Russian Roulette, Ferrari Style

I have a client who has purchased many modern Ferraris over the phone with no inspection, including an F50, a pair of F40s, a 550 Maranello and numerous 360 coupes and Spyders. All of the cars arrived exactly as described, that is, “essentially a new car with no stories.”

Lulled into a sense of complacency by the ease of these transactions, he recently purchased an early V12 2+2, which was described as “restored to new-car standards with no stories.” No pre-purchase inspection, no test drive, nothing. When the car arrived, it was beautiful in its fresh, high-dollar paint job, the redone chrome sparkled in the Southern California sunlight, and the immaculate Connolly leather interior looked as if it had never been sat in.

The new owner drove the car around the block, commented on how “vintage” it felt (that being Ferrarese for clunky and heavy) and put it into his warehouse. A few weeks later, when he drove the car on the freeway, he smelled raw gas. It appeared the carburetors were leaking so he had the car shipped to FAI, an independent Ferrari specialist in Orange County. The estimate to repair the leaks was $300. At the same time, he asked for a detailed mechanical inspection and evaluation.

The initial inspection filled a full page, including radiator leaks ($300); a lower radiator hose leak ($50); a much-needed water pump rebuild ($400); carburetor fuel log leaks ($300); fuel filter leaks ($300); fuel leaks at the mechanical pump ($400); missing bolts on the header flanges (no charge); a rear main seal leak (yikes!): cam cover leaks (two yikes!); and warped brake rotors and worn front spindles.

I was called to confirm the inspection report and, unfortunately, found all of the above to be painfully accurate. $300 had quickly grown to an all-too-necessary $2,000 plus.

A few days later, after the many fuel leaks were repaired, it was back to FAI for a very short test drive. Within two city blocks the list grew to include an overdrive that didn’t work (three yikes!); a rotten driveshaft rubber coupling; a differential that leaked and had that very expensive bucket-of-rocks death rattle (a $3,000 to $5,000 yikes); worn-out shocks ($1,500); and a thoroughly worn-out front suspension ($2,500 to $4000). In FAI’s estimation, all of the above work was desperately needed, and the car was better off not being driven until these things were fixed. (Well, I suppose they could wait on the overdrive and he could buzz down the freeway in fourth.)

The owner, of course, didn’t have a clue how bad the car was until it was inspected. He had simply assumed that “all old Ferraris drove like that.” If he had had the car evaluated before he bought it, he would have walked away.

There are three lessons here. First of all, when buying an old Ferrari, be skeptical of anything a seller says that isn’t backed up by independent verification. With this car, it appears that the “total restoration to new car standards” went only as far as the cosmetics. The visual presentation was stunning, but everything mechanical was apparently not overhauled, just cleaned and detailed. To me, this indicates a restoration done to a budget. When choices between mechanical functionality and visual beauty came up, the owner and restorer opted to put their limited resources towards the pretty things instead of the hidden, and perhaps more important, things.

Second, although we at SCM often preach about the fiscal propriety of buying a restored car (“buy the restoration, get the car for free”), in fact, there are some real advantages to having a car restored yourself. Most important, you get to make all the decisions about the type and quality of work done. Yes, it will cost more, yes, it will take longer, and yes, there will be numerous frustrations encountered. But in the end, you will know exactly what you have under the metal skin.

Finally, old cars are old cars. Buying a new Ferrari, or even a 10- or 15-year-old one that has a perfect ownership history and service records, is really not very complicated. However, with a 40-year-old V12, chances are that at some point every single part on the car has worn out and been touched. From paint to wheel bearings to exhaust tips, they’ve all been serviced, repaired or replaced. And for many years, when these Ferraris had little real value, they rarely received the best of care.

Consequently, you can’t be too careful when you buy an old car, even if it is claimed to be “as new.” In fact, it will never be “as new,” at best it can only be completely restored. To what standard, and to what budget, are the questions you will have to try to find answers to.

If vou must buy cars over the phone without an inspection, for your own fiscal sanity, please stick to late-model cars that have never been touched. Buying vintage V12s without an inspection is like playing financial Russian Roulette with a bullet in every chamber.