Maiden Voyage

After nearly three years of waiting and planning, we cross South Africa in a freshly restored 250 GTE.

Photo: Maiden Voyage 1
April 15, 2021

Sitting behind the wheel of this 250 GTE (s/n 2637GT) as I prepare to embark on its first post-restoration journey, I’m reminded of The A-Team, that 1980s’ television program that most of us remember fondly. Not because I expect to have to fight any bad guys on our 1,000-mile drive from Johannesburg to Cape Town, but because of John “Hannibal” Smith’s most famous quote: “I love it when a plan comes together.”

You see, I’ve been following this Ferrari for nearly seven years. The owner, an automotive enthusiast and collector, first told me about it when I met him and explained that it would eventually be restored. In the years since, I’ve twice visited the car at Carrozzeria, an official Ferrari body shop in Johannesburg, where Ivo Sega and his specialist colleagues had been working their magic.

The dream of driving this classic down the center of South Africa—sans Hannibal’s smoking cigar between my teeth, of course—has been at the back of my mind since that initial discussion. So when the owner told me the restoration was in its final stages, our planning ramped up to the point that we were updating and rescheduling almost daily to get everything together.

Photo: Maiden Voyage 2

Fortunately, the coronavirus curve ball that 2020 pummeled us with didn’t stop the trip. So, after numerous nervous phone calls confirming that final finishes were being applied to the car and that it would be ready, we packed our bags and prepared our back-up car (which would carry a jerry can of fuel, basic tool box, tow rope, water, coolant, engine oil, and a few spare parts, among other things) for what would be the road trip of a lifetime.

When I, my friend and co-driver Johan Burger, and photographer Peet Mocke arrive at the Carrozzeria workshop, we find the Ferrari waiting patiently in the finish bay. Sega shows me around, pointing out all the little nuances, how and where to open the hood and fuel cap, move the seats, and so forth. It’s fairly straightforward, but I would rather be safe than sorry, so I pay strict attention. Then it’s time to sign out the car, gleaming and perfect after its more than two-year restoration.

Day 1: Johannesburg to Bloemfontein (270 miles)

We leave Johannesburg, heading south. I immediately find, as expected, that the Ferrari’s brake pedal needs a firm push. In a similar vein, the four-speed gearbox, which has a deliberate, mechanical action, needs some muscle to operate—which is wonderfully fitting considering the company that created this machine.

Photo: Maiden Voyage 3

I sit fairly close to the windshield, and even closer to the door, which allows me to really experience the open space on my right-hand side; Burger sits at a generous distance. At just under 6-foot-2, my headroom is limited, but I don’t need to tilt my head to sit comfortably.

Between driver and passenger resides a wide transmission tunnel, from which the gear lever protrudes. (There’s no open shift gate, however, this perhaps being deemed too sporting.) Behind the gorgeous thin-rimmed steering wheel are the beautiful Veglia main instruments, complemented by several smaller analog dials in the center of the dashboard. The Italians really know how to do style—the Ferrari’s interior is simply magnificent.

The 250 GTE lacks air conditioning, and in the African December heat I had feared the cabin might be unbearable. However, with the windows down and the wind swirling throughout, the car is actually quite comfortable at speed. This works out well, since there is little to do on this 270-mile stretch to Bloemfontein but relax behind the wheel, take in the scenery, and absorb all that this Gran Turismo has to offer.

Photo: Maiden Voyage 4

From behind the wheel, there are a few notable highlights. Aurally, especially with the windows down, the soft rumble from the quad exhaust pipes delights. The vast hood stretches out ahead of me, the corners leading towards the headlights and the chrome beading in the middle providing a neat touch.

While it would likely be a challenge to drive this car in a modern city, in the heartland of South Africa the 250 GTE eagerly and effortlessly chases the horizon. This, after all, is what the car was made to do, and to that end Ferrari provided an overdrive function, which is activated by pushing a small lever to the right of the steering wheel. Overdrive sheds just under 1,000 rpm from the engine’s speed, resulting in an even more relaxing experience.

So relaxing, in fact, that my hands naturally drift towards the bottom of the steering wheel. Little steering effort is needed once the car is moving; it’s only at parking speeds where the lack of power assistance is felt. The Nardi wheel gives me ample leverage in all conditions and feels perfect in my hands, making me wonder why modern cars have such thick-rimmed steering wheels.

Photo: Maiden Voyage 5

We stop for fuel and a coffee and exchange a few thoughts. All three of us have been dreaming about this trip for a long time. I mean, how often will someone attempt a 1,000-mile road trip in a 60-year-old Ferrari through the arid Karoo region in the middle of summer? We are having fun.

The absolute highlight of the day comes at sunset as we head into Bloemfontein, in the final 20 minutes just before the sun finally sets over the horizon. The sky turns into a plethora of warm colors with a brush of deep purple. From the driver’s seat, with the polished deep blue paint (its official name is Blu Sera) reflecting the horizon off the hood, it’s hard not to celebrate what this car represents and the experience it offers.

While one could argue that “proper” Ferraris have only two seats, if you want a Ferrari with performance, comfort, and space, the 250 GTE was the first, and only, game in town. (Today, if you want a 250-series Ferrari, it is without a doubt the most affordable option.) Introduced at the 1960 Paris Motor Show and based on the earlier 250 GT coupe, the GTE saw its V12 engine, equipped with triple Weber carburetors, moved almost eight inches forward to increase space in the cabin. The formula was a quick success: A full 1,000 examples (including the 4-liter 330 America variant) were produced between 1960 and 1963, making it comfortably Ferrari’s most populous model.

Photo: Maiden Voyage 6

Day 2: Bloemfontein to De Aar to Beaufort West (340 miles)

The next morning we get an early start at 6 a.m. Once on the road, I immediately notice that the Ferrari is running better at low revs, even when the fluids haven’t warmed up yet. The car had already covered more than 300 miles before we took delivery, but it’s very obvious how the car settles and the engine smooths out as we pile on the mileage.

I start to rev the engine a little higher, and it is only too eager to oblige. When run past 3,000 rpm, the Gioacchino Colombo-designed V12 becomes ever more responsive, although taking it even close to the redline, for now at least, is not an option.

We decide not to head immediately South on the busy national highway, instead following our own meandering route. For one reason, this is a road trip and therefore should not be rushed. For another, staying off the main road should mean fewer trucks kicking up stones that could damage the Ferrari’s flawless exterior.

Photo: Maiden Voyage 7

As we make our way to Koffiefontein (“Coffee fountain” in Afrikaans, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages), I become even more impressed with the car’s overall comfort. The beautiful Borrani wheels wrapped in plump tires obviously contribute to my impression, as do the seats. If you spend hours on end in a seat and never think about it, then you know it’s doing a fine job. These are plush and beige in color, contributing to the spectacularly stylish contrast between dark exterior and light interior.

At the same time, the 250 GTE is a car that requires me to actively and consciously drive it. We’ve all become spoiled by modern cars—how quiet they are, their many amenities like automatic air conditioning and cruise control—and while the actual task of driving has become less demanding it’s also become less rewarding. But when I properly drive this Ferrari, the payoff is immense.

Blipping the throttle while changing gears is the smoothest way to swap cogs, the effort rewarding me with a mechanical symphony simply not heard nowadays. And once the gear is engaged, the V12’s song crescendos sweetly, no matter where in the rev range it is.

Photo: Maiden Voyage 8

After the quiet Free State back roads, we cross the Orange River and set foot in the Northern Cape. In the quaint town of De Aar, we take a break from the heat, fill up the cars, and enjoy an early lunch. We also note, as was the case the previous day, that the 250 GTE doesn’t attract attention like a modern Ferrari. Instead, this classic only gets attention from a select audience, mostly classic car enthusiasts or gas station attendants who’ve never seen one.

Continuing on the back roads, we encounter some terrible potholes. While I drive slower and more carefully, I can’t avoid them all. Thankfully, the high-profile tires do a sterling job of ensuring the wheels suffer no damage.

Soon the road surface improves, and before long we are back on the highway. I raise the revs to 4,000 rpm and an indicated 80 mph, although at this point the wind noise (with the windows still open) now competes with Colombo’s masterpiece.

Photo: Maiden Voyage 9

With vintage cars, it’s important to regularly cast an eye over the water and oil temperature and pressure gauges. They provide a real-time, detailed reading of the state of the engine’s fluids, and should something go wrong you will see it here first. As the GTE sails along the highway, making its way through the Karoo, everything looks clear and is running smoothly.

Day 2 Continued: Journey’s End

Then, as we approach Richmond, the Ferrari starts to lose power gradually, but significantly. We pull over and put our heads together.

Between WhatsApp messages and cell-phone calls on a dodgy cellular network, we reset the carburetors for the lower altitude. This had been expected, as Johannesburg sits at 5,750 feet above sea level, and we are now approaching the coast.

Photo: Maiden Voyage 10

Our fiddling, while not making the situation worse, unfortunately does not improve things. We decide to pull over for a break at the wonderful Karoo Padstal (“farm stall”), a little oasis in the desert, and let the car cool down while we throw ideas around and fiddle some more.

After a while, we start the Ferrari again and continue, but the engine still doesn’t feel healthy. After resetting the carbs once again, we eventually call it a day outside the gate of Skietkuil Guest Farm, which bills itself as “Your Home Away From Home.” It’s perhaps an ideal place to end our trip, as the nearest town on our planned route is some 70 miles away.

The arrival of the flat-bed truck puts paid to our road trip after more than 650 miles. Later, following a visit by the engine builder, we learn the distributor’s points had burned and the V12 was running on only six cylinders. Frustratingly, it was something we might have been able to fix if we had more experience and an inexpensive part. But, you live and learn.

Photo: Maiden Voyage 11

Before this mishap, the Ferrari ran flawlessly. Classic cars certainly throw a spanner in the works from time to time, and while it’s easy to get sweaty and irritated and wonder why we bother in the first place, looking back I realize this was been one of the most memorable trips I’ve done to date.

Although it’s not necessarily a car I’d want to drive enthusiastically through a mountain pass, the 250 GTE certainly lives up to the Gran Turismo part of its name, all the way down to the large trunk. This Ferrari is elegant, powerful, and classy, and encapsulates an era that is much loved by so many enthusiasts.

As one of my friends always says, “Don’t put your cars on pedestals, drive and enjoy them!” Even though this trip didn’t quite come together in the end, his words, like Hannibal Smith’s, are worthy to live by.

Photo: Maiden Voyage 12

Sidebar: The Restoration

Ivo Sega has been involved with Ferraris for decades. Before we left Carrozzeria, I sat down with him to talk about the restoration of our featured 250 GTE.

“The biggest challenge was finding the correct parts for this model,” he reports. “The car was completely stripped and rebuilt from the ground up. It really takes forever, as you need to make sure everything is period-correct and in perfect working order—difficult on a limited-production model from 50 years ago! Often the car will throw you a few surprises that need dealing with, and a lot of the body had to be reconstructed.”

Appropriately one of the last parts fitted to the car was the new, period-correct, three-spoke, wood-and-metal Nardi steering wheel.

The car’s owner, who’s restored around 30 cars in his life, was also eager to share his experience of the restoration process.

“A second-hand car trader found the car for me in South Africa’s Eastern Cape,” he explains. “However, it was not in great shape. It had incorrect layers of paint, some rust, and had not been maintained since it was parked for many years.

“Then I decided to restore it, and it was really one of the most difficult and longest restorations I’ve done. That was mainly due to getting parts. You order pistons and then discover the pistons are the wrong size. So the pistons must go back, and then you try to claim the duty [import tax] back, but want the new pistons to be duty free. The paperwork for this was tremendous and it happened twice. Overall, it took 18 months to receive the correct parts for the engine. Searching for a generator was also an immense challenge, as the car had been converted to having an alternator.

“Every step of the way I was involved in the project, which is important,” he concludes, “Also, I didn’t allow the next step of the project to start until I had signed off on the current state of the car. A lot of time and labor has gone into this restoration!”

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