The Ferrari 512 BB LM Is A Silhouette Of The Cavallino Rampante
Photography by Armando Musotto
The Prancing Horse has had a permanent stable in my heart since I was six years old. I still distinctly remember the excited curiosity sparked by the sight of a Ferrari transporter laden with 250 SWBs and GTOs.
Though it would be something else to see these cars race in period, being in their presence at the Targa Florio reenactment all those years ago was more than enough to inspire a lifelong reverence for the marque. I must admit a preference for another equine breed from Stuttgart, but Ferrari will always be held dear, will be forever captivating.
For so many of us car enthusiasts—whether we prefer new or old or foreign or domestic—the name of Ferrari carries a certain sentimentality and gravitas born from motorsport triumph and transcendent beauty. It probably goes without saying that the most beloved cars to come from Maranello often possess both, in spades.
When it comes to cars like the aforementioned SWBs and GTOs, there is seemingly no room for subjectivity when discussing the way they look. They are about as factually good-looking as cars can get, but I’ve always been more drawn to the looks of racing cars that are more clearly defined by their functionality. The 512 BB LM of the 1970s—Ferrari’s endurance sports racing version of its road-going flat-12-powered supercar—is one such machine. It’s extremely long, wide as a steamroller, and the low-mounted headlights, meshed rear end, and exposed powertrain clearly communicate its purpose.
The 512 BB LM is one of the most wonderful exemplars of the wild aesthetics of racing cars born in the early 1970s, but its legacy is not that of a champion competitor. In Europe at the start of the decade, BMW and Porsche typically reigned supreme in sports and touring car racing, but the Oil Crisis put a damper on the racing fervor of the times as the we collectively reassessed our reliance on and uses for fossil fuel.
Motorsport always finds a way to adapt, though, and as part of a response to the declining popularity of racing, the FIA proposed of a new Group 5 racing category dubbed “Special Production Cars,” which granted manufacturers a lot of leeway in homologation terms. In essence, standard touring cars that had met Group 4 requirements could be evolved into wildly augmented and prodigiously powerful versions of their former selves, without requiring a burdensome level of production versions to be made to grant eligibility. These cars came to be known as the “silhouettes” (only their silhouettes resembled the road-going versions). The freedoms permitted in this category produced some of the most radical machines to ever put a tire to tarmac.
This new categorization (along with a similar ruleset implemented in IMSA in North America) gave rise to the Porsche 935, Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbo, Greenwood Corvette, and of course the 512 BB LM. Innovations bordered on rule-breaking, the cars were maniacally fast, and the spectacle of it all was enough to sear this era into our collective memory as one of the most iconic eras of sports car racing.
In Italy in those years, Ferrari was totally committed to Formula 1, but it heeded the call to do battle in Group 5 as well. A few years earlier, Ferrari had shown the flat-12-powered 365 GT/4 BB at the 1971 Turin Motor Show, and with the car in production by 1973 it had already met the production requirements to enter Group 5 by the time the FIA put the new rulebooks into practice.
Before its Group 5 guise came to be, Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team (N.A.R.T.) had already converted the 365 GT/4 BB platform into a racer by 1975, and found some moderate success with it before Ferrari began developing its own version that would debut at Le Mans three years later. Ferrari initially built four cars which carried the 512 BB LM name, which were entered at Le Mans under the management of Charles Pozzi, N.A.R.T., and Ecurie Francorchamps. All four cars dropped out of the race, prompting Ferrari to revise the car for more fortuitous forays into Group 5 competition.
The Group 5 versions of the 512 BB progress from the ’78 Le Mans specification in three stages. The first, in the latter half of 1978, retained a strong visual resemblance to the base car, with the primary evolutionary jump being the switch from carburetors to electronic fuel injection. Another round of changes followed in 1979, and this marked a pretty drastic aesthetic departure from the road car, most noticeable on the front end. Now equipped with low bumper-mounted headlights, the nose became more purposeful, and the rest of the body followed suit, with a significantly longer tail, a new rear wing design, and a general move toward a singular shape than the previous iterations, which were more akin to fettled-with road cars.
Between 1980 and 1982 the third and final series of BB LMs were made, and these cars presented some minor technical refinements while retaining the bodywork. The official debut of the revised Group 5 BB LM was at a very cold Daytona, on February 3rd, 1979. Among the starters of the 24-hour race were many Porsches, a handful of BMWs, a Lancia Stratos, and two teams with three Ferrari BB LMs between them: two run by JMS Pozzi, and one with N.A.R.T. None finished the race.
The car would attempt Le Mans again later that year, but the problems from Daytona seem to stay with them, as of the four BB LMs entered, only one passes under the checkered flag. Indeed it would take a few years before the project gets any significant results, in 1981 and 1982 at Le Mans, finishing fifth (first and class) and sixth, respectively.
After the 1982 season, Group 5 is replaced by Group B and Group C regulations, and the 512 BB LM is rendered all but obsolete for its purpose. It was not a champion, but it was a true competitor, and a captivating piece of racing history born in an insane era from a storied marque. That is more than enough to make the car an icon, I would like to think.
Over the course of this summer’s (limited) historic racing season, I had the honor and pleasure of photographing my very favorite of these beastly beauties, the “3M” car campaigned by the Charles Pozzi team.
This particular car (chassis 26685) runs under the aegis of the GPS Classic team of Soragna led by Tommaso Gelmini, a gentleman driver and vintage racing enthusiast. The car has been restored, but features the original 3M livery and the original 4.9-liter flat-12.
In period, it was entered by the Pozzi team at Daytona in 1979, as well as at Le Mans in 1979 and 1980, so while it may not come with a trophy case, it isn’t without some serious provenance. Tommaso is able to enjoy it these days in a team with Pierre Mellinger, the two happy to push it to its limits in historic events. Seeing it racing again, smearing its tires on famous European circuits is a joyful thing to witness. Not just because of its propensity to produce auditory magic, or to evoke memories both real and imagined. It’s simply enough that it’s living this kind of life, doing what it was explicitly made for.
Thank you to Tommaso Gelmini and GPS Classic for sharing this special car