Month: April 2014

The Ferrari 312P Berlinetta: Beauty, and What Might Have Been

312formainThe decision to release a new scale-model Ferrari must be one of the easiest calls a model car company can make. After all, Ferrari is almost inarguably the world’s most popular automotive brand, and miniature replicas of its scarlet creations are eagerly snapped up by model collectors hoping to grab a small piece of Enzo’s dream. However, among Ferraris there is clearly a pecking order of desirability, even in scale-model form, with iconic classics like the 250GTO, modern favorites like the 458 Italia, or championship winning racers monopolizing model collectors’ attention. It must take courage to bring to market a model of a less well-known, less successful Ferrari, and even more courage to do so at a premium price point.

Thankfully, the genius modellers at CMC of Germany have done just that with their 1:18-scale version of the 1969 312P Berlinetta. Composed of nearly 1600 individual parts, the CMC 312 is a towering achievement in diecast car modelling, even if its subject was a disappointment on the racetrack. CMC has lavished the same fanatical attention to detail on the 312P that they did on the more universally beloved 250 California Spyder and 156 “Sharknose.” The result is simply stunning, especially when one considers that the 312P’s history makes it anything but an obvious choice to replicate in scale.

In 1969, Ferrari’s legendary sports car racing program was in what might charitably be called a transitional phase. Archrival Ford was on their way to their fourth consecutive victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the only weapon in Ferrari’s arsenal that had proven on occasion to be the equal of the Fords, the 4-liter 330 P4, had been legislated into obsolescence when the Commission Sportive Internationale (or CSI, then the governing body of international motorsport) decreed that the World Championship for Sports Cars would be contested by Group 6 prototypes of less than 3 liters displacement (though Group 4 sports cars up to 5 liters displacement like the old Ford GT40 would be allowed to compete if a minimum production run of 50 examples was achieved.) In a typical display of coolheadedness, Enzo Ferrari responded by boycotting the 1968 championship season.

Ferrari, however, had an ace up his sleeve: the 312 Formula 1 car, which was powered quite conveniently by a 3-liter V12 that would be rules-compliant for the 1969 sports car championship. An open alloy-and-fiberglass body was stretched over a lightly modified version of the Formula 1 car’s semi-monocoque chassis, and instantly, the 312P sports racer was born.

cmc-ProduktfotoDespite limited testing and a tight budget (Ferrari’s new majority owner, Fiat, was busy pumping funds into the former’s road car program) the 312P made its racing debut at the 1969 12 Hours of Sebring. Driven by Mario Andretti and Chris Amon, the 312P Spyder fought through mechanical maladies and collision damage to a strong 2nd-place finish, only one lap behind the winning Porsche 908. This positive result provided Ferrari with motivation to press on with the 312P program, but testing at Le Mans revealed the need for more aerodynamic, closed-roof “berlinetta” coachwork in order to achieve high speeds on the Mulsanne Straight. The resulting design, the 312P Berlinetta, stands as one of the most beautiful racing cars ever created.

The seeds of the 312P’s doom, however, had been sown when the CSI revised their rules once again to lower the minimum production run of the bigger Group 4 cars from 50 examples to 25. Though this move was intended to create fuller entry fields at championship events by allowing older cars to compete, its unintended consequence was to lower the financial investment required to develop a purpose-built race car to fit the Group 4 rules. Porsche responded by quickly producing the 917, a 4.5-liter, flat-12 powered monster created with one purpose in mind: win Le Mans outright. 25 examples were homologated by an astonished CSI, and small-bore prototypes like the Ferrari 312P were rendered obsolete almost overnight. Ferrari shifted to development of its own Group 4 contender, the 512, to meet the Porsche challenge for the 1970 season.

The 312P soldiered on throughout 1969, picking up a handful of top-5 finishes at short or medium-distance events throughout Europe. Of the three examples completed, two were then sold to Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team by the end the season, and would go on to moderately successful careers at Sebring, Daytona, and other U.S. races. The other car was heavily damaged in a crash and eventually rebodied as the 512S show car.

It’s a misconception that the 312P was a total failure. It’s more accurate to say that it was simply the wrong car at the wrong time, a victim of the politics of racing as much as limited development and plain old bad luck. Today, we can look at the 312P as a gorgeous reminder of a very specific era in sports car racing history, one that marked a shift away from true production-based GTs and toward purpose built, highly exotic prototypes for world championship contention. Viewed in this light, the 312P was, in fact, an innovator.

CMC’s 1:18 scale tribute to the Ferrari 312P Berlinetta is now available for $420 at http://www.carriagehousemodels.com.

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made Of, or, Why We Love Model Cars

atlanticrearquarterWhen I launched Carriage House Models in 2013 as a boutique retailer of precision diecast model cars, friends who were otherwise very encouraging often asked me, “Who buys these things, anyway?” My reflexive answer, of course, was “model car collectors,” but that’s really only part of the story. Diecast scale-model cars are a $300-million-a-year industry, so clearly there is a great deal of demand for a product that is the very definition of a discretionary purchase. Beyond the narrow band of people who would identify as “model car collectors,” there are auto enthusiasts of all stripes who acknowledge their passion by displaying a miniature car or two in their homes, their offices, their “man caves.” The real question is, “Why?” With so many other ways to celebrate our love affair with cars, why choose models?

 
I believe that the primary appeal of model cars is that they are aspirational totems, small reminders of our dreams that we can hold in our hands. Few of us will ever own a Ferrari GTO, Mercedes Gullwing, or Bugatti Veyron in real life, but model cars allow enthusiasts with constrained budgets to build our own fantasy garages.

 
I’m also convinced that besides being surrogates for the real thing, model cars allow us to connect with our inner children. They take us back to a time when we played with our Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, learning how to drive in the safety of our parents’ living rooms, looking forward with unbridled optimism toward the day when we would be grown-ups with real cars of our own. I get the same thrill from acquiring a new model as an adult that I did as a child, and I think it’s safe to assume that almost all model car collectors, from the most casual to the most fanatical, pursue this hobby for the same reason: it’s a connection to the dreams of their youth.

 
I think there’s one further reason we acquire model cars: to display them! Collecting model cars gives auto enthusiasts a point-of-reference in sharing their passion with others. In my other, non-automotive job, I keep a select handful of beautiful diecast racing cars in my office, and visitors comment on them almost without fail. They’re a surefire conversation-starter, a sort of calling card to the world for my appreciation for elegance in engineering and design. And should one of those visitors happen to be a car-lover him-or-herself, I can guarantee that I will have just made a friend.

 
I’m certain that there are as many reasons for collecting model cars as there are individuals who collect them, but for me, it comes down to these three basic ideas: they allow me to live out my automotive fantasies, to keep in touch with the car-crazy kid I used to be, and to build personal bonds with both fellow enthusiasts and with the uninitiated alike.
What about you? How did you get started as a collector of model cars, and why do you keep at it?