Cymon Taylor ©2017, courtesy of RM Sotheby’s
The late 1950s and early 1960s was the golden era of sports car racing. Every weekend, privateers and manufacturers alike would take to racetracks around the world, racing everything from home-built specials to the latest and greatest in handcrafted, exotic Italian sports cars. One of the major players in the sports car racing scene in the United States was Luigi Chinetti. Chinetti was a highly successful racing driver — having won the 24 Hours of Le Mans outright in 1932, 1934 and 1949. He was also the Ferrari distributor for the United States and the man behind the fabled North American Racing Team. NART entered a trio of cars for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959. They included 250 GT LWB California Spyder chassis 1451 GT — the car presented here. This car finished 5th overall and 3rd in class, making 1451 GT one of the most significant Ferraris in existence, a high point for NART’s career, and one of the more important cars from the most celebrated eras in motorsport.  

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1959 Ferrari 250 GT LWB California Spyder Competizione
Number Produced:41 steel-bodied LWB cars and nine aluminum LWB examples. In addition, 51 steel-bodied SWB and three aluminum SWB examples were built.
Original List Price:$12,000
SCM Valuation:$18,070,000
Tune Up Cost:$4,000
Distributor Caps:$450
Chassis Number Location:Left frame member by steering box
Engine Number Location:Right rear motor mount
Club Info:Ferrari Club of America
Investment Grade:1939 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Lungo Spider, 1959 Ferrari 250 TdF, 1953–55 Jaguar D-type

This car, Lot 141, sold for $17,990,000, including buyer’s premium, at RM Sotheby’s “Icons” Auction in New York City, NY, on December 6, 2017.

Not all Ferrari 250 Gran Turismo Spyder Californias were created equal.

In fact, a critical review of individual models shows the production was really more a series of one-off cars than a series production of the same model. Most casual Ferrari enthusiasts know the model evolved from a long-wheelbase model to a short-wheelbase model. Some Californias had elegant recessed headlamps with Plexiglass covers, while others had conventional open headlamps. However, fewer enthusiasts realize the depth of individuality in the model — or how different configurations relate to a car’s value.

There were at least five different engines used during the California’s production — all variants of Gioacchino Colombo’s legendary 250 design. The series of engines evolved from the original 260-hp “inside plug” — with spark plugs inside the V unit — to a 280-hp “outside plug” with spark plugs outside the V unit.

A single distributor evolved to twin distributors. Then came tweaks to carburetors, engine internals and even air cleaners. Some examples were pushing much more horsepower than their factory ratings.

Other important mechanical updates included a switch from drum to disc brakes.

Different bodies — and elite aluminum cars

California bodies were also built in many variations. Every punter can tell an open- vs. covered-headlight example, but an expert can often tell the chassis number of the car just by looking at the body.

The short-wheelbase model’s body was, not surprisingly, shorter than the LWB models. The stubbier body gave the SWB a more aggressive look than the LWB. Other treats, such as different rear-end styling, taillamps, bumpers, gas fillers, dashes and front fender vents added spice to the series.

Nine LWB and three SWB Californias were built in aluminum; the balance were built in steel. These 12 aluminum cars were built in varying degrees of competition trim.

It is assumed that all 12 were intended to find employment on the racetrack, but not all did.

Two Competizione California Spyders stand above the rest. Our subject car, chassis 1451, is one of the two.

RM Sotheby’s auction catalog is spot-on in the description of chassis 1451. It is the most important LWB California — and one of the stars of the Ferrari world.

A rich history

Finishing 5th overall at the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans puts it in rarified air, but that was just the start of many wins and impressive finishes.

Having been owned and driven by legendary exotic-car dealer and racer Bob Grossman adds to the tally.

After Grossman retired the car, 1451 went through a couple of East Coast owners before landing in Jon Masterson’s West Coast garage. Through the years, Masterson’s stable included a couple other retired thoroughbreds, including a 250 GT Tour de France — basically a closed-top California — a 312 P and a 512 BB LM.

After purchase, Masterson treated chassis 1451 to a top-notch restoration, preserving all the competition candy. Over the next 26 years, Masterson campaigned chassis 1451 on both the concours field and the vintage-race circuit, thrilling those who saw it.

RM offered the car at their 2007 Monterey auction. I covered the sale for SCM. The car sold for $4,950,000 — an astonishing number at the time. The sale was well above any known sale of a California. I noted, “If you could ever justify paying too much money for a car, this was the car.”

Headlamp covers matter — most of the time

Interestingly, later during that same 2007 Monterey weekend, another California sold across town for $4,455,000. It was a non-comp, steel-body example with an inside-plug engine. There’s no way that it should have sold that close to chassis 1451, but there was a difference that tipped the scale. That car had covered headlights, and chassis 1451 is an open-headlamp example. Covered-headlamp Californias are one of the most beautiful cars on earth. Many California buyers will only consider a covered-headlamp example.

This time, the headlamps didn’t matter. Chassis 1451 was recognized for what it is — not what it looks like. It is a true icon of the Ferrari world.

This car is a Classiche-certified, purpose-built race car, bodied in lightweight material, with a competition-prepared engine. It is uniquely configured with outside fuel filler, cloth seats and a Plexiglas deflector across the hood that moves track debris over the car’s low windshield. This California Spyder has been predominantly featured in nearly every story written about California Spyders — and in most articles covering Ferrari racing accomplishments.

The estimate on chassis 1451 was $14 million to $17 million. The number seemed to be a bit conservative, considering that lesser cars have sold for more. However, a strong stock market, rising interest rates and other investment opportunities have siphoned off some of the money that has been chasing Ferraris, so RM Sotheby’s caution was justified.

The sale completed at $17,990,000, including buyer’s commission. That was not a record for a California Spyder, but it was a record for an open-headlamp example.

The car will be staying in the United States and sharing space with several other top-tier Ferraris and a few Picassos. The purchaser has a liking for red Ferraris over historically correct ones. I suspect the Le Mans livery will soon be covered in red.

The seller made more than $10 million on his investment, so he can’t be disappointed. The buyer got a trophy Ferrari for less than what a barn-find, steel-body street California Spyder sold for in Paris on February 6, 2015. I don’t see a windfall profit this time around, but if there’s profit to be made, this is the right car. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of RM Sotheby’s.)

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