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Not All Ferraris Are Red

Automobile Magazine has had the privilege of taking readers along on dozens of Ferrari drives, starting with our very first issue in 1986. What follows is a sampling of the most memorable quotes from those unforgettable experiences.

"If you truly care about cars, the thought of owning a Ferrari is always dancing lightly across your synapses." - April '86

Really, it looks so American. Imagine it on the floor of the 1954 New York auto show, so wildly extravagant in its flashing chrome, tortured sheetmetal, and two-tone paint. Imagine the legendary Harley Earl, the director of styling at General Motors and the most influential designer in the world, looking down on it (as he surely must have) and thinking, "Now this is a motor car."

This 1954 Ferrari 250 Europa Vignale is the very first car that Ferrari rolled onto a boat and shipped to the U.S. to be sold from its new, officially sanctioned distribution company in America. All these years later, it has finally come back home. Though it is said in the collectible car world that the best investment is a car with "no stories"—no complications in ownership or mechanical integrity—this car is nothing but stories. It represents a messy saga of misadventure that has miraculously become something in the end that is rare, beautiful, and valued. And in this way, this car tells the story of Ferrari's own 60 years in America.

It was Luigi Chinetti who brought Ferrari to America, of course. Inside he was tough, a racing driver who had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans some three times, famously so in 1949 with a Ferrari 166 MM (the brand's first victory), when he drove all but 30 minutes of the race himself. Trained as a mechanic, Chinetti could be a hard man, but he knew his way around the rich after his days selling Alfa Romeos and Bugattis in Paris in the 1930s. And he figured that America's newfound prosperity after World War II made it a perfect market for extravagant cars with high prices, a combination that could sustain the struggling car company established by his friend Enzo Ferrari. Chinetti had been selling cars one by one to Americans and, in fact, millionaire sportsman Briggs Cunningham bought from him the very first Ferrari in America. By 1953, Chinetti became Ferrari's formal distribution company in the United States.

Marque of excellence: There are iconic Ferrari styling cues in the 250 Europa, yet a past age of elegance calls out from this car of the 1950s.

This Ferrari 250 Europa Vignale certainly looked the part of an American-style car. One of two special-body versions of the Ferrari 250 Europa commissioned from Carrozzeria Alfredo Vignale for display at the Paris auto show in 1953, it embraced all the latest, American-style flourishes at the disposal of young designer Giovanni Michelotti. The basic aerodynamic, torpedo-type shape created for the 250 Europa coupe by Battista "Pinin" Farina (not yet simply "Pininfarina") was embellished with a chrome version of the traditional Ferrari egg-crate grille, low headlights from the Ferrari 340 Mexico race car, competition-style sheetmetal louvers and ducts, and a two-tone paint scheme of a roof in burnt siena and bodywork in tobacco brown.

Underneath, you can find some dirt on the turnip in the Italian way, as the 250 Europa chassis represents 1940s technology. The highly reinforced twin-tube frame carries twin-wishbone suspension with a transverse leaf spring in the front, a live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs in the rear, and drum brakes at every corner. On the other hand, the Aurelio Lampredi-designed engine is very high tech, an all-aluminum, SOHC 2963cc V-12. It made 200 hp despite a compression ratio of just 8.0:1 to accommodate the low-octane gas of the time.

In those days, show cars were supposed to sell, and when the Vignale coupe didn't find any takers at the Paris show in the summer of 1953 (observers thought it was too flashy to be respectable), it was shipped by boat to the United States for the forthcoming New York auto show in January 1954. Chinetti promptly gave the car a coat of resale red and a black roof before it went on display, and the car finally sold to a buyer in Massachusetts. Then the Vignale coupe bounced to the West Coast in 1960, where the blown-up V-12 was replaced by a Chevy V-8 (a pretty common transplant in the 1960s) and the bodywork was painted purple (not a good color, even in the 1960s). By the 1970s the collectible car hobby was just taking off in California, and the Ferrari was bought for investment. It was traded a few times before being squirreled away in storage, reappearing during Monterey week in 2004 at the Quail. Ravaged by time, it nevertheless had a Lampredi V-12 under the hood once again.

As you walk around the corner of the shop at Fiorano and past the old man's farmhouse, your heart rate rises. Perceptions are altered. Ferraris don't look the same here in a Wal-Mart parking lot. There's an aura. - November '95

And then things changed. The evolution of the Ferrari brand and its sizable new audience had made ancient examples of the marque newly valuable. You could spend millions to restore such a car, yet still hope to recover the costs by selling the result. So Heinrich Kaempfer of Switzerland purchased the Vignale coupe in 2009 and brought it back to life. The four-year process was far more like an archaeological exercise than a simple rebuild, so meticulous that the restoration of a Renaissance painting seems slapdash in comparison. Cellulose-based paint just like the original was used, and the leather upholstery came from the very shop that provided it for the car in 1953. When the car was displayed at the 2012 Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este in Italy, it won an award. Last year, when the car crossed the block at the Bonhams auction at Monterey, California, Tom Peck Jr. couldn't resist. Some $2.8 million later, it was his.

Like any of us, Peck is bemused by a world where a Ferrari 250 GTO can sell for $38 million. Yet, he tells us, his Ferrari is an understandable expression of our times.

"Like so many things these days, it's a matter of asset allocation," Peck says. "We were lucky enough to sell a construction business after building it up for a lifetime. When you do that, you're supposed to hire a financial manager, diversify your holdings, and then check online to see whether your investments have increased in value or not. But when you do that, it makes you wonder what the point of working hard all those years would be? Collector automobiles at this price might be just asset alternatives, but there is a lot more about them than anything on paper. With a car, there is so much more to enjoy."

More to the point, Peck has fallen in love with Ferrari. As a kid in a working-class neighborhood during the early 1960s, he thought that a Ferrari would be impossible for him to buy, no matter how hard he worked. Even so, he liked the way each Ferrari that he encountered was so different, so expressive, so pure. Peck says, "Since the Vignale coupe, I've bought a few more Ferraris, and I like the early ones more than the late ones. I just finally drove a 1958 Ferrari, and I'm not sure that the synchromesh transmission made it any better. The early cars show you how things work, and I think this brings you closer to what a Ferrari is all about. It was a time when every Ferrari was not red."

Luigi Chinetti: The Man Who Made Ferrari's Fortune in America

As the story goes, once World War II came to a close, Enzo Ferrari was not convinced that his car business had a real future. The process of selling cars was too uncertain, and he considered focusing on the manufacture of machine tools instead. But as author Brock Yates tells it in "Enzo Ferrari," still the best portrait of the Old Man's life and times, Luigi Chinetti told Enzo to just build the cars, because Chinetti himself would take care of the rest.

Then, as now, those who sold the cars were as important as those who made the cars, and Chinetti became Ferrari's unofficial marketing expert in the U.S. as well as its primary sales outlet. He not only sold the cars but also helped determine the kind of cars that should be made. His adventures along the way would prove just as desperately uncertain as Enzo anticipated, because Chinetti and Ferrari itself skittered on the edge of bankruptcy for years.

When European sports cars finally took hold in America in the early 1950s, Chinetti became Ferrari's official distributor in 1954. Over the next two decades, he operated on the old, industrialized west side of Manhattan before moving to Greenwich, Connecticut. Many of the stereotypes of specialty car dealers that we have today come from Chinetti's sometimes imperious behavior as he tried to balance the whims of demanding customers, too few cars (usually of indifferent quality), and boom-and-bust cash flow. Throughout it all, Chinetti promoted Ferrari in America through motorsports, and he personally sent future Formula 1 drivers Phil Hill and Dan Gurney to Enzo Ferrari's office in Maranello.

Chinetti and Enzo Ferrari were close from the time they met as part of Alfa Romeo's racing operations in the 1930s, though perhaps they were not exactly friends. Each could be difficult, yet the car company we celebrate today has everything to do with the way they collaborated in America. On the night of August 14, 1988, Chinetti was driving from Modena to Paris. In the early hours of the morning, the car suddenly shook with a thunderclap as if it had broken. Chinetti pulled off the road to inspect the car, found nothing, then continued. Sometime later, a radio broadcast informed him that Enzo Ferrari had passed away during the night.