We Cast Pearls Before Swine
Volume 46 Issue 4
Feb 14, 2021
Bill Orth reminisces in a 1997 FCA News Bulletin article.
I ran across the following article in the August 1997 FCA News Bulletin. I found it a fascinating look into the past.
Today we view Ferraris at events and concours, shiny and clean with a perfection much better than when they left the factory.
While nobody would appreciate a beat up, rusty, driver if it showed up at, say Cavallino or The Quail, there was a time when many of these same cars we appreciate today in their glory, were once that rusty, used car with deferred maintenance; loved by owners who could not justify spending more than the current worth to restore to perfection.
But it was those same owners who kept these Ferraris running instead of abandoning them to posterity. While today it is easy to question why someone would do heinous things like replacing the engine with an American V-8, we must recognize if they had not, the car may have disappeared forever. JW
In 1919, my dad and his two brothers turned my grandfather’s livery business into an automobile dealership. This was in a rural area in the Catskill Mountains about 100 miles up the Delaware River from New York City.
They had the Ford franchise, and several other makes came and went – Willys-Knight, Oakland and a few others I can’t recall. During that time, it was common for an entrepreneur to start up a new auto marque, build a few examples, maybe more, and then go out of business.
Consequently, there were a number of “orphan” cars chugging around that no longer had any sort of parts support. Naturally, this led to all kinds of imaginative fixes as these cars stripped gears, blew head gaskets, and generally wore out.
Mechanics and/or blacksmiths would cobble up something from another car or tractor to make it last a bit longer, and there was little concern for what was “correct” or what would be acceptable at a concours sixty years later.
These dusty old thoughts came back to me the other day when someone mentioned that no one would ever treat a Ferrari as anything less than the icon it truly is of course, and that the barbarians who work on normal cars should be kept far, far away.
Well, it wasn’t always like that. Other than little coves of sincere enthusiasts sprinkled here and there in bigger metropolitan areas, most Ferrari owners thirty years ago were content to find someone who had moderate skill and a sufficiently open mind to work on anything they knew nothing about.
Older Ferraris depreciated quickly at that time to a level that was affordable by heathens interested in something different. So many less-than-prescribed-in-Maranello procedures took place to keep these cars running.
Ferrari spare parts were available only at a half-dozen places across America in 1965, and FedEx hadn’t been invented yet. That led to making do with what was at hand. Nobody dreamed these cars would be valuable in years to come, so the pragmatic mechanics cut, welded, bent, rewired and scabbed together lots of imagination-riddled repairs.
If the V-12 was fragged, they stuck in a Chevrolet V-8. When that scattered the fragile Italian differential, a Ford rear end could be made to work. You get the idea.
Ever the heretic, I found myself thinking some insight to what went on in those days would be of interest to everyone.
Commonly, the first things to wear out were the tires. The old Pirelli Cinturatos that came on 1960s Ferraris weren’t particularly long-lived and there were few radial choices available then. In a bigger city one could find a Michelin that would work, but it had a whitewall. In other areas, the best choices were domestic bias-ply “wide oval” tires from Goodyear or Firestone, also with white sidewalls, or white letters.
Ed Niles photo 330 GT Michelotti S/N 6109 GT in 1975
Once a choice was made, a tire man would attack the knock-offs with a steel headed hammer, mushrooming the edges and chipping the chrome. Once off the car, the wheels were put on the tire machine of the day that had a vertical spindle to center the wheel and another smaller spike designed to protrude through a wheel lug bolt hole to keep the wheel from turning once leverage was applied.
This spike fitted nicely between the crossed spokes close to the wheel hub, so the man would snug’er down and get out his tire irons. Prying on the aluminum Borrani rim left nice deep gouges, and when the machine began to twist the tire bead off, the pressure bent the spokes held by the spike, cracking off their chrome, too.
Once the new tires were mounted the tire guy would try to pound balance weights onto the rim’s edge creating further damage. By the time the job was done, you had whitewalls peeking out from the inside the wheels, four skinned up Borranis, damaged knock-offs, bent spokes and a lousy balancing job since the wire wheel didn’t fit the balancer either.
When it came time for an oil change, nobody had the correct FRAM filter, but parts books of the day showed a WIX filter that would fit, and it did. Few people noticed how much lighter it was than the original, and nobody cared it was painted a horrible metallic gold.
They did work, but one problem was these filters didn’t have an anti-drain-back valve like the FRAM. They were mounted upside-down, so when you shut off the car, all the oil drained out of them. When the car was restarted, it ran several moments before the filters were refilled and oil began to get to the engine.
The other problem was the filter case didn’t have anywhere near the burst strength of the original. Lots of people ran 50 weight oil then (either Castrol or Kendall). When they’d start the car up on a cool morning it would be putting out about 80 pounds of oil pressure, until the first throttle blip which would peg the gauge before it suddenly dropped to zero because the filters split open and pumped ten quarts of oil over the engine and onto the garage floor!
In misguided efforts to control the typical-for-the-period Ferrari habit of exhaust oil smoke, some owners added a load of thick, heavy motor honey which just meant that the filters would blow apart on warm mornings, too.
Inevitably, your 330 would begin to run poorly from sooted plugs, so someone was employed to change them. The local parts store wouldn’t have any Magneti Marellis, but a Champion catalog would yield a cross-reference. You could choose one a little too cold that would need replacing even more frequently, or one a little hotter and risk holing a piston. Making the prudent choice, the mechanic would put them in, swearing the whole time at the awkwardness, grunting around and always denting the gentle fender tops with his elbows.
After twisting the key and getting a couple of light coughs, the engine would then not run at all. After screwing around with the distributors and getting the two dual-point set-ups hopelessly out of sync, much more swearing and denting would reveal the plug gaps were all closed up.
The Champions had a little too much of a protruded nose, so when the pistons came up, they hammered the gaps shut! Most shops would eventually get around to the idea of putting two washers on each plug and solve the dilemma. Then they had to go back and try to sort out the distributors.
In order to get the plugs out in the first place, the (crackle black painted) heat shields had to be removed from the exhaust manifolds. After wrestling the plugs in and out a couple of times (as per above), most mechanics left the shields off. They would lay around the service station a couple of months until everyone forgot what they were for, and they were then thrown out.
Not only did the owner lose an impossible to replace part of his car (the lack of which would really hurt in concours judging years later) but now the car started having trouble with vapor lock. Those shields were on there for a reason: heat traveling straight up from the manifolds would find the exposed metal fuel lines connecting the three carburetors and percolate all the gas out every time it got hot.
This would lead to the uninformed modifying the fuel lines and replacing the fuel pumps with domestic electric units that put out far too much pressure, which overwhelmed the float needles and caused flooding. Sometimes the overflow would trickle down the cam covers, unimpeded by heat shields, hit the manifolds, and catch fire!
I don’t even want to relive the horrors of what happened when some “mechanics” tried to take the heads off one of these cars to fix something, it wasn’t pretty. Neither were the exploded bell housings from installing Jaguar clutches, they would bolt in, but couldn’t handle 7500 rpm. In many cases these cars never ran again and became upscale racoon nests in back lots across America.
Actually, it’s a miracle that any of these cars ever made it into the 1980s when they were showered with affection and appreciation. Fortunately, these days there is a far more comprehensive network of support for oddball cars and there really isn’t any reason to butcher one up anymore.
While barn finds are rare there are Ferraris that do surface from time to time. Many today have been of the 250 GTE variety since it appears most of the more valuable models have already been discovered.
The classic barn find is not usually a pristine Ferrari that was parked and left for a long slumber. They usually are broken in some way and the owner just couldn’t part with it. Someday I’ll fix it, turned into never.
Still there was a dream of what it could be and because of that dream old Ferraris continue to be stored with the hope of “one day I will.”
Instead of being parked in fields and left to disappear, garages and storage units will continue to reveal old Ferraris waiting for their next chapter. JW