By Ed Niles
When I returned from that grand week in Monterey (and wasnt it a Grand week?!), I found a phone message from Ron Parravano. It turns out that Ron, an attorney in Carmel, is the son of Tony Parravano, a colorful figure among a cast of colorful characters in sports car racing in the mid 50s. Ron explained to me that he had been talking with Peter Sachs, owner of the magnificent 121LM which had been owned by Tony Parravano, and that Peter had given him my name. Ron said that some day he hopes to write a book about his fathers life.
Rons call brought back such a flood of memories that I thought it might be worth sharing a few of them here.
When World War II ended in 1948, the country was literally starving for many things: gasoline and tires has been strictly rationed, there were no civilian automobiles being sold, an acute housing shortage was developing, and many food items had been unobtainable for several years.
In the late 40s, there were enough sports car enthusiasts that the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) was able to begin promoting a series of sports car races. The leaders of this organization, known in the press as "The Westport Pharaohs," felt strongly that the entrants of these races should be "Sportsman owner-drivers." In other words, any hint of commercialism was abhorrent. On the left coast, however, there was a different feeling, and gradually the California Sports Car Club ("Cal Club") took over the majority of the races. This climate was made to order for wealthy individuals who could afford to buy the latest Ferraris and had the best drivers. John Von Neumann and John Edgar both owned small stables of Ferraris, sometimes running several of their cars in the same races. But none burst onto the scene so spectacularly, and certainly none disappeared so mysteriously, as Tony Parravano. Who was this man?
I first met Jack McAfee around 1949, when I was courting my first serious girlfriend, and Jack was calling on her older sister. I remember being quite impressed that he would arrive in what we would now call a "T-Bucket Roadster," and he was barely 17. After the war ended, Jack had his own shop, and one of the cars he took care of was a Cadillac (a 1949 Sedanette, if memory serves) owned by Tony Parravano. Jack persuaded Tony to let him run the car in the Mexican Road Race, and Tony was bitten by the racing bug. Later, Tony bought a Ferrari 340 America Ghia Coupe (s/n 0150AM) which Jack drove to a 5th overall in the 1953 Mexican Road Race. The car was essentially as delivered from the factory, although Jack added a small louver at the front of each rear fender, to aid in the rear brake cooling, and mounted Halibrand magnesium wheels. Jack also drove the car, with some success, at local venues such as Torrey Pines.
Tony Parravano, dark, short and slightly built, had arrived in Southern California after the war from Chicago, with "mysterious sources of funds." Southern California writers have always been fascinated by tales of the mob, since it never really got a strong foothold here, so many people were quick to put his Chicago roots together with his Italian-sounding name, and reached conclusions which may or may not have been correct. In any event, Tony was obviously a guy who was highly motivated and was not afraid of success on a grand scale. His first major venture was in frozen foods, a concept that was just a bit before its time. After that misadventure, he began building tract homes around the suburbs of Los Angeles. Already, he had focused on two of the things which Southern California was most starved for: food and housing. And his hobby involved the third element - automobiles.
Apparently, he did well as a building contractor; how could he not, when new homes were selling like the proverbial hot cakes? In an article in Sport Cars Illustrated in 1957, Parravano was described as a "Millionaire Building Contractor".
It was in 1955 that Tony Parravano hit his stride, automotively speaking. It was said that, at one time, he had 13 Maseratis and 11 Ferraris. It is interesting to focus on just a few of his Ferraris, and to reflect on the proximity of their serial numbers: 0478AM, a 375 Plus; 0484LM, a 121LM; 0538M, a 750 Monza; 0590CM and 0592CM, both 410 Sport Spyders; and 0585GT, a 250 GT Berlinetta. All of these cars were built in 1955, except for the Berlinetta, which left the factory on November 15, 1956.
There is no record of Tony Parravano ever having seriously raced any of these cars himself. Thus, he was exactly the sort of person that the Westport Pharaohs detested: A man with a "foreign-sounding name", with new money, who hired professional and semiprofessional drivers. It wasnt long before the SCCA pulled his license. This is probably as good a reason as any that we only saw Tonys cars being raced around Southern California. But what drivers he had! They included the aforementioned Jack McAfee, Carroll Shelby, Richie Ginther, Dan Gurney, Bob Drake, and Phil Hill.
With such sensational cars and great drivers, one would think that everyone connected with the sport would have known Tony Parravano. But even those who drove for him dont seem to have much to say about him. He was described as soft-spoken, yet extremely persuasive and blunt. Several people have described him as being very intense. One of his drivers said he was "rude, crude, and socially unacceptable." Two of them used identical language: "a funny little guy." Above all, it seemed that he wanted to keep a low profile. If that was his desire, however, he was certainly going about it the wrong way. His cars and his drivers made quite an impact on sports car racing as it was known in California in the mid 50s!
By 1956, however, his cars seemed to have disappeared from sight, and in 1957 a warrant was issued for his arrest on Federal charges. A few of his cars were seized by agents of the IRS, and sold at auction. But most of the cars, like Tony himself, simply disappeared.
One by one, the cars have surfaced. Some of them had been taken South, to San Diego, and even to Tijuana and Ensenada, Baja California. Today, none of Tonys cars remain unaccounted for, and most of them have been beautifully restored. David Smiths exploits with 0538M have already been documented, and those who were at Monterey this year were knocked out by the work that Peter Sachs did on the 121LM s/n 0484LM.
But what of Tony? He disappeared in 1957, leaving family in California. He was variously reported as having been sighted in parts of Italy and in particularly Sicily. Is he still alive somewhere (he would be in his late 70s by now). Or, as his son Ron believes, did he die in the Southern California desert, heartbroken because of all of his problems with the Federal Government? Or was he the victim of a mob hit? A photographer who followed the Grand Prix events in the late 50s swears he ran into Tony in a laundromat South of Rome, and that Tony gave him a wink but then refused to talk to him.
At one time, the U.S. Attorney General had a "Parravano Room!" Think of it. Not a file drawer, or even a file cabinet, but a whole room of evidence! Maybe Tony did the taxpayers a favor by disappearing!
Tonys abrupt departure leaves us with many questions. Why, if all of his cars were designed for sprint races, did they have extra gas tanks? Why did Tony feel compelled to pay Scaglietti extra money for his cars to have special bodies, not quite like any other Ferrari? Why did Tony get mad at Ferrari and start buying Maseratis? What was the source of Tonys funding? Was it really mob money, or was he just an extraordinarily successful and highly motivated business man? Did the mob arrange for his concrete coffin? Did Tony secretly finance Enzo Ferrari? Why were the Feds after Tony? Were the Westport Pharaohs right?
We'll probably never know.
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 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.