Getting behind the wheel of the car that put Ferrari on the map
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James Page drives the car that helped make Ferrari famous, both on and off track
Driving any Ferrari 166MM would be special, but chassis 0058M carries with it an even greater sense of occasion because it was the first car to be raced by Italian hero Eugenio Castellotti. Born in Lodi, which lies between the northern cities of Milan and Piacenza, Castellotti came from an aristocratic family and his first outing in 0058M is thought to have been the Giro Toscana in June 1950. By April the following year he was tackling the famous Mille Miglia in the car, finishing 50th overall and sixth in class.
He also used the 166MM in the 1952 Monaco Grand Prix, which was a sports car race that year, and then signed off in style with victory on August’s Circuito di Senigallia. Then Castellotti’s career took off and he became a works driver first for Lancia and then moving to Ferrari when Enzo’s team took over the D50s from the financially straitened Turin marque.
He was a brilliant, sometimes wild driver, who could swap seamlessly between single-seaters and sports cars, his finest hour coming with victory on the 1956 Mille Migilia (in a Ferrari 290MM) in atrocious conditions. That victory topped even a win in that year’s Sebring 12 Hours, or second in the Nürburgring 1,000km, on both occasions sharing with the peerless Juan Manuel Fangio.
Castellotti’s countrymen were equally captivated by this dashing playboy’s antics off the track, however, and there was feverish interest in his blossoming relationship with beautiful actress Delia Scala. The romance was tragically brief, however, with Castellotti dying, aged just 26, while testing a Ferrari 801 Grand Prix car at Modena.
Getting the chance to drive the car in which Castellotti started his career is a rare privilege, not least because it has only recently returned to Europe, having spent the last 64 years in the USA.
Reach through the wood-rimmed steering wheel to turn the key to the right, prod the starter, and the small-capacity V12 fires crisply; the car’s name comes from the 166cc displacement of each cylinder.
Despite the presence of such luxuries as a carpet, thoughts that this is anything other than a competition car are swiftly dispelled. With an independent front end plus live rear axle, the chassis is beautifully balanced and friendly, and while the steering never truly lightens up, it’s swift and accurate. As you’d expect with unassisted drums, the brakes respond to nothing less than a firm shove of the pedal.
The four-speed gearbox does not tolerate fools. Correctly time your double-declutching and it’s an absolute delight – mechanical in feel and precise in movement. Get it wrong and it’ll be noisy. Not in the belligerent way of a pre-war gearbox, more of a gentle reminder that you’re no Castellotti.
The 1,995cc, single-cam-per-bank Gioacchino Colombo-designed V12 is a larger variant of that found in the earlier 125 and 159. With about 150bhp, it needs all of its rev range to deliver any meaningful performance, but once you’ve got it singing along the whole car comes alive and it’s easy to conjure images of the Mille Miglia, chasing Lancias and Oscas across the Italian countryside.
It only takes a short drive to understand how this car did so much to put Ferrari on the map. The Touring-designed model made its debut at the 1948 Turin auto show and had an instant impact. In 1948, Clemente Biondetti had won the Mille Miglia in a works 166 Allemano Coupe. In ’49, he did it again in an MM Touring barchetta, with Felice Bonetto second in another, while Luigi Chinetti’s heroic near-solo drive in the 24 Hours of Le Mans gave Ferrari the first of its nine victories at La Sarthe.
Even as the model was superseded by the 195 and 212, 166s were still racing, and winning, all over Europe and the United States. It may not have been the first Ferrari, nor even the first Ferrari to win races, but it was the first Ferrari to win big races.
The 166 truly announced the arrival of a new motorsport superpower.
- James Page, Telegraph UK