Crossing France In A Ferrari: Looking Back On Driving The 2020 Tour Auto With A 1963 Ferrari 250 GT Lusso
Photography by Romuald Clariond
Last year, I had the pleasure of following the annual Padre-Figlio (“father-son”) Ferrari rally, and I remember being smitten with a brown Ferrari 250 GT Lusso. It’s one of those cars that even if I could afford one, I’d buy a few houses first. One of those cars that we can content ourselves with simply looking at, leaving the element of driving to the imagination rather than experience. But a few months ago, a friend of mine who we’ll call “O” told me he would soon be welcoming a 250 GT Lusso into his collection. He let me drive the car on the Corniche between Monaco and Villefranche-sur-Mer this summer, which helped me check off a few items on the good old bucket list in a single blissful afternoon.
During the summer I invited O to participate in a rally I was planning to attend, and he asked me if the dates were the same as the Tour Auto, to my confusion; “But haven’t you been blacklisted from the Tour Auto?” As it happened, during the 2019 edition of the historic French road race, O’s co-driver slept off a boozy dinner in the team’s Fiat. In the morning each team member was subjected to a blood alcohol test as standard, but the in-car nap wasn’t enough for a passing grade. The team was thusly banned from the event—to be clear, the co-driver had no plans but to nurse a hangover in the passenger seat—a decision that was especially frustrating for my friend O, who had gone to bed early the night before and woke up as most of do, sober. As is often the case when nice material things are involved, O found a solution to get himself back to the Tour Auto for 2020. Or as he puts it, “With a Lusso, I guess they whitelisted me!”
And that was the beginning of the story of how I ended up in this year’s Tour Auto in a Ferrari 250. When he offered the co-driver’s spot to me I figured my answer would go without saying, but to make sure this wasn’t taking place in my head I voiced my “hell yeah” anyway.
About a month afterwards, after having the Lusso checked over at a friends’ shop, Garage des Moneghetti, I was driving the Lusso to the starting line at Grand Palais in Paris during our shakedown road test. And it proved prudent, too, as I had problems with the fuel pump as soon as I left Monaco. As I called on my way, Garage des Moneghetti’s boss Jey told me to stop in Bandol at another friend’s garage, and that he’d join me there. About two kilometers from the destination, the car decided it had gone far enough and refused to move under its own power. Jey’s buddy Loïc came out to put together a jury rigged external system that pumped from a jerry can on the passenger-side floor. Beats dealing with the anxiety of a tow truck, I suppose.
The car arrived at the garage, Jey met us from Monaco, and he and the guys installed a new fuel pump while I booked a nearby hotel to get some rest before my pre-sunrise departure the following morning.
It was raining when I woke on Saturday, a few days ahead of the official start of the Tour Auto. Not the ideal weather for a nearly 60-year-old Italian sports car, but alas, we were on a mission that involved many miles and hours of un-storage, so there was no time to wring hands about the situation. I was finally driving to Paris to meet up with the rest of the entrants, so I was feeling pretty great, and the Lusso of course only amplified the anticipatory excitement at what was to come.
On the motorway, with the Colombo V12’s intake and exhaust duet singing beautifully, it’s to be in another world. And not just the typical “this is like time traveling” sense, but in our own time. Cars like this are so far away from the everyday that you can’t help but view the world differently through its windscreen. A left turn into the petrol station becomes a left turn into the petrol station in a Ferrari 250 GT, if that makes any sense. Even if I could own one of these, I don’t think I could ever get used to that suffix. I’m vacuuming the crumbs out of the carpets, in my Ferrari 250 GT.
Anyway, if it needs to be spelled out, it was a pleasure to drive the car to Paris, even on the most mundane parts of the route. After a night in the neighborhood of the famous Café de Flore, O and I drove to the Grand Palais where the Tour Auto participants and cars congregate before the driving portion of the event kicks off. The scene is like a beautiful renaissance painting with more modern subjects; the regal but delicate architecture of the Grand Palais is a fitting frame for the nearly 200 cars that fill the space with epitome after epitome of good-looking automobiles.
On Monday, August 31st, the first day of driving in the Tour Auto we were passing technical checks and installing the stickers and the GPS tracker provided by the organization. On the Tour Auto, only chronographs are “allowed,” but these GPS units are installed by the organizers for safety and to check that speed limit is not broken as the group of cars transits through urban zones.
After watching another film of French director Éric Rohmer, as we did every evening in Paris leading up to the start day, O and I headed back to our rooms for a short night’s rest before the morning departure, as we were set to leave the Grand Palais around 6:30AM to drive to Autodrome de Linas-Montléry. At 06:13 in the morning, I found myself groggily walking around Grand Palais snapping a photo of a Porsche 906 Carrera 6, with the back of the blonde co-driver’s race suit splayed with “Caramba” in Porsche-type font. This Porsche 906 is apparently the first 906 ever built, which given the Tour Auto’s 2020 theme of Porsche prototypes, makes it a perfect encapsulation of the types of cars that run in the Tour Auto.
At Linas-Montléry later in the morning, someone is calling from the little crowd at the front door of the track. It’s Antony Villain, a car photography nut who also happens to be the Director of Design at Alpine. Funny as Alpine’s Chief Vehicle Engineer, Jean-Pascal Dauce, had also visited me in Grand Palais the evening before. As they always say—whether your passion is cars or collecting stamps—it’s really all about the personal connections and shared experience.
The first day was a bit, hectic, but nothing we couldn’t handle with our road book and navigational abilities; I’ve done my share of Cannonballs, and O is an experienced yachtsman (who is planning to enter the 2022 Route du Rhum one-man transatlantic sailing race, if that helps back up my statement).
As we passed through the French commune of Tulle, we stopped to buy a notebook—which ended up helping us a lot in the days ahead—and I noticed that we would be passing by a public cultural building named Médiathèque Éric Rohmer, after the famed director whose films we watched the previous evenings in Paris, a neat coincidence. As we press onward we cross through Corrèze, Dordogn, and some beautiful landscapes in between on the road sections of the Tour. The route then took us towards Marseille; if not a true coast-to-coast event, the Tour Auto reminded me a bit of the New York to LA journey I’ve become familiar with over the years.
Throughout the stages, we saw a few cars on their side or on their roof, like my friend’s Alfa Romeo Giulia 1750 GTAm between Limoges and Toulouse, or a DeTomaso Pantera. Regardless of how aggressively they drove, almost a quarter of the 195 starting teams did not finish Tour Auto this summer. After a dinner next to the beautiful Pont du Gard, O and I were quite happy (and maybe a bit lucky, too) to reach Circuit Paul-Ricard without any serious trouble on Saturday, September 5th, after the week of country-crossing. It was only fitting that on the last day, we had an oil pressure issue.
Jey came to Le Castellet to check the car, and we decided that I would have to bring the Lusso back to Monaco on a trailer on Sunday, after the gala dinner taking place in Marseille’s Palais du Pharo. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself (I know, I know) that the opportunity to backtrack my earlier journey in the Lusso, but alas, I would be able to accompany the car and trailer back home in my friend Philippe Médart’s DeTomaso Pantera GTS, with license plate “NYFAIM” Regarding the plate’s acronym (Carrol Shelby saying that “Next year Ferrari’s ass is mine” back in the mid 1960s rivalry), Philippe is a Shelby importer for Europe.
He had his company’s (Gentleman Cars) pickup and trailer at the finish to bring the DeTomaso back to Belgium, but being the incredibly nice guy that he is, he let me drive it back to Monaco and followed along with his Ford pickup (with licence plate “TYFAIM”) to load the car up and get back to Belgium in the opposite direction. But I doubt he regretted the kind gesture, as when we arrived in Monaco we had a pretty full day of motors including a Riva Ariston, a Vincent and some BMW motorcycles, a Porsche 356 Speedster, along with some oysters and lobsters and lots of shared laughs. It was one of those days that form new friendships and fortify existing ones, and it could have just as easily happened with some old jet skis and fast food hamburgers. As it happened though, it was the perfect ending to a daydream of a journey, and something that I’ll always be thankful to call a memory. I’d like to thank all of my friends who made this possible, to the Tour Auto organizers for keeping the tradition alive, and for everyone who’s read this all the way down to the end. Thank you all!