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Driven: Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa

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Somebody just paid a record-breaking $16.4m for this 1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa prototype. This is why.

There is nothing like a ringside seat at a prizefight, watching heavyweights duke it out. Especially when it is a civilised affair, with an elegantly appointed dark-suited referee named Charlie using his mellifluous voice, soothing accent and dry wit to cajole the combatants to hit each other harder. With their checkbooks.

A riveting, record-breaking slugfest took place on the evening of Saturday 20 August on California’s picturesque Monterey peninsula when Gooding & Company sold Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa chassis number 0666 TR at its Pebble Beach auction. The opening bid was 
met by a quick counterbid, and it went from there. The hammer price numerous tense minutes later translated into an ‘all in’ price of $16,390,000, when the buyer’s premium had been added.

That 16-plus figure established a new world record for a car sold at auction, shattering the old record by some million. Which got much of the collector car world wondering: was that telephone book-type number justifiable? Or had more than one of Gooding’s very deep-pocketed paddle holders taken too many sips of auction/Pebble Beach week Kool Aid and bid the Ferrari up far beyond what it is worth?

To ascertain an answer, we’ll start with an overview of the car’s provenance. Chassis 0666 TR was originally constructed at the Ferrari factory and Carrozzeria Scaglietti in May 1957, the car’s underpinnings and appearance following 290MM specs. Shortly thereafter it raced at the ’Ring (tenth overall) and Sweden (DNF, blown engine), after which it returned to Maranello. According to Joel Finn’s definitive Ferrari Testa Rossa V-12, 0666 TR was converted into the first ever Testa Rossa and given the now-iconic pontoon fender configuration by Scaglietti. It then competed in Venezuela (third), Argentina (early 1958, second), and the Targa Florio (DNF). It was then sold to Luigi Chinetti.

America’s influential distributor took the Ferrari to Le Mans, where it ran fourth before catching fire. The badly burnt car returned to Maranello, where it was completely rebuilt by Ferrari, and received a new pontoon fender body at Scaglietti. It then raced at international venues such as Sebring, the ’Ring and Le Mans before settling into a successful career in California.

By the mid-1960s its glory days were over, the car having been piloted by many of the era’s greats: Gendebien, Gurney, Hill, Gregory and Von Trips, to name a few. In the late 1960s the owner set the interior on fire to collect insurance money; the rest of the car remained relatively unscathed, according to a knowledgeable person who saw post-fire period photos. The TR was then bought by two southern California college professors who have likely owned more great Ferraris than just about anyone, and they eventually restored it and kept it until 2002, when it was bought by its last owner.

This genuine enthusiast and his wife have one of the world’s great collections, with a Pebble Beach winner to their credit. TR 0666 underwent a complete restoration over an 18-month period, subsequently won its class at Pebble, scored platinum (95 points or higher) at several Ferrari Club of America events, garnered a number of awards, and received a Ferrari Classiche certification that states the engine, body and chassis are original to the car.

If all that history, restoration and those awards weren’t enough to catch my attention, a number of years ago during a conversation with the coachbuilder Sergio Scaglietti, I asked if he had a favourite from his prolific career, or took time to admire any of his creations before they went out the door. ‘Yes,’ he replied, naming only one car, ‘the first Testa Rossa. It was beautiful, as I would see different characteristics when I looked at it.’

That is exceptional praise, coming from a man whose resumé also includes the 250 Spider California, the Series I GTO, and 20 other pontoon fender TRs.

Even so, and despite that record-setting price, auctioneer David Gooding feels this landmark prototype remains undervalued. ‘Compared with a GTO, TRs won Le Mans outright; the GTO only its class,’ he says. ‘It is 40% rarer than a GTO, and absolutely epitomises what Ferrari is about. It is outrageous, beautiful, sensual, loud, raucous and victorious. The TR has everything a GTO has, and more. It is the car that truly created Ferrari’s reputation.’

Normally I would dismiss such talk as classic auctioneer post-sale puffery, but just over two years ago I drove the previous price record holder, 250 Testa Rossa chassis 0714 (see Octane issue 70). Model history and cool looks aside, just minutes into those memorable several hours it became more than clear that the 250GTO no longer occupied its longstanding position as my ‘greatest car I have ever driven’ mantle.

Chassis 0666 – and almost every other TR – also possess another, often overlooked asset: the ability to get into any automotive event without a second thought. This subject was covered in depth in The A-list (see Octane issue 98), but even such rarefied air has its own pecking order. You can quibble over whether a 250TR – let alone the prototype – sits on the ‘A’ or ‘A-‘ tier of the A-list (think Alfa 8C 2900, Mercedes 300SLR, Bugatti Atlantic and the aforementioned 250GTO as top-tier shoo-ins). But it is way, way up there, wherever it ultimately resides.

So 0666 is a unique passport that lets the owner travel to some of the world’s most beautiful and exotic locations, enjoying their piece of rolling sculpture while there. And these days, with the proliferation of more high-end and exclusive concours, rallies and races, that guaranteed entry card across a range of venues is a big selling point – one that adds value by broadening the potential audience of those interested in being its next custodian, let alone anyone fortunate enough to see it at such events.

Then there is the subtle but widening movement of ‘cars as art’. For Gooding, the term ‘rolling sculpture’ is quite apt, especially in light of increasing values. ‘With cars like this Ferrari,’ he says, ‘potential owners are more likely to look at them as an alternative investment to traditional artwork.’ Exhibitions such as Ralph Lauren’s cars (including his pontoon fender Testa Rossa), first seen at the Boston Museum of Modern Art and now the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, bear this out. In a sophisticated setting the rarity, historical significance and aesthetic beauty of cars are highlighted for cultural tastemakers, the well-heeled and general populace the world over to see.

He’s right. During the past couple of years I have frequently used the words ‘asset diversification’ when speaking about the demand for high-end collector cars, and Gooding’s sale marked the first auction at which I was scared by what I saw. A good number of sales didn’t make sense as cars went for amounts way in excess of their intrinsic value. During the Monterey Car Week Gooding wasn’t alone – RM (especially with the .375 million McQueen 911) and others also rang the proverbial bell.

Two emerging trends are further influencing prices. For better or worse, the collector car hobby is no longer that; it is now the collector car industry. Private, corporate and public money is piling into the arena, bringing ever more visibility to what we love. That higher profile attracts more people worldwide, and a car publicly selling for just short of .4 million does nothing to slow that down. All of which leads into a second trend that may be fingernails on a chalkboard to some: in the words of a serious longtime collector who made his fortune on Wall Street, cars have become an ‘asset class’.

This ‘asset class’ perception will accelerate, and is likely the reason why perceived intrinsic values have skewed. Over the past decade the stock market has gone nowhere, real estate has been hit hard, and US and European central banks are continually printing money, devaluing currencies. US Government debt was downgraded by one rating agency, and there has been more than one run on Greek bonds.

According to the treatise This Time Is Different, eight centuries of economic history says without exception that the West’s current debt levels are unsustainable without a massive devaluation or default. In times of uncertainty like now, the wealthy often put their money in hard assets – witness gold’s stealthy ten-year bull market that only recently has been noticed by the mainstream and financial press. And this is affecting another form of precious metal: collector cars, especially at the highest levels. Not only are cars such as 0666 now an asset class, like gold they are a type of currency. They can be moved anywhere in the world, and have a recognised value with a global demand to back it up. A 250 Testa Rossa may not be the most liquid currency, but there will always be buyers for 0666.

Which returns us to our original question: was the .39 million price too much? In short, the answer is no; prior to the sale, I thought it would go for million, possibly higher. Had there been greater pre-auction clarity on the damage done by the late-1960s fire (more than one person I spoke to thought 0666 was a rebody, and not carrying original Scaglietti coachwork), it may have brought more.

Huge intrinsic value – not to mention an incredible adrenaline pump, too – resides in those taut, meticulously restored pontoon fenders. The 250TR remains the greatest car I have driven, and it defines the increasingly recognizable term ‘rolling sculpture’. This particular chassis served as the starting point of a multiple-championship and Le Mans winning model line from perhaps the greatest constructor of all, making the 250 Testa Rossa one of the true highpoints of automotive history. And let’s not forget the social and economic tailwinds that will probably push its value higher in the future.

But the best part of this saga has nothing to do with values, or economics. When I saw the car’s previous owner on the lawn at Pebble Beach less than 18 hours after the sale, I asked him why he sold it. ‘I just wasn’t using it any more,’ he replied. ‘We had the fun and satisfaction of restoring it, and it won numerous awards. I raced it and enjoyed it, but I just didn’t drive it any more.’

Then he smiled and said: ‘I have a Maserati 300S that is nearly as sweet and even more forgiving at the limit, and its value is less than half the Testa Rossa’s.’

Which makes me wonder how long it will be before we see the world’s first ‘eight-figure’ Maserati. In light of a Duesenberg also exceeding million at Gooding’s and a Mercedes at RM’s sale almost touching that magic number, that day is approaching –perhaps sooner than any of us realize.


1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa

Engine: 2953cc V12, SOHC per bank, six Weber 38 DCN carburettors 
Power: 300bhp @ 7200rpm Torque: N/A 
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential 
Steering: ZF box
Suspension: Front: wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, radius rods, coil springs, telescopic dampers 
Brakes: Finned alloy drums 
Weight: 800kg 
Performance: Top speed 125-167mph, depending on final drive

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