Vignales take on Ferraris finest. This 212 Inter Coupe isn’t the most subtle of cars, says Richard Heseltine, but it’s still an intoxicating blend of Maranello and Turin. Photo Tony Baker.
With no filter between brain and mouth, it’s all too easy to utter words inappropriate in polite society. Your first sight of this 1953 Ferrari 212 Inter coupe has that effect. It’s just so, well, brazen. That the car’s first owner had a penchant for coachbuilt flights of fantasy is no great surprise: it isn’t quite a case of style over substance, but it’s certainly one where the latter is obscured by the former. In many ways, style here is the substance.
Clockwise, from far left: colourful interior is dominated by huge dials and Nardi wheel; the Ferrari starts to come alive the faster you go; jewel-like tail-lights; exquisite ashtray in stitched leather dash.
All of which is to be expected of a Ferrari made during the so-called ‘boutique’ era. You have to remember that this extraordinary machine was created barely six years into the company’s narrative, at a time when road cars bearing the Cavallino Rampante logo were sold in penny numbers. They were a means to end, a way of raising revenue to fund the marque’s racing activities. Even then, it was rare for two cars to appear outwardly similar, most being sold as rolling chassis with buyers engaging a carrozzeria to clothe them. Of these, Alfredo Vignale was unquestionably the busiest of them all, even if his reign was, in effect, over by the mid-1950s.
Scroll back to the late ’30s, and Enzo Ferrari had enjoyed great success keeping Alfa Romeo’s name in the spotlight via his eponymous Scuderia, only to have the team swiped from under him. Undeterred, if embittered, he nonetheless pushed on, forming Auto Avio Costruzioni in 1938, but, as storm clouds gathered over Europe, the dream of taking on the world from Maranello suddenly seemed a long way off. Factories were handed over for the production of armaments and shortages of raw materials drastically reduced the Italian automobile industry’s capacity to manufacture civilian vehicles. Just two Touring-bodied Tipo 815s were made using Fiat 508C chassis as a basis. Both led the 1500cc class of the 1940 Mille Miglia (run on a shortened course as the Grand Prix of Brescia) only to retire. The dream would have to wait.
From below: curious profile thanks to low roofline and high waist; Inter name was first used on the 195, itself a development of the famous 166; this 212 has the 170bhp triple-carb version of Colombo’s V12.
With a small but talented team behind him, Enzo started work on a new car as soon as Milan was liberated. This time it bore his surname. A 1 1/2-litre V12 was designed by Giacchino Colombo (whose earlier credits included Alfa’s Tipo 159 unit and the firm’s unraced blown flat-12) and tested in September 1946. In March of the following year, the initial prototype was running under its own steam. Two months later, Ferrari the marque scored its first race win in only its second start as Franco Cortese triumphed in the Rome Grand Prix aboard a cycle-winged 125 Spider.
By early 1948, and following a concentrated period of troubleshooting, the 125 gained an engine capacity hike to 1995cc (from 1946cc) and morphed into the 166. ‘Phis model would establish Ferrari as a major player in inter-national motor sport, winning that year’s Targa Florio and Mille Miglia, and in November 1948 the marque was first represented at a motor show. On display in Turin was a 166 Inter coupe and a Touring-bodied 166xMM (for Mille Miglia), die latter being altogether better known by the alias barcbetta – ‘little boat’.
And then it all gets a bit complicated. Endless permutations of 166 followed. First there was the larger displacement 195, which came in two configurations: Sport with triple Webers and Inter with just the single carb. Then there was the 2.6-litre 212, which was introduced at the 1951 Brussels Motor Show. For this, the final variation of Ferrari s first-series ‘production’ car, Colombo’s V12 was housed in a long-wheelbase (2600mm) chassis in road-going Inter trim, with the abbreviated Export edition being typically sold as a competition tool.
‘Such was Vignale’s reputation, it rapidly became Ferrari’s couturier of choice’
Churning out around 150bhp at 6500rpm from 2562cc in road-spec trim (up to 170bhp was available with a triple-carb set-up), the Inter was reputedly capable of 120mph.
What’s more, all apart from one were locally bodied (the exception being an eye-watering monstrosity that was shaped by ED Abbott of Famham).
The car featured here is among the more outre Ferrari road cars from the period, which is no mean feat given some of Vignale s other creations. The son of a car painter, and the fifth of seven brothers, Vignale took his first tentative steps into coachbuilding in 1924, beginning an apprenticeship with Ferrero & Morandi in Turin. He was just 11 years old.
Six years later, he caught the eye of Battista ‘Pillin’ Farina, under whom he would complete his training. Aged 24, he was then poached by Giovanni Farina – brother of Battista and owner of Stabilimenti Farina – to be his workshop foreman. Nonetheless, Vignale dreamed of being his own boss. In order to make the leap and establish his own carrozzeiia, he spent his evenings fashioning kitchen utensils in his basement in a bid to raise the necessary funds, only for WW2 to interrupt his plans.
At the end of hostilities, Vignale was just one of many metal-shapers looking for work and, in 1947, he received an offer he couldn’t refuse. Piero Dusio, the founder of the ambitious Cisitalia concern, had been trying to find someone who could help turn Giovanni Savonuzzi’s concept for the 202 SMM Aerodinamico Coupe into 1:1 scale reality. Vignale relished the challenge and he was able to rent a modest room in a former sawmill and establish his own firm.
Before long, his small business became a moderately sized one after Vignale landed a contract to make refrigerated storage containers. The first car to wear his own badge – a rebodied second-hand Fiat Topolino – arrived in 1947. He had by then embarked on a long and fruitful relationship with fellow Stabilimenti Farina alumnus Giovanni Michelotti. The two friends became regular collaborators, Michelotti producing renderings that Vignale turned into three- dimensional reality. Such was Carrozzeria Vignale’s burgeoning reputation, it rapidly became Ferrari s couturier of choice.
This symbiotic relationship would, however, last only a few years. While impassionate about his road-going wares, Enzo Ferrari was astute enough to realise that an endless array of body styles would lead to confusion among would-be customers. That, and a degree of uncertainty as to how cars bearing his name might turn out. I le wanted greater uniformity, and it was Vignale’s former employer, ‘Pinin’ Farina, who would assume the mantle as partner and foil.
Vignale bodied around 150 chassis between 1950 and ’54; ‘our’ car is believed to be the first of six so-called ‘Geneva Coupes’. Chassis 0257 EU was delivered to Ferrari’s Turin agent – Signor Fontanella – in early 1953 and displayed at the following year’s San Remo concours d’elegance. The car was then fettled at the Ferrari factory7 prior to being exported to US East Coast distributor Luigi Chinetti. The three-time Le Alans winner in turn sold it to Robert Wilke of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Wilke was president of the family’s company, Leader Cards Inc, which produced paper products. He was also passionate about motor sport, his involvement stretching back to the late ’20s. Leader Card Specials were once synonymous with open-wheel racing in the US, claiming Indianapolis 500 honours in 1959 and 1962. Wilke was also an early adopter of Ferrari road cars, owning several, including the extraordinary 510 Superamerica by Ghia.
A few years into Wilke’s ownership, the Inter’s original engine block was damaged, which necessitated a replacement item obtained via Chinetti Motors. T he car remained in Wilke’s sizable collection until January 1963, when it was sold to Beverly Hills resident Pierre-Paul Jalbert. The French-Canadian skiing champion turned actor sourced the car through his friend Pino Leila, an Italian Olympic skier who had moved to Hollywood after WW2 and brokered exotic cars between sporting engagements.
From below: neat flip-out doorhandle is a quality touch; delicate detailing inside; it’s not what you’d call a ‘fuss-free’ design, but in certain elements the 212 evokes Ferrari’s Carrera PanAmericana racers of the time
Throughout the decade, Jalbert drove the Ferrari regularly. Legend has it that he even used it to commute to the slopes of Mammoth Mountain, a ski resort north of Los Angeles. In January 1969, he sold the Inter to Ed Jurist, proprietor of the Vintage Car Store in Nyack, New York, who in turn moved it on to John E Plantinga of Westport, Connecticut. Plantinga paid $4500 for the car, which had by then covered around 27,000 miles.
Following eight years of ownership, Plantinga sold the car to Chinetti Motors. The 26-year-old Ferrari was even displayed on Chinetti’s stand at the 79 Greater New York Automobile Show. One change of ownership later, the Inter was sold via Christie’s to a Belgian collector later that year. Intriguingly, the original damaged block was among a mountain of parts sold via Chinetti Motors in the early ’80s. It was repaired and subsequently reunited with the car during an extensive restoration after the Ferrari was acquired by a Texan enthusiast in 2009. The Inter was then bought earlier this year by British marque enthusiast Taalib Shaah.
Rivals in the Dramatic Coachwork class have every reason to worry. The outline offers greatness and derangement in equal measure. It’s a visual cacophony that screams ‘look at me’, seemingly discordant styling cues having been overlaid, yet Vignale and Alichelotti pulled it off. The front, with its egg-crate grille and slightly inset headlights, evokes the fabulous 340 Mexico Coupe, even if the wing-mounted bumper-ettes are of no practical value. In profile, however, it looks positively cartoonish, thanks in part to the ultra-low roofline and relatively high beltline. At the rear, the vestigial tailfins and double bumper treatment represent pure show-car excess, but all of these disparate elements conspire to produce a mighty whole. It’s hard not to fall for the Inter.
All of the disparate styling elements conspire to produce a mighty whole
Even more so once inside. The body-coloured dash, large Jaeger instruments and amber-coloured Bakelite controls are fronted by a classic Nardi wood-rim steering wheel, the size of which dictates a somewhat skewed driving position, but you soon acclimatise.
And then you fire it up. Once the initial fluffing is over, the V12 settles to a muted burble. At low speeds, the Inter seems ponderous and slow-witted; almost vintage in its make-up. It’s all down to confidence. Drive through the initial ‘thump- thump’ over typically calloused British back-roads and it feels more overtly sporting the faster you go. At first the steering seems vague, even by the standards of the day, but it soon tightens up. While the car requires more guidance on the straight-ahead than you might expect, it meters out enough feedback for you to try that bit harder. Then you’re rewarded.
This is a car that is happiest at high(ish) speed, one that doesn’t respond to tactility. The gearchange is hefty, with a satisfying meeting of metal on metal, the need to double-declutch being debatable, but it sounds so intense that it’s hard to resist giving it a blip. And the noise really makes the car. That Colombo unit is vocal when pushed, and free of the artificially amplified acoustics that typify most modem V12s: here it’s anything but contrived. On the flipside, the drum anchors are disturbingly slow to react.
This is a fabulous car, one that marries theatre and whimsy with noise and bombast. It’s a pity, therefore, that Alfredo Vignale has become a rather forgotten man in Ferrari lore. Indeed, after the mid ’50s split, his carrozzeria only ever clothed one more Maranello product – the bizarre 330GT 2+2 shooting brake that was made for Luigi Chinetti Jnr in 1968. Vignale died the following year, barely a week after selling a 90% stake in his business to Alejandro de Tomaso.
While his name is set to be resurrected by Ford for range-topping Mondeos and suchlike, it’s surely more appropriate to remember the man for helping burnish Ferrari s reputation more than half a century ago. That he did, and he did so convincingly.
Thanks to Toolib Shooh; Soti Pormor. The Ferrari will be making its UK concours debut at Solon Prive from 3-5 September. For more information, visit solonprivelondon.com