The guy who started America’s Ferrari craze

Chris Roush

Volume 46 Issue 7

Mar 27, 2021

We mourn the loss of Richard F. Merritt. Ferrari in America wouldn't be the same without his foresight.

    It is with great sadness I report the passing of Richard F. Merritt. Dick Merritt was one of the founding members of the Ferrari Club of America. His love of racing cars and of Ferraris in particular made it possible for us to enjoy the hobby we have today.

 

    If you own a Ferrari or have ever owned a Ferrari, you should give a debit of gratitude to Merritt’s foresight.

 

    He saved many cars and engines from destruction at a time when an old Ferrari was just an old car.

 

    For a marque to have a following there must be collectors. To have collectors, a reason to collect must be created.

 

    Dick Merritt teamed up with Warren Fitzgerald  to create the first Ferrari bible. Ferrari, The Sports and Gran Turismo Cars was created in 1968 when Ferrari was only twenty years new. Together they sorted through the various models Ferrari had created in those short years and described the features of each one.

 

    It was the first book given to me when I started at FAF and is still the first book I recommend to anyone wanting to learn about Ferrari history and cars. Good history books withstand the test of time.

 

    It is difficult to add anything to Chris Roush’s article we ran in the April 2014 issue of the FML.

 

    Our sympathies go out to Dick’s widow Elizabeth, his son Kendall and his family. JW

 


    Blame Dick Merritt for American gearhead’s obsession with Ferraris.

 

    It was the thirty-something Merritt who in the early 1960s came up with a strategy to drum up interest in what was then a small, exotic car maker in northern Italy few had ever heard of or cared about.

 

    His plan? First, help start a club devoted to Ferraris. Merritt looked at the growing Bugatti organization in the States as a model. Second, get a book published about Ferraris to help spread the word. And third, help start collecting Ferraris, and get others to start collecting Ferraris, to create a sense of their value among other car aficionados.

 

    “I thought Ferrari’s got everything that Bugatti’s got,” said Merritt in a recent interview with the Ferrari Market Letter. “You’ve got the eccentric patron at the top. You have this artisan factory that turns out race cars. And Bugatti had a club and a book and put on events for members. It seemed to me that if we got a book and a club going, and if we got collectors – there was no one collecting Ferraris at this time – then we could build something.”

 

    Fifty years later, the Ferrari Club of America, which Merritt helped found, has more than 5,000 members. In the wake of “Ferrari: The Sports and Gran Turismo Cars,” which Merritt co-wrote along with Warren Fitzgerald in 1968, there are now hundreds of Ferrari books. And Ferrari collectors exist in virtually every major developed country in the world, with some collections in the United States totaling in the dozens of cars.

 

 

    For Merritt, who is now in his 80s but has worked for the Department of Transportation for more than 30 years overseeing a group tasked with monitoring vehicle imports coming into the country to assure they conform to safety standards, Ferraris became a way of life. He has owned four dozen in his life, including many famous early Ferraris. He can tell callers the history of specific old Ferraris and when he first saw them.

 

    Interestingly, Merritt currently owns no Ferraris, but does own a rare Bizzarrini Corsa. “I can’t afford the Ferraris I used to own,” he said. “I can’t afford any of them. What’s the point? I don’t have time to use them. I am comfortable with life.”

 

    Born in Iowa in 1931, Merritt moved to Colorado, and he graduated from Boulder High School in 1949. After working for a Ford dealer for a year as a mechanic, Merritt joined the Colorado National Guard as a jeep mechanic as a way to stay out of the Korean War and was soon sent to Alaska. “On those long and cold winter nights, I would read Hot Rod, Road & Track and other car magazines,” he said. “That kept me going.”

 

    After his active duty was completed Merritt returned to Colorado and resumed his studies in business at the University of Colorado and started hanging out with the few other sports car nuts in Boulder. The first Ferrari he saw and heard was S/N 0140 A, a 340 America Vignale Spyder. The first Ferrari he rode in was S/N 0050 M, a 166 MM Barchetta renumbered by the factory from S/N 0308 M and was owned by a Denver postman by the name of Danny Collins. “Danny drove it racing a lot in Colorado and surrounding states,” said Merritt. “I remember seeing him racing it at Steamboat Springs. He came to Boulder one day and gave us 10-minute rides. That was the car that hooked me on Ferraris.”

 

    Merritt would later find the engine for the car in St. Louis, one of the 21 Ferrari engines he once stored in the basement of his small home in Royal Oak, Mich.

 

    Merritt graduated from college in 1956 and, driving a 1953 220 Mercedes, moved to Dearborn, Mich., for a job with the Ford Motor Co. in its new Edsel division, making $425 a month. He immediately became frustrated with the lack of technological innovation in the Edsel, but spent his weekends driving around Detroit finding other sports car nuts.

 

    It was not long after starting work at Ford that Merritt purchased his first Ferrari, S/N 0253 EU, a 212 Inter Barchetta Touring that had been owned by Henry Ford II, who used it and other sports cars to examine what other car makers were producing. Merritt purchased the car for $3,700 and fully financed it with a loan from the Ford credit union, telling them Henry Ford had paid $12,000 for it when it was new.

 

    “That car got me through the Edsel days,” said Merritt. “I would come home at night discouraged and bitter.”

 

    Without telling his bosses at Ford, Merritt began interviewing for a job at General Motors Co. in its styling department, but an agreement between Detroit’s automakers prevented him from working at the other manufacturer for a year. So Merritt agreed to go back to Boulder and get his master’s degree and return a year later for the GM position.

 

    Merritt tried to sell the Ferrari in Detroit and found no takers. So he trailered it through snow and ice back to Colorado and advertised it in the Denver Post. Soon, he sold it for a $1,000 profit. Merritt also struck up a partnership with fellow student Bill Rudd, buying and selling Ferraris such as S/N 0150 A, a 340 America Ghia Coupe that had raced in the Carrera Panamerica.

 

    Merritt returned to Detroit in 1959 to work for General Motors, and in the early 1960s, he and seven other Ferrari fans such as Larry Nicklin began talks to organize what became the Ferrari Club of America. Merritt organized the first annual meeting in Detroit in 1964 and became its second president in 1966.

 

    “My wife at the time nagged me constantly,” remembered Merritt. “It was not an easy thing for me. She was constantly moaning and groaning about this Ferrari Club thing. The Club barely survived these early days. Everybody said old Ferraris wouldn’t amount to anything. It was Bugattis that were the real collectible.”

 

    Part of Merritt’s reasoning for helping create the club was to save old Ferraris from being scrapped or turned into hot rods with Chevy engines. Merritt left GM after he was transferred to a job he didn’t like, and he took the $5,000 he received from selling his GM stock and in 1965 went to Los Angeles, where he bought 10 Ferrari engines. “I had a Ferrari junkyard, basically,” said Merritt, who was selling Volkswagens part-time after leaving GM. “I cultivated the primary sources in Italy for Ferrari parts. They were frighteningly cheap if you went to the original supplier.”

 

    Enzo Ferrari, however, was impressed with the club’s activities. In early 1968, he wrote a letter to Merritt that stated, in part:

 

    “I have been informed by my collaborators of the assiduous and continuous propaganda and cooperation made by the members of your Club in the U.S. This increases my consideration for your Organization and I wish herewith to express my personal gratification for your initiative.”

 

    With the club barely off the ground, Merritt began cultivating Ferrari collectors. His first was Carl Bross, who lived in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham. Merritt found one of the first Grand Prix Ferraris, S/N 006C, in San Diego, and purchased it for himself for $1,200. Bross threatened to sue Merritt, saying the car was his, thus ending their business relationship.

 

    Merritt later sold the car for $30,000 to Pierre Bardinon, the first serious Ferrari collector, who made it one of the prized pieces of his Ferrari collection in France. By this time, other Ferrari collectors had begun to appear on the landscape, such as Los Angeles lawyer Ed Niles, a good friend.

 

    In 1965, Merritt visited Road & Track in an attempt to convince them that a Ferrari book would have widespread appeal. Warren Fitzgerald, who was working with Merritt at General Motors, was now writing classic car stories for the magazine, and the two pals eventually convinced publishers Elaine and John Bond to take on the book project. It helped that the Bonds owned a 166 Barchetta and a 166 Coupe.

 

    Fitzgerald and Merritt broke the first edition of the book into 12 chapters, putting themselves on a schedule of writing one chapter a month. Merritt hand wrote two of the chapters, and still has the drafts. The book was published in 1968 and went through four editions, becoming the “bible” for anyone who wanted to know anything about the early Ferraris.

 

 

    Bardinon later told Merritt that he spent many nights reading the book in bed. When Merritt said he should apologize to his wife, Bardinon replied in his thick French accent, “First ze wife, zen ze book.” Said Merritt: “That’s probably the greatest compliment I have ever had. A lot of wives have told me, ‘damn you Merritt and your damn book.’”

 

    What the book did was provide the first definitive reference on the early Ferraris. Interestingly, Fitzgerald and Merritt collected much of the information about the cars after Road & Track asked Ferrari owners to send in information and photos of their cars.

 

    “Now, there’s books on everything related to Ferrari,” said Merritt. “All of these guys, like pal Gerald Roush, who had expertise in a certain Ferrari, now there were publishers who wanted to do them. I can’t buy all of the Ferrari books now that come out.”

 

    The late 1960s, however, were a troubled time for the Ferrari market in the United States. In 1968, the federal government began to require more safety and smog features in cars, both domestic and foreign. Merritt stopped importing and selling Ferraris, fearing that the new regulations would make it more difficult to get them into the country.

 

    Among the Ferraris that Merritt has owned are some famous models, such as the 250 GT SWB “Breadvan” S/N 2819 GT, which he purchased from a friend of Niles. The best Ferrari he owned, according to Merritt, was a 250 LM, S/N 5995, that was silver and once owned by Count Volpi. “I had a lot of fun with those old dogs,” said Merritt. “Some of them didn’t run. Some of them did.”

 

 

    Merritt moved to Washington in 1976 to lobby Congress about gasohol (10 percent ethanol) on behalf of the state of Nebraska. In 1983, he moved to the Department of Transportation, where he is now the main gatekeeper for the race cars, show cars, test cars, and development cars that want to enter the United States. “I’m the only person in Washington, in the government, that knows diddly poo about exotic cars,” said Merritt proudly. “So it is kind of a special position.”

 

    Merritt works 32 hours a week and collects Social Security. He has remarried to a Swiss citizen. He says he has no debt, but he enjoys his job. “It’s not work when you don’t have to do it,” he said. He recently fielded a request from someone who wanted to bring one of the last Volkswagen minivans, built in Mexico, into the United States. “I told him no,” said Merritt.

 

    Despite all of this knowledge about the Ferraris from the 1950s and 1960s, Merritt says he can’t understand the current prices being paid. He once purchased a 250 GT0 for $8,000 that now would probably sell for more than $40 million. (At the time of that purchase, Merritt’s wife told him he was crazy to spend that much money.) Another Ferrari he once owned was auctioned last year for more than $12 million. Another one sold for $25 million.

 

    But he clearly remembers the spirited ride he gave to a female friend in 1957 in the Henry Ford II Ferrari. After they had driven for some time, the woman looked at Merritt in the eye and said, “Let’s don’t go back. Let’s just keep going” and put her head on his arm.

 

    Merritt can remember exactly what went through his mind right after her comment. “Holy moley,” he thought. “These cars really do affect people, not just me.”

 


Dick Merritt Remembrances

 

    Nearly sixty years ago I “met” Dick Merritt by way of the telephone and written letter.  Our common interest was Italian cars, particularly Ferrari. About 1964 Dick called and said he was coming to California to look at a 166 for a client and he wanted to meet in person and go together to look at the car. 

 

    Dick shows up at my house and we immediately had a close and positive relationship. While we both agreed “old” Ferraris were a good investment for the future. The changes far exceeded our widest delusions.

 

    Like Fred and me, Dick couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy a forlorn old Ferrari engine or gearbox, or even an entire car. He truly changed the Ferrari world. Each of us who love the cars, and the history that goes with them, owe him our appreciation and respect.

 

    My wife, Carol, son Brooke, and myself offer our thanks to Dick’s family for sharing him with us for so many wonderful and productive years.        Charles Betz


   

    Dick was our neighbor in Lake Worth, Florida, when we bought our first house in 1972.  I fondly remember the Rosso Rubino 275 GTB in his driveway, and I even drove it home from a car show once...my first time behind the wheel of a Ferrari!

 

    We sat on his front porch often, with a beer and stories to tell.  The best one was - one day Dick looked at me and said, “Do you have any extra money?”  I replied, not much, what do have in mind?  He told me he knew where there was a Series I GTO, and thought it could be had for $90,000...did I want to go halves?  I said, Dick, I really wish I had an extra $9,000, much less $90,000!

 

    We cherish the signed book he gave us, and all the Ferrari stories (and various other subjects) we shared.  I will always have fond memories.          Bill & Pat Locke


 

    Dick Merritt was truly an icon, one-of-a-kind.  When I joined the Ferrari Club of America in 1966 he was one of the first people I met, and we became fast friends -- a friendship that has lasted 55 years.

 

    So many memories, but the most recent one happened in 2015 when he handed me my winning trophy at Mar-a-Lago with the comment “It”s about time the 250 GTE got recognized.”  The book he wrote with Warren Fitzgerald was a monumental work when published and still is.  I regularly refer to it today when researching an old Ferrari.

 

    Not only was he responsible for founding the Ferrari Club of America, he actively and passionately promoted the Club and its activities thereby recruiting many new members. Dick Merritt was one of my Ferrari heroes from the first time we met, and always will be.            Alan Boe


 

    I was introduced to Dick by Robbie Box.  He suggested, when we attended the 1973 FCA Annual Meet in Grosse Pointe Farms, MI, we should arrange to meet with Dick and show him the materials and copy I had prepared, ostensibly for an article about the 250 Californias.

 

    My original thought was to have it published as an article in The Prancing Horse.  Within s very short, few minutes, Dick blurted out, “An article?  Hell no!  Your materials are just too great!  You need to write a book.” Well, as they say, the rest is history.

 

    For me, the greatest benefit of owning a Ferrari has been the people you meet -- most of them turn out to be lifelong friends.  Dick is a stellar example of that benefit and privilege. The cars were and are great; however, it has been the people who’ve really turned out to be the most very special consequence.                George Carrick