By: Ed Niles
When I experienced my Ferrari epiphany, in 1959, it was considered quite normal to drive old Ferraris on the street. Mind you, owning a Ferrari was not that common. In fact, it was quite extraordinary. That was part of why it was such a high, sweet adventure.
If one were lucky enough to own a Ferrari, one certainly drove it. Everywhere. It didn't matter that the car might have been designed for racing (we didn't distinguish). It didn't matter that the car was cranky or fussy or difficult to drive (well, in those days, weren't they all?).
It was like that old army admonition: "Smoke if you got'em". Only with us was only: "Drive'em if you got'em". They had their 4-cylinder MG's and Triumphs, or their 6-cylinder Jags. We had the sweet soprano song of the V-12! We were somebody!
One such guy was Bob Peake, who had a neat little roadster that he used to drive down from his home in Santa Barbara to Ferrari meets around the West side of Ellay. It looked sorta like a 750 Monza, but we knew it wasn't, 'cause it had a V-12 engine. Beyond that, we didn't spend a lot of time puzzling over the car's exact heritage, serial number, or anything else. We were just getting together to have a good time. We used to see Bob driving the car in the early 60's. Then it disappeared for a year or two. In 1964, the car showed up in the hands of Chuck Betz, of Orange County. Chuck was "taking bids" on the car. I think maybe Chuck may have had it on consignment from Bob, but that part is a little unclear.
166 Spyder Corsa/Barchetta s/n 014i as it appears today.
Now, Norm Blank enters the picture. Norm is a really neat guy, and one of the most stable you'll ever meet. During the entire time that I have known Norm (over 30 years now), he has lived in the same house, and has the same Ferraris (yes, he has more than one).
O.K., let's pull the story together. Yes, Norm bought Bob Peake's roadster. (In those days, we were all a bunch of overgrown hot-rodders, so we called them Roadsters, not the current terminology of "Spyder", which after all is not even an Italian word.)
Norm drove the car to a few meets, but he had another Ferrari, (a short wheel base Berlinetta) that was really more driveable. So, with the passage of time, we saw less and less of the roadster. Of course, it helps to remember that, as cars got more modern and more pleasant, these old Ferraris became less and less fun to drive. So the old roadster fell into disuse.
You know what happens when a car isn't driven regularly: The brakes sieze up. The carburetors get plugged up with that red STUFF. The rubber starts to go to rubber heaven. In short, the car becomes unsafe, if not downright undriveable. During the great Ferrari madness of the 80's, I used to ring Norm on the tele every once in a while, to see if I could pry the car loose from him. But I think we both knew he was not going to sell. Ever. That car was a lot more than just a piece of merchandise that was escalating in value to Norm. He loved that little car.
The engine compartment in all its unrestored spendor.
And Norm used to list himself in the roster as "Investor", which I guess means that he has a little money and doesn't have to work for a living. So money was not any particular inducement to Norm. He hung on.
But we never got to see the car anymore.
That's why I was jumping up and down with joy when I spotted it at Monterey last year. Yes, God bless his soul, Norm had cleaned out all the fluid-carrying passages, got the car running, and hauled it up to Monterey for all to see. And the beautiful part, for me, was that he had not restored it! The car was exactly the way it was when he bought it: Paint peeling from the engine and driver's compartments, cracks in the body work, spark-plug wire looms missing, etc. Now the Lord knows we saw plenty of beautiful restorations at Monterey in 1994, maybe even a few over-restorations. But maybe that's why it was so great to see Norm's car in its original (?) configuration.
I have a put a question mark after "original", because it's readily apparent to any student of Ferrari history that Norm's car is not wearing its original skin. This is its "long pants" suit. It was born into "short pants", meaning a body of quite a different shape.
Norm's car bears a serial number of 014i. (Time out for a short lesson on Ferrari serial numbers). Conventional wisdom is that the first two or three cars made by Enzo Ferrari bore a one-digit number. Oddly enough the numbers were 1, 2 and 3. Then there was a short series of cars, up to number 024MB in the even numbered series, which bore three digits. CW is that one or more of the single-digit cars mysteriously turned into three-digit cars. (What, Enzo made a used car into a new car?)
So if you follow the logic, and the math, you will see that Norm's car was around the 14th, or the 15th, or the 16th, or the 17th Ferrari built. The Marelli magnetos which supply the spark to the engine bear serial numbers 30 and 32, which would tend to support the above. (I say tend to, as little can be said about early Ferrari history with absolute certainty).
Author Ed Niles (left) congratulates Norm Blank at Monterey, August, 1994.
Anyway, the cars in these series were built with what we call "cigar" bodies. They were very slim bodies barely wrapping around the frame and engine, with separate fenders more or less flapping in the breeze over each wheel. While little is known about the early history of 014i, a casual inspection of the radiator and gas tank will confirm their round shape (when viewed from the front or rear), which certainly substantiates the belief of historians that this car was originally bodied in quite a different style. The shape of the body presently on the car is very similar to that of a 750 Monza (but, of course, smaller) which would date the body to approximately 1954.
The interior of 014i. Note the snake skin seats, early horn button (no Prancing Horse!) and ever-ready toolbox.
In fact, Michele (Mike) Vernola, of Bari, Italy, tells us that he had something to do with the rebodying of this car. One can only guess, from the styling characteristics, that the rebody was done at the Modena shops of Scaglietti; there are no body badges to give us a better clue. Without question, the snake skin seats were added concurrently with the rebody.
Technically, Norm's car would have originally been called a 166 Inter, or 166 Spyder Corsa. It's a tiny car, with an engine of just two liters capacity. I was privileged to take a drive in 014i when Chuck Betz had it, and can still remember how impressed I was at the liveliness of the car, considering its small engine capacity. Yes, it was harsh and bouncy, and didn't want to stop too well (it had the small drum brakes with circular air vents common to very early Ferraris). The "hard as iron" Pirelli Stelvio Corsa tires didn't help the ride. But it was sure a lot of fun blasting around with the wind in one's hair! Maybe if we all gave Norm Blank a round of applause that he can hear all the way to Pasadena, he'll bring his roadster out for all to see! He's a lucky man to own such a fascinating piece of early Ferrari history, and I (among others) have to confess to a bit of envy!
About the author: Ed Niles, a lawyer in the San Fernando Valley, has been active in the world of Ferraris for more than 35 years. During that time he has owned more than 100 of Maranello's products and has met some strange and wonderful characters. During occasional moments of lucidity, he will share remembrances of cars and people he has known and loved.