Though beautiful, the 6-cylinder, 121 LMs were overpowered, under-braked, evil-handling, notoriously unreliable, and historically unsuccessful
This magnificent sports prototype Ferrari was the fifth and last of the select batch of 6-cylinder big-engined projectiles that provided the absolute spearhead of the factory Ferrari's endurance racing campaign for 1955.
These gorgeously aggressive and exquisitely proportioned cars were powered by Tipo 118 and Tipo 121 6-cylinder twin-overhead-camshaft engines in 3.7- and 4.4-liter form.
This particular LM Spyder was assembled upon a Ferrari Tipo 509 (510) Allungato chassis, and it proved to be the most prominent of the three Ferrari 121 LMs to be built new to this specification at Maranello.
|1955 Ferrari 121 LM
|Original List Price:
|Tune Up Cost:
|$900 (x 2 caps)
|Chassis Number Location:
|Center of front crossmember
|Engine Number Location:
|Right side of block roughly center
|Ferrari Owners Club 18000 Studebaker Rd., Ste. 700 Cerritos, CA 90703
This 1955 Ferrari 121 LM Spyder Corsa sold post-block for $3,544,796, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’s Gstaad, Switzerland, auction on December 20, 2008.
Looking at the upcoming 1955 racing season, Enzo Ferrari had a problem. In the previous few years, literally all the rules of winning in auto racing had changed radically. Jaguar had brought out the very aerodynamic, disc-braked, monocoque-chassis D-type, and Mercedes had raised the bar in breathtaking fashion with its 300SLR. To face this challenge, Ferrari had the 750 Monza, a 3-liter 4-cylinder car that had been introduced for 1954. The aerodynamics were pretty good, but it didn’t have the chassis, the brakes, or the sophistication of the Brits and the Germans, and there wasn’t a lot of time or money available to start over.
The response was classic Ferrari: Take what you’v got and add horsepower. During this period, Ferrari did not use the V12 engines in their team racers. I’d guess it had to do with weight and size for the horsepower generated, and three liters seemed as big as you’d dare build a racing four, so the obvious answer was to build a six.
The next obvious thing was to not reinvent the wheel in designing a six. Ferrari had two well-proven 4-cylinder designs in production; why not just add cylinders and expand one of them into a six? (Actually, in retrospect, there are a number of good reasons, but we’ll talk about that later.) The first approach was called the Type 118, which took the 625/500 Mondial design and made it into a 3.7-liter six. This ran at Buenos Aires and again at the Targa Florio in the early season, but was replaced with the Type 121 engine in time for the Mille Miglia in April.
The Type 121 was the same concept applied to the 750 Monza design, but with the 4.4-liter engine that made 360 horsepower. All of the Type 118s were eventually converted to the 121 engine, with at least one chassis built specifically as a Type 121. These were to carry the flag as the factory team entries for the remainder of the 1955 season.
The worst handler Ferrari ever built
As it turned out, they didn’t carry it for long. Though immensely powerful, the 6-cylinder cars turned out to be somewhere between inadequate and flat evil to drive (they have been described as “the worst handling sports racing car that Ferrari ever built”), and they were unreliable to boot. In scaling from a four to a six, Ferrari discovered what others already knew-big sixes need vibration dampeners on the crank or they self-destruct, either breaking the crank or shaking off the flywheel. The Ferrari architecture left no place to install one, so they tried it without one, and it didn’t work.
The car was not a complete catastrophe. Umberto Maglioli finished third in the Mille Miglia (45 minutes behind Moss’s winning SLR), and Eugenio Castellotti actually challenged Moss in the early going with a display of truly Italian overdriving before the engine failed, but aside from that the 118/121 was an exercise in frustration for all involved. The cars were brutally fast on the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, but still no match for Mercedes or Jaguar in lap times, and they retired with engine failures relatively early. After Le Mans, Ferrari abandoned the six-cylinder cars and finished the season with four-cylinder Monzas. They had come to the understanding that for most races, tires and brakes limited useful engine size to 3.5 liters or so. The 121s were all shipped to the U.S. in hopes that sheer power would be more useful there.
Again, it was not to be. One of them went out of control and killed driver Ernie McAfee at Pebble Beach, and “Gentleman Jim” Kimberly could never get his to work at all. Carroll Shelby had a huge win at Elkhart Lake (in the subject car) and again at Beverly, Massachusetts, but he was not exactly a fan. He was quoted in Cavallino #86 as saying, “What kind of car was the 4.4? It was a turd. You had to be very careful about how you applied the power, and the only tire you could use was a soft Engelbert tire; it had a cotton cord and it was flexible. I made Chinetti weld the flywheel to the crank before I would drive his car. Those flywheels would not stay on-they were lucky they didn’t cut someone’s legs off.”
Though arguably one of the most beautiful of 1950s Ferraris, the 121 LMs were never the stuff of legend. They were overpowered, under-braked, evil-handling, notoriously unreliable, and historically unsuccessful.
So here we are, 53 years later, watching one of the four known to exist (#484, #532, #546, and #558) come across the auction stage. The collector world has gone mad for Ferraris in the past few years, but the world’s economy has just gone completely into the tank, and this is the first “big” Ferrari to come to public sale since then. Can it tell us something about what is happening? I think so, but it’s preliminary, and as always, a more complicated tale than we’d like.
We need to look at this specific 1955 LM Spyder Corsa a bit more carefully. Depending on who you believe, 0558 was either the Maglioli 3rd-place car or Castellotti’s glorious DNF in the Mille Miglia. It was definitely the Hill/Maglioli car at Le Mans, and it’s the only one that had any success in the U.S. when they came over here, so the history is good. In its later years it reputedly passed through Richard Merritt’s hands, then on to Pierre Bardinon’s Mas du Clos Collection, before spending over 20 years with Antoine Midy, which is the kind of ownership history collectors long for.
Whispers suggested engine irregularities
On the other hand, there were whispers about the engine. According to noted collector Peter Sachs (Cavallino #86), the car was discovered in a New Jersey garage without its engine, and the whispers suggested irregularities with the number stamping on the block. Plus there were no Le Mans scrutineering stamps, as would be expected, so is it the original engine? On the other hand, they only built four, maybe five, of these cars, ever. Where are you going to find an incorrect engine to install?
The real issue in trying to establish a value for this car is simple enough. Though an excellent car, it’s not a V12. It seems that the best way to predict the market for a racing Ferrari is to take some basic number based on condition, beauty, history, etc., then multiply it by the number of cylinders. Like it or not, the (4-cylinder) 860 Monza is worth roughly a third of what a (12-cylinder) 290 MM is worth, and except for the engine, they are the same car.
You’d thus expect that this six would be worth about half of an equivalent twelve, and sure enough, that’s pretty much what it sold for (if you could find a 410 Sport, which is effectively this car with a twelve, it appears you’d have to pay north of $6 million for it).
The answer to the question we’ve all been asking appears to be that for now, at least, the value of seriously collectible Ferraris is holding. I’d say this car was fairly priced and rationally bought, with or without the crisis. And even though this 1955 Ferrari (and indeed this model) is judged a modest success, at best, in terms of period racing results, it remains a blue-chip collectible due to its place in Ferrari race car history.