Ferrari 500 TR (1956)

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0614 MDTR - New York Auto Show Car

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By the time that the 500 Testa Rossa was introduced in 1956, it had been preceded by a number of Ferrari four cylinder models, that had established the Ferrari four cylinder engine as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage. The story had started in 1952 with the 500 F2 Monoposto, in which Alberto Ascari won the Drivers’ World Championship, doing the same thing again in 1953 in the same type of car. This twin overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine was first used in a sports racing Ferrari in 1953, in a 625 TF model, then in different capacity forms in 500 Mondials, 750, 857 and 860 Monzas, which in turn led to the 500 Testa Rossa in 1956, the subject of this story, the 625 LM derivatives, and then ultimately the four-cylinder Ferrari engine’s final iteration in the 500 TRC derivative in 1957.

The “500” designation in the model title referred to the approximate swept volume of a single cylinder in cubic centimetres, thus the total cubic capacity was 2 litres, and the “TR” was for Testa Rossa, due to the red-painted cylinder head and camshaft covers. The model was essentially built as a customer car, primarily to compete for the 2-litre class race honours, whilst the company’s larger capacity V12 models vied for overall race wins. For this reason, the 500 TR was kept relatively simple. It featured the, by then, well-proven and robust four-cylinder power plant, with factory type number 131, designed by Aurelio Lampredi. As with all other Ferrari four-cylinder engines, it featured screw into the head cylinder liners, to obviate cylinder head gasket problems with, for the time, relatively high compression ratios. The over square 2-litre power unit had a bore and stroke of 90mm x 78mm, providing an actual total displacement of 1984.86cc, with a compression ratio of 8.5:1. The crankshaft ran in five main bearings, with the twin overhead camshafts driven by a train of gears also driving the oil pumps, water pump, distributors and dynamo. It featured the narrow 58deg angle two valves per cylinder head as used on the original 500 F2 design in 1951, whereas series II 500 Mondial and 750 Monza models had used a wider 85deg cylinder head. The narrower angle head was deemed to provide greater combustion efficiency. The induction and ignition systems comprised of a pair of side draught Weber 40 DCOA 3 carburettors fed by a mechanical pump with a back-up electric pump, and twin spark plug per cylinder ignition via a pair of timing cover-mounted distributors. Lubrication was dry sump with gear-driven pressure and scavenge pumps, supplied from a 15 litre oil tank. The claimed power output was 180bhp at 7000rpm, and this was fed from the engine via a twin-disc clutch, through a four-speed + reverse type 518/431 gearbox, incorporating Porsche synchromesh rings, and a propeller shaft to the rigid rear axle with a pawl pattern limited-slip differential, type number 518. A choice of four rear axle ratios were offered in the sales brochure, 7/34, 8/34, 8/32 and 9/34, which from the lowest to the highest gave claimed top speeds at 7000rpm of 119mph, 137mph, 145mph and 153mph. However, the “Scheda di Omologazione” (Homologation Schedule) lists seven optional axle ratios, which in that document range from 6/34 to 9/34.

The chassis was constructed to the regular Ferrari practice of the period, with a pair of large bore oval longitudinal steel tubes and substantial lateral cross bracing, with factory type reference number 518. It had a wheelbase of 2250mm, a front track of 1308mm, a rear track of 1250mm, and a 120 litre fuel tank, with the whole car having a dry weight around 680kgs. Suspension was independent at the front via coil springs and Houdaille lever type shock absorbers with an anti-roll bar, whilst the rear featured coil springs again with Houdaille lever-type shock absorbers and twin radius rods to the axle. The braking system was hydraulic, with twin master cylinders and drum brakes all round, with a mechanically operated handbrake to the rear wheels, whilst the road wheels listed in the “Scheda di Omologazione” were either 5.00 x 15” or 5.00 x 16” wire wheels on Rudge hubs, with 5.50” wide tyres at the front and 6.00” at the rear, with an option of a metric size 165 x 400 front and rear. All cars in the series were fitted with an open spider aluminium body, which was designed and built by Scaglietti in Modena.

0614 MDTR

Chassis 0614 MDTR was, by chassis number sequence the fifth of nineteen examples produced originally fitted with 2-litre type 131 engines. All cars in the series, apart from 0620 MDTR, were right-hand drive, and 0614 MDTR was the first example to be delivered new to the USA. Upon its arrival in the USA, its first appointment was an appearance at the 1956 New York Motor Show, along with a 410 Superamerica Coupé and a 250 GT Boano Cabriolet. There is a note on the factory build sheet chassis page for 0614 MDTR confirming this - “inviato al salone di New York” (sent to New York Show).

From contemporary reports the 500 TR was one of the stars of the show, attracting great attention from attendees. One of these was a renowned New York fashion photographer, socialite and amateur race driver, William Helburn, who wanted to buy it. The story unfolds that Chinetti told him that it was reserved for another customer, this being John Edgar, who had secured the services of Carroll Shelby to drive the car for him at a race meeting at Brynfan Tyddyn. Apparently Chinetti badly wanted Carroll Shelby to drive one of his cars, as he was one of the hot names in American racing at the time, and there was kudos to be had. However, Helburn was very persistent in his endeavours to purchase the car, and eventually Chinetti sold it to him on the understanding that it would need to be fully checked over before he could take delivery. The show had been held in the April, and the race wasn’t until late July, so Helburn frequently walked past Chinetti’s showroom wondering why “his” car was still sitting there and he couldn’t take delivery! In the “loan car” Carroll Shelby delivered the goods, taking a fastest time in the hillclimb in the morning and winning the race in the afternoon. After the race 0614 was returned to Chinetti’s premises and it was “fully checked” before Helburn eventually took delivery of his “new” car in the September.

William Helburn may have had a long wait for his car to be delivered, but maybe it would have been better had the wait been prolonged, as in his first race at Watkins Glen he inverted the car, Fortunately damage to both he and the car was only superficial. Ferrari couldn’t get their team cars unloaded because of a New York dock strike, so asked Chinetti to send the latest competition examples at his disposal to Nassau for the Bahamas Speed Week, one of which was the repaired 0614 – race entry sheets show that 0614 was a factory team entry for 1 week! … with Helburn driving, where he posted some reasonable results. His next appearance in the car was in the Cuban Grand Prix in Havana in February 1957, where he shared it with Ferrari works driver Olivier Gendebien, who, from contemporary reports, did the lion’s share of the driving, resulting in a 5th place overall finish on race # 36. After this race he traded 0614 MDTR back to Chinetti and took delivery of the new for 1957 500 TRC model, chassis # 0660 MDTR, with which he achieved better race results through the year and into 1958.

Luigi Chinetti eventually sold 0614 MDTR to Boris “Bob” Said later in 1957, whose main claim to fame at the time, was that he was the first American driver to win a race in post-war Europe. Like the previous owner, William Helburn, he took 0614 MDTR to Nassau for the Bahamas Speed Week, where he achieved a 3rd in class in the Tourist Trophy, plus a 3rd overall and class win in the Governor’s Trophy, together with another class win in the Nassau Trophy. Boris “Bob” Said later turned from motor racing to bobsleigh competition, and was a member of the USA team for both the 1968 and 1972 Winter Olympics.

The next owner was James Place of Waukegan, Illinois, who bought it from Said during 1958, and then went on to race it through to 1960. During this time he had some good results with the now “ageing” race car, and to keep it competitive, during 1959 he installed a Chevrolet V8 engine. However, this didn’t prove to be a success, as all known results in this form were a DNF. From information provided by Bruce Lavachek, the reason for the engine swap was that in mid-1959 Place had sent the original engine from 0614 MDTR to Chinetti for an overhaul and rebuild. When he was advised that the work was complete, and given the bill, he thought the figure so outlandish that he told Chinetti to keep it......probably in much stronger terms! Coincidentally, around this time Gordon Glyer of Sacramento, California, had the engine in his 500 TR, chassis # 0650 MDTR, blow up. He enquired of Chinetti the possibility of obtaining a replacement engine, and of course he just happened to have one on the shelf. Thus the engine from 0614 MDTR was fitted in 0650 MDTR, where it has remained ever since. By a bizarre twist of fate, 0614 MDTR today has an engine with “Numero Interno” 46 TR, which from factory records is the engine originally fitted to 0650 MDTR.

0614 MDTR first came to Bruce Lavachek’s attention during a conversation with Dick Merritt at the 1978 USA Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, when Dick mentioned that he had inspected a 500 TR somewhere in Wisconsin a few years earlier. He didn’t recall where, or who owned the car, but did remember the chassis # - 0614 MDTR. He further said that it was in such an incomplete and deteriorated state that it didn’t make financial sense as a restoration project. Undeterred, Bruce began making enquiries around his circle of Ferrari friends, to see whether he could locate the car. Although 0614 MDTR had been well known from new in the US, it had now disappeared without a trace. The only clue to its ownership came from Gerald Roush, who at some stage prior to Bruce contacting him, received a telephone call from someone saying that he was the owner of 0614, and before the conversation could go any further the line went dead! Roush had no idea of where the man was, but at least this was a start, and over the years Bruce kept revisiting the quest to find the car. Roush later confided to Bruce that the call may have been from someone who was having second thoughts. At the time Bruce was travelling a lot on business, and frequently while spending many evenings in motel rooms he would pick up the phone and call Ferrari friends in the area. Eventually there was a “Eureka!” moment in November 1988 when he made the contact that he had been trying to track down for 10 years! The agreement and payment plan for the acquisition of 0614 MDTR was finalized and signed on a napkin in a farmhouse kitchen in the summer of 1989. The vendor then disappeared for seven years, but everybody who knew him assured Bruce that he was a man of his word. Sure enough he contacted him after having had to tend to his terminally ill father in a distant location. Eventually when everything was settled up, Bruce loaded the car into a Penske rental truck and took it home to Arizona. For a variety of more pressing commitments and personal reasons it remained in further repose until 2012.

In 2012 its lengthy period of hibernation came to an end, when it was finally extracted from its repose and shipped across the Atlantic to DK Engineering in the UK to be resuscitated. Bruce had known David Cottingham for many years, and felt that both he (David) and his company’s in depth knowledge and previous experience with Ferrari four cylinder models would be the best choice to breathe new life into the old girl. The result was a three year ground up restoration, going to great lengths to retain the original aluminium body shell, and to source and incorporate the correct specification missing period components, which as previously noted included the engine from 500 TR, chassis # 0650 MDTR. The completed car made its public race debut at the 2015 Goodwood Revival Meeting, where it was driven by David Cottingham in the Ferrari-only Lavant Cup Race on race # 36, the same number that it wore in the 1957 Cuban Grand Prix. It was then entered in the Salon Privé Concours d’Elegance at Blenheim Palace in September 2016, where it won the “Racing Improves the Breed” class, and went on to take the prestigious “Best of Show” award. Since then, 0614MDTR has been stored and maintained by DK Engineering at their premises in the UK.

Words by Keith Blumel for Cavallino Magazine

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