In Turin with Gianni Agnelli’s gorgeous barchetta Ferrari, Touring and Gianni Agnelli were trendsetters. Combine them and the results border on magic, as this unique 166 proves Words Dale Drinnon. Photography Martyn Goddard.
So far I’ve been lucky. Passers-by are few in Turin’s Piazza San Carlo early on a Sunday morning and, as I field questions slowly, my feeble Italian gets the basics across: very important Ferrari, here from Britain, Italian National Automobile Museum. The descent of an entire jogging club, however, is too much for my limited skills. Fortunately, Clive steps up, pats me on the shoulder, smiles, and points towards the gorgeous Touring-bodied 166MM. ‘È la prima Ferrari di Gianni Agnelli,’ he announces. The joggers are ecstatic. ‘Ah, si, si, the first Ferrari of Gianni Agnelli!’
Clive and I dash off like heroes, V12 music dancing along elegant Baroque facades. ‘Aside from the odd couple of phrases, that’s the only complete sentence I know,’ he says. ‘But when you’re driving this car in this country, it’s the only one you really need.’
Clive Beecham isn’t kidding, either. Driving any Ferrari in Italy is special; driving around Turin in his Touring 166, a true landmark model for both manufacturer and coachbuilder and the very car that Touring selected to headline its 90th birthday exhibition in Italy’s Museum of the Automobile, is something else again.
That it’s also Gianni Agnelli’s first Ferrari, in Agnelli’s home city, and going to the museum dedicated to his memory, makes the experience like hanging out with royalty. Cops will fight among themselves for the honour of overlooking your sins, locals want to put you on their Facebook page, and translators are never a problem; somebody always steps up, overjoyed to help. More than a decade after his 2003 death, the Fiat empire’s famous boss of the glory years still captures the imagination of his countrymen.
In fact, that royalty simile is more than just a throwaway line. Gianni Agnelli favoured his popular nickname l’Avvocato (‘the Lawyer’), reflecting his law degree; many pundits, though, labelled him ‘the Uncrowned King of Italy’, and anyone more realistic might have omitted the qualifier ‘Uncrowned’. At his peak, Agnelli controlled more than a quarter of Italy’s stock exchange, nearly 5% of the nation’s GDP, and 3% of its workforce, in holdings from transportation to newspapers to department stores. No politician held as much real power and, when it came to Papal audiences, he would have likely been on the granting end of the process, not the receiving.
Above and above right At speed; beautifully proportioned Barchetta is at home in upmarket surroundings; Fiat CEO Agnelli at Mirafiori, Turin, in March 1969. Clockwise from top right Heading for Italy’s National Automobile Museum; teardrop tail-lights and dash layout are unique to this car; whether in town or country, the 166 Barchetta looks exquisite. Right, from top The 166 makes its way onto centre-stage, ready to celebrate 90 years of Touring; triple carbs were fitted for racing; a double win at Villa d’Este in 2015.
Of doubtless greater interest to the population, and even before he took the rudder in 1966 of the company co-founded by his grandfather, the dude had charisma to burn. Devilishly handsome and impeccably dressed, he was constantly in the right places with the right people, a natural trendsetter. Admirers wore their wristwatches atop their shirt cuffs and unbuttoned their Brooks Brothers button-down collars because that’s what Agnelli did. Some likely still do.
It was natural, then, that young, fashionable Gianni should covet the Ferrari 166MM Barchetta unveiled by Touring at the 1948 Turin motor show. The few previous Ferraris had tended towards the bland. With that aptly named ‘little boat’, however, Touring chief Carlo Anderloni and stylist Federico Formenti brought forth one of history’s all-time automotive breathtakers, and the model was more road-friendly than its predecessors, too.
Perfect for a staggeringly rich 20-something playboy, biding time before assuming the throne.
Getting his hands on one took some doing; Fiat management weren’t keen on the heir driving a different and blatantly flamboyant marque and Gianni made the initial arrangements through intermediaries, even wearing disguise on trips to the Touring workshops. (Clive says there are also no known pics of Agnelli with the car, and he’s searched for ages.) In July 1950, he took delivery of chassis number 0064M, the 24th of 25 Ferrari 166MM Touring Barchettas, finished in his colours of dark blue metallic over dark green metallic, with teardrop rear lamps and special dash, all unique to this example.
Perhaps he chose not to drive it much in central Turin. While traffic was admittedly thin post-war, the slab-paved streets that appear determined to loosen every nut, bolt and rivet were far more prevalent, and the car would have lacked the electric radiator fan that’s working virtually non-stop now. Nor would the gearbox have offered any consolation; the top three ratios have synchromesh, or the insinuation thereof, but each shift up or down through the five slots nonetheless requires double-declutching, and frequently results in grinding anyway.
Long, straight stretches of narrow urban canyon lead us across the city, and the wail of the little 2.0-litre V12 reverberating between storefronts would put a grin on the face of a tax auditor with heartburn. And city motoring brings home exactly how small this car genuinely is: about the length of a Fiat 850 Spider, and the cockpit sides seem to end roughly at your navel.
We ease our way from Piazza San Carlo to panoramic Piazza Vittorio Vento, home of official parades and festivities for some two centuries, followed by a visit to Agnelli’s grand former townhouse (in respect of the current owner’s privacy, let’s just list the address as – surprise – barely walking distance from the historic Royal Palace), then leave the city in search of the Agnelli family estate in rural Villar Perosa, south-west of Torino. Finding it is unexpectedly easy; brief inquiries using Clive’s obvious charm with the locals, and, of course, the magic words ‘È la prima Ferrari di…’, and bang, we’re there.
Sadly, the magic words don’t get us invited to the wedding ceremony occurring inside, but the surrounding area is ideal for gaining quality seat time. The Agnellis have been resident since 1811, and Gianni’s grandfather, also christened Giovanni Agnelli (hence the diminutive ‘Gianni’ given to the younger Agnelli), is said to have funded his original Fiat investment from silk farming on the property; the region still has a semi-remote, semiagricultural feel today, rolling hills leading into mountains, dotted with neat villages and the odd stately manor, interlaced by winding and largely smooth country lanes.
The Ferrari loves it. Once you’re moving you can forget those two crotchety lower gears, and as the miles tick by I’m making peace with the others. If the brakes are no better than the build period would predict, and the shifting stiff regardless of technique, the steering and chassis are stable and reassuring, and the engine totally captivates. Prod the throttle and revs flow like warm honey; yes, the average modern hatchback delivers more horses, but who cares? Agnelli commented ages later ‘Of the cars I have driven, I cannot forget my first Ferrari’ and, as wry as that sounds to mere mortals, his fondness for this 166 is eminently understandable.
Those sentiments notwithstanding, Agnelli’s tenure with 0064M was short. In 1952 he sold it, ironically around the time of a severe crash near his Rivera party villa, which left him with a permanently impaired right leg, and ultimately inspired his taste for machinery with only two pedals. Rumours that the accident happened in a Ferrari, by the way, much less this Ferrari, merit copious salt grains; acclaimed investigative reporter Judy Bachrach, with extensive family access, stated in a Vanity Fair profile that it was a Fiat estate – and Agnelli’s penchant for estate cars was indeed legendary.
Meanwhile, the 166 went safely to second owner Viscomte Gery d’Hendecourt of Belgium, who occasionally raced it and, more successfully, encouraged famed countryman and future four-time Le Mans winner Olivier Gendebien to do the same. Gendebien took his first Ferrari win with the car, at Spa in 1953, plus some other respectable placings before the Viscomte sold it in ’56. Thereafter 0064M followed the familiar pattern: several short-term owners, amateur racing up to 1957, some road use, and eventually it was parked in slightly dishevelled retirement.
Until it came under the wing of Jacques Swaters. Swaters, a Belgian racing driver turned founding principal of renowned team Ecurie Francorchamps and one of Europe’s leading Ferrari dealers (he brokered 0064M a half-dozen times himself, he reckoned), acquired the Agnelli Barchetta in 1967 and treated it like family for the ensuing 46 years. During his guardianship, the tired masterpiece underwent a loving restoration in the ’80s, returning from the apparently inevitable red to Agnelli’s blue and green, and enjoyed a stellar Historic career, appearing in the Mille Miglia, l’Idea Ferrari and a host of other venues, including the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Berlin National Gallery.
It also acquired the honorific by which much of the cognoscenti now know it: Nonna, Italian for grandmother. Before his death in 2010, Swaters even provided for Nonna’s future; when I’m gone, he told his daughter, you should sell the car to Clive, and in 2012, Clive Beecham, a committed admirer of 0064 since he first saw her in 1989, brought Agnelli’s Barchetta home to London.
I never met Jacques Swaters, but I think he’d be pleased with his successor. Clive couldn’t accord the 166 more care and respect if it really was his grandmother, but he also drives it most weekends, has road-tripped it across the Continent, and ran the Mille again in 2013. While not a serious concours participant, per se (aside from recent nose repairs by Touring to ’50s track damage, nothing’s been touched since the Swaters restoration), Nonna still makes regular show appearances, and in 2015 at lofty Villa d’Este was awarded a Holy Grail of the discipline: Best of Show trophies from votes of both the participants and the viewing public.
Finally, the afternoon is drawing on, and we head back towards Turin so Nonna can go on her display plinth, Clive and I swapping the driving between us and waving at the startled civilians we scream past on the autostrada, laughing at the stories we imagine they’ll tell at work tomorrow morning.
We should probably be having a deep, insightful discussion about the importance of the 166MM to the fortunes of Touring as well as Ferrari, in the desperate post-war days when neither could be that sure of survival. Or of Agnelli’s part in maybe giving both of them, in addition to the museum, a precious leg-up. But the engine is too loud and our mood too mellow, so we mostly debate whether the car is beautiful, lovely, or pretty. Pretty wins out, by a wide margin: not exotic, not sexy, but pretty. Classically, enchantingly, heartbreakingly pretty, like the one you’ll never forget, and when we arrive at the museum and I’m sitting at the controls, my final stint finished, I find myself feeling a little sad.
Then we get the word to bring her on in and I open the driver’s door, but Clive, standing beside the car, simply smiles, gives me a nod and motions me forwards, and I drive up to the entrance of the Italian National Automobile Museum, in Gianni Agnelli’s first Ferrari, feeling as stylish and nonchalant as the great man himself.
You know, I’m not sure I could pull off that wristwatch outside the cuff thing. But I do have some Brooks Brothers shirts, and those collars are hard to button, let me tell you.
THANKS TO Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera, www.touringsuperleggera.eu, and to the Italian National Museum of the Automobile, www.museoauto.it.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1950 Ferrari 166MM Touring Barchetta
Engine 1995cc V12, SOHC per bank, three Weber 32 DCF carburettors (originally one)
Max Power 240bhp @ 6600rpm / DIN
Max Torque 117lb ft @ 5000rpm / DIN
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and peg
Suspension Front: double wishbones, transverse leaf spring, hydraulic dampers. Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, hydraulic dampers, anti-roll bar
Performance Top speed 120mph. 0-60mph 10sec (est)
‘The wail of the little 2.0-litre V12 would put a grin on the face of a tax auditor with heartburn’