Phil Hill once said ‘One has to wonder if the Ferrari 121 LM, good as it was, was doomed from the start.’ And you have to think that he was probably right. As a racing car, it certainly didn’t attract much in the way of good luck.
It seemed to start so well. Enzo Ferrari had found that the four-cylinder engine built for the 1950 Formula Two season was so powerful that it could be adapted for use in the hotly contested Sports Car Championship. These four-pots were strong, extremely torquey and much simpler than Ferrari’s well-known V12s – perfect for potential customer race cars.
The engine had been designed by Aurelio Lampredi, who soon reasoned that adding an extra two cylinders to the four-pot to make a straight-six would bring the cars into line with Ferrari’s main sports car rivals, Mercedes-Benz, Maserati and Aston Martin. And so 3.7-liter and 4.4-liter engines were born.
These were fitted into a longer-wheelbase version of the existing four cylinder cars’ tube frame chassis, to create the 118 LM and the 121 LM respectively. The 121 LM’s bodywork, constructed in the Scaglietti workshops, was also an adaptation of the previous four cylinder cars’, most similar in appearance to the Farina styled 860 Monza rather than the 750 Monza that Dino Ferrari was reportedly responsible for. It looks long and swoopy, and some cars’ paint jobs featured longitudinal stripes, exaggerating their length to almost comic effect.
Now, consider that with the considerably less powerful 3-liter four-cylinder engines fitted, the chosen chassis could best be described as adequate in the handling department. That’s despite its independent coil spring front suspension and transverse leaf de Dion rear, a marked step forward from earlier Ferrari chassis, which suffered transverse leaf springs front and rear.
Clearly, adding a heavier, more powerful, torquier six cylinder engine, as well as an extra 5.9in into the wheelbase, was not the best move. Phil Hill in the book Ferrari, A Champion’s View describes the outcome, referring to chassis 0558, the car you see here… ‘The 121 LM could be rather hairy to drive quickly. It was the first car I’d driven in which you could add still more power even at high speeds and it would affect the balance noticeably. The tail end would come out, and it could be unpleasant, like in the fast turns that led to the Indianapolis corner at Le Mans. I recall thinking, “Whoa, this car is one to stay on top of…”’
So the drivers of the day hated the 121 LM? Not a bit of it! It was fast, really fast, and they loved that. Its first major event was the 1955 Mille Miglia, for which Ferrari entered one 118 LM and three 121 LMs; but 1955 was the year of Stirling Moss and the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR – strong competition. The powerful Ferraris soon overtook the less meaty 300SLR, amid tales of them laying black stripes on the tarmac, such was their power (and lack of grip!).
Chassis 0558 was driven by Eugenio Castellotti, who didn’t enamour himself to Stirling Moss, as Moss explains in My Cars, My Career. ‘During our “moment” [Stirling had hit a straw bale in Padua], Castellotti had roared by and grinned over his shoulder, which I didn’t appreciate. He was over-driving that Ferrari terribly. I quickly realized that there was little point in racing him – he could not last long. He was slithering into kerbs and over gravelly verges, burning shards of rubber off his tires and smashing his
car through the gears so roughly we could see it twitching and bucking on every change.’
Sure enough, Castellotti was forced to retire due to engine failure, but not before he’d slowed down because the tyres were losing grip. His teammate Paolo Marzotto had lasted just 100 miles before a rear tire threw its tread, while Taruffi had been keeping his Ferrari down to 168mph for most of the race, except on one particularly fast section when he touched 174mph – this due to his own worries about the Pirelli tires. All the same, transmission problems finished Taruffi’s race, and the engine hadn’t been looking good by that point either. Stirling, of course, went on to win.
Really, Ferrari hadn’t spent enough time developing the 121 LM’s engine. It was essentially a strong design, much smoother than the four-cylinder it was derived from, with oodles of power and torque right up to 7000rpm. It used twin overhead camshafts, gear driven, and a light alloy crankcase and cylinder block, with cast-iron cylinder liners that were threaded into the block – it was the unreliable sealing of these liners that was to cause a number of engine failures during the 121 LM’s short racing career.
The engine was mated to a rear-mounted five-speed transaxle, a unit that caused its own problems, because the inertia from the long propshaft spinning at engine speed put excessive strain on the first motion shaft of the transaxle. More failures... So it had been an ignominious start for the 121 LM – and it was going to get worse, but this time through no fault of the Ferrari team. Yes, it was the tragic 1955 Le Mans, and Phil Hill’s first major European factory drive. His steed was this car, 0558, his co-driver the great Umberto Maglioli.
Hill was on the pit counter readying himself to take over from Maglioli for his first stint when, at about 6.30pm, he witnessed the awful accident in which Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz scythed through the crowd opposite, killing Levegh and 82 spectators.
Within minutes Maglioli arrived in the pits amid all the chaos, and Hill instinctively jumped in for his stint, remembering to take it easy because the Ferrari was ‘powerful and potentially tricky’. Still deeply shocked from the accident, Hill came across another serious accident, this time Dick Jacobs in his MG, but was brought back to racing sensibilities when Moss tore past in his 300SLR.
When Hill passed the pits, only a seemingly inconsequential yellow flag was displayed, and Hill naturally assumed the Levegh accident hadn’t been as bad as he’d first thought. The 121 LM eventually had to be retired with cooling problems, but not before topping 181mph on the Mulsanne straight, significantly faster than the 300SLRs and D-types. But despite its speed, Enzo Ferrari had lost his commitment to the four- and six-cylinder cars by this point, finding that the new four-cam development of the V12 endowed the team’s signature engine with significantly more power. The 121 LMs were cast aside, sold off to privateers.
Chassis 0558 initially went to west coast US Ferrari importer Jon von Neumann, who entered it, with Hill as driver, into the 1955 Venezuelan Grand Prix. But once again the car retired with engine problems, and the car soon passed to east coast importer Luigi Chinetti. He entered the car with Carroll Shelby as driver at Road America and Beverly, to be rewarded with two first places and a lap record at the former.
This was followed by an entry at Mansfield with the little known Ray Cherryholmes as driver, a downgrade that perhaps indicates that Chinetti had lost interest in the 121 LM. Certainly 0558 was sold soon after to racer John Kilborn, who kept the 121 LM fire burning through to early 1957 with entries in the Nassau Governor’s Trophy and in the Cuba Grand Prix, as well as a plan to compete in the 12 Hours of Sebring. However, the car didn’t actually start the race at Sebring and subsequently disappeared from view.
It reappeared again in New Jersey in the early 1970s, discovered in a chicken coop minus its engine, to be bought in 1976 by Pierre Bardinon, collector and owner of the Circuit Mas du Clos (home to Bardinon’s famous Ferrari museum).
Twelve years later he sold it to French collector and historic racer Antoine Midy, who revived the 121 LM’s racing career with entries in Ferrari historic race series, Mille Miglia retrospectives and the Le Mans Classic. Now, following Midy’s death, the car was put up for sale at Bonhams' Gstaad sale in 2008.
And what of the other 121 LMs? Phil Hill was to race one just once more. This was chassis number 0484, owned by construction contractor Tony Parravano at Palm Springs in 1957. Hill won the race, but not long afterwards Parravano disappeared, thought by some to have been killed by the mob. His 121 LM is now owned by collector Peter Sachs. Another of the four 121 LMs (three were built, then one converted from 118 LM to 121 LM spec) was being raced at the 1956 Pebble Beach race by Ernie McAfee when he hit a tree. He was killed but his car, bright blue with white stripes, was restored and is still in existence. The first 121 LM built, 0532, was raced throughout the 1980s, restored in the late ’90s and sold by Sotheby’s in 2005.
Now the 121 LM’s lack of success is overshadowed by its great style and the much improved performance that more modern rubber and development of the straight-six engine have endowed it with. Phil Hill reckoned it received an ‘undeservedly bad rap’ in its day...