This Ferrari 355 Challenge Car Is The Culmination Of A Life’s Passion
Photography by Robb Williamson
Robb Williamson isn’t your average Ferrari collector. He’s not some big money dude who’s been socking away rare beasts for his own enjoyment. No, Rob’s a retired military veteran who travels the world as a photojournalist and architectural documentarian, who lives humbly with his family in Arizona. What sets him apart from his peers, however, is that he’s invested every free moment and dollar in his passion: ’80s and ’90s Ferraris.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with him recently and was really blown away by the depth of his story. I think you’ll feel the same.
Ted Gushue: Tell me the story of how you became obsessed with late ’80s/early ’90s Ferraris.
Robb Williamson: It probably started out when I was a young kid growing up, and I had my first job at the movie theater, 14, 15 year old finally getting my license. We’d go with the guys that worked at the movie theater to Ferrari of Houston, and we’d just press our noses and hands up against the wall and look inside at all the 308s, and at the time, the Boxer 512s, and we’d just be dreaming that one day we’re going to own that red Ferrari. One day we’re going to own one of Enzo’s creations.
I had a dream to go be a designer of cars, but I couldn’t pass chemistry in engineering school, so I said, “I’m not going to be an engineer of cars.”
TG: Why do you need chemistry to be an engineer?
RW: I think you just have to pass the basic classes, and being in a class with 300 people, with a professor up at the front of the class that I couldn’t quite understand that well, and not having any background interest…just didn’t really gel for me to be in a class that big trying to learn chemistry, so I figured out quite early on in college, “Hey, I’m not going to be a designer of sports cars,” so took a different detour in life, became a commercial photographer, a photojournalist, but I never gave up the dream to own Ferraris.
TG: A pretty interesting career path for someone that wants to own Ferraris. Typically don’t associate photojournalist with Ferrari driver.
RW: You typically don’t, but I guess I’m an odd duck. To go back, I went into the Army as an early entrant with my dad’s signature before I graduated high school, and I went up and they said, “You scored the highest points possible on the ASVAB test. What do you want to do in the military?” I said, “I want to do whatever pays me the biggest bonus because I’m going to put it towards a new car.” They said, “You can be a truck driver. That pays a huge amount of money. You can be a cook. You can be a plumber.”
TG: Those pay the most?
RW: They used to pay a bonus for jobs that they were in high need for in the military, and I could’ve been a tank driver or a nuclear submarine operator or something like that, but I ended up wanting the biggest bonus, so I said what’s the biggest bonus? They gave me those three options: Truck driver, cook, or plumber. I said, “Let’s put in that laser disc of the truck driver”. They put in the Pioneer laser disc, and an hour later, being excited, I said, “Where do I sign? I got an $8,000 bonus,” back in 1986, and I said, “I’m ready to go.”
The actual start from being in the movie theater, dreaming about cars at Ferrari of Houston, pressing my nose up against the class, to joining the army and becoming a truck driver for 28-wheeled vehicles, transporting tanks and other big machinery, to going to college, becoming a photojournalist because my dad gave me a camera for graduation, and I was so excited to learn how to use it that all I did from then on was just take pictures, pictures, pictures, back in the film days.
The first photography class I took was a photojournalism class because the Fine Art photography class was all full. The guy that I took the class from taught me how to process film and how to tell stories with your pictures, and I was really excited about that. The next thing you know, I’m shooting a lot of sporting events for the school paper, yearbook, state paper, Reuters, newspapers, and United Press International, shooting every sporting event under the sun. I was a photographer at LSU when Shaquille O’Neal was there, so I was always on the court getting crushed by him. When he was going for a rebound, he’d bound into the photographers section.
RW: Going from that, I finally discovered that photojournalism didn’t pay as well as it needed to pay for getting a Ferrari some day. I found the wide world of advertising photography and commercial photography better to my liking. Instead of shooting color negative film or black and white negative film, we shot color slide film on your Fuji Chrome, Ektachrome, Kodachrome, and got really well paying assignments working for real estate development type photography, architects, engineers, and then eventually into aviation.
I was really excited to pick up the camera and go to work everyday, still dreaming about owning a Ferrari someday. In the middle, there was a classic ’83 Porsche 911SC that I became the owner of. Loved the car, but I really wanted a Ferrari 308, which at the time my wife said, “No, we’re not really going to be able to come up with the extra money for that Ferrari 308, so you have to settle for something”. Settling was not something I was really excited about. I love air-cooled Porsches, but I always felt like I was settling because what I really wanted was the Ferrari.
I also had a BMW that I put my bonus money in the military towards, but that was a 325ES, probably not one of their most sporting engines at the time when fuel economy was at the forefront. I was very excited because it had anti-lock brakes. It was one of the first cars in the US that had anti-lock brakes.
Airbags were not really the thing yet. It did have the third extra brake light on the back ,which was a novelty that started up in that time. The rest of the car was really fun for a kid that was 17, 18, that wanted to drive the wheels off. Wasn’t really a prestige thing, although the yuppies were out in force back in the ’80s. It was more it was a solidly built car, handled really well, braked really well, that was my own.
Then along the way as a photographer, you have to go offroad and be a lot of places, so I owned a couple of trucks here and there, but the big turning point was when I was 38 and I decided, “Hey, I promised myself I was going to own a Ferrari before I hit 40,” so I took some savings and I went out, made a big road trip to find the right car, to find ‘the’ car. I had been on FerrariChat, the online Ferrari forum, for probably a couple years, and just got great information there from all the other owners and users.
Finally found my dream car, Argento Silver 328 GTS Targa top, tan interior. Pretty rare combination. It was not a red Ferrari. Didn’t really want a red Ferrari because I just felt like when you see a Ferrari, they’re always red. I wanted it to be even more unique, even though owning a Ferrari, you’re in that 1 per million in the world that could actually own one.
I flew out to Missouri with my son in tow. He was a 9 year old. You can imagine a 9 year old going on a road trip to go pick up a Ferrari. We drove back 1,200 miles. We started in Denver, Colorado, where I lived, and just a fantastic road trip. The roads were not particularly curvy…
TG: Did you break down at all?
RW: No, we drove the car all the way back. Our first stop out of the shop that sold me the car was, I think, to stop at a Wendy’s, grab my son something to eat, and then we got on the open road. The roads were not particularly curvy. Pretty much straight as narrow through Kansas, but a lot of interesting things to see. The conversation, the engine noise, just learning all about the car, the gauges. That was actually the first Ferrari I had ever driven.
TG: No hiccups, no issues on the way back?
RW: No hiccups, no issues. It was really a solid car. Gated shifter, 5 speed, manual, Took a lot of pictures along the way, being a photographer, so the camera’s there with me. Got it back, and then Ferrari ownership was pretty uneventful and exciting with lots of trips in the mountains of Colorado for the next 5 or so years.
TG: Must’ve been torture only being able to drive it so many months of the year, though.
RW: We’d have to put it away probably in October after the first snows in Colorado. They don’t use salt in Colorado, but they do sand the roads, and so you’ll end up with rock chips and stuff like that. Generally, sometime in April, you can take it out, and you put it away in October if you live in Colorado.
We soon after moved to Arizona, I drove the car to Arizona. That was another, really, really good, epic road trip, but when we got to the new house after probably a year in Arizona, we realized, “Man, it’s really hot out here,” and as you all probably know, the air conditioning in a 328, not particularly exciting. Like an asthmatic mouse blowing through a straw on your knee.
After that, my wife looked at me one day in the garage and said, “Hey, maybe you want to buy a newer Ferrari”. I said, “I don’t know. This is my dream car. I waited 40 years to buy this car and had posters on the wall and everything else”. I said, “I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it”. About a month or so later, reality set in, and it sounded like a good plan to buy a more modern Ferrari, a more comfortable Ferrari, one with good air conditioning or at least better air conditioning, and a car that was maybe faster and more dynamic on the road.
I ended up selling the silver 328 to another guy in Arizona, so the car is still in Arizona, and I was sad that day that it left, but I had $60,000 in my pocket to be able to go spend on a new Ferrari, and it was good because I bought it for about $60,000, gave it a major service which wasn’t too bad on those cars, and then put that money into a new car. I started really honing in on what I was going to get. I was either going to look at a 550 front engine 12-cylinder, or a 360, but I wasn’t really excited because it became a much bigger car, even if it was a little bit faster or a little bit more comfortable. I was used to the smaller cars of Ferrari, and then the third candidate was a 355, which I thought, “I love the looks, I love the pop headlights. I’m a pop up headlight guy”. I really liked the driving position and the comfort inside. It was definitely better than the 328, which I thought had hard seats, very rigid driving position.
I was pretty excited about that, and I turned all my focus into 355s. Worked with my mechanic to ride and drive in several of these cars. Great mechanic out of Colorado, took me for a ride in a number, and I was really amazed at how much better the gearbox was than the gear box in the 328.
Then came the decision to go gated or an F1 shifter. I would say you’ll have arguments on both sides of the aisle. Some people are really crazy about their F1 shifters because Ferrari invented the technology and they came directly from the F1, and I’ve driven both gated and F1 cars, and they’re both really fantastic experiences. It does feel like you remove a little bit of yourself from driving the car. I like using my left hand, my right hand, my left foot, my right foot, and all the senses in between, and I felt like there was just a little bit removed from that process driving an F1 car.
The first 355 I looked at was an F1 car. It was out of Houston, and…I decided not to get that car, just because it was going to turn into a bidding war, and I didn’t really feel like doing that, and I figured I’d be the good guy and just let somebody have the car that needed it, and the search continued. Started looking at other cars. Started to figure out that the 1995 Ferrari 355s had a little bit of extra horsepower, because of the different engine management system that it ran. Had no alarm FOBs. To be able to start up the car, you just put the key in and go. Didn’t have any issues with the aftermarket exhaust, like Tubi’s or Capristo’s. Just decided that a 1995 was probably my best option.
Looked at Spiders. Looked at GTSs. Looked at Berlinettas, but Berlinettas I thought had the prettiest lines of all the cars. Even though I was coming from a Targa, I loved the open air motoring when you wanted it, but I also loved the fact that the Berlinetta was the car that when you ask a Ferrari guy, what’s he really looking for, the Berlinetta always comes to the top of the pile because it’s so pretty, the history goes back so far, and so I ended up finding the perfect car in Colorado, bought it, drove it back, another 1,200 epic miles through the 4 corners of New Mexico, the Rocky Mountains in the February snow. I had dry roads, but it was cold, and the mountains were all covered in snow, so it made the photo experience on the way back—just fantastic.
Fast forward two years, my brother had bought a house near us in Arizona, and he really wanted to enjoy life a little bit more, and so I talked him into looking into Ferraris, and at the time, Ferraris were starting to really go up in value on a monthly basis. I just told my brother, I said, “Hey, if you’re ever going to buy a nice sports car, a classic sports car, and you want a Ferrari, you better buy it now or you’re going to pay twice for it in the future”. We ended up finding a great car for sale from a private seller in Fort Lauderdale. I flew out to Fort Lauderdale, checked out the car, wired the money over to the new owner, and then my brother was a Ferrari 355 owner, so we had 2 cars in the same garage under the same roof that were stable mates. Mine was yellow, his was red. Mine was a Berlinetta. His was a GTS. Mine was an early engine management system 2.7. His was a later 97 with a 5.2 engine management system.
That went on for about six months, with us making sure we were updating his car and fixing some little things that needed attending to, and we started talking about other cars that we could buy together, and put more of our money together to get a car that we could enjoy together and see where that would go. We also noticed that Ferrari prices were continuing to march upward, and we didn’t want to see the boat sail away and be unable to purchase another really beautiful car that we both liked so much. We’d seen that happen with the Countach. We’d seen that happen with other Ferraris, other Porsches.
We started looking and becoming interested in Ferrari Challenge cars, and I think we really liked the idea of a Challenge car because of the history that really took Ferrari ownership to the next level. What ended up happening was we started looking at Challenge cars because of the race history. The people that generally owned Challenge cars back in the day were the Ferrari owners that just took the volume nob to 11. They loved taking their street Ferraris on the track.
TG: Real nutjobs.
RW: Real nutjobs. Absolutely the biggest enthusiasts you could imagine. Basically, The Ferrari Challenge Series started in 1993 in Europe. First in Italy, and then it spread through Europe, to include England and France and Belgium and Switzerland. The 348 Challenge cars were basically cars that owners could take a regular 348, buy a kit from Ferrari to have a dealer make the changes to turn it into a track car. The kit comprised of new seats, roll cage, fire suppression system, air ducts, other improvements to get the car on the track.
It just became a raging success, following in the footsteps of the Porsche Cup series. Along came the Ferrari 355 in 1994, and in the United States, in North America, there was actually only one driver originally that bought a 355 Challenge in 1995 to race against all the 348s, and needless to say, he won the series that year. It was by such a margin that they decided to create two categories, one for the 348 challenges and one for the future 355 Challenge cars.
There’s probably 100 drivers in North America that raced in the Challenge series for 355s, and in the world…Although Wikipedia will have you believe that there’s only 108 challenge cars in the world, that’s just simply not true. There’s a little over 300 Challenge cars that were made. About half of those, or a little less than half, were factory cars that had certain things done at the factory that the dealer did not have to do when the car was delivered. That started from 1996 onto the end of the series for the 355 in ’99. The cars were always based on the 1995 model, so all the cars had the same horsepower, same engine management, same ECUs, things like that.
What happened was, we actually started looking for this car. There’s very few of them that ever turn up for sale every year. There were only two for sale in the United States and Canada when we started looking, and probably about 4 months later, we were finally able to pull the trigger on a car. Two cars for sale; one was for sale with Chicago dealer Nick Mancuso, and the only other car was at Ferrari of Houston, but it had a track record from the Venezuelan series of 355 Challenge racing. My brother and I thought that if, for some reason, we’re able to get a title for the vehicle and be able to drive it on the road later, it’s going to be easier to do that with an American VIN number than a Venezuelan, which uses a European VIN number.
RW: Talked to Nick Mancuso more about that car. Got some compression numbers checked out. Checked out some photographs of the car; asked for some more detailed photographs. Then probably a week or so later, we negotiated a price, and I flew up to Chicago, checked out the car in person, and purchased the car.
It really did look quite incredible when I saw it in person. The photos that I saw that they had taken at the dealership really made the car look like it had been put away wet about 100 times and never really cared for, but once you got up close and personal, as a photographer, I realized very quickly that photographer didn’t do that car any justice.
TG: Yeah, of course. Happens all the time.
RW: We looked deeper into what the car needed, what it was missing, because our goal was to basically restore the car to its original running condition. The car was missing so many original accessories and original pieces because the car had, after its days racing in the Ferrari Challenge series, raced in the SCCA series, and they have slightly different rules and regulations for safety, so the interior roll cage had been removed from Ferrari and made by OMP, and it had been replaced with a welded steel cage inside that was thicker, quite different, different in appearance. The original seats were missing, with new aftermarket seats that just looked atrocious. The original steering wheel was replaced with something that looked like it belonged on a Honda Civic. There were a lot of things about the car that were not true to the original series.
That started basically a march to find out the true history of this car and find out where had it been, who had owned the car, and being able to go trace its roots through a lot of leg work, a lot of phone calls, a lot of airplane flights, was the most exciting thing during that next year of ownership of the car.
TG: What’s it like to drive it?
RW: We haven’t had it on the track yet, and because it doesn’t have a street license, it’s just been in limbo for the last year being restored, but it was 117 degrees in Phoenix last week. Once we get through this summer back to the fall, we’re going to get it over to Southern California to a track, get it out on the track. I can explain what it’s like to drive other 355s, but this car has only been up and down the block a couple of times, and it is quite an animal. Until we actually get it on the track, I’d probably have to save that for part 2 of your story…