Before Ferrari Was The King Of Grand Touring, They Built This, The 195 Inter
Photography by Robb Pritchard
The Ferrari legend was born on the post-war race tracks of the world and at legendary events of the day like the Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, Tour de France Auto, and of course the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where the prancing horse first saw victory in 1949, the first year of the race’s reinstatement following French reconstruction. In the early ’50s though, sponsorship deals were still decades off into the future, so to fund his company’s racing activities Enzo reluctantly made road cars for the public, first the sports cars—the 125S, 159S, and the 166S—before they were joined by the first GT, the 166 Inter, which was followed soon after by the 195 Inter, which is what we have here.
Because of the huge success and enduring legacy of cars like the first 250s, as well as the much smaller production numbers back int these times, earlier models such as this 195 aren’t nearly as well known as their successors. They are the under-appreciated foundations of the Ferrari genealogy. With a production run that only lasted a year and a half, only 27 examples of the 195 Inter were built before the middle of 1951 when the better handling and more powerful 212 was introduced to take its place.
The bodywork, as was typical at that time, was outsourced to coach building companies. For instance, Vignale took on 12 of them, 11 of which were coupes, complemented by a single Berlinetta. Through repairs and restorations along with their more or less bespoke origins, each one has a story to tell, but I’m here to talk about the sixth 195, which was completed in the spring of 1951 and subsequently delivered all the way to Portugal, Europe’s most western country, where it has spent its whole life since. But not only is this Portugal’s oldest Ferrari, it’s also quite possibly the world’s longest serving Ferrari museum exhibit seeing as it’s been on display since 1968!
With all of its twists and turns, the road out of the central valley of Portugal following the signs for Caramulo is one of those serpentine strips of tarmac that cries out for a special car to drive on it. The higher I climbed the better the views of the northern Portuguese landscape became until I got to the hilltop town, built in the 1920 as a sanatorium because of its clean air. With the museum’s frontage of classical columns and some curious streaks of rubber all starting from the same spot on the road outside, it had some Back to the Future vibes about it, but it really was a flashback to the past, as in the shade of a maple grove in the museum grounds the immaculate 195 Inter Viglnale had been wheeled out of the collection just for me.
By over thirty years it’s the oldest Ferrari I’ve have the pleasure to peruse properly, so at first I’m not exactly sure what to expect. At first sight the understated curves put me in mind less Ferrari and more of an Aston Martin DB2 vibe, or perhaps a Maserati 2000 Zagato, both contemporaries to the 195 Inter. So unlike the Ferrari models I grew up with from the ‘70s and ‘80s, it certainly didn’t strike me as a ground-breaking design. If I was being disingenuous I would even say that from the front it has something of the Volvo P1800 about it, though to be fair it predates that one by a few decades. On the positive side, Vignale’s design is certainly better looking than the overbearing whale mouth grill the Ghia-bodied version of the car has—having the bodywork taper in to induce air into the intake just under the front of the bonnet is a much more aesthetically pleasing look.
João Maria Lacerda is the curator of the 100-odd cars on display at the Museu do Caramulo (which also has an astounding vintage toy collection)—a mantle he took over when his grandfather passed away in 2003—and after a quick introduction he offered to tell me about the history of the car so I knew exactly what I was looking at.
Chassis 0103S was delivered new on the 17th of April 1951 to its proud first owner in Lisbon, but instead of being a treasured possession it spent the first few years of its life being passed around between different owners like a hot cake. At less than two years old, its second owner raced it at an event around the streets of Lisbon where it finished 4th behind two 225s and a single 166MM. This was the only time it was ever used in a competition, (apart from some quick demonstration runs at the museum) although there is a story of one owner who decided to take part in an impromptu street race in the middle of winter. He didn’t pre-heat the engine though, which caused something inside to break and leave him stranded for a little while. He wasn’t impressed and sold the car without repairing it.
A few fancy cars aside, the 1950s and ‘60s in Portugal weren’t the nicest times to live there. The horrors of Franco’s Spain take up a lot more space in the history books, but Portugal’s Antonio Salazar was an equally impervious autocrat and he drove the economy down to such depths that an aging Ferrari was worth as much as a Fiat 600. As crazy as it is to imagine now, the car was virtually worthless back then and for most of the 1960s it was abandoned until it came to into the possession of a Mercedes-Benz dealer in Lisbon.
It remained on the garage property unsold for a couple more years until João’s grandfather decided it would make a worthy addition to his growing collection of cars and artwork, which in 1959 he’d opened to the public. Unfortunately the original paperwork wasn’t with the car though, so no one knows which of the previous owners preferred a color change over the original two-tone blue and grey it originally left Vignale’s workshop in, but by the time it was wheeled into the museum it was in a more traditional red.
In an archive room off to the side of the airy entrance hall, João shows me thick folders full of paperwork of every car in the museum, all kept cataloged and updated for nearly 50 years. “The first thing my grandfather loved was art, and there are some cars, especially Ferraris, that transcend their normal function as just modes of transport and can be appreciated as real works of art. Mobile sculptures, he use to call them.” He’s not alone in thinking so.
Leafing though the folder for the 195, we find handwritten logs from the late 1960s through the ‘70s, always in the summer, of delightfully detailed little trips to visit friends with all the mileage jotted down and committed to history. There are receipts for regular servicing and maintenance at local workshops too, but in 1981, despite only having a scant 6,000km on the odometer, it was sent to the Ferrari specialists at David Clarke in the UK to have a full restoration. A letter from the workshop explains that the smoking issue came from abnormally worn piston rings, and after the restoration the day trips seem to get less and less frequent, although this might be because as the collection grew towards it current numbers João Senior simply had more options to choose from for his summer afternoon jaunts.
The mid-‘90s saw another big change for the car. When it was bought for the collection it was in the aforementioned signal red, but in the original black-and-white photos it’s possible to make out that the car is indeed two tone, you just can’t see which tones of what. “All the paperwork from before the time it was with the Mercedes dealer was lost before he bought the car, and although we can’t tell what the original colors were, the shadings of the instrument dials are the same blue and grey, and because it seems natural that these colors would match the body’s, we used them for the tones of the paint.” The work was done in the workshop attached to the museum.
Outside in the late autumn sun the car was ready for yet another drive in the hills—the engine having been pre-heated this time. First though, as a coach-load of tourists got ready to leave, I took the opportunity to take some detail shots. The visitors must have been fine art fans coming over for the Dalis, Caravagios, and Picassos, as only a couple of them ambled over to ask João about the car. While they talked I opened the bonnet, which revealed something quite special. It’s only a 2300cc engine, yet it’s a V12. It’s almost a steam punk level of over-engineering, especially as the dozen tiny cylinders only put out a combined 130bhp. A line of three carburetors are stacked up in the valley and a long and obviously handmade air intake is mounted on top and angled at the slot in the nose.
Apart from the paintwork, this is the only modification the car has ever had. It was originally fitted with a single carb, but João’s grandfather thought that it would benefit from a little extra power and as the triple in-line setup was a period factory option, this is what he chose to do. The upgrade was done in a workshop in Switzerland, with the intake being made bespoke, but all the original parts were kept in the collection too, so if João decides in the future to put it back into its original configuration it can easily be returned to its original configuration.
When João cranked the engine over I was expecting an almighty roar, but once it caught and fired it was surprisingly quiet, so much so that I had to go around and stand by the exhaust pipe to properly hear the subdued note. João pulls it off the lawn with a clunk as reverse engages and a few creaks from the rear springs, and before I know it I’m sat inside surrounded by the beautifully crafted interior that presented as fresh and clean as it was the day it was made.
As we left the museum and headed up the hill nearby, both our heads were nudging against the roof lining. Thankfully the huge drop-offs to the side of the otherwise precarious road are protected with double armco and most apexes are lined with strips of black. The reason for this, as well as the streaks of rubber all starting outside the property we’ve just left is that the museum is host to the famous Caramulo Classic Hillclimb Festival, so many of the most glorious classic sports cars from all over Europe have graced this sinuous piece of tarmac with a few spent rinds of rubber.
The 195 would not be João’s first choice for blasting up this hill though. “I love the car for what it is, of course but for me it doesn’t feel like such a special car when I’m driving it,” he shrugs. “My favorite Ferraris are the Testarossa and the F40 which feel like half-car, half-spaceship when you’re behind the wheel, but also comparing it to some other cars of the same period the handling of the 195 isn’t so wonderful. The body rolls around each corner, the steering is heavy, and unless you are concentrating completely it’s very easy to miss a gear.” And right on cue there is a horrible sound of miss-meshing metal from between us and to prove the point about the handling he turns a corner a little sharper than necessary and I had to fumble for the ornate door handle to keep myself upright.
At the top of the hill is the car park where the festival participants regroup before heading back down to the paddock by the museum. João turns the engine off and looks at me expectantly. With a leap of my heart I realized it was my turn to drive so I walked around and got in the other side to slide nervously in behind the oversized steering wheel and go through the mental prep required to handle something like this. “You know how to start it?” he asked, perhaps testing how intimate my knowledge of classic Ferraris really was; you have to turn the key the wrong way until it clicks further into the ignition barrel. Then you can turn it to make contact. Either a quirk or a security feature I’m not sure, but I was too busy feathering the throttle to see how easily the revs rose before I let out the clutch.
There’s no lurch, no sense that the car is straining to go. Every other Ferrari I’ve driven or even just been a passenger in has been a more or less raw experience of driving pleasure (or just outright terrifying as was the case with the 308 GTB Rallye we published previously).
As I felt around for a clue for where 2nd gear was, my mind scanned back on my life’s driving experience for the best comparison. The closest I could come up with was my grandad’s Chrysler Avenger, although that had a much smoother gearbox. It was a strange experience, the steering wheel felt far too big but without power steering I suppose it needed to be.
I wanted to drive somewhere with a beautiful backdrop for the photoshoot, and João knew of such place with the caveat that the tarmac ended before we could get there. No worries, apparently, as he gave the OK, but the sounds of stones pinging off the underside of the car was the worst noise I’ve ever heard an old car make. This isn’t just a classic Ferrari, it’s not just a concours car, it’s a bonafide museum piece that I was driving as though it was a Land Rover! João wasn’t upset about it as far as I could tell, but with a wheel spinning as I reversed towards the edge of the space, images of the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off flashed in my mind’s eye so I bailed, hands shaking slightly, and let him get it into position instead. Another heart-stopping moment came as we did a three point turn in a tiny village on the way back. A man chopping wood at the side of the road decided not to wait for João to find first gear, raised his huge axe and split a log that flew off inches away from both sides of the car. We all stared in the silence of disbelief at each other for a moment, but then João got it in gear and we headed straight back to the safety of the museum.
To quickly summarize the history of perhaps the most famous automaker in history, Enzo’s race car program hit the ground running but the GT projects needed a few attempts before engineers perfected the formula in the 250 in 1953, and along with the 212 that replaced it I think the 195 Inter is perhaps one of these so-called false starts. It might not be remembered for its game-changing performance or racing results, but it is a really glorious blast to the past, back to distant time when everything was purely mechanical and body panels were beaten by artisans with hammers and anvils. In 1950 when it was released, the 195 Inter might not quite have been an engineering marvel then, but it was certainly a piece of art. As we wheeled it back to its home between a Pegaso Z-102 and a Lancia 037 and I put the information plaque back in front of it, I wondered when it would get to stretch its legs again.