Collectors in the spotlight: Hubert Fabri
September 2014

Collectors in the spotlight: Hubert Fabri

Interview by Steve Wakefield

Welcome to a new series in which we invite leading collectors to speak their mind openly, the more controversially the better. We start with larger-than-life Belgian gentleman driver Hubert Fabri and ask him to set the record straight about some automotive legends. He doesn't hold back...

So, you ask for my iconoclastic views about some of motoring’s myths? Well then, I can only start with the most inflated car of them all: the Ferrari GTO. Undeniably the best ‘racing GT’ of its day, it only came into being because the people at Ferrari bent the rules better than anyone else! It was really a prototype in disguise, as everything — bar the engine block — was specifically changed by Ing. Bizzarrini and his colleagues. It was so unlike the SWB — a fantastic GT in spirit and a better proportioned car.

Ex-Earl Howe Bugatti Type 57S Atalante on a British country road- does it get any better? Ex-Earl Howe Bugatti Type 57S Atalante on a British country road- does it get any better?

But the GTO, what a well-balanced car to drive, no wonder it ran circles around its competitors! I was fortunate enough to be lent GTOs to drive on the race track and loved them; a good engine, that’s true, but the handling balance and light, precise controls were what made the real difference. Then I drove them on the road. Not so good… no torque...

With 39 built, the GTO is not a rare car. If you multiply the prices fetched recently by this number, one reaches figures that would put the GNP of some African states to shame. Does this make sense? We're certainly not talking about what economists call a ‘perfect market’ here.

The GTO became outclassed by the Cobras (which I never drove) particularly the Daytona coupé, a good case for the saying that there's no substitute for cubic inches. But was this a GT? And here again we can debate about rarity — with only a handful made, the Pete Brock-designed coupés are rare indeed, unlike the GTOs.

Trusty Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato owned for 30 years Trusty Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato owned for 30 years
Diminutive Alfa TZ was a revelation Diminutive Alfa TZ was a revelation

I never drove lightweight E-types, but they came close in their day and generally go much faster today. I wonder how?! I say they are “cleverly derived from Mr Lyons’ clever marketing ploy”. The lightweight E-types, they nearly fitted the bill in those days, but were a commercial failure so all the chassis numbers allocated weren’t built. But I hear this is being remedied today...

Another racing GT that failed to sell at the time is the Zagato version of Aston Martin’s DB4GT. I’ve owned one that I have cherished for over 30 years, a road car that arguably looks much meaner and better proportioned than the previously mentioned Ferraris, Cobras and Astons. But why didn’t it sell at the time? Simply because it was overpriced, too heavy and not competitive. I’ve put my Zagato on the track and you soon see why. This overweight, over-high lump of an engine only generates comic understeer worsened by its short wheelbase. Sanction II, III or IV anyone?

I raced a DB4GT for several years as well, loved its engine, but its handling suffered the same shortcomings, particularly as I always kept her on the correct 16in wheels that the car wore in period. Much better looking but less rubber. On the roads of the Tour Auto, it was without peer. What an engine! And such civilised comfort! We would ‘blast’ most Ferraris down any straight in delight, but on the tracks we would plough miserably around turns. On the fast tracks, such as Goodwood and Le Mans, it would do.

Blower Bentley felt like low flying Tiger Moth, but less good at flying Blower Bentley felt like low flying Tiger Moth, but less good at flying

Only with the Project cars did Aston arrive with a suitable answer (by lowering and putting the engine back, instead of shortening the wheelbase) to the Ferrari GTO. That is, if they hadn’t been ‘projects’, i.e. prototypes. I never raced them but drove one around Goodwood. What a satisfying, fast, purposeful machine.

Do you want to enjoy the perfect period GT? Try the Alfa TZ: a sophisticated chassis with sweet handling. It is light and tiny – yet comfy – and with delicate controls and good brakes; surprisingly fast despite its small engine, a moment of perfection – if a bit delicate to run. A GTO in miniature, but did I say that?

Another myth I lived with for several years is the Blower Bentley. Mention it in any English pub and the Union Jacks will start waving, but... it is oh-so-disappointing to drive, with the heaviest steering and most ‘numb’ handling I ever experienced. I drove mine, an original Vanden Plas three-position Drophead, many miles across the back roads of rural France. These were roads meant for real Bentleys... The impression she made when passing Renaults on a Route Nationale, whilst revving at about 1300rpm like a low-flying Tiger Moth, or stopping at some country café, was extra-terrestrial. But a good, light-bodied 4 1/2, a Speed Six or the Eight Litre were far, far better cars, the 4 1/2 being surprisingly nimble! WO Bentley was right about the fitting of superchargers...

Perfection? Hubert Fabri thinks this comes close Perfection? Hubert Fabri thinks this comes close
Early Lamborghini 350GT more civilised than later Miura Early Lamborghini 350GT more civilised than later Miura

As illusions go, the Lamborghini Miura deserves some attention as well. It blew my 13-year-old mind when it came out. Even the bare chassis fascinated me so much I would have a picture in front of me at family dinners, my version of adolescence. It would be many years before I’d own one, arguably a very special car indeed, a gold-coloured SV with the dry sump engine block of the (only true) Jota.

It has a wonderful engine in sound and action with a never-ending flow of power, but the rest is somewhat crude and neglected: the driving position (which can be improved), the visibility, the precise, yet somewhat lifeless steering and the peculiar handling. Think wheelbase of a go-kart. Their earlier 350GT — with basically the same engine — was a much better accomplished car to live with, a remarkable first attempt. But it seems the Miura was a revelation for the Lamborghini people: why bother with (true) function if (sexy) form sells?

And they went on — despite a few financial hiccups — happily with this truncated philosophy culminating with the recent Aventador Spyder whose lack of functionality bluntly negates her theoretical performance. I saw one this summer going to the ‘Beaches’ near St Tropez and believe a Citroën Méhari would do the job far better, bringing more joy to the driver and less risk to his toupée.

Do you really want an Olympian myth that lives up to its reputation? Drive a genuine Grand Prix Bugatti!

 

Images courtesy of Gooding & Company, Mike Maez, RM Auctions, Bonhams, Ultimatecarpage.com, Steve Wakefield, Bianchi-Piras and Pebble Beach Concours.

Good sport: Hubert (in Gallic beret) joins in our Italian Job adventure in the Alps Good sport: Hubert (in Gallic beret) joins in our Italian Job adventure in the Alps