Purple Haze

After driving the Felber FF, a 330 GTC just won’t seem the same.

Photo: Purple Haze 1
July 20, 2023

What is this car ? Admit it, you asked yourself this question when you turned the page, and this purple barchetta should cause even the most seasoned Ferraristi to wonder. Even identifying which era it belongs to is not easy; it clearly evokes the 1950s, but there’s more going on here.

To answer the question, this is a Felber FF. It’s based on a Ferrari 330 GTC (!), was born in Switzerland, and its history is inseparable from that of its creator, Willy H. Felber.

Today, this FF lives with collector Roger Imboden, of Brig, Switzerland, who is happy to hand me the keys to the strange machine. With its deep lacquered purple paint, egg-crate grille half-framed by a chrome bumper tube, side exhaust wrapped in perforated plate, louvered hood and sides, spare wheel mounted on the trunk, and white leather interior, the Felber is definitely kitsch. Still, I can’t help but smile. Like a cross between a merry-go-round car and Donald Duck, the car evokes pleasant childhood memories.

The Felber FF was born in the early 1970s, a time when the first retro fashion craze was in full swing among automotive craftsmen. Since the end of the ’60s, buyers of exclusive cars had been looking for fun new ways to distinguish themselves beyond what traditional coachbuilders offered. Fashion was pop, influences were mixing, and modernism was no longer necessarily cool.

Photo: Purple Haze 2

In the United States, car designer Virgil Exner created a new retro-baroque style, reinventing vanished brands with his Mercer Cobra and Stutz Blackhawk. The Excalibur and Clénet mimicked the Mercedes-Benzes of the Roaring Twenties, while, in Europe, the Fiat 500 was disguised as the Siata Spring or Vignale Gamine.

Born in 1928, Willy Felber readily described himself as a car fanatic. His father had wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become an engineer—the elder Felber had built the Grand St. Bernard tunnel that connected Switzerland and Italy—but as soon as his studies at the University of Lausanne were completed, Willy devoted himself to his passions. After starting out as a car salesman, he opened an accessories store, then became an official Ferrari and Rolls-Royce distributor in Tolochenaz, near Morges, with his very exclusive “High Performance” garage.

Felber’s clientele consisted of the elite who frequented the shores of Lake Geneva: stars like Charlie Chaplin, Roman Polanski, and Johnny Halliday, and Formula 1 drivers such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Clay Regazzoni, and James Hunt. Above all, however, were the new billionaires from the Gulf, enriched by the exploding price of oil.

The passionate Felber had even bigger dreams, though. He wanted to build his own cars, and filled his notebooks with countless sketches of a small roadster which he at first called the Felber 125—just like the very first Ferrari, the 125 S. As a starting point, he chose the 330 GTC, from which he took the chassis, engine, gearbox, and suspension, along with many accessories.

Photo: Purple Haze 3

Thanks to his extensive network of contacts in the automotive world, Felber succeeded in creating his dream. The body design was completed by Edgardo Michelotti, son of prolific car designer Giovanni Michelotti, and assembly was entrusted to Panther Westwinds in England. Robert Jankel’s firm was responsible for stiffening the donor 330 GTC’s chassis with a view toward transforming it into a roadster. Finally, Enzo Ferrari himself gave Willy Felber authorization to affix the Cavallino Rampante to his car, which then became known as the FF—for Felber Ferrari.

Presented at the 1974 Geneva Motor Show, the FF was a great success; the first orders arrived quickly. Beyond that, Willy Felber, who knew well the habits of his wealthy clientele, developed an unstoppable sales technique; he would slip a 50-franc note into the pocket of the doorman at the Morges casino in order to park the FF in front of its entrance. “So, it’s almost sold,” he laughed in an interview given at the time.

It didn’t take long for a sheikh from the Middle East to emerge from the casino, his pockets full of petrodollars that no roulette wheel could use up, and spot the Felber. He then found himself promoting the car to his circle of relatives.

Ten Felber FFs would thus be produced in the space of four years, sold at the price of 100,000 Swiss francs—the equivalent of around €250,000 today. Another eight examples were marketed by Jankel under the Panther brand, unbeknownst to Felber, which today creates confusion, some mistakenly thinking the cars are of English design.

Photo: Purple Haze 4

For Willy Felber, it was just the beginning of a career as a builder that was as bloated as it was meteoric. In the space of a decade, he produced more than 15 different models. These started with another series of the FF (now redesigned and based on a Lancia), then two unique Ferraris: the Felber Croisette, a Michelotti-built hunting station wagon based on a 365 GT4 2+2, and the Beach Car, based on a 365 GTC/4 and commissioned by the Sheikh of Qatar.

Many cars were transformed to make them more prestigious, like the Felber Oasis, a SUV of sorts based on an International Harvester Scout II, of which 70 copies were built (and 30 ordered for Muammar Gaddafi’s bodyguards). More common cars were also grounds for modification, with Felber reimagining the Lancia Beta and Delta (Felber Roberta), the Autobiachi A112 (Felber Rubis), the Buick Skylark (Felber Pacha), the Audi 80 (Felber Illustré), and the VW Golf, Chrysler Imperial, and Pontiac Firebird (Felber Excellence).

It’s hard to know how many cars were assembled by the Swiss company—at least 100, perhaps 150. In 1982, Willy Felber revived his company by importing Maserati and De Tomaso cars, but ultimately it was liquidated in the early ’90s. He died in December 2002, at the age of 80.

LIKE ITS SIBLINGS, the Felber FF I’m driving today began life as a 330 GTC. Bearing the serial number 09365, the Ferrari was assembled in 1966 and delivered new, on January 5, 1967, to the Ferrari dealership in Milan, to be sold to one Giorgio Pomi. At the time, the GTC wore Blu Scuro paint and a beige leather interior. Declared stolen by its owner in December of the same year, it was later found after an accident in the suburbs of Milan.

Photo: Purple Haze 5

After being repaired, the Ferrari was exported to Switzerland, where it was bought by Prince Zourab Nicolas Platon Tchkotoua. This Georgian descendant of the Russian aristocracy was a serious car enthusiast. His maternal grandfather was the founder of Marmon cars, and the Prince raced at Daytona, Sebring, the Targa Florio, and the Nürburgring behind the wheel of a Ferrari or Shelby. He raced a 250 GT Tour de France, owned a 250 GTO (s/n 3647GT), and counted Fiat patriarch Gianni Agnelli and F1 driver Jackie Stewart among his friends.

It was from Tchkotoua that Willy Felber bought the 330 GTC, in 1975, to have it converted the following year into a Felber FF. The order came from the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlav, an insatiable collector of incredible cars. He asked Felber to add doors to the FF, which initially lacked them (this is the only example so equipped), and specified the Viola Blandford paint and Connolly white leather interior.

Events in Iran prevented the delivery of the car to the Shah, but it was purchased by another Iranian, a certain Mosifar Pahahpour. In 1979, Pahahpour exported it to the United States, specifically his residence in Beverly Hills, then moved it to England in the late 1990s. In 1999, he resold it to Willy Felber, who relisted the 8,000-kilometer car. It was then purchased by a Felber collector, from whom current owner Imboden bought it in 2021.

In person, it’s difficult to see that a 330 GTC serves as the basis of the FF. With its wheels pushed out at all four corners, the Swiss conversion has almost no overhang, although its thick sills struggle to hide a robust chassis designed for a larger car. A considerably heavier car, too; where the GTC has a claimed weight of 2,866 pounds, the FF reportedly weighs less than 2,000. Given the 4-liter V12’s generous 300-bhp output, it promises to be an exciting drive.

Photo: Purple Haze 6

Snugly wrapped inside the wheels, the cabin is narrow and evokes a minimalist British roadster more than an Italian GT, even though many of the components come straight from the 330: the steering column and its stalks, open gear lever, and gauges (which have been rearranged to place the larger tachometer and speedometer facing the passenger, due to a lack of leg room). Three windshield wipers and small side windows flank a very basic, flat windshield, while the primitive roof that clips onto the bodywork is fortunately absent. It’s a strange mix, somewhere between the artisanal simplicity of a Caterham and the opulence of a Ferrari.

Wedging myself into the seat with its curiously reclined backrest, I fire up the engine. It launches with the familiar roar of the Colombo V12, the sound of which I can enjoy in a very different way in this open- air bathtub! The small leather-wrapped steering wheel is typical of the 1970s, and the shift lever jingles gaily in its gate. When I gently release the clutch, the frail FF jumps forward happily; I did not expect so much ease, even docility.

But this is just an illusion. When I give it some throttle, the featherweight burns its tires on the asphalt without advancing an inch. Until third gear, the rear wheels have a serious tendency to do nothing but spin.

“It’s a car for experienced drivers,” said Felber, who amused himself by terrorizing his passengers from behind the FF’s wheel.

Photo: Purple Haze 7

Put another way, the FF is a brute. Take a little speed and the wind hits me in the face; I have to cling to the steering wheel in the turns; and the brakes require a heavy foot to be effective—but what stopping power!

The Ferrari engine feels furious and seems to enjoy being freed from the hundreds of superfluous pounds it typically propels. The FF accelerates wildly, overwhelming me with sensations that are as terrifying as they are exciting. In third gear, at speeds approaching 100 mph, it’s impossible to take my eyes off the road to look at the distant speedometer. Instead, I revel in the glorious sound of that V12, which no amount of wind noise manages to cover.

The experience is extraordinary, and redefines everything I know or imagine of 1960s’ Ferraris. The Felber FF is not a GT but an overpowered dragster, brimming with power and torque, and its driving experience is more akin to a Shelby Cobra than any Italian sports car, although its mechanicals are exquisitely refined.

The FF’s body may not be the most handsome, but its presence is fabulous. Add to that such an unusual history, rooted in the 1970s’ jet set, and you have a delightful car that deserves more recognition.

Also from Issue 208

  • 550 Barchetta vs 812 GTS
  • 458 Buyer's Guide
  • Tifosi: Six Pack
  • 312 PB
  • Ferrari wins Le Mans
  • F1: End of the Tunnel?
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