The fame started here


Words James Elliott
Photography Drew Gibson

This Ferrari 166MM is the only car ever to have won both the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Mille Miglia. In a world exclusive, we drive what many believe to be the most significant Ferrari ever

 

Sometimes it is important to establish a sense of scale. The Concours of Elegance at Hampton Court is unquestionably one of the finest events of its type in the world. Despite being something of a new kid on the block, it is already spoken of in the same terms (and often the same breath) as the likes of Pebble Beach and Villa d’Este. As you would expect, therefore, this year’s concours field will be awash with the rarest, finest, most desirable – and most valuable – motor cars on the planet.

Yet even among these amazing automobiles there is a hierarchy. Rising above all others this year will be a small selection of Ferrari’s seminal 166MM Barchettas, which will drive in and take pride of place in front of the Palace. But even among those Ferraris there will be a focal point, a star car, and it is this one. The centrepiece of the centrepiece at the UK’s centrepiece concours. Now that’s scale.

Why so much scale for this car, though? Because this is not just any 166MM, this is the Barchetta. Chassis #0008M, or ‘22’, is not only the car that secured Ferrari’s first Le Mans victory in 1949 – one of the most dramatic on record – but it also won the Mille Miglia the same year, the only chassis of any marque ever to win both events. Beyond that, the model cemented Ferrari’s position as a maker of road cars and even helped the company to break America.

It all explains why this car is touted by many to be the most important Ferrari of all time, a fact that a top-money-GTO valuation would appear to attest. It is visiting the UK for the first time in 35 years, and we believe a magazine is being permitted to drive it for the first time. It’s all a bit showy and special, then. Enzo would surely have approved.

You see, brilliant as he was at running a race team, for Alfa Romeo and then himself, Il Commendatore wanted to do more, to build a brand that all his competition glory could promote to generate business. That business would then fund more racing, which would… well, you get it.

The first cars that Ferrari built after moving to Maranello in 1943 were either outright racers or uncomfortable road cars. They lacked the cohesion to create or reinforce a brand identity, or were simply too scarce. First to wear Ferrari’s badge was 1947’s two-off 1.5-litre V12 125S, followed by the 159S of which, again, only two examples were built. After that came the more successful 166 and then, at the 1948 Turin Salon, Touring showed the 166MM. Named MM in honour of a 166S’s 1948 Mille Miglia win – and instantly nicknamed Barchetta by journalist Giovanni Canestrini – it was shaped by Federico Formenti under young Carlo Anderloni. It supposedly gave a nod to the Mille Miglia winner’s Allemano styling, but even when you squint there is little correlation between the boxy 166S and the curvaceoulsy flowing Barchetta with its groundbreaking, all-enveloping silhouette. More importantly perhaps, the 166 gave Ferrari a ‘design language’ for the first time, that aesthetic identity that Enzo so desperately sought.

 

‘this little boat, on a barely two-metre wheelbase and weighing 800kg, was a miracle’

 

With a tubular frame, wishbones at the front and a live rear axle, fundamentally the 166MM was a development of the 125, yet the little boat, on a barely two-metre wheelbase and weighing just 800kg, was a miracle. Not only was it a more pliable road car than its predecessors, it also made a more potent competition car. At its heart was Colombo’s magical 60deg 1995cc V12, fed by a trio of 32 DCF Webers (for racing; the roadgoing 166 Inter had just one carburettor), pushing out 140bhp via a five-speed ’box and good for over 130mph. Despite the enormous cost of all this brilliance – close to the equivalent of $10,000 dollars in Italy, $15,500 in the USA – some 25 166MM Barchettas were built, plus six Berlinettas. That was on top of the other 166 variants: the S, the Spyder Corsa and the Inter. Most important, however, was that the 166 was equally at home on road or track. It completed the circle of Enzo’s business plan in one model: build, race, sell, build, race, sell.

Competition success came quickly to the 166, Biondetti winning both the 1948 Targa Florio (with Troubetzkoy) and the Mille Miglia (with Navone) in an S. But these early triumphs were eclipsed the following year when the 166 dominated all of Europe’s blue-riband events. Biondetti repeated his Sicilian feat in an SC with Benedetti and won the Mille Miglia – in this very car – with Salani, while another 166MM took the Spa 24 Hours piloted by Luigi Chinetti and Jean Lucas. A month prior to that, however, the former of that pair was also instrumental in one of the greatest feats of endurance racing of all time.

Ferrari had sold one of its 166MMs to 36-year-old British nobleman Lord Selsdon – actually Peter Mitchell-Thomson, a 2nd Baronet. He paired himself with the man who sold him the car, tenacious Italian Luigi Chinetti, for the 17th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, the first at the circuit since the end of World War Two. Facing much larger-capacity challengers – a Talbot was quickest in practice – Ferrari seemed to have no hope of an outright win, but Chinetti epically drove for all but 90 minutes (some say 20, but let’s err on the side of caution) of the 24 hours.

The official line was that Lord Selsdon was ill. The lingering suspicion was that he scared himself so much in practice or his first session that he refused to go out again. The truth? Probably somewhere between the two. The common lack of reference to any other racing achievements implies the latter; the fact that he actually raced throughout the 1930s and ’40s including two previous visits to Le Mans – in a chaingang Nash and coming fourth in 1939 in a V12 Lagonda – leans towards the former. Either way, his name is on the trophy: not bad for an hour-and-a-half’s work, tops. Also, crazy though it sounds, don’t rule out the possibility that his minimal stint may have been tactical, a way to put Ferrari on the map with its first Le Mans win.

After all, Chinetti, a US citizen having stayed on after the 1940 Indy 500, was a formidable talent with two Le Mans wins to his name already. He competed in every Le Mans for nearly 20 years, knew Enzo personally from his days at Alfa Romeo, and was destined soon to become Ferrari’s first US distributor (ah, there’s that link). While the dual-purpose 166MM was Ferrari’s mechanical solution, Chinetti, via his sales skills and racing gift, was the human embodiment of Enzo’s plan. He also founded the legendary North American Racing Team, but that’s another story. Back to #0008M…

With those Le Mans and Mille Miglia wins tucked under its belt – it was displayed at the Paris show with the Le Mans trophy perched on it – Lord Selsdon (reputed to have paid $17,000 for the car) sold the MM to Peter Staechelin in Switzerland the following year. Staechelin raced it until 1952; it next emerged 15 years later with inveterate rarity hunter Rob de la Rive Box, who passed it to Ed Bond in the USA. From Bond it went to Carl Bross and, after Bross’s death in 1972, to Lord Bamford in the UK. It spent more than a decade with Bamford before it traversed the pond once more to Tom Price, then Bob Baker and then, in 1996, to Robert M Lee in Nevada. There it has been ever since.

Lee was one of the world’s foremost car collectors, with two Pebble Beach titles and a host of other trophies to his name. He was also a collector of rare firearms, philanthropist, author, explorer, and both hunter and conservationist. When he died aged 88 in 2016, his wife Anne, who for many years has been just as involved as her husband in their burgeoning Reno-based collection, made sure that the MM continued to be shown and enjoyed without disruption.

So ‘22’, as Robert and Anne Lee have always called it, has made a fair number of public appearances during their ownership, but not outside the USA. This year, however, on the 70th anniversary of its greatest triumph at Le Mans, #0008M has committed to a grand tour of Europe. Not only will it visit the Concours of Elegance, it will also take part in a 166 tour organised by Clive Beecham, who owns the Gianni Agnelli 166MM, and visit some other events.

Before all that, though, Octane was offered a chance to drive it and we cannot recall any magazine previously being permitted to track test this vital keystone of Ferrari and motoring history. This, then, is a one-off drive. And did we mention the car is priceless? No pressure.

Some people nowadays dismiss the 166MM shape as slightly gawky, but head-on with that spotlight aiming at you and the purposeful transverse leaf spring visibly girded under the engine, it is gorgeous: petite but muscular. Plus, of course, there is that metalwork Zapata moustache tumbling either side of the egg-crate grille. This is the ‘face’ that inspired John Tojeiro, and in turn therefore the AC Ace, so it follows that here are the visual roots of the Cobra. My favourite view is from the side, though, watching the gentle wave of a wingline as it crests and dips over the door and wheels. Those wheels, chrome wire knock-offs equipped with Dunlop Racing tyres, fill just the right amount of arch. It’s not bad from the back, either. Who wouldn’t be charmed by a tapering tail with a Le Mans lamp on it?

 

‘the driver becomes the fulcrum around which the Ferrari 166MM’s delicious handling is formed’

 

Open the featherlight door, drop into a surprisingly comfortable bucket seat. You are not too close to the steering wheel and nor is the wheel uncomfortably close to the dashboard, as in so many cars of the era. There is a reserve fuel tank in the passenger footwell, onto which the passenger side door-gap sheds an authentically healthy amount of light. The whole ensemble feels pretty compact and there is a similarly healthy quantity of Superleggera frame on show. What is surprising about that is how thin those exposed tubes are (I’d guess 1cm, maybe 1.5), and how few of them there are. No wonder it’s light.

Everything is beautifully and immaculately presented, but not so much that you can’t imbibe the history. With the road screens removed, it is time to drive a Le Mans winner. Put in the key (just a slender rod of metal, really), push the button and wait while that urgent-sounding V12 goes briefly high-pitched before settling into its familiar staccato drumbeat, pulsing through the twin pea-shooters.

‘Good luck with second,’ whispers James Cottingham of DK Engineering (22’s guardian while it is in the UK), somewhat conspiratorially and with a slightly mischievous grin. It’s true; the 166MM’s five-speeder is notoriously tricky, its higher-gear synchros being more of a theory than a reality and the first-to-second change trumped only by vintage Bentleys (and the Austin Maxi) for notoriety. We opt to avoid it, initially, when first to third (or I to III, as it says on the gearknob) is so much easier.

Some journalists think the repetitive and often low-speed process of driving for photography is a waste of time, but I revel in it. You learn so much about a car, how it would be in real life, its temperament. You learn that first gear is right up against the dashboard and there is a fearsome drilled handbrake sprouting down from under the dash. You learn that the low-speed steering is not too cumbersome, that there is no wobble at all in the dash-mounted rear view mirror, that reverse is difficult to discover but once found is never lost. And you learn that everything is as taut as it could be, but equally it all feels so dainty and delicate that it is hard to believe it could last 24 hours of all-out racing.

Of course, when the photography is over and there is time to really explore what this car is all about, you learn a whole lot more. Dainty and delicate become precise and responsive, nowhere more so than with the bulkhead-mounted throttle. There is plenty of space to let your feet play in the footwell without steering-column hindrance. Fifth is very civilised for cruising, but for all other occasions there is a rev-counter whose needle happily bounces up and down, though not quite to the inscribed 8000rpm with Octane at the wheel.

 

‘if selsdon opted not to drive this car, he was the poorer for it. You would have had to prise me out’

 

Eventually, I man up and head off round the back of the circuit to try and find second out of earshot. To my surprise it is there, a stern haul from first to second on the heavy lever bringing a firm but satisfying connection and opening up whole new possibilities of enjoying this car. With each shift it gets easier still, and I begin to think that this is not like other 166s. It’s still fun to double-declutch, though.

More time with the 166MM reveals it is not the baulky ’box that is the problem so much as the brakes. They are not unusual for the era, but their abilities are anachronistic to a car built when there was a fast-growing technological shortfall between ability to stop and ability to go. Steering is fluid and the balance on that short wheelbase and slender track lovely, as the MM pitter-patters through sharp corners and attacks sweepers with effortless tiptoe poise. The driver sits so low and contributes so much to the total weight that they become the fulcrum around which the delicious handling is formed. Yet nothing tops the sweet bark of that gorgeous V12. It’s at once smooth and threatening, with a terrier-like intensity and a labrador’s eagerness to please.

This car is simply a masterpiece. If Selsdon was so ill that he couldn’t drive it at Le Mans, he has my deepest sympathy because I can now comprehend what he was missing out on, but if he consciously opted not to drive this car then he was the poorer for it. You would have had to prise me out of it. Actually, Cottingham did have to.