrari.”

Between the overall prizes and those for stage victories, the Guastalla team grossed $37,667 for placing first and second, but not much was left after subtracting the substantial expenses of shipping two cars to Mexico. The Ferraris didn’t have to be shipped back; they were sold to eager Mexicans for a reported $17,000 each. Both cars raced the following year but without notable success.

“The newspapers made a great fuss of my victory in this edition of the Carrera,” Taruffi related, “although actually it was the least hotly contested of any of the five in which I took part. To the friendly, excitable Mexicans, I became a star straightaway and they nicknamed me El Zorro Plateado, ‘the Silver Fox.’ When I went back in 1952, I found I was still a pin-up. I saw my photo stuck in the windscreen frames of taxis where the drivers keep their treasures, alongside that of the Virgin of Guadalupe. There was also a new slang word in the language: tarufear, meaning ‘to drive fast.’”

Thanks to Maranello’s overseas efforts in Mexico (and the Indianapolis 500 entries it inspired; see above), America was now well aware of Ferrari. Piero Taruffi was to blame—but no one was complaining.

The author wishes to acknowledge the value of Piero Taruffi’s book, Works Driver, and information from Steve Tillack in the preparation of this article.

Sidebar: From Mexico to Indianapolis

While the Italians were racing and winning in Mexico, back in Maranello Aurelio Lampredi was directing the redesign of Ferrari’s Type 375 F1 for the 1952 Formula 1 season. Girding its loins for another battle with Alfa Romeo, he gave it a stiffer frame, longer wheelbase for better balance, more penetrative bodywork, and new Weber carburetors.
Although Ferrari was already known to America’s sporty-car set, its cars were little known to the domestic entrants of the Indianapolis 500. This changed after Taruffi’s Mexican triumph, so close to many of them in California. Chinetti and American journalist Bill Quinn, who linked possible buyers to Chinetti, made sure they knew that Ferrari had a 4.5-liter single-seater that was eminently eligible for America’s greatest oval-track race.
Over the winter of 1951-52, Gerry Grant, maker of Grant Piston Rings, visited Maranello to view the latest developments. And on April 6, 1952, two of the latest 375 F1s competed in the non-championship Valentino GP in Turin. Nino Farina shunted, while Alberto Ascari retired while leading due to a lack of fuel in a leaking tank, but Villoresi took the win in a third new-look 375 F1. Another example was entered for Johnnie Parsons, the fast and photogenic winner of the 1950 Indianapolis 500, although he did not take up the Italian entry.
Alfa Romeo’s surprise withdrawal from F1 led to a lack of interest, and fewer races for the big Ferraris to run, in the ’52 season, so Maranello was doubly happy to oblige American buyers interested in Indy. Three came to the party: Grant, Johnny Mauro, and Howard Keck. Ferrari joined in, too, with a car for Ascari.
Owing in part to a lack of support by the few Ferrari technicians sent to Indiana, Indy ’52 was less than a triumph for the customer cars. The only Ferrari to make the race was Ascari’s, with four virtually identical qualifying laps. It retired at one-fifth distance with a fractured hub of its right rear wire wheel, disappointing because Ascari was on time for a high placing. Not until 1961, with Jack Brabham’s Cooper-Climax, would another “foreign” racer even qualify at Indianapolis.

Also from Issue 176

  • SF90 Stradale first look
  • Two-of-a-kind SP3JC
  • Dino 206 GT vs Porsche 911 S
  • Matteo Torre interview
  • Niki Lauda remembered
  • F1: The Scuderia's struggles continue
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