The (Infamous) Ferrari Breadvan

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Feature Story by Wallace Wyss

It was the Terror of the Road. Imagine if you will, that you are with Ferrari in the early ’60s. You are their chief engineer. You go to a race and in the pits, there’s a car wearing the Ferrari badge that you have never seen before. Worse yet, that odd looking car is faster than the factory cars. And the boss is waiting in Modena for a report and you have to tell him the bad news. Or let’s say it’s a few years later and you are a cop. In, say, Nebraska. You got a Dodge police car, a 440. Tops out at 140 mph. You see a car go past, some sort of low slung furrin’ thing. You give chase. You top out at 140 mph. Absolutely peg the speedo. And what does the guy in the goddamn piece of foreign crap do? He puts it into fourth and rockets away into the horizon. There’s nothing on an American road that can catch it. So are some of what makes up the legend of the 1962 Ferrari SN2819 aka, the “Breadvan”…

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First the back story. Gary Wales, a stockbroker at the time, was one of maybe three guys (ok, maybe four) in Detroit at that point in time (the mid ’60s) who knew what a Ferrari was. He and some friends found dealers overseas who regularly sent them “last year’s cars”, essentially the Ferraris that were hot a couple years ago but now were oh-so-passe. So, one time, their scout overseas calls and says he’s got a line on this car called “the breadvan.” Gary scratches his head. He vaguely remembers a private entry car run by Count Giovanni Volpi’s Scuderia Serenissima out of Venice that was odd looking but faster than stink. “It’s on a short wheelbase 250GT chassis,” the contact says. O.K. short wheelbase berlinettas are great cars. And it’s $3,000. (A lot of money then, because say in Detroit you could buy a house in the suburbs for $30,000). The car got its nickname from English reporters because from the back, it looks no more distinguished than the little van the breadman delivers loaves of bread in, what the French would call it “camionette.”

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BORNE OUT OF REVENGE

It has a very interesting history. You might say it’s a car that was built entirely for revenge—i.e to stick it to The Old Man (Ferrari’s nickname). It originally left the Ferrari factory in Maranello in 1961 as a 250 GT Berlinetta passo corto (short wheelbase)“Competizione”,  participating the same year as a factory race car in the Tour de France with Gendebien and Bianchi behind the wheel, before it was bought by Count Volpi di Misurata, a Venetian count. Volpi painted on his shield and race team name (Scuderia SSS) and fielded it in the 1,000 km of Paris with Trintignant and Vaccarella co-driving.

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At the time Volpi and The Old Man were what you could call simpatico. But then came the so-called “palace revolt” at Ferrari where five of the top engineers left, one story being they were tired of Mrs. Ferrari meddling in the racing team’s business. Also Enzo had fired a popular engineer and the others were leaving in sympathy. But Enzo wasn’t bending and he soldiered on without them. When the engineers left, they scraped together money to start a new car company, called ATS, where they would aim at Ferrari with a factory F1 team and GT cars. One of the investors was Count Volpi. Another was a Bolivian tin magnate. Now as soon as Enzo Ferrari heard about that, he erupted like Mt. Etna. He told Volpi, who at that moment had two Ferrari 250GTO coupes on order, that it would be a cold day in hell before he ever so those cars. Volpi then called one of the ex-Ferrari engineers, Giotto Bizzarrini, and said he wanted him to make a faster car than a GTO. This wasn’t just any engineer but it happened to be the same guy who had designed the 250GTO. He sent him a short wheelbase 250GT and told him to stop at nothing—whatever it took, within reason of course.

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So Bizzarrini worked on the mechanical bits and the famous body shop of Neri & Boneschi worked on the bodywork. There was never a drawing per se, it was just Bizzarrini telling them “make the roof flat,” and “make the tail end chopped off” and the nose “smaller in cross section than the 250GTO.” If Bizzarrini had stayed at Ferrari this would have been his proposal for the third stage of GTO (the second body style of GTO, the ’64, was designed by Pininarina). Bizzarrini added most of the features of the GTO that made it successful including dry sump lubrication but alas, he was unable to get a 5-speed transmission, settling instead for a 4-speed. (You can bet Enzo was making sure he couldn’t order a 5-speed as long as there was a chance it would shame the factory GTOs.) In some ways, Count Volpi got a car that was better engineered than a GTO.

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At the 1962 LeMans, the Breadvan, with much smaller proportions, weighed in at 143 lbs lighter than the standard GTO. Despite the lack of five-speed gearbox, the reduced weight helped the Breadvan stay ahead of the GTOs at Le Mans, until it retired four hours into the race. The drivers were Abate and Davis. What led to the DNF was an unbalanced driveshaft. Bizzarrini had moved the engine back from where it was in the 250GTO, and that required a new driveshaft and hence the problem. The Breadvan only raced four more times after LeMans, and managed a take class win at Brands Hatch in 1962. It also ran with Scarfiotti at the Paris 1,000 km. In 1965 it ran its last “original period” race,–the Coppa Gallenga in Rome. In later years, it was used as daily from that era.

THE HEARSE VERSION

The Count did quite a bit of entertaining on the French Riviera and among the playboys he ran with was Giovanni Agnelli, a Fiat heir and the epitome of the word “playboy.” One night Agnelli had no car to go home so he was loaned the breadvan. Once he had it at his house, someone remarked “it looka like a funeral hearse” so he told his butler to go out there and paint it black. The butler did the back, roof and sides but ran out of paint so the front just had black stripes. Volpi didn’t laugh. Volpi liked driving the car. The weight was so evenly balanced fore/aft that you could, he said “paint with it,” i.e. do any maneuver. But eventually, his interest in his own Serenissima brand (which came out of the ashes of the failed ATS firm) took his attention so he sold the Breadvan. Volpi sold the breadvan for $2500 plus a Dodge Polara station wagon. His thought at the time was probably along the lines of: “I can always buy it back for less later on” because that was before vintage racing with postwar cars became what it is today– a multi-billion dollar sport.

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Now, back to Gary Wales, in Detroit. Wales, a stockbroker, had a little Ferrari business on the side in Detroit, and had already had eleven Ferraris go through his hands. He drove, for instance, the Superfast I to his brokerage job, parking it out on the street, where it would gather crowds One day their contact says he’s got three Ferraris they can have, a 275GTB, a Tour deFrance Berlinetta and some oddball old race car that looked like a station wagon. The price was right so the three partners sent the money and the cars were shipped. In the book “Rebel Rebel” , devoted entirely to the wonderous Breadvan, Wales tells of going to New York to pick the breadvan up from the dock, with two partners picking up other Ferraris. The breadvan had no heater and it was the dead of winter but Wales got that car to drive while the other two were in more comfortable GT cars. Wales was driving fast, hoping to get the car home before his buddy in the passenger seat froze to death. They had to stop several times to thaw out his buddy. At one point, the trip proceeding westwards through New York State on the Tollway at 130 mph, Wales was pulled over by an extremely irritated cop, who had to drive like hell to catch up with him. When he asked why he was driving so fast, Wales pointed to his buddy, who was actually turning blue from the cold, and said “We’re dying here. I got to get him to a place where it’s warm.” The cop, through dubious, bought the story but warned him “Just get that car outa my State.”

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Gary took off, for the nearest Howard Johnson’s, and thawed out his seat-mate a bit, and then stuffed rags into any air intake into the car and they continued. But not without more drama. At one point, the tachometer began buzzing like a low flying Messerschmitt and Gary, frustrated reached out a ham fist and slammed his fist into it. It shut off the tach, and only left Gary a little bloody (Hey, if you can’t beat up your Ferrari, what’s it good for?) Once the three-car convoy got to Detroit they had their own little car show and showed the cars they had brought from Europe. Wales, at that point, had had enough of Detroit-in-winter (think of the German march on Leningrad, only yearly). He decided to move to California. He split up his partnership in Ferraris and his prize was the Breadcan. He drove the car to California, hammer down all the way. “It wasn’t comfortable,” he recalls, “but it was a helluva drive.” He passed cars like they were sitting still. It was still the era of no speed limit in many outlying country areas, and gas was a mere 35 cents a gallon. And the car had a 40-gallon plus gas tank. Out in California Wales repainted it red, and put racing numbers on the side, with little lights to illuminate the numbers, just like it ran at LeMans. This, of course, gave him the opportunity to be the ultimate squelch, because if anybody said “What—you pretending your car raced at LeMans?” he could answer back “As a matter of fact…”

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But then his house needed a new roof and, hey, gotta keep the homefires burning, so he sold it. Remember this was before there was the mania of Ferrari collecting, when old Ferraris were just old cars and the Monterey Historics hadn’t been invented yet. The buyer was a mop-topped singer from Detroit who had made it big out on the Left Coast. Name of Sonny Bono, more famous as husband of Cher. Bono put down a check but sometime later that day ran out of gas and abandoned the car. The cops found Wales’ contact info in the car and called him, advising him it was blocking traffic and illegally parked and he had one shot to retrieve it or it would go to the car impound lot. It was about then Wales had discovered Bono had written a rubber check. (Hey, it’s Hollywood, remember!) Bono sent some heavies to lean on Wales to stop from taking legal action on the bounced check but Wales assembled some heavies on his side including the LA district attorney. Bono’s “muscle,” when confronted with muscle of infinitely greater means, meekly retired from the field of battle.

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A later owner was Asa Clark, head of the Ferrari Club, who bought it for $4500. According to Wales’ memory, Clark was not a full time Ferrari guy, more of a yachtsman. He was, Wales remembers, not really the kind of guy to own the car, not someone who would take the sonovabitch and hang out the tail around every mountain pass and wind it out to 9500 rpm on the straights–full chat in top cog as the Limeys say. That was the way you had to drive the car. Like each race was your last race. Clark realized it was too much car for him and sold it to a Ferrari club guy who did drive it like it had been built to be driven, but sometimes came close to putting it off a cliff in the back roads of the mountains around LA and stuffed the nose at least once. He offended Wales by taking out the 250GTO-like blue cloth upholstery and putting in leather instead, trying to civilize a car that was made to be a brute and to hell with comfort. Your author had a ride in it back in its California days. It reminded me of the 250GTO I had been treated to a ride to when a Motor Trend artist borrowed one for a week when they were only worth $90,000 and not $35 million. The sound was even better than the GTO because of the whoosh from air being sucked into the Testa Rossa-styled clear bubble air scoop atop the hood enclosing the Webers. That scoop alone, for me, made it “oh-so-exotic.” I remember one night when that breadvan owner pulled into a party which was opening the LA Auto. He pulls into the show parking lot, does a few doughnuts and generally upstages every new car that automakers would have in the show. In the book “Rebel Rebel” by Mac Sonnery with Keith Bluemel, that owner was interviewed with many others, telling tales of late night drives through Southern California that sound terrifying today; but hey, again there was nothing that could touch it (except maybe the odd road-converted GT40 or Lola T-70).

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He even tells of picking up a girl on Sunset strip with it. The car was so flamboyant it would stop pedestrians dead in their tracks. That owner sold the car to British car dealer Brian Classic (for 15,000 British pounds, however much that was at the time) who sold it to another Brit, John Harper. The car came back to America in 1985 where Monte Shalett of Oregon bought it on the recommendation of Jess Pourret, a famous Ferrari author in France who said “if not a GTO, it certainly belonged with the GTOs.” He was offered the bait of, if he purchased it, along with it came an invitation to go to a rally featuring 27 real GTOs in France. He bought it. When the rally went to the Ferrari factory as part of the itinerary, he told the authors of Rebel Rebel Ferrari workers poured out of the factory to look at the car. Apparently Ferrari had forgotten this car was once the outlaw car built purposely to shame them! The car traded hands until finally it broke the million dollar barrier. In 2005 it was taken to the Christies auction at the Monterey Jet Center but was not sold with an estimate of $3,500,000 to $5,000,000. Later, in February 2006, it was purchased by Klaus Werner in Switzerland. He had the car completely refurbished complete with a period-correct nose from Hietbrink Coachbuilding who used the old fashioned methods, like hammers and sand bags to make the nose match the way the car looked in ’62. The interior was once again restored to GTO blue cloth seat covers. He took it to several events, and recalled in the book Rebel Rebel how at Mugello in 2008 it was faster than even the 4-liter 250GTOs.

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In April of 2010 Ferrari Classiche issued a notice of Attestation for vehicles that “do not comply with the strict Ferrari Authenticity Certification criteria, have been deemed, as a result of their competition and/or international recognized show history, to be of historic interest. “That was an irony of ironies for the breadvan, being in effect now blessed by Ferrari, because this car was built as the “anti-Ferrari” when it was new. In the book Rebel Rebel, Count Volpi said something curious:”Really owning those cars is similar to still feeling them and doing with them what cannot be done anymore. In other words, we, I, still own them, even if they’re sold. If I bought a stagecoach I would never experience what it was like, because the time had gone and whatever the reenactment wouldn’t even get me far from what it was.” I think, no doubt due to translation difficulties, the Count really meant “close to” what it was, but I get his point.

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Owning the Breadvan in 2014 isn’t the same as it was owning it back in the days of no speed limits in parts of the USA, when gas was cheap and there was nothing made domestically that could touch it. When the idea of running a full blown tuned-for-LeMans 180 mph Ferrari on the street was incomprehensible for people who thought a sports car was like a Thunderbird. Sort of like attending Oshkosh (an old plane event) in an SR-71 Blackbird and buzzing the field a couple times at Mach 2 (hey it happened…). Lesson learned? Nothing is as cheap as an old race car when it no longer has a sponsor or a class where it could be competitive. The time to buy is right when its future is in limbo, when it’s about to be sold downriver….. Footnote: After he had sold the car, a later owner learned Wales still had the Original Italian license plates. Wanting the car to be “original” as per ’62, the new owner bought the plates. Wales gave him a deal and charged him only $5000–$2000 more than he paid for the whole car!

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THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of three books in the Incredible Barn Finds series. They can be bought at bookstores like Pasteiners Auto Hobbies in Birmingham, MI or ordered direct from the publisher, Enthusiast Books, Hudson, WI.

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The painting is available as a print by writing [email protected]


Photos Sourced From: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

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