By: Ed Niles
I have this theory of cycles, see. Everything in the world goes in cycles.
World economics change in broad cycles. The trouble is, most of us don't live long enough to perceive these broad cycles, nor learn the lessons to be derived therefrom.
Governmental cycles are sometimes so grand that they span several generations. Personal cycles, on the other hand, tend to follow the lunar orbit.
The list goes on endlessly. The stock market, housing surpluses and deficits, clothing styles, you name it.
Right now, we're in a crazy part of a cycle involving automobile prices, especially Ferraris. Lord knows I'm an expert on this subject. I wish that I had retained about 95 percent of the Ferraris I have owned in my lifetime, which in turn is about 95 percent of all the Ferraris ever made! But then, I simply didn't have the foresight to see where I was in that particular cycle.
But this isn't a story about car values. We're supposed to be talking about LM's, right?
I once owned an LM. In fact, I twice owned an LM. The same one. So this is a story about the short but violent cycles through which that particular car travelled in the short time that I knew and loved it.
You know my philosophy; if there is a Ferrari I haven't tried, I should try it. At least once. Maybe more, if the first one was an okay car. I have owned about a half a dozen Lussos and a like number of short-wheel-base Berlinettas, so you can see where my fondness lies.
There was a time in my life when I had never owned an LM, so when one came up for sale in San Francisco at a time in my personal economic cycle when I could afford it, nothing would do but that I buy it. I flew up to San Francisco and met Bob Cooper of Cooper Lumber Company who said, "Here, you drive it and see if you like it." I probably didn't kill the engine more than three or four times before I finally got it rolling, and was then so intimidated that I tried to shift into 2nd at about 3500 r.p.m. Garaunch! I discovered that the LM had a crashbox, and along with it discovered that the car was not accustomed to being shifted at 3500 r.p.m. The next time I ran it up to 7000 r.p.m. before shifting, and discovered that it slipped into the next gear as smoothly as a hot knife through butter. (Or knife through hot butter? I never could keep my cliches straight.)
Having thus convinced myself that I was truly a winning driver of world championship class, I immediately bought the car and took it on its drive home to Los Angeles. I soon discovered that LM's are very hot cars. This one was particularly hot. The rubber bellows around the pedals were all shot, so that radiator heat blasted in from the floor board. The water pipes running along the door sills didn't help either, nor did the sharply sloped windshield which let an extraordinary amount of hot sun touch the black upholster. The engine heat came right through the fire wall, locate immediately adjacent to my spine. As it turned out, this was the hottest day of the summer of 1967, so all in all, it was not your thrilling drive home.
But I did have a little diversion along the way. I picked up a black-and-white in my rear-view mirror, while travelling down 101. This car, number 5909, had been relegated to street use for a while, and had a speedometer attached. I carefully maintained my speed within the limit, and after four or five miles I saw the black-and-white ease off toward the off-ramp. I maintained my speed, however, and -- sure enough -- he came immediately back on the on-ramp. He did this to me no less than five times, but I was lucky smart enough to maintain my speed throughout the whole exercise.
I finally got the car home, and after several days of recovering from heat exhaustion, I took a good look at it. It was painted bright gold (YUK!) and had numerous cracks in the thin aluminum skin, so it gave me still another opportunity to find a flaky painter. (I attract flaky painters like steel filings to a magnet.) Eventually, after many months in the paint shop, detailing the bejesus out of it, etc., it was looking really good in a proper bright red. In fact, it was looking so good that I entered it in a major Concours d'Elegance at Newport Beach, where it was the hit of the show. Shortly thereafter, as is my wont, I placed the car on the market and my first caller was Sonny Bono. He arrived in an Omega (you remember the Omega!) and in order to con his business manager, I was forced to take the Omega in trade. That's another story I'll tell you sometime. The balance was paid in hundred dollar bills which he peeled off of a roll large enough to choke the proverbial horse. (Aha, another cliche!) My first clue about what was going to happen to my cherished LM was when Sonny refused my offer of a cockpit checkout with his response, "No, I know how to drive!" For the first week or two thereafter, I received reports that the car was seen parked daily in front of the Playboy Club. Then it disappeared. The story was that Sonny had already broken the gearbox, which didn't surprise me in the light of his cavalier attitude about his driving abilities.
Somehow, the car was then traded to Dan McLaughlin, who was a custom body shop operator in Southern California who happened also to be a Lola freak. Without bothering to undertake the transmission repairs, nor the engine repairs which were by then necessary, he proceeded to try to graft a Lola coupe rear section onto the car. He discovered that the Lola was a foot or two wider than the Ferrari, so he proceeded to cut the front fenders off along the crown line so as to add the extra width needed to the front of the car Along the way, the wire wheels got sold off as Dan thought it would look better with Mag wheels The car sat around in Dan's possession for many months, his pet German Shepherd making the interior his home during that time. I don't know whether you comprehend what a dog can do to a car interior or not, but let me tell you that it was a genuine and smelly mess when I next laid eyes on it.
At that point in Dan's budding career, he experienced a shop fire, and somehow or another, with some desperate friends, lifted the car out through a window, so it was not severely burned. By then, however, Dan had located a genuine Lola for sale by a movie production company at a very low figure, so I was able to buy the LM back for $3500(!). On borrowed wheels, the car came home to me again. Try to picture this: an LM with all the paint removed, some scorched areas, the front fenders held loosely to the body by two small straps across the top, the Mag wheels, carburetors and cam shaft covers removed, and an interior that looked like a cyclone had hit it. I wasn't sure whether I had got the bargain of a lifetime or had grossly overpaid.
Now can you see the cycle? From down to up to down again. I was about to embark on a major restoration job when one Gerry Sutterfield came to the rescue. Gerry was the owner of a Porsche dealership in Florida and a long time Ferrari enthusiast. He was delighted to take the car off my hands at a very modest profit, which as you might imagine I was very happy to see at that point. Gerry completed a beautiful restoration of the car over a period of at least a year, perhaps more.
Up again. Enter one Doug Towne. Before I had sold the car to Sonny Bono, and even after, Doug used to call me regularly trying to buy the car from me. He had known the car when Cooper owned it, and his life would not be fulfilled until he owned that particular LM. I located other similar cars for sale, but he wasn't interested. So, when Sutterfield had completed his restoration, it was inevitable that Doug and Gerry get together. The car came back to Northern California, where Doug parked it on his ranch. The trouble was it was a chicken ranch. I mean, you talk about your chicken shit! The car soon acquired a patina equalled only by some of the statues in the Piazza San Marco. They even got inside. Having been baptized earlier with doggie doodoo, the interior parts of old 5909 must have experience deja vu when the guano coating arrived! If Gerry Sutterfield could have seen the car then, he probably would have added some of his own!
The story of the car's condition started reaching me (my spies are everywhere!) and I made some effort to reacquire the car. Eventually, however, Fred (Frosty) Knoop bought our LM from Towne, and turned it over to one S. Whitney Griswold, known as Steve to his friends, for restoration. Now we all know that Steve is famous for his outstanding Ferrari restorations, so you can see that 5909 at this point in its life achieved a new high in its up-cycle. In fact, there are those (Corvette owners, no doubt) who say that Steve over-restored the car. But it did make a big hit at the world-famous Pebble beach Concours d'Elegance, and was certainly a sight for these sore eyes. Perhaps it was just as well that I wasn't able to buy the car from Doug; I doubt that I could have completed such a thorough and beautiful restoration.
I didn't even try to repurchase the car from Knoop--I figured that his investment at that point was definitely in a different cycle from my financial resources at the moment. The car was sold to Bob Epstein, lawyer, raconteur, part-time mooner, smart investor and fast driver (not necessarily in that order, but probably so). Now I don't want to intimate that Bob let the car deteriorate, as that was not the case, but Bob was certainly more into racing the car than showing it, so our LM acquired its share of small dings and rock chips.
Now the car is in a new home with Mr. A. Obrist, and only time will tell whether neglect and/or hard use allow the car to continue its cycle, or whether its value is now such that it will be maintained in perfect order forever.
Now, how was that for a story about cycles? Old 5909 has had more ups and downs than most people experience on their wedding night! And I didn't even tell you about the time, in its early racing life, when a blown tire tore a rear fender apart.
That was sort of a silly story, wasn't it? Ah, well. as we say in the reporting game, that's 30 for now.
The above was first published almost twenty years ago, but the recent passing of Sonny Bono brought it to mind. The LM was certainly one of the most exciting Ferraris that I have ever driven, and it is on my short list of cars that I wish I had kept.
When Obrist owned 5909, it received yet another full restoration. The Obrist collection (or what remained of it) was recently sold to John McCaw, but I'm not sure if the 250 LM was part of the package.
About the author: Ed Niles, a lawyer who practices in the San Fernando Valley, has been involved and active in the world of Ferraris since Enzo's early childhood, for more than 35 years. During that time he has owned more than 100 of Maranellos 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.