Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

| 7 Dec 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

The date is May 2023, the scene a big boy’s toy box of vintage and post-war motoring exotica, much of it of the seven-figure persuasion, strewn about like discarded playthings on the ex-RAF Tarmac.

The occasion? It is best described as a sort of works outing for Kensington-based dealer Gregor Fisken, who, handily for us, has rented Wroughton Airfield for the day as a means of exercising some of his most rarefied stock.

It’s hard to know where to look, with Ford GT40, Jaguar D-type, Alfa 8C and Grand Prix Talbot-Lago to name-drop just the highlights.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

This unique Ferrari was given a drop-top roof, modified grille and more by Italian coachbuilder Vignale

The company I’m keeping today is so exalted I’ve almost forgotten why I’m here.

As the desirability levels ramp up, the car in question hoves into view: a small, dark-blue open two-seater Ferrari by Vignale.

The imposing eggcrate grille of chassis 0051S leaves you in no doubt as to the make, while ‘V’ badges on the front wings identify this curvaceous but not entirely harmonious drop-top as a Vignale creation courtesy of Giovanni Michelotti, that winning combination of Turin coachbuilder and prolific stylist which did most to give Ferrari’s earliest road cars a distinctive visual identity before Maranello’s official hook-up with Pinin Farina from the mid-1950s.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

The Ferrari 166/195S Inter’s dashboard manages to be both glitzy and austere all at once

Bereft of bumpers, it is a compact spider – or more properly a cabriolet – with an air of purpose about it, even if the chunky, tobacco-coloured seats and gleaming espresso-machine dashboard tell you it was not designed with Mille Miglia victories in mind.

Struggling, in profile, to hide its low-slung exhaust, this 2.3-litre Ferrari rides on a short wheelbase – shorter even than that of a T-type MG, at 7ft 4½in – and the inevitable tall Borrani wire wheels hiding big drum brakes.

Poke your head underneath and you can see the aluminium differential casing and the twin electrically welded oval main tubes of the chassis.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

The Turin coachbuilder’s crest on the Ferrari 166/195S Inter

There are no pretensions to sophistication here: a beam axle on semi-elliptic leaf springs suffices at the rear, with Fiat-like unequal-length wishbones – with no camber adjustment – and a transverse leaf spring up front, all heftily wrought in the name of durability rather than finesse.

Most ’50s Ferraris have eventful or somehow ‘interesting’ histories – it goes with the territory – but the life story of this one-off Vignale car has more twists and turns than most, with its dual 166/195S identity.

It was sold new to a Milanese gentleman by the name of Giovanni Vaccari, an amateur racer noted for coming 34th in the 1949 Mille Miglia in his 166 Barchetta, but not much else.

He rates scant mention in the Ferrari history books, but was evidently a loyal customer of the fledgling marque.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

Delivered to the first owner as a Vignale-bodied 166 Inter coupé, this Ferrari was returned to Maranello and fitted with the hot new V12 from the 195S

In 1953 Vaccari bought a 250MM Pinin Farina but the source of his evident wealth – or what became of him – is unknown.

What we do know is that Ferrari delivered the chassis to Vignale in July and Vaccari paid 2.15m lire for the completed car.

Registered 161860 MI, it was delivered new in December 1950 as a Vignale-bodied 166 Inter coupé in a style attributed to around 10 of the 166 Inter chassis the company clothed.

In this form, 0051S is pictured in Antoine Prunet’s marque bible Ferrari: the Road Cars.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

Triple Weber carburettors top the Ferrari’s 2.3-litre V12 engine

Then, for reasons long forgotten, Vaccari quickly returned 0051S to Maranello to be fitted with the latest triple-carburettor V12 from the 195S, the short-lived 2341cc model that replaced the 166 Inter in 1951, with 195.08cc per cylinder.

The ‘S’ had a higher compression ratio as well as the two additional Weber carbs, raising power from 100 to 170bhp with the potential for 7000rpm.

Shortly after that it went back to Vignale for conversion into a cabriolet, although the modifications went beyond mere roof-chopping surgery: the grille was modified, the sunken vent above it smoothed over, and ventilation slots were added to the front wings (which were subsequently removed).

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

The Ferrari in original coupé form, as delivered to its first owner in 1950 © David Smith

After a move to Switzerland in 1951, chassis 0051S took up long-term residence in the USA in the early 1960s.

It’s not known how it ended up in Austin, Texas, but the region is home to Bergstrom Air Force Base, so it’s not too great a stretch to suggest that a returning airman may have had it shipped home.

It was here that C&SC reader David Smith, then a car-obsessed youth, stumbled across the 166/195S in 1964 and can throw some light on this portion of its history.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender
Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

The Ferrari 166/195S Inter after a repaint in grey, but still wearing bumpers (left); 0051S loaded in an old Case farm wagon by Raymond Utter to take it from Austin, Texas, to Shawnee, Oklahoma © David Smith

“I was attending high school in Austin when I came across a Ferrari cabriolet in a bank’s underground parking garage,” recalls David.

“It was secured behind a large iron gate, keeping my friends and I from seeing it up close, and we had no idea why it was there.

“After high school I worked for the first foreign-car dealership in Austin, owned by Raymond Utter from Oklahoma.

“I made him aware of the Ferrari and eventually he bought the then-grey car at auction and took it home to Shawnee in a hay wagon –  I seriously doubt very many Ferraris have been transported like that – for refurbishment and a red paintjob.

“He didn’t think a Ferrari should be any colour but red.”

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

The hood doesn’t look out of place on the Ferrari 166/195S Inter

By the end of the ’60s, chassis 0051S had moved to Florida, where it was discovered in a rented lock-up in a partially dismantled state and was auctioned against an unpaid storage bill.

The 20-year-old Italian sports car’s luck changed in 1970, when it was acquired by Jacksonville attorney and ex-FBI agent Otto Bowden, a noted Ferrari collector who kept 0051S for the following 37 years.

Restored to running condition, the 166/195S was in use for most of that time.

Chassis 0051S returned to Europe in 2007 and was subjected to a full drivetrain and electrical restoration by marque specialist Antonio Constantini, having gravitated back to Switzerland in 2014 via Marseilles-based dealer Jean Guikas.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

The Ferrari 166/195S Inter’s big seats were built for comfort

Alfredo Vignale is thought to have bodied about 40 Ferraris from 1950-’54, split fairly evenly between competition cars and grand-touring models.

Vignale’s racing bodies were usually the lightest: thus equipped, Ferraris won the Mille Miglia three years in a row.

The factory only supplied running chassis and having original bodies modified – or rebodied entirely – was not particularly unusual on these early road cars, probably because labour was cheap and some of the late-’40s/early-’50s efforts by the likes of Touring, Ghia and Stabilimenti Farina failed to capture the aggressive character of these cars.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

Flush-fitting doorhandles on the one-off Ferrari 166/195S Inter

Vignale, established in ’46, gave its Ferraris a wild, almost angry look that caught the imagination of high-profile customers: actors Robert Taylor, William Holden and David Niven had Vignale Ferraris, as well as the usual-suspect playboys of the Rubirosa and Agnelli ilk.

Better still, from Ferrari’s point of view, Vignale’s 40-strong workshop could build bodies more cheaply and quickly than most of its rivals, with lead times of weeks rather than months.

It employed traditional coachbuilding methods where hand-beaten panels – shaped using tree stumps, mallets and sandbags – were interpreted directly from Michelotti’s drawings.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

This unique, classic Ferrari is set off by its gleaming Borrani wire wheels

This human touch resulted in bodies that were asymmetrical from one side to the other: left- and right-hand doors could vary in length by as much as two inches.

Liberally filled, sanded and flatted for a smooth finish, the panels were attached to the tubular body frame by rivets and screws.

Sober back in dark blue with a contrasting tan interior, the aluminium bodywork of this 73-year-old Ferrari is light on jewellery: 0051S has lost its bumpers and built-in foglights over the decades, but still wears its tiny rear-light clusters and the usual flush-fitting pop-out handles in the doors.

Vignale avoided using off-the-shelf detail parts where possible.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

Originally red in 166 Inter coupé form, the Vignale Ferrari was repainted a more sober blue during conversion into a cabrio

The hood is well hidden behind the rear seats and the 166/195S looks quite effective with it raised, although headroom is in short supply.

The bootlid is opened by twisting the twin latches into the horizontal plane, but the luggage area is mostly taken up by the 60-litre fuel tank with its internal filler cap.

Thankfully, the slightly dubious latter-day addition of twin white stripes along the bonnet and bootlid (it didn’t have them in 2010 when Bonhams failed to sell the car for a $1.7m high bid in Monaco) were removed in a recent refresh by Fiskens.

They gave this otherwise dignified little Ferrari the air of something dressed for a part in a Herbie film.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

The Ferrari’s recessed teardrop tail-lights look tiny

Pop the front-hinged bonnet and you find the early, Gioacchino Colombo-designed Ferrari engine, a 60° V12 with wet liners and a counterbalanced crank.

Its elegance, symmetry and proud finish are in stark contrast to the crude ironmongery of the car’s general underpinnings.

With its hairpin valve springs, triple 36DCF Webers and twin horizontally mounted distributors, this short-stroke masterpiece of Silumin casting sits low in the roomy engine bay.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

The fuel tank, with internal filler cap, takes up a lot of boot space

Like almost all early Ferraris, 0051S is right-hand drive, the reasoning being that it suited clockwise-running European circuits and was the safest vantage point on narrow Alpine roads.

The large, three-spoke Nardi wheel, with its riveted wooden rim, frames a glitzy triple-dial layout with a large oil pressure, fuel level and water temperature combination gauge flanked by a slighter smaller rev counter (reading to 10,000rpm) and speedo (to 240kph).

Someone has run amok with the Dymo-tape machine, naming the various widely scattered controls for lights, wipers and indicators.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

‘A metallic whine brings the V12 to life, with a sound that has been breaking hearts and boosting egos for more than 70 years’

There’s a decent carpeted area behind the seats for bags in a cosy cabin that features substantial, almost Rover P4-like seats.

The pedals are floor-hinged, and the various lumps and bumps in the carpet reveal the ironwork of the chassis under your feet.

To start the engine, push the large, toy-like key into the dash to get ignition, then press the starter button.

A metallic whine brings the V12 to whooping life, issuing that sonorous mix of triple-chain and tappet noise, and the smooth, natural aspiration of a dozen little pistons.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

The Ferrari 166/195S Inter’s tan-leather seats conceal a handy luggage compartment

It’s a sound that has been breaking hearts, boosting egos and making rich people slightly less rich for more than 70 years.

Flexible, silky and civilised, the V12 will pull smoothly and strongly from 1500rpm, but needs to be revved liberally to get meaningful progress.

The long, straight gearlever emerges assertively out of the carpet, but without the familiar six-fingered gate.

Fourth is direct, fifth overdriven, and the first four well-spaced – but mostly unsynchronised – gears require careful timing if you are to avoid noisy shifts, yet the changes are quick when you get it right, hitting home with a positive, mechanical feel.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

Three large Smiths dials are in the Ferrari’s stylish cabin

That the revs flick round at the merest caress of the throttle helps, showing the instant response characteristics that were at the heart of the decision to build a short-stroke V12.

It sings up the scale magnificently in third, then snatch fourth and let it wind out clean and strong with that brawny turbine growl.

The steering, never really heavy except when loaded up with understeer, is smooth and accurate; the roadholding is predictable, if not prodigious.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

The Ferrari 166/195S Inter was restored during ex-FBI agent Otto Bowden’s 37-year ownership

For me, the driving position is a good compromise, blending comfort with the need to use muscle to steer and stop the car.

Yet the Vignale 166/195 is not hefty to drive and the controls – steering, brakes and clutch – are set up to strike a balance between weight and progressive feel.

Corner ambitiously and your only real problem is the plush but unsupportive seats, which were styled for tycoons rather than wannabe racers and tend to accentuate the modest lean.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

The intakes in the rear wings are typical of Vignale’s detailing

If there is nothing suave or sophisticated about the car’s handling or roadholding capabilities, and certainly not the ride, the chassis behaviour is also more than the sum of its specification.

This one-off cabriolet has an honest and forgiving character, with a certain heft and predictability that reminds you how closely related it is to the true racing Ferraris of its time, a husky, red-blooded feel straddling that blurred line between the needs of Ferrari’s road and competition customers.

Images: Tim Scott

Thanks to: Fiskens


Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 166/195S Inter: returned to sender

Ferrari 166/195 Inter

  • Sold/number built 1950-’51/1
  • Construction steel chassis, aluminium body over tubular frame
  • Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 2341cc V12, triple Weber 36DCF carburettors
  • Max power 170bhp @ 7000rpm
  • Max torque 152lb ft @ 5250rpm
  • Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, transverse leaf spring rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, anti-roll bar; Houdaille lever-arm dampers f/r
  • Steering worm and sector
  • Brakes drums
  • Length 13ft 4in (4070mm)
  • Width 5ft 3¾in (1620mm)
  • Height 4ft 4¾in (1340mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 4½in (2250mm)
  • Weight 2336lb (1060kg)
  • Mpg 18
  • 0-60mph 8 secs
  • Top speed 120mph

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