Cut to the chase: Ferrari 250GT California Spider visits the West End

| 15 Jun 2017

Open sports cars don’t come any more glamorous than the sublime Ferrari 250GT California Spider. Mick Walsh takes a blonde beauty for a dream drive into the West End

Beautiful machines are even more alluring at night: none more so than Ferrari’s most exotic road car, the fabulously glamorous 250GT California. Highlighted by street lamps and sparkling under the Albert Bridge illumination, this lithe 1958 V12-powered Spider has even more magnetism as its rests in a moody, cobbled Thames-side street in Chelsea. Borrani wheels shimmer from passing headlights while its lustrous wine paint finish gets ever deeper and richer. With its long, lean bonnet, steeply raked ’screen and muscular rear wing line, the California is both refined and purposeful. Its mesmeric stance exudes glamour like no other roadster. No surprise that they were driven by the most stylish of men, including pin-up director Roger Vadim and French movie idol Alain Delon. 

Enough drooling over its fabulous form. Time to see if this 50-year-old legend lives up to its looks from the driving seat. Press the door button to pop up the flush slender handle, pull open the long, light door, slip on to the luxurious tan leather seat and the first surprise dawns. With the seat pushed back to its rearmost slot, this is a tight cockpit even for my short frame. The deep seat is superbly comfortable and supportive but the close, upright pedal position is initially awkward. 

The dash layout – with Veglia speedo and rev counter set in a crackle-black metal binnacle – has a stripped-down competition aura. Both instruments are clearly visible through the three-spoke Nardi wheel, while the rest of the dials line up to the right, just like in the 250GT Tour de France. At least the tunnel is trimmed. 

Prime the throttle, turn the key and push it in to start. The pumps tick, the starter churns and the triple-carb Colombo V12 readily rouses with a symphonic roar. Immediately, the mechanical descant up front is drowned by a glorious growl from the exhausts behind.

A great car should have exceptional steering, and from the off the Spider’s ZF worm-and-sector set-up is as good as it gets. The action from the slim wood rim is beautifully fluid and precise. Even at slow speeds the weighting is smooth and light, but it just gets sweeter with speed. 

Initially, the driving impressions of the car are hard to grasp. With a beautiful blonde as a passenger and the immediate concerns of driving a multi-million-pound dream machine in the thick of impatient traffic, my brain struggles to take it all in. Thankfully, the drum brakes feel up to the task while others are distracted by the Ferrari and passenger Skye’s obvious charms.

Finally, at gone midnight and heading home from the West End on near-deserted roundabouts, I get the chance to stretch the engine and push the chassis harder. With a trailing throttle into the apex there’s a touch of understeer as that shapely snout pushes out but, with power on, the car builds to progressive oversteer. Here again that wonderfully informative steering, matched with the V12’s eager response, is hugely rewarding as you roar out of a corner. Only then does the chassis reveal its ’50s design as you feel the body flex and live rear axle hop over bumps. Owners have spun early Californias after pushing them harder than I dare, but I have no intention of discovering those sudden limits. 

Like the car’s beguiling looks, its exhaust note is enhanced in the darkness. Under one walled underpass, I slot down to third and gun the motor to 6000rpm. With Weber throats wide open, the rear squats and the California fires into the neon-stripped tunnel accompanied by that addictive yowl. Immediately those Riviera playboy fantasies are blown away and you’re Richie Ginther chasing Porsche RSKs down the Sebring runway at night. With 0-60mph taking around 7 secs and a top speed of 135mph, the California can hold its own with most moderns. 

The gearbox also makes the challenge easier away from the lights. Despite its long action, the tall lever snicks sublimely through the gate with a superb precision-engineered movement. The strong central springing gives you instant confirmation of which gear you’re slotting into. 

Out on the Westway – blasting along in top but watching keenly for speed cameras – the California’s cockpit is surprisingly snug. With windows raised, feeble heater on full and collar turned up on a warm leather coat, there’s no need to stop and struggle with the tricky hood. The steep ’screen offers great vision and sweeps the cold air over the cabin. I could have driven on for hours, heading for that dream daybreak. There I’d stop to watch the rising sun kiss and highlight that seductive Scaglietti form. Frustratingly, the journey’s end is nothing so romantic – a deserted industrial warehouse where we push it away into secure storage. As the door bolts snap firmly into place, I wonder if the guard can resist sitting in the Ferrari during the long night. 

This California – chassis 0923 GT – is the third built and was completed in July 1958 before delivery to the sunshine state. Its history isn’t known prior to Don Hampton’s ownership in the early ’60s, but you like to think that it roared up Highway 1 to Big Sur and Monterey when factory fresh. Later owners included Constantine Voyagis and Marshal Mathews before it sold to the UK in 1998 for $525,000. In recent years ‘0923’ has starred at the Louis Vuitton Concours and the Cartier Style et Luxe at Goodwood. 

The California concept was the brainchild of John von Neumann, the Viennese-born founder of Ferrari Representatives. The West Coast dealer and racer transformed European car imports with his successful Porsche and VW franchises. Frustrated by his service from Ferrari, he set up an impressive facility at 1767 North Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. The spacious works were always packed with Italian exotics, with rows of 250GTs and Lancia Aurelia Spiders. Few were better placed to access the exotic car market than von Neumann. Movie stars and millionaire playboys were regular visitors to his garage and pit area at the races. When not competing, von Neumann enlisted America’s fastest aces – including his own service manager Richie Ginther and Phil Hill – who vividly recalled the pit-lane distractions. “The place was full of statuesque blonde Gabors,” said ’61 World Champ Hill. Famous customers included James Dean and William Holden.

As a racer himself, von Neumann was convinced Ferrari needed a high-performance soft-top and his idea of slicing the top off the 250GT Tour de France was fully supported by Luigi Chinetti, the East Coast-based importer who was highly influential at Maranello. The importance of the American market was a key factor, and Enzo was quickly convinced that the exclusive Cabriolet needed a faster and sexier stablemate. With its plush cabin, no enthusiast would think of racing the Pinin-farina-built roadster, so von Neumann and Chinetti demanded a road-racer – closer to the spirit of early-’50s Spiders – that could be driven to SCCA meetings, raced, and driven home. 

Taking the highly successful 250GT Tour de France as its base, the first series of Spiders was built around the Tipo 508C chassis. This simple, rigid and rugged tubular design initially came in 2591mm long-wheelbase configuration. Fitted with the Tipo 128C single-overhead-camshaft-per-bank 240bhp V12, the new lighter model was guaranteed spectacular performance. As with all bespoke Ferraris, the specification was down to the customer and few of the limited production were identical. Whether you planned to cruise to the studio or compete at Sebring, a multitude of options was available. 

To style the new Spider, Enzo turned to his favourite carrozzeria Pininfarina, but, because the Turin operation was already overstretched, the project was given over to Scaglietti at Modena. Unlike the ever-expanding production facility at Pininfarina, Scaglietti still operated as a traditional coachbuilder, mostly specialising in gorgeous race-car bodywork. “I style by eyes alone, not making even the most rudimentary of sketches,” claimed the brilliant artisan.

One glance at the Spider’s flowing form and you can see the clear origins of the Tour de France coupé, yet Scaglietti added his own inspired details to give the new model its dramatic character. From the man who created the legendary Testa Rossa and GTO, you expect nothing less than brilliance, but the masterly way in which he combined aggressive presence and exquisite form was perfect. From the faired-in lights down the sleek bonnet to the haunched rear wings, the California immediately made the more expensive 250GT Cabrio look conservative and over-dressed. The perfect touch was the sloping ’screen, a pure wraparound frame devoid of quarterlights and visors to enhance the Spider’s high-performance aura. Even with the taut hood erected, the lines still looked racy and romantic. Surprisingly, the bodywork was steel, save for the doors, bonnet and bootlid, which were fabricated in aluminium. In later years, restorers would report how crudely the bodies were constructed, particularly the door frames. 

In keeping with the Spider’s competition character, fittings were light and restrained. No Ferrari cockpit would be complete without the signature Nardi wheel or leather seats, but the hood had no lining. Early versions even had black rubber mats but, as mentioned, orders were very much tailored to the customer. 

To respect the new model’s West Coast origins and its target market, the Spider was christened the California. The prototype (chassis 0769 GT) was completed by Scaglietti in late 1957, but it took a further six months to develop the car before Enzo was satisfied that it was ready for production. In full road trim, the Spider weighed 220lb (100kg) more than its Berlinetta brother. The prototype was sold to George Arents, a business partner of Luigi Chinetti who tested and raced at events on the East Coast. Back in Italy, the first seven production Spiders trickled out of Scaglietti, but it wasn’t until December that the new model was given its formal debut. 

Not long into production of the long-wheelbase California, revisions were made to keep pace with developments at Ferrari. Upgrades included the Type 508D engine, with strengthened crankshaft and conrods, while the chassis was revised for extra rigidity with relocated spring mounts and extra bracing. Arents had been highly critical of the California’s handling. 

At Ferrari’s annual press conference in December ’58, the 250 California made its official entrance in the form of a silver Spider with revised open headlights in place of the now ultra-desirable cowls. Ordered by von Neumann, chassis 1085 GT was the eighth built, and special features – including external fuel filler – signalled his racing aspirations. Labelled the LWB Competizione, it was the first of nine racing models made with all-aluminium bodies. Under the bonnet was a high-compression motor with hot Weber 40s, ‘130’ racing cams and competition air filter, all of which boosted power to 260bhp. The car was immediately shipped to America where the Hollywood-based team prepared it for the Sebring 12 Hours to take on the Aston Martin DB4GTs in the Grand Touring class. Later LWB Competiziones were fitted with the Tipo 128F and 168 engines that featured 12-port heads with outside plug positions.

Further options were announced early in ’59. First Scaglietti produced a stylish glassfibre hard-top that few owners ordered. More crucial was the fitting of Dunlop disc brakes. Bizarrely, to get Ferrari Classiche authentification, the drums are now being refitted on early cars. 

Throughout production of the 50 LWB Californias (counting the prototype), there were also subtle changes to the body. Scaglietti’s craftsmen remodelled the rear wings during ’59 with a less-pronounced haunch while the tail-lights were repositioned at an angle. Late in the series, three road cars were ordered with the Tipo 128F ‘outside plug’ motors. Production continued until spring 1960, when a new California Spider – based on the shorter and stiffer Type 539 chassis as used in the 250GT SWB Berlinetta – was announced at the Geneva Show. The new model handled more predictably, but its stockier, more aggressive style lacked the lithe, sleek beauty of the first. Opinions are split about the ultimate Spider, but personally I adore the original form. 

Just imagine arriving at a glamorous Riviera party in the late ’50 and lining up with contemporary playboy-style roadsters such as the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, Lancia Aurelia or BMW 507. No modern open Ferrari matches it for cool. Small wonder values are now stratospheric.

We've reproduced this article to celebrate the launch of our special collector's summer issue dedicated exclusively to Ferrari, which goes on sale on 22 June and features an incredible collection of articles paying homage to the Maranello marque. Click here to pre-order your copy – it's the same price as it is in the shops and includes FREE first class postage. 

Sold/number built 1957-’60/49Construction tubular steel chassis and steel body with aluminium doors, bonnet and bootlidEngine all-alloy, 2953cc, single-overhead-camshaft-per-bank 60˚ V12, with two valves per cylinder and wet sump, fed by triple downdraught Weber 36 or 40 DCL carburettorsMax power 240bhp @ 7000rpmMax torque 195bhp @ 5000rpmTransmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels Steering worm and sectorSuspension: front independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, lever-arm dampersrear live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, parallel arms, lever-arm dampersBrakes drums (later series Dunlop discs) Length 14ft 5¼in (4400mm)Width 5ft 5in (1650mm)Height 4ft 7in (1400mm)Weight 2370lb (1075kg)Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2591mm)0-60mph 7.2 secs Top speed 135mphPrice new $12,000

Words: Mick Walsh

Photos: Malcolm Griffiths