Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

| 13 Aug 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

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The fabled Mille Miglia was always an Italian preserve, with only the German teams ever seriously threatening the locals over the 24 events.

From 1948, Ferrari was in control but a surprise entry from Mercedes-Benz in ’52 no doubt caused concern.

It’s easy to imagine the heated discussions at Maranello when scoop photos appeared of a stunning coupé being testing at the old Solitude circuit.

When the Automobile Club Brescia received the details of four W194 lightweight streamliners for the early May event, a call was no doubt anxiously made to Enzo to relay the news.

Even 1931 Mille Miglia winner Rudi Caracciola was back for the challenge. Something drastic was needed to take on the German sortie to the Latin heartland.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

The pressure was on for Ferrari, and work began on a new Spider for Piero Taruffi during the spring.

It was to be powered by the flagship Grand Prix motor, the 4.1-litre single-cam-per-bank ‘Long Block’ V12 designed by Aurelio Lampredi.

To take the 320bhp powerhouse, a bespoke competizione chassis was built, featuring twin-leaf-spring rear suspension.

Barely had the frame been trucked to Vignale’s Via Cigliano premises in Turin when stories filtered through that Mercedes had been recceing the route with two saloons.

A sleek silver GT was later spotted testing between Brescia and Rome, its passenger making notes for the trickier sections.

The ultra-organised Germans were clearly determined to win, particularly Karl Kling who seemed undeterred by his dramatic shunt during practice.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

Back at Maranello, the 340 America Spider was still unfinished and, with just days to go before the equipe left for Brescia, Taruffi still hadn’t tested the new car.

Scrutineering was a sea of red, with 27 Ferraris among the 501 starters. All eyes were on the ‘Silver Fox’ in number 614, but outsiders had their money on Giovanni Bracco – a wealthy Biella industrialist – who’d been drafted in (some say he hired the Ferrari) for the injured Alberto Ascari, to drive a 250S Coupé with a Lampredi-tuned 3-litre engine.

News of the Germans’ arrival swept through Brescia, with the officials taking four hours to debate the legality of the flip-up doors before the Mercedes quartet was allowed to compete.

The sunny mood couldn’t have been more different when the first Alfa Matta jeep set out at midnight for the treacherous wet run to Rome.

Fans had to wait another six hours before the fastest contenders – including the Mercedes and Ferraris – roared away at first light from the new ramp platform start.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

Locals packed the route or sat by radios in cafés for updates. Cheers were heard across Italy after reports that Bracco led Kling by 5½ mins at the first time control in Ravenna, with Taruffi taking it cautiously in seventh.

Bracco was clearly pushing hard right from the go but at a cost to his tyres. After several stops for fresh rubber, he arrived at L’Aquila in fifth with the Mercedes 13½ mins ahead.

Down the long straights along the Adriatic coast, Kling had extended his advantage with a phenomenal 93mph average speed despite the rain. Taruffi was catching, though, and had only Eugenio Castellotti’s 225 Sport between him and the leader.

By the time they reached Rome, Taruffi had moved up to second with the coupés of a revived Bracco and Paulo Marzotto close behind.

After a considered start, the ‘Silver Fox’ was getting into his stride, but Kling was still a safe 6 mins 17 secs clear of his experienced rival.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

“I was not first but was this an omen?” thought Taruffi at the time. “The first to reach Rome does not win the race.” After the frustrations of previous events, the chance of victory finally felt within his grasp.

“The car was perfect,” Taruffi said afterwards. “I knew the roads. I liked the route. Fast corners until Bolsena, the Radicofani climb, plus the twists and turns of San Quirico d’Orcia.”

As he explored the mighty power of the V12, Taruffi’s counter-offensive came good and he progressively caught Kling. Over the rolling Tuscany hills of the Via Cassia, the Ferrari went ahead and, as the 340 America roared into Siena, Lampredi was waiting in the service area to relate his top position.

“I didn’t even get out of the car and left with confidence,” said Taruffi, but his luck ran out a few miles outside the historic town.

Roaring over a crest near Castellina in Chianti, the Ferrari’s lurid flight landed with a crash: “I heard a bang when I was going over a rise in the road. Something broke in the transmission, the second with a Ferrari on the Mille Miglia.”

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

Only after reading the papers the next day did Taruffi learn of the fantastic chase by teammate Bracco, whose 250S reeled in Kling.

He took back three minutes between Siena and Florence, and by Bologna he’d shaved a mighty six more.

In the pouring rain, the Italian hillclimb champion mustered all of his bravery for the determined charge to catch the silver titan, and by Bologna he led the volatile Kling.

Story has it that his performance was fortified by swigs of brandy between cigarettes as he pushed on at breakneck pace, but Bracco dismissed such gossip.

“When I reached Brescia, my throat was dry,” he insisted. “It was more than 12 hours since I had drunk a drop.” When it was officially announced that Bracco had won by 4 mins 27 secs, the huge crowd went mad, while his co-pilot Alfonso Rolfo fainted from a mixture of exhaustion and emotion.

‘The show of enthusiasm was indescribable,’ recalled Taruffi in Giannino Marzotto’s book Red Arrows.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

His 340 Spider went back to the factory where the transaxle was swiftly repaired, and two weeks later it was heading over the Alps through Switzerland for the supporting sports car race at the Bern GP, where it would again face the Stuttgart sensations.

The 340’s full-width ’screen had been replaced by a single wraparound cowl, plus a distinctive white V-stripe had been painted on the bonnet and around the grille for Willy Peter Daetwyler.

The versatile Swiss ace was experienced on tracks and climbs with a range of machinery including Alfa sports cars.

Mysteriously, the Mercedes were then painted green, blue, wine red and silver to identify their drivers.

Again Kling was the quickest of the German hotshoes, but Daetwyler exploited the superior power of the Ferrari around the beautiful and dangerous 4.5-mile road circuit. The V12 sounded mighty through the forests of Bremgarten as he pushed to the limit to take pole.

But Caracciola and Kling both out-accelerated the Ferrari at the start on the rough pavé and Daetwyler had retired with transaxle problems before the lap was over.

Caracciola was even less lucky. The 51-year old lost control and hit a tree head-on after a brake problem.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

Four weeks later, the 340 America ‘0196A’ was prepared to take on the Mercedes coupés for the third and final time.

Painted French blue, it was entered for Louis Rosier and teammate Maurice Trintignant for the most famous enduro of all, the 20th Le Mans 24 Hours.

Modifications included the removal of the special doppia balestra rear springs, plus extra vents to cool the rear brakes and transaxle.

Again 0196A proved quick in practice and, at the start, when the brutish Cunningham C4 coupe led the vast 57-car grid, Maranello’s exotics quickly overwhelmed the American team while Mercedes played a clever waiting game.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

First André Simon’s 340 America berlinetta and then Alberto Ascari in the Mille Miglia-winning 250S set an unrealistic sprint pace.

The GP star posted fastest lap but Ascari was in the pits with clutch issues by the sixth tour. Rosier and Trintignant lasted longer until 0196A’s clutch also failed at about 10pm.

Of the other thirsty Ferrari 340 Americas, Luigi Chinetti was disqualified for refuelling too early while Simon and Lucien Vincent were the sole survivors, fighting back from 19th place to fifth.

After a second defeat by Mercedes-Benz, Enzo would have to wait two more years before he won Le Mans with the magnificent 375 Plus, powered by the final development of Lampredi’s ‘Long Block’ V12.

Two weeks later, 0196A was repainted red and hastily readied for the Targa Florio, but a disappointed Bracco retired on the second lap with more gearbox problems.

The transaxle just couldn’t take the power or sustain constant gearchanging around the tortuous Sicilian course. The event was dominated by Lancia, with Felice Bonetto heading a 1-2-3 for the Blue Shield.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

Competition Ferraris were always in demand by wealthy Italian privateers, and by July the three-month-old works Spider 0196A had been bought by Piero Scotti of Florence.

For the rest of ’52, Scotti confirmed the pace of his exclusive acquisition with a succession of fastest times on Italian climbs such as the Bologna-Raticosa event.

Other premier outings included the Coppa Acerbo and the Bari Grand Prix before the 340 America was sold (or maybe loaned by the factory) to Camillo Luglio in Genoa.

The Spider remained competitive with Luglio and Bracco, before it went back to Vignale to be turned into a berlinetta with a spare body used on a competition DB3.

This was probably to make the car more saleable, as it proved when American Joseph Ricketts shipped 0196A to Long Beach, California.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

He enjoyed the 340 as a road car, roaring around LA and on occasional trips to race meetings.

Just picture it blasting by American cruisers on Route 10 when Ricketts spectated at Palm Springs.

He kept the old Ferrari for six years before it moved to the Chicago area where, in ’77, it ended up with Joe Marchetti.

During the ’80s, it appeared in Canada, where 0196A was modified with a Mercedes ’box and disc brakes.

Finally, in ’96, a British owner had it turned back into a Spider. After short time with Hugh Taylor, Lord Bamford, who had focused on early Ferrari V12s, acquired the tired coupé.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

The car was dispatched to marque expert DK Engineering, where David Cottingham’s team carefully removed the coachwork.

The chassis, bulkhead and body subframe were found to be original, and perfect as underpinnings for a recreation of 0196A’s first incarnation.

The factory matching-number engine was rebuilt, and on the dyno delivered a stonking 320bhp at 6000rpm.

The rebuild was completed in late 2000 and, prompted by the Spider’s rich history, Bamford entered the Mille Miglia Storico.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

The V12’s riotous exhaust sounded fantastic on the narrow streets of Brescia as Cottingham delivered 0196A to scrutineering in the famous Piazza della Vittoria, 48 years after the car’s exciting debut.

Bamford kept 0196A for six years, entering it for many prestigious events. Willie Green tamed it down the Corkscrew at the 2004 Monterey Historic Races, while Bamford’s son Jo retraced Rosier’s wheeltracks at the Le Mans Classic in ’06.

Bamford also ran the car at the 2006 Goodwood Revival before selling it to Michael Willms, who had the white V-stripe reinstated.

Five years later, the glorious roadster was acquired by German enthusiast Michael Stehle, a regular on the Mille Miglia Storico who’d long wanted to enter a Ferrari V12 on his favourite event.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes
Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

A perfectionist about authenticity, Stehle entrusted the 340 to Swiss specialist Philippe Rochat. As well as preparing the Ferrari, Rochat detailed the car.

It was resprayed a darker red, while the evocative 614 numbers and cavallino rampante shields were hand-painted on the Giovanni Michelotti-styled body.

Stehle ran 0196A three times on the Storico, including 2013 with his son Marlon as co-driver.

At scrutineering in Brescia, history repeated itself when the ex-Taruffi Spider was parked next to one of the very W194 team cars it raced against in 1952.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

“There’s no event like the Mille Miglia,” says Stehle. “The atmosphere is really special. There is a unique harmony around Italy and it feels like a big party. For me, you have to be in an open car to get the full effect, and the 340 America is close to the ultimate experience.

“When you stop for a coffee, the locals gather and enthuse about the car, but are always respectful. They never let me pay for the drinks when we leave. There are so many highlights, but driving around Rome on a warm summer night with that incredible V12 sound was magical.

“I have no connection with modern Ferraris, though I love the cars from the early ’50s. The 340 has remarkable power, but it’s the smooth torque from 2000-4500rpm that impresses me. It sounds fantastic at 100mph on the autostrada, but you feel vulnerable. We took out the roll bar and belts because I wanted the authentic experience.

“The steering is nicely weighted and responsive, but the brakes need respect. I remember getting into a Porsche Panamera afterwards, and thinking ‘this car feels really underpowered’. The 340’s gearchange is also better than any Aston or Jaguar I’ve driven.”

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

Stehle has acquired a 375MM and, after a trio of Storicos and three Gran Premio Nuvolaris with 0196A, he can’t justify owning both.

So the ex-Scuderia Ferrari 340 America Spider will head back across the Atlantic for auction with Bonhams at Scottsdale on 28 January.

I hope the next owner drives it as much as Stehle because early Ferraris are getting scarce on the Storico, with too many now locked away as investments.

“I love the history of these early Ferraris,” explains Stehle, “and taking them back to Italy is always an honour. Brunello is a favourite wine so it just doesn’t get better than driving through the Tuscany region with my wife as passenger. To have experiences like that is very lucky.”

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari 340 America: built to beat Mercedes

With no hesitation about taking the valuable 340 America out for a spirited run on a freezing winter day, it’s refreshing to hear his rich memories.

“When my wife first heard that engine start, she said ‘you have to buy this car’,” recalls Stehle as this magnificent V12 cools and ticks in the low sun. Days later, I could still hear its wild exhaust note.

There’s nothing quite like the noise of a big-bore Lampredi Blocco Lungo.

Images: Tony Baker

This was originally in our February 2017 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication


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