A Generational Change, and The Story of a Stolen Masterpiece
September 2014

A Generational Change, and The Story of a Stolen Masterpiece

by Simon Kidston

So, it’s happened at last: for the first time in the modern era a post-war car has won Best of Show at the world’s most famous concours d’elegance, Pebble Beach. Almost none of this year’s attendees was present- quite a few of them weren’t even born- back in 1968, when a four year old Maserati Mistral coupe was crowned Best of Show, but back then Pebble Beach was still in its relative infancy and focused on new cars, with classes divided into European vs domestic marques, and, amazingly, price categories: ‘European sports cars above $10,000’ was one example.

For the past 46 years, though, it’s been a monopoly for glamourous pre-war marques, and the more extravagant the better: Mercedes-Benz (7 victories), Duesenberg (6), Bugatti (5), Packard (3), Delage (3), Packard (2), Hispano-Suiza (2), Horch (2) and Chrysler (2) foremost amongst them, often clothed with rakish coachwork from the most daring carrossiers of the era such as Figoni & Falaschi and Saoutchik. Conspicuously, though, one marque has been missing which had long dominated younger events and the market: Ferrari. In 2014 that all changed.

In the early days, before billionaires had been invented In the early days, before billionaires had been invented
1950s entrants would be awed by the scale of today's scene 1950s entrants would be awed by the scale of today's scene

Pebble Beach represents The Establishment, and from a quick survey of hair colour (or absence) I’d guess the average age of both entrants and judges is well over 50. At 46 I’m still one of the youngest judges, yet when the ‘years of service’ awards were given out during the judges’ briefing on the morning of the 2014 show- ranging from my modest 10 to others who have been at it for 40- it struck me how many of my peers must have started in their 20s or 30s. Where are their equivalent today?

It’s a question commonly asked in the classic car world: where will the next generation of collectors and enthusiasts come from, and what will be the focus of their interest? I put this to a senior judge, whose riposte made me smile: “Do you know the average age of a Pierce Arrow owner?” he asked. No, I didn’t. “Dead” came the reply. Apologies if you own one, but you get the point.

Mercedes-Benz debuted their newly restored, 120mph 540K Streamliner Mercedes-Benz debuted their newly restored, 120mph 540K Streamliner
Pre-war leviathans like this have long been a Pebble Beach mainstay- but for how much longer? Pre-war leviathans like this have long been a Pebble Beach mainstay- but for how much longer?

We owe it to encourage young enthusiasts to get involved, to secure the future of the hobby and the survival of our automotive heritage. The next time you see someone of student age admiring your classic, engage with them rather than worrying they might scratch it. In a few years’ time they might be your market. And let’s not forget that not all great cars were made in Maranello, nor after 1946.

Jon Shirley’s dramatic, one-off Ferrari 375MM is a worthy and deserving winner of this year’s Best of Show, and we thought that as a post-script you’d enjoy the reminiscences of former Italian owner Mario Savona. You can almost hear the Sicilian accent:

“In 1955 Roberto Rossellini bought from Ferrari the 12th of 15 375 Mille Miglia Spyders produced; the car, originally built and intended for Luigi Chinetti, was destined for American racing. After a short time Rossellini appointed Scaglietti to restyle his car, they transformed the car completely and realized an elegant coupé. In 1964 I was in Rome and heard about a sale including several properties of Rossellini and a Ferrari; intrigued, I started looking into this.

"As soon as I saw this gorgeous model I could not resist and despite being nothing more than a penniless boy I managed to borrow the 265,000 Italian liras necessary to secure the Ferrari.  It goes without saying that I drove it immediately to Palermo irrespective of not having a driving licence (!).

Palermo, Sicily, circa 1965 and an impecunious student has borrowed a few hundred dollars to buy his first car. This is it. Palermo, Sicily, circa 1965 and an impecunious student has borrowed a few hundred dollars to buy his first car. This is it.

"My father of course was unaware of my umpteenth folly and came over one day promising me a Fiat 500 if I graduated. If only he knew that I had a 5 litre Ferrari tucked away from his eyes.

"The 375 was far from being perfect; the grille of the front air intake was missing as well as the grilles on the side air vents, however it was magnificent and I was a great enthusiast. One day I bought some aluminium panels and I managed to build them into shape to replace the missing parts. The cosmetic outcome was pretty good.

"After one year the car was stolen and all my attempts to find it proved in vain.

"After eleven months I found out that, in Naples, there was a garage where a superb military green Ferrari was stored. The car was very similar to the one I had. Naturally I went there immediately. I could not believe that this Ferrari could have been my 375 especially since the colour was different and I would have thought that nobody would have had the guts to change the colour of that beauty, much less in military green. I cannot describe my excitement when I saw my baby. I was told that the car had been left there for an overhaul of the engine but that nobody ever showed up to claim it and it was eventually parked and forgotten.

If only that cockpit could speak, it could tell some stories If only that cockpit could speak, it could tell some stories
It's a long way from home It's a long way from home

"As soon as I took the 375 back to Palermo I started looking for a capable and cost effective mechanic to fix the problem but I had no success. After a few months I made the big decision: I would have repaired it myself, or at least I would have tried. In a short while people started coming over to my place to see the crazy boy that was adamant that he could dismantle, overhaul and reassemble a twelve cylinder, six carburettors and two distributors engine with the presumption of restarting it at the end of the works.

"After six months that young boy managed to reassemble the magnificent twelve cylinder; I cannot describe the feeling when I tried to start it for the first time after the rebuild; naturally it did not want to start but in the end my obstinacy won and, with the help of a friend, we jump started the car and I heard the music of the engine again. Probably only half of the cylinders were working but I had made it! 

"Afterwards with a fine tune of the distributors all the cylinders roared again. It was a great victory for me.

Its days of burn outs and joyrides are long over: you almost wonder which existence the car prefers Its days of burn outs and joyrides are long over: you almost wonder which existence the car prefers

"In 1970 after a lot of persuasion from a friend I decided to part with the 375 and, thinking that it could have been of interest to ‘Il Commendatore’ for his personal collection, I wrote to Enzo Ferrari directly and offered him the car. I had the satisfaction of getting a reply directly from him who informed me that he was not interested since ‘Ferrari SpA’ kept only racing cars but that he knew a potential buyer for my car, a French collector, Mr Bardinon. I immediately contacted him.

"After an exchange of letters one day I received a phone call to inform me that a Mr Damagnes was arriving in Palermo. To make a long story short I sold my jewel for a sum that seemed quite high back then.

"What I learned is to listen to advice is wise but ultimately relying on one’s own judgement is even wiser."

 

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

'My best friend Mario Savona poses proudly next to his Ferrari 375 MM coupè Rossellini. How many drives around the block I had in this five litre monster. The heat from the engine made the fuel vaporise, the castor oil, even the paint. It made you drunk. Of the 12 cylinders maybe 8 or 9 worked, leading to huge flames from the straight through exhausts. Other times, other cars, other stories, but the same great friends.' 'My best friend Mario Savona poses proudly next to his Ferrari 375 MM coupè Rossellini. How many drives around the block I had in this five litre monster. The heat from the engine made the fuel vaporise, the castor oil, even the paint. It made you drunk. Of the 12 cylinders maybe 8 or 9 worked, leading to huge flames from the straight through exhausts. Other times, other cars, other stories, but the same great friends.'