Revival of the fittest Ferrari 250GT SWB Drogo Crashed at Le Mans in 1962; back in action. This unique Ferrari hadn’t raced for 48 years, since crashing at Le Mans in 1962. Tony Dron co-drove the painstakingly restored car at the 2010 Goodwood Revival. Photography: Sander Morel.
Revived for action after 48 years. It’s not possible. You can’t take a car that hasn’t seen a track for 48 years, restore it, try it out for a couple of miles on the road and then expect it to perform property in a motor race. No way. You have to go testing. Things will then go wrong and there will be a long list of major and minor adjustments requiring attention before you can compete with any hope of success.
Just for once, it wasn’t like that. That expression, ‘the exception that proves the rule’, does appear to fit the bill. The vital factor in the case of this 1961 Ferrari 250GT SWB Competizione was Dutch Ferrari specialist Piet Roelofs. Piet had been restoring the car for a friend over many years but, late in 2008, his friend sold it to property developer (and Spyker chairman) Hans ‘John’ Hugenholtz, and his friend and motor racing associate David Hart. Hugenholtz has impeccable motor racing credentials: his late father built Zandvoort circuit and Hans is a committee member of the Dutch equivalent of our MSA. In 2010, the pressure landed on Roelofs when Hugenholtz and Hart announced that an entry had been secured for the one-hour, twodriver Royal Automobile Club TT Celebration race at the Goodwood Revival meeting in September. The race was on.
As I was lined up with two cars at Goodwood, but had nothing in the TT, I jumped at the chance of sharing the drive with Hans. When I heard that he had never driven his car and that no testing had been done, I said nothing. Frankly, I thought our chances of even getting to the start were minimal but I knew nothing of Roelofs’ extraordinary skill. Piet put his lifetime’s experience of preparing historic Ferraris into this machine, and the car worked, as they say, straight out of the box.
We had just one failure when the tachometer packed up during qualifying. Until you have learnt the gearchange points on a circuit, it’s vital to keep a careful eye on the rev counter with these highly tuned 3.0-litre V12 engines. Even at medium revs they make a fantastic scream; there’s no way of telling by ear when it’s reached its maximum output of 325bhp.
Unable to watch that needle approaching the red line, I knew it would be all too easy to blow the engine to bits. Erring very much on the side of caution, I did only a few laps at low speed, simply to qualify. It didn’t matter because, before the tacho failed, Hans had already put in a pretty good time. To my surprise, he’d even gone nearly as fast as Vincent Gaye, whose similar car is regarded as the quickest 250GT SWB around. Vincent himself is also an ace driver, a fact that I know very well after sharing his silver car in a couple of races in the past.
Despite Hans’ impressive pace I still kept reminding myself that ‘our’ car had never been tested; Piet had only been round the block on the public road in Holland. It was just a matter of time, surely, before something went horribly wrong and brought the Hugenholtz/Dron dream to a grinding halt. Still, Piet rigged up a temporary repair to the rev counter and we waited for the race next day. The start of the ‘TT’ at Goodwood is always a highadrenalin moment. Standing in the pits, I watched Hans get away well, in the middle of that multi-million pound, high-powered grid. As they disappeared into the first corner, Hans was close on the tail of Vincent’s car. The packed field roared by at the end of the first lap, with Hans still in hot pursuit. The laps unfolded and I could not believe my eyes: Hans closed on Vincent, passed him and began to pull relentlessly away.
After 30 minutes, timing his move cleverly in a brief safety car spelt, Hans handed a perfect car over to me. The brakes were not wilting, the tyres were fine, all pressures and temperatures were correct and the handling balance was faultless. Even the tachometer was still working, enabling me to take an accurate fix on the gearchange points. After about ten minutes, it stopped working again but by then I knew where I was.
Otherwise, against all expectations, the car was faultless, fast and a delight to drive. At one point I even caught up and lapped Vincent’s car, which was then being driven by his guest co-driver who was, admittedly, somewhat slower than Vincent. Even so, it was certainly not what I had predicted secretly to myself when we went into that race. Hans and I finished tenth overall, an exceptional result for a relatively small-engined car in such company. Talking it over with him later, I agreed when he added that he’d found it extremely competitive under braking, even making it possible to pass some cars that were faster on the straights.
Below It’s been suggested that Drogo’s work here was inspired by the 250GTO. It certainty makes a virtue of aerodynamics.
Hans knows these Ferraris inside out. Well aware that his new toy was fresh from a very long restoration, he too approached it with caution in qualifying but, as he told me, ‘with every lap the proper SWB feeling came back more and more’. He said he was able to enter corners on the fast side, just enough to break the tail away and get on the power early. ‘The steering is dead accurate,’ he added, ‘so you can place the car where you want and control the slight power-oversteer as you accelerate.’
I agree with Hans, just as I agree with his policy of setting these cars up with reasonably soft suspension, by racing standards: ‘The body must have some roll and it needs the weight transfer to the outer wheels to make it perform well at high speed.’ I couldn’t put it better myself. If you think that Hugenholtz’s Ferrari looks unlike all the other aluminium-bodied 250GT SWB Competizione models, you’d be right. Only 21 were made and this is 2445GT, completed in May 1961 and originally owned by Jacques Swaters’ team, Ecurie Francorchamps.
Swaters was a Belgian racing driver who retired in 1957 to become a successful team owner and Ferrari dealer. This particular SWB is full of surprises, all of them good, despite the fact that it was crashed in the 1962 Le Mans 24 Hours. Swaters had entered 2445GT in several events prior to taking it to Le Mans for Georges Berger and Robert Darville to drive. Fitted with six carburettors, in 250GTO style, it was a quick SWB but its race ended frustratingly early when Darville hit the bank at Arnage corner in the fourth hour.
The bodywork looked a mess but the chassis was not that badly damaged and the car was sent back to Italy for repairs. Perhaps the Ferrari factory was too busy to take it in at the time, but it has also been suggested that a respected independent coachbuilder would have been less expensive than the factory. Either way, what matters is that it went to Piero Drogo, who enjoyed a good relationship with Ferrari, and it re-emerged in 1964 with this very different look.
What I really wanted to know is why it was changed in this way. What was the brief and the thinking behind such a radical change in shape?
Unfortunately, Jacques Swaters was too ill at the end of last year to communicate with anybody and, sad to say, he died just before Christmas.
Who, or what, was Drogo? This slightly mysterious name played a key role in the intriguing story of this remarkable Ferrari. Since that race at Goodwood, my respect for that name has grown in leaps and bounds. While I was racing it, a strong feeling grew in my mind that this car’s air penetration had to be considerably better than that of the standard car. Significantly, towards the end of one of the faster straights, the Drogo-bodied machine closed on Vincent’s car with surprising rapidity as I came up to lap it.
The engines of these two cars must be almost identical but I am convinced that the more slippery nose and the longer, carefully shaped tail of the Drogo body gave us an advantage. On a circuit faster than Goodwood, any such difference would be even more marked. Nearly 50 years ago, such developments were achieved more by inspiration than by the use of wind tunnels, which cannot have played a part in this car’s redesign. Even so, somebody at Drogo knew what they were doing. And despite being 50cm (19.6in) longer, at 1042kg it is no heavier than a standard car and, partly thanks to the skill of Piet’s rebuild, the corner weights remain almost perfectly equal all round.
Everybody has heard of the Ferrari ‘Breadvan’, that extraordinary but (we now know) successful experiment in aerodynamics, which was of course created by Drogo’s company in Modena, Carozzeria Sports Cars. Despite that, Piero Drogo remains a man of some mystery. He was born in 1926, some say in Italy, though others say Brazil or Venezuela. He was a racing driver and he drove a Cooper F2 car in the 1960 Italian Grand Prix. It was his one and only GP drive and his part in it probably came about only because the organisers were desperate to drum-up entries – the leading British teams boycotted the event because it was run on Monza’s controversial banking. Drogo finished a distant eighth.
By contrast, he appears to have made a tremendous success of his career in coachbuilding. He employed two superstars of the art, Giorgio Neri and Luciano Bonacim, and produced a string of remarkable cars. The rebuilt 2445GT was just one of many major Drogo projects.
As 2445GT never raced again in period, and the styling appears less extreme than that of certain other Drogo bodies of the time, many experts have assumed that it was rebuilt specifically as a road car. That seemed logical enough but I just didn’t believe it. My drive at Goodwood convinced me that the intention was to return 2445GT to the track. Piet agreed, adding that the interior was never changed from its spartan racing trim. However, the Drogo rebuild took a couple of years, which was rather a long time. Perhaps the urgency was lost when the superiority of mid-engined cars in sports car racing became more obvious in 1963. In 1964, instead of returning to racing, it was sold to the USA for use as a road car.
It seemed impossible to prove our theories and we couldn’t ask Piero Drogo for his views. On 28 April 1973, driving a Ferrari 250 California, he entered a road tunnel near Bologna and, in the darkness, slammed into the back of a stationary, unlit lorry. Decades after his death, the Drogo trail seemed to have gone rather cold. Then, just as I’d given up hope, my best Italian contact discovered a 1964 copy of Autoltaliana magazine. There was the proof: the freshly rebuilt 2445GT was presented to the press, plainly described as Drogo’s latest GT racing car. It was not built for the road.
It’s fascinating to muse over such matters but the ownership history is rather more important. All of that is well documented, including the fact that the film star James Coburn had it for some time before it eventually returned to Europe in 1986. While it was in America, it was mistakenly known as serial number 1965GT, which would have made it an earlier car. That was impossible because there were so many differences between the 250GT SWBs of 1960 and 1961, including fundamental points such as the chassis construction.
The ‘mistake’ is easily explained. Jacques Swaters’ Ecurie Francorchamps owned many Ferraris, including the real 1965GT, which was destroyed in a race in Angola in December 1962. The snag was that Belgian import duties had been paid on 1965GT but not on 2445GT. The answer was to save a lot of money by disguising the chassis number with lead filler and then stamping ‘1965 GT’ into the lead. That was enough to satisfy the Belgian customs inspectors, if not genuine Ferrari experts.
When Piet Roelofs started to strip the car down properly, the ruse was obvious. Apart from the fact that the construction clearly made it a 1961 car, it had 2445GT stamped into all its other major chassis components. And once the lead was removed, ‘2445GT’ was revealed underneath. Just to check, I contacted the leading Ferrari historian, Antoine Prunet, who confirmed these facts.
How right we are to revere those truly great cars from every era of motoring, from the earliest wheezing horseless carriages to the latest designs, the best of which now probe a fascinating future. How wrong we can be, on the other hand, to fall into the trap of thinking that every old car is an object to be preserved precisely as it was on the day it left its factory as a brand new machine.
The acquisition of such a machine is the stuff of dreams for any true Ferrari fan and 2445GT, as it stands today, is one of those gems. That said, it’s also a machine to make us think, a machine that forces us to reconsider certain attitudes that we perhaps tend to take for granted. This car was changed, making it different from all the other 250GT SWB Competizione Ferraris: a good thing or a bad thing?
It’s fashionable and certainly not unreasonable to put a premium on originality, right down to the ‘matching numbers’ factor. That’s not as easy to establish as many like to think, especially in the case of racing cars that frequently had their parts swapped about. The fact that this car had its chassis number unofficially tampered with as an import duty dodge is far from unusual. The main point is that it has been faithfully returned to a genuine historic specification, including its correct serial number.
Obviously enough, a car that retains all of its original parts is going to be attractive in the collectors’ market place. No-one in his right mind is going to argue against that. This car started out as precisely such an outstanding machine and then, when it was just over a year old, some hero stuffed it into the bank during the 1962 Le Mans 24 Hours. It was then dramatically improved by virtue of an inspired coachbuilder’s redesign.
As Antoine Prunet pointed out to me, some elements of this design were plainly inspired by the GTO. Even so, Drogo was surely making an important statement with this piece of work. To my mind this fabulous car is right up there with the very best of the original, unaltered 250GT SWBs, to say the very least of it.
TECHICAL DATA 1961 Ferrari 250GT SWB Compttizione Drogo’
ENGINE 2953cc V12, SOHC per bank, six Weber carburettors
MAX POWER 325bhp @ 7600rpm
MAX TORQUE 423lb ft @ 6900rpm
TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Worm and wheel
Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. / Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, radius arms, telescopic dampers
BRAKES Discs front and rear
Top speed 146mph (with this gearing)./ 0-62mph (0-100km/h) c4.5sec
‘Some hero stuffed it at Le Mans. It was then dramatically improved by virtue of an inspired coachbuilder’s redesign’
‘Piero Drogo employed two superstars of the art, Giorgio Neri and Luciano Bonacini, and produced a string of remarkable cars’
FERRARI 250GT SWB DROGO THE FORGOTTEN YEARS
While it was in the USA, somebody painted 2445GT this ghastly colour. In 1985 it passed through the hands of US-based vintage Ferrari guru Michael Sheehan, who took these pictures as a matter of record.
BACK IN ACTION
Hans Hugenholtz heading out of the collecting area for the RAC TT Celebration and on the grid, starting the race. In the top picture, Vincent Gaye’s silver car (mentioned in the story) can be seen on the left. Right Six-carburettor 3.0-litre V12 performed brilliantly at Goodwood straight after the restoration. Above from top 2445GT takes part in the 1962 Coupes Bruxelles (result and driver unknown); in the pits at Le Mans, 1962, before the accident; post-accident, on stands in Jacques Swaters’ workshop. Note how far the steering wheel has been pushed back by the impact. Above and below Interior is simple, focused and businesslike, yet exciting. Exterior looks like no other 250GT SWB.
‘This 250SWB is full of surprises, all of them good, despite the fact that it was crashed in the 1962 Le Mans 24 Hours’
‘It’s vital to keep a careful eye on the rev counter with these highly tuned V12s. Even at medium revs they make a fantastic scream’