The ex-Princess Nina Khan

1963 Ferrari 250 GT Short Wheelbase California Spyder

Coachwork by Pininfarina

All Ferraris are wonderful, exceptional automobiles. But even among Ferraris there is a hierarchy that places some Ferraris ahead of the others. Typically they combine exceptionally good looks with equally exceptional performance for their period, cars that look fast, desirable and competent.

The 250GT California Spyder is one of them. Conceived in the same line as the 250GT Tour de France, Short Wheelbase Berlinetta and GTO, the 250GT California Spyder was intended from inception to be lightweight, quick and responsive, the image of the high performance market in the U.S.'s state of California. In fact it was John von Neumann, Ferrari's distributor in California, who asked for a convertible counterpart to the Tour de France to fit Californians' high performance lifestyle and the warm, dry, sunny climate that made convertible ownership a practical prospect.

The California Spyder was designed by Pinin Farina but the company's factory was fully committed to building the 250GT notchback coupé and cabriolet. Construction of California Spyder coachwork was entrusted to Scaglietti which had the capacity and the flexibility to accommodate low volume specialist designs along with the bodies for Ferrari's racing cars.

The first production California Spyder was delivered in 1958 and continued in production into early 1963, undergoing many changes during a period of rapid evolution at Ferrari. Along with the berlinetta in 1960 Ferrari shortened the wheelbase from 2.6 metres to 2.4 metres. At about the same time the 250GT engine received new cylinder heads with the spark plugs relocated to the outside of the vee and individual ports for each cylinder. The late LWB and all SWB California Spyders had disc brakes which provided stopping power to matching to going.

A favourite with socialites and showbusiness personalities of the Dolce Vita era including Brigitte Bardot, Roger Vadim, James Coburn and Barbara Hershey, the California Spyder was also raced with some success, one finishing 5th overall at Le Mans in 1959. In all only 106 Ferrari 250GT California Spyders were built, 51 Long Wheelbase and 55 of the later and more desirable Short Wheelbase models.

Dating from the final two months of production, chassis '4095GT' was ordered in November 1962 via Swiss Ferrari dealer Garage Montchoisy by HRH Princess Nina Khan, wife of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1933-2003), the Geneva-based international statesman recently appointed to the United Nations' High Commission for Refugees. 'Sadri', as he was known to friends, was the half brother of the late Aly Khan, the playboy prince married to Rita Hayworth known for his love of beautiful women and cars, enjoying plentiful associations with both. Although he largely avoided the gossip columns, Prince Sadruddin had similar good taste, commissioning a distinctive Ferrari 250MM berlinetta (liveried in grey with coachlining in his racing colours and a Hermes leather interior) and taking delivery on campus of one of the first 10 Gullwings built even before his graduation, whilst marrying British top model and socialite Nina Dyer. Their marriage lasted five years, Time Magazine reporting in its June 22, 1962 issue that, "Turning briefly from his work with displaced persons as U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, 29, filed suit in Geneva to displace his wife, slinky former London Fashion Model Nina Dyer, 32, on grounds of "incompatibility." They were separated for nearly two years—she fluttering around Paris, he roaming from Arab sheikdoms to Congolese refugee camps for the U.N. Prince Sadruddin's lawyer, aware that it cost German-born Steel Heir Baron Heinrich von Thyssen more than $1,000,000 and a French chateau to shed Nina in 1957, was on his guard. Said he: "We are well armed against any such demand."'

It would appear that the princess found some consolation in a wonderful new Ferrari 250GT SWB California Spyder, although her enjoyment of it was curtailed as she committed suicide only two years later. Subsequently the Ferrari remained in Paris until acquired by its third and last owner in 1987, who re-imported it to Switzerland and on behalf of whose estate we now offer it for sale.

Chassis '4095GT' has been carefully maintained in his highly regarded collection for the last two decades and was the car of choice for events in which his wife accompanied him. In 1989 it was the subject of a multi-page colour feature in the book Ferrari Spider by Piero Casucci and Bruno Alfieri, also appearing in Antoine Prunet's Fantastic Ferraris and Stan Nowak's Ferrari Spyder California.

It is still presented in its unusual and extremely attractive colors of Verde (metallic green) with black leather interior. Fitted with Borrani wire wheels and with driving lights installed in the grille, it also has the unusual feature of a period radio installed in the far right of the dashboard. A hard top was listed in the original order but is no longer present. Chassis '4095GT' is recorded in several books as originally built with covered headlights but we assume this request to have been changed before delivery as today it features open headlights: both were options and the factory has no record of this. Importantly for prospective buyers, as one of the very last 250GT California Spyders built it includes all the desirable evolutionary features incorporated in the model's lifetime including of course the shorter wheelbase, disc brakes, more supportive seats and the outside plug engine with individual intake ports and coil valve springs.
The author was fortunate enough to test drive '4095GT' recently and was reminded why, far from being 'just' perhaps the best looking convertible sports car of any marque ever built, the California Spyder, especially in SWB form, is so sought-after. From the first push of the ignition key, the V12, 3 litre engine delivers effortless, progressive power accompanied by one of the best soundtracks in motoring history. The steering is light, even at low speeds, helped by the tactile Nardi wood rimmed wheel; the brakes bite firmly and slow the car without fuss; the superb gearchange is positive and light, even when the oil is still cold, and perhaps most enjoyable of all, the short wheelbase makes the California a delight to hustle at speed around country lanes and mountain passes, changing direction with the precision of a much younger sports car, tracking precisely through corners and rewarding the driver with a uniquely interactive experience. The view across the bonnet, through the simple, panoramic windscreen and over the sunken power scoop which feeds the Weber carburetors, is almost worth the purchase price alone!

This is one of the most desirable of all Ferraris. It has a superb provenance and comes with just a hint of intrigue from its ownership by one of the more colourful and notorious figures of the Fifties and Sixties, the Princesse Aga Khan, née Nina Dyer. The original color is exceptionally attractive, a standout in a sea of rosso Ferraris. Its availability after two decades in the same ownership is a rare opportunity for Ferrari collectors to acquire one of the most beautiful, responsive and enjoyable Ferraris ever built.
Photos: www.pmimage.ch