Originally published in AutoWeek August 12, 1985
They don’t build elegant race cars anymore. Sophisticated lines don’t mesh with the crunch and thrust of modern racing, where equipage is carbon fibered and monocoqued and wind-tunneled and sponsor-covered and as functionally ugly an IBM PC.
But it wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time one could race the same Ferrari one drove to The Club. It’s likely one didn’t—race it, that is—but it was nice knowing that one could if one wanted, and nice knowing that They knew it too. That car, that dual-purpose Ferrari, was likely to the Spyder California.
The full name of the car was the Ferrari 250 GT Spyder California. It was one of a successful line of as bearing the “250” designation—which you should know by now represents the engine displacement of one cylinder—that extends from the 250 Europa GT of 1954, Ferrari’s first “production” model, to the 250 GTO of 1962-’64, perhaps the most desirable or at least the most desired Ferrari produced, and includes—among several more mundane (my, we get jaded) models—the Testa Rossa and the Tour de France.
It was the Tour de France, officially the 250 GT Berlinetta but nicknamed the TDF because of its dominance of that series, that actually begat the Spyder California. The Tour de France was a special aluminum-bodied coupe with plexiglass windows and minimal trim, officially a road car but more attuned to racing. Ferrari at the time also produced the 250 Cabriolet, an open car but fairly heavy, at least for racing purposes, with a full load of equipment and accoutrements. John von Neumann, West Coast Ferrari distributor at the time, felt that there was a market for a lightweight roadster in the mold of the Tour de France. Enzo Ferrari’s committee of one (i.e., himself) agreed, and the first Spider California was built in December, 1957.
Production, however, didn’t commence until May of 1958, and what emerged was virtually a Tour de France less its top. Like the Tour de France, the Spyder California was Pininfarina-designed and Scaglietti-built. In fact, the basic specifications were identical for TDF, Cabrio and Spyder: Independent front suspension with unequal-length A-arms. Lever action shocks were used at all four corners. And of course there was that marvelous Colombo-designed 60-degree 3.0-liter V-12.
The early Spyder Californias (through mid-1960) were built on a 102.3-inch wheelbase; as a result this has become known as the long-wheelbase model in comparison to the short wheelbase (94.5) Spyder California derived from the 250 SWB and produced from 1960 through 1963. Both the short- and long-wheelbase models came with either streamlined plexiglass-covered headlamps or uncovered headlamps mounted at the leading edges of the fenders, as did the Berlinettas. The Spyder, however, was treated to a full-width bumper whereas the closed car had only horizontal bumperettes on either side of the grille opening.
A detail change that sets off the earliest Spyders from the later cars is a “step” that appeared at the lower edge of the trunk lid, giving the rear of the car more character than the plain rumped version. Spyder spotters will also note detail differences in the side vents and hood scoops as evidence of period and long/short configuration.
The Spyder California is also easily confused with the Cabriolet, though the big tip-off is the lack of side vents on the latter. To our eyes, the Spyder looks more coiled, with more rattlesnake aggressiveness to its lines. That’s subjective, of course, and may well just be a reaction to the car’s competition record. Brand new out of the box in March, 1959, the Ginther/Hively team won the 2600-3500cc GT class at Sebring and finished ninth overall. Grossman and Tavano finished fifth overall at LeMans in June.
So one could—race, that is—if one wanted to. But most didn’t. Most owners were content to revel in the ultimate Ferrari, and perhaps the ultimate automobile, for the road in the ’50s.
Ferrari 250 GT Spyder California no. 1,505, was a late long-wheelbase with open headlamps, built in 1959. It is, of course, red. Redder than a ’50s lipstick stain on a white shirt collar. Redder than a dozen long-stemmed roses. Redder than a redhead’s blush.
Chromed Borrani center-lock wheels, a big 16-inches worth each, are archaic, hard to clean and troublesome, but accent the car like expensive jewelry. The covered headlamp cars are more valued today probably because they are more racy-looking. I prefer the uncovered version, with its repetition of line on the front and rear fenders. You decide.
Looking in from the outside, one notices first the magnificently classic aluminum-spoked woodrimmed steering wheel with the black horse prancing on a field of yellow, then the phalanx of gauges. There’s a big 330-km/h speedometer to the left of the steering column and an 8000-rpm tachometer, redlined at seven grand, to the right. Centered on the dash over the transmission hump are five lesser gauges: Oil pressure, oil temperature, coolant temperature, fuel, and a clock. The absence of an electrical gauge is typically Italian; monitoring of fluids takes precedence over electrons, for which an idiot light may suffice. After all, no oil pressure will cost a very expensive engine, but a malfunctioning electrical system…so what? The car stops running. The headlights get dim. So fix it!
Getting in the Spyder California is an exercise in contrast. The seats are comfortable, that big steering wheel a delight just to hold, but friends, there’s no leg room. Italians all must have very short legs. Even with the seat all the way back, a five-foot-ten automotive writer will find it impossible to heel and toe. The steering wheel will block him from raising his knee high enough to put his heel on the throttle pedal and his toe on the brake. Nor is there any other way to contort his leg into a position to cover both pedals. And this in a two-seater with more than 100 inches between the wheels. It seems impossible, but the short wheelbase cars are said to be even worse.
Never mind. Fire it up.
No, we won’t try to imitate the sounds the V-12 makes, but we will tell you that the burble of those dozen cylinders is one of the most laid-back, relaxed, confident sounds ever made by an engine. It’s as if the engine knows how good it is, knows it could if you wanted it to. One could drive the Spyder California around like a Chevy truck, never exceeding 4000 or even 3000 rpm and never know that 240/260/280 horses were bundled up under the hood. There’s no camminess, no step as in the race-tuned 250 variant called Testa Rossa, just thick, liquid power.
But then again, if one allows the tach to explore the upper reaches of its range, ah, what a rush. There were precious few cars that could accelerate with the Spyder California—quarter miles are in the sub-15 second range—but even few could do it with such elegant, dress ball style. And if it sounds good just burbling around, think how delicious it sounds screaming towards redline.
The sound, interestingly, is all exhaust. That’s expected in an open car with no roof to contain the intake noises. But No. 1505 is special, however, in being one of the three such cars (out of a total of fewer than 50 long-wheelbase Spyder Californias made) with a cold air ram package. The V-12s normally came with either air cleaners or plain velocity stacks on the trio of twin-throat Webers. The functional hood scoop serves the underhood area in general. The cold air package, consisting of a tray around the Weber’s throats sealing against the underside of the hood, dedicates the scoop to the carbs. One might think such a setup would introduce at least a little carb drone. But it doesn’t.
The transmission is a four-speed, all synchro, but one had best not hurry shifts. It may be a function of age, but a quick shift has a tendency to crunch the gears. The feels is good, however, there being no doubt where the where the next gear is supposed to be. Reverse is a tad hard to find, but then, who needs to hurry into reverse in a Ferrari.
Speed comes so easily that it’s not difficult to forget that this is a ‘50s vintage car. At least until the going gets twisty. The rear axle, despite all the locating links, still seems to move about on the semi-elliptic leaf springs. It’s twitchy and nervous when pushed, and so is the driver taking the car over about 7/10ths. It doesn’t inspire confidence, but it does inspire admiration for those who drove these cars in competition.
One needn’t wonder how these cars, even suitably tweaked and shod, would do in racing today. Even “production” classes are wildly modified. It would take an owner with a grand disregard for the cries claiming debasement and defilement and an even grander disregard for the cost of such an adventure. Of course, most folks wouldn’t. But it’s good to know that at one time, one could if one wanted to.