Ferrari 750 Monza ‘Ice Racer’ tested. Only four cylinders, not 12, but ‘The Ice Racer’ is every inch a proper competition Ferrari. This is its story. Words Tony Dron. Photography Paul Harmer.
A REAL RACER’S CAR FERRARI 750 MONZA
Uncovering the history of a legendary four-cylinder ice racer
Halfway round my second lap in this 1955 pure racer, a strong thought entered my mind: your heart would rule your head if you owned it. I’m sure about that and I can see no way out of it. Your logical brain might be suggesting that, while it cost you an enormous fortune to acquire it, that was way back in time and today it is worth vastly more, hugely and mightily more – so maybe the time has come to treat this lump of metal as an investment. There’s no shortage of potential buyers these days for a 750 Monza with a good history and this one has an exceptional story behind it. Surely it makes sense, the head would keep saying, to cash in big-time on this little gem that you were clever enough to snap up all those years ago.
‘Aside from the pleasure of driving it, the value of 0568 M is greatly enhanced by its rarity and extraordinary originality’
Is that so? Any time your head started to lead you down that path, your heart would chip in to remind you that this Ferrari is one of those very special cars, a machine that takes you to the very essence of what this old racing car game is all about: driving in its most sublime form. Why should someone else have the right to open that featherweight tiny aluminium door, climb into that cockpit and start that raucous brute of a 3.0-litre four-cylinder engine? Then you remember what the car feels like out on the track – savage but beautiful beyond words. No, no, no: it’s your car and it’s not for sale, not yet awhile. I know that’s how I would feel, anyway.
‘Your average person who thinks old cars are nice would probably be mystified by it’
This 750 Monza, chassis number 0568 M and known now as ‘The Ice Racer’, really is that sort of car. The privilege of a few sessions on the Silverstone International circuit confirmed that for me, and I am not alone there: after my first session, I had a word with Gary Pearson, who prepares it for the owner and has frequently shared the driving since it was acquired about 12 years ago. The owner has won many historic races with it at such circuits as Hockenheim, Valencia, Spa and Monza but this is not just about winning. You win if you can, of course, but it’s the pure physical pleasure it gives when you drive it fast on a circuit that really marks this Ferrari out.
Without mentioning my personal thoughts, I asked for Gary’s views on the car, which he has prepared for more than ten years now. ‘It hasn’t been developed into a hot rod,’ says Gary, ‘because most of the racing that has been done with it over the years, such as the Ferrari Challenge, has been in the sorts of events where that attitude has not prevailed – certainly with the 1950s front-engined sports cars, anyway. The high value of these cars means that people don’t want to develop them. There’s a different mentality there, which is quite nice.
‘It’s stiffly sprung and we haven’t changed it at all. We have played around with the oils in the dampers to get some sort of control over the stiff springs, but that’s about it. It feels a bit agricultural to drive, by Ferrari standards, and a lot of that I think comes from the big vibrating engine. It feels a much more physical car to drive than a [1950s] Testa Rossa. The Monza feels like a racing car, whereas the Testa Rossa feels more like a modified road car.
‘This is a machine that takes you to the essence of what the old racing car game is all about’
‘The Monza doesn’t roll very much but it does bounce and jump around on its stiff springs. The brakes are pretty good, for a drum-braked car of that time, and the big aluminium drums work well.’
Gary, quite rightly, keeps coming back to those same words: ‘It feels like a racing car.’ I ask him what it’s like in the wet and again he is positive: ‘It’s still a surprisingly good car – you’d think with those stiff springs that it would be a real handful in the wet, but it’s not. It’s very forgiving, neutral in its balance, dry or wet. I think it benefits from not having the weight of a V12 up in the nose. That’s probably why the thing feels a lot more balanced.’
For me, this helps confirm a long-held belief. It proves my point that 3.0-litre, four-cylinder, front-engined sports cars have almost all been really great to drive, from a 1923 Bentley 3 Litre to the incredibly underrated Porsche 968 of the early 1990s. This Ferrari fits neatly between those two and there’s a curiously similar appeal to all of them, even though they are decades apart.
Gary says that it is especially good at circuits such as Goodwood, Mugello and Donington, explaining that these are places where there’s a premium on carrying speed through fast curves, rather than simply relying on massive horsepower to thrust you down long straights. In the races that the owner has tackled with 0568 M, its main rival has usually been its near-contemporary, the 250 Testa Rossa, which appeared in 1956. ‘Once at Mugello,’ adds Gary, ‘we ran both in separate races.
The lap times were almost the same but it required two completely different ways of getting to the same lap time. In the TR you feel that you are going faster because it’s all relatively smooth. By comparison the Monza is jumping around and you are fighting it in a way and you just think, it’s not that powerful and this just can’t be as quick… but it is!’ Part of the secret must be that, even if it feels as if it’s bouncing, the traction remains very good thanks to the 52% front / 48% rear weight distribution, as accurately measured by Gary, that is largely down to the rear transaxle gearbox.
Aside from the pleasure of driving it, the value of 0568 M is greatly enhanced by its rarity and extraordinary originality. It looks a bit beaten up but it’s no joke to say that every one of those dents adds value. It has never been involved in a serious accident but its delicate aluminium body has acquired plenty of little knocks over the years. You could spend a fortune on ‘mending’ the body but that would only diminish its character and reduce its value.
In fact, the body was changed very slightly when it was less than two years old. New FIA Appendix C race regulations then stipulated a passenger-side door and a full-width windscreen, and that work was done by the factory. It started out as a special order from French racer François Picard, to be prepared for the 1955 Targa Florio. That made it one of the last of 34 (probably) 750 Monzas built. As with the earlier models, the body was an open two-seater by Scaglietti but it differed considerably, being less rounded in its look. The coachbuilder’s thinking had moved forward and Picard’s 750 Monza anticipated the more streamlined look that would be a feature of Ferrari racing models in the following year, 1956. The new tubular chassis, according to the factory records, was also modified but precisely in what way is not clear.
Perhaps the intention there could have been to make it stronger for the Sicilian roads used in the Targa Florio, but that is no more than a guess. As things turned out, it was not completed in time for the Targa Florio and Picard’s first race with it was the Agadir Grand Prix of February 1956, in which he finished third overall behind two other Ferraris, driven by Maurice Trintignant and Harry Schell. After a non-finish in the Dakar GP, Picard was joined by Trintignant in 0568 M for the 1000km de Paris, at Montlhéry in June, where again the car was placed third.
Picard, who had suffered a number of hair-raising accidents earlier in his career, tackled several other events in this car during 1956, without mishap, before selling it to Swedish Ferrari dealer Tore Bjurström. Before taking delivery, Bjurström had the car comprehensively serviced by the factory and that was when the passenger door and full-width screen were fitted, meeting the new FIA rules. The car, by then painted light blue with a yellow stripe, was entered for Erik Lundgren to drive in the Helsinki GP in May 1957, in which he finished third. A couple of months later another Finnish driver, Carl-Otto Bremer, took it to second overall in the Midnight Sun Race in the extreme north of Sweden at the Kiruna airfield circuit, finishing close on the heels of winner Gunnar Carlsson’s 750 Monza (0526 M).
Bremer, who adopted the colours seen on the car now and which remain largely original, raced it for about four years before he was killed in a light aircraft accident in 1961 or 1962, at which point the car was sold to Finnish enthusiast Holger Laine. He entered it in Scandinavian sand and ice races, which is why 0568 M acquired its nickname of ‘The Ice Racer’. Despite a mild skirmish with a Mini-Cooper S in a 1962 ice race, when the front grille and foglights were damaged, 0568 M survived intact until, apparently, something inside the transaxle broke at the start of an ice race at Turku, Finland, in the mid-1960s.
It was then sold to a Finnish engineer, who put it away in storage for the next quarter of a century. When it was tracked down and purchased in Valkeakoski, Finland, by local enthusiasts Jukka and Kari Mäkelä in 1988, it was immediately recognised by the well-known international Ferrari experts as the real thing, probably the most original surviving 750 Monza in the world.
The importance of maintaining this impeccable originality was immediately understood by the Mäkeläs, who wisely did not make the mistake of restoring it. They cleaned it, serviced it thoroughly and were surprised to find that everything worked and it ran extremely well. There was no mention of repairs to whatever was supposed to have broken in the transaxle 25 years earlier – perhaps that Finnish engineer repaired it.
Ten years later it was entered in an auction at Pebble Beach but it failed to reach the reserve, which was presumably already into a seven-figure sum in dollars. It was then returned to Finland for a brief period before it was bought by an English enthusiast in 2000. Yet again, the body was preserved while 0568 M was given a proper mechanical restoration by well-known specialist Tony Merrick. The current owner acquired it early in 2001 and has enjoyed it ever since.
Having gone on about what a fabulous thing this is to drive, it should be said that your average person who thinks old cars are nice would probably be somewhat mystified by it. This is a real racing car and when it comes to NVH – the noise, vibration and harshness standards by which road cars are judged – they would probably think that it’s hell on wheels. When you start the unsilenced Lampredi-designed oversquare inline four, the sharp, penetrating, ear-piercing racket is incredible.
On the track the 750 Monza is noted for its great torque at low revs and it does pull really well from 2500 to 6000rpm, but this is not the sort of engine that you would ever allow to tick over. To stop its eight plugs, two per cylinder, from fouling up it’s advisable to keep it at around 3000rpm, which certainly keeps the noise level well up. Setting off and at low speeds, the five-speed dog gearbox feels predictably rough. As soon as you get moving fast, however, the gearbox is very easy and quick to use.
While the whole car feels harsh and brutal at all speeds, it is delightfully responsive and effective when driven fast. Something of a myth, in my opinion at least, has built up around the 750 Monza’s handling over the years, with some people believing that it can catch you out and spin without much warning. This perhaps has something to do with the weight distribution, which is concentrated at each end, with the engine at the front and the transaxle gearbox and de Dion suspension at the back. There isn’t that much in between, apart from the driver of course, and that might cause it to behave a bit like a weight trainer’s dumbbell if you take liberties with it. Drive it ‘by the book’, however, and it feels confidence-inspiring, balanced and predictable.
I came to the conclusion 20 years ago when I drove a 750 Monza in the Festival of Speed at Goodwood and a race at Oulton Park that there really is no problem at all. That car felt fabulous in its handling – I was hoping to race it more, but that never happened as the owner sold it. This is not my opinion alone. Gary Pearson agrees with me and so does another current 750 Monza owner and successful racer, Richard Frankel, who said of his car: ‘It comes at you like an axe but once you get the hang of it, it’s just fantastic.’
Exactly, and very well put! Richard has shared the racing of his Monza with his brother, Andrew, and the two of them have had great times with it. Richard describes himself as a ‘bumbling amateur’ in comparison with his brother, who is recognised as a serious driver, but the truth is that he is pretty quick, he does know his cars and he finds the 750 Monza superb to drive. He admits to using his car occasionally on the road, which he describes as ‘mad but great fun’.
There are downsides to owning and racing a 750 Monza, it must be said. The first problem is that there are no spares available off the shelf. If something needs to be replaced, it has to be specially made and that costs a lot of money, as well as taking a considerable amount of time. If you miss a gear and over-rev one of these classic Ferrari four-cylinder engines, for example, the inevitable damage to the valvegear will be extremely costly to put right.
The other point is that the 750 Monza has not been developed since the 1950s. As Gary says, 0568 M has not been turned into a hot rod because it has always seemed quite inappropriate to treat it that way. It is genuinely and exactly as it was in the 1950s, which means that when you line up on a grid against the same opposition it faced in its day, you will find that it’s a different world now.
Many of the other cars have got faster, especially in the last 20 years, because the preparers have found innumerable tiny improvements, all of which add up to faster lap times. You cannot expect to achieve the same results today that a star driver such as Mike Sparken notched up with a 750 Monza half a century and more ago. This Ferrari can no longer take on a good Jaguar C-type or D-type as it would once have done. The relatively numerous Jaguars enjoy the benefit of a small industry of their own, with the required high-performance parts readily available. Other cars in a similar bracket have got faster while this Ferrari has stayed exactly where it was. Perhaps that is something that might encourage an owner to think of selling his 750 Monza now but, then again, perhaps not. It’s just such a fabulous thing to wrestle round a track – not just a driver’s car, but a real racer’s car.
Thanks to James Haithwaite, Gary Pearson (www.pearsonsengineering.com), and Silverstone Circuit (www.silverstone.co.uk).
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1955 Ferrari 750 Monza Speciale
ENGINE 2992cc four-cylinder, DOHC, twin Weber 40DCO/3 twin-choke sidedraught carburettors
MAX POWER 260bhp @ 6000rpm
MAX TORQUE 168lb ft @ 4600rpm
TRANSMISSION Five-speed manual transaxle, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
SUSPENSION Front: unequal double wishbones, coil springs, Houdaille hydraulic lever-action dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: de Dion axle, transverse semi-elliptic leaf spring, parallel trailing arms, Houdaille hydraulic lever-action dampers
STEERING Worm and wheel
BRAKES Aluminium drums
WEIGHT 822kg now; in 1955, without such items as a safety bag fuel tank, it would have been lighter
PERFORMANCE Not quoted in period but with suitable gearing it achieved 162mph in the last Le Mans Classic
Above It’s a four-cylinder engine, but not the sort you’ll find in your shopping car. Twin overhead camshafts and twin Weber twin-choke carbs add up to a race-ready 260bhp; individual cylinder capacity is (almost) 750cc, hence the name. Right and above The Monza is in completely original condition, so each scratch or dent tells its own story. Central revcounter dominates the dash; rest of cockpit contains little other than two bucket seats. Above The Monza’s keeper had it weighed, and can confirm a weight distribution of 52:48 front:rear. Thank the transaxle gearbox for that.