For those Americans who ventured forth to Europe during the post-war '50s, it was in many ways reminiscent of the 1930s. There was still a great mystery and sense of adventure that has all but disappeared in this age of cheap airfares and instant messaging. A friend once remarked that she would never get to France. I quipped that it was just a matter of buying a ticket.
Steve Earle, the maestro of the Monterey Historic Automobile Races, was fortunate enough to be one of the motorsport vagabonds in 1959, when he ditched his studies and headed off to Old Europe to see firsthand what he and thousands just like him had read about. The famous public roads of Reims amid the plains of Champagne were host to the French Grand Prix and Grand Prix of Europe in those days, and Earle arrived just in time for a round of practice and then the race.
"I had never seen a crowd that big for anything, people some 20 deep lined up for miles around the French countryside," remembered Earle. "I was right there at the restaurant at the end of a straight. Phil Hill got off to a great start in his Ferrari Dino and, as I recall, spun it three times in front of me. There was a group of well-dressed ladies who seemed oblivious to the race until Phil Hill would come into view, when they chanted "Pheeel Heeel!" It was a Ferrari 1-2, Tony Brooks taking the checkered and Phil right behind. Their prancing horses that day were Ferrari Dino 246s, the last of the truly great front-engine grand prix racers.
I remember doodling in elementary school what appeared to be the Dino 246. Sure, all grand prix-and for that matter-Indy cars tended to look the same to a 6-year-old. But I knew it was a Ferrari. Somehow I knew it was different, and that was all I cared about. My first slot car set had a BRM and a red Ferrari Dino. In a time of uniquely styled and handcrafted automobiles, I always considered the red Dino the most beautiful and balanced of any single seater of that era. Nothing since has caused me to change that opinion.
For those unfamiliar with how the Dino name came to be attached to so many Ferraris, a bit of background. Signora Laura gave birth to Alfredo Ferrari on January 19, 1932. "Dino," as he was usually known, became the most important thing in Enzo Ferrari's life. It became clear to those around the inner circle that young Dino would someday take over the business. However, Dino suffered much sickness in his youth and passed away on June 30, 1956, from muscular dystrophy. Dino had been a gifted engineering student, and Enzo Ferrari had always said that his son contributed a great deal to the development of what was to become the V6 before his death, and the 246 F1 is just one of the many that proudly carry on the Dino name in the Ferrari family.
The decision to build the V6 came in reaction to new FIA rules governing Formula 2. In late 1956, the first of the new 1.5-liter powerplants was running on a Maranello test bench. The question of how to deal with balance problems prompted engineer Vittorio Jano to envision and come up with a six cylinder along the lines of three V-twins. This led to a neat crankshaft design, and the whole assembly was built around a one-piece crankcase.
Weighing in at less than 280 lb, the new V6 showed great promise in cranking out an initial 180 bhp. There were a great many design departures from the traditional 12-cylinder motors, and the little six-cylinder liners were scrapped in lieu of a seating flange and copper gasket.
The appearance of the new V6 mandated that a new chassis be constructed for use in Formula 2. It was well known that Ferrari placed a far greater importance on the output of his motors over any decision favoring chassis or aerodynamics. This outdated thinking in Maranello lasted throughout the '50s, and only then did Ferrari pay attention to the other areas making up a race car. There were those within the company who knew of the importance of a good chassis, and this was the case as development began on the new F2 car. In many ways, the F2 Dino resembles a scaled-down but more attractive Lancia D-50 (which later became the Lancia Ferrari 801). Starting with the traditional ladder frame, additional tubing was used to give it, in effect, the look of a spaceframe. The forward-angled placement of the motor was an absolute necessity for the driveline.
The front suspension consisted of beautifully forged wishbones, backed up in the rear with the usual de Dion setup. This stable yet oddly elegant design was to be constantly updated throughout the life of the Dino (fully independent rear suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, superior shocks). A thin-wall aluminum body was then wrapped around this new, potent challenger from Ferrari.
Setbacks aside, the later promise shown in the Dino F2 during the 1957 season gave way to serious construction of a bigger motor to propel the Dino into the ranks of Formula One. Formula One's new 2.5-liter classification brought forth the 246 powerplant (2.4L, six cylinders), which used the previous F2 cars as test beds. As with the 1.5 unit, the new motor featured two overhead cams per cylinder bank. A Marelli magneto fired the twin plugs in each cylinder, fuel supplied through three double-barrel Weber carburetors. At a close to 9.0:1 compression ratio, the new V6 could be counted on to produce about 290 bhp at 8300 rpm.
A one-off Dino 256 made an appearance with Mike Hawthorn at the Italian Grand Prix in 1958 with an output of 310 bhp. The future World Champion settled for second that day behind the race-winning Vanwall of Tony Brooks. Of interest was an American by the name of Phil Hill, who finished third in a Ferrari Dino 246.
A new run of chassis for 1958 was well underway before the new season started. In Doug Nye's excellent book on the history of the Dinos, he makes the case for the usual chassis number chicanery. The new 246 cars were known as either big tube or small tube, as in frame. Renumbered chassis, that sort of thing. A perfect example is the 246 as driven by Mike Hawthorn: Was it renumbered after the conversion to disc brakes? (I love this sort of thing.) The small-tube-chassis 246s were apparently not too successful due to a lack of rigidity and were later redone. The new generation of lightweight, rear-engine British cars were starting to make their presence felt, and the lights burned late at Maranello in keeping the Dino ahead of the pack.
Mike Hawthorn drove perhaps his Dino's finest race at Reims in 1958 in a totally dominant performance. Tony Brooks was to repeat this at Reims a year later aboard his Dino. And then there is Phil Hill giving the Dino 246 F1 the last great victory at the Italian Grand Prix in 1960.
Finally, a question about the clear plexi cover over the carburetors. For years I asked anybody who might know how that came to be. I have heard that the drivers needed it to be clear so they could see over the hood, but my favorite has to be, "It's because it's Italian."
Driving The DinoA Day At Sears Point This is how the phone conversation went: "What kind of Grand Prix car? Ferrari? Wow. A 246 Dino from 1959/60? Wow, again! What day do you want me there? Anything I can do to help out?"
The prettiest front-engine Grand Prix car ever made has just pulled up at the Sears Point paddock, sitting on an open slant-bed transporter. The opportunity to drive Ferrari's last front-engine Grand Prix contender is here. As I sit in the car and go over the gauges and controls, my respect and admiration is raised even higher for the drivers that competed in that era.
No custom-fitted seat, definitely no shift paddles on the steering wheel, just left-hand shift with a reverse "H" pattern. First gear is over to the far left and down, right next to fifth gear; no reverse. The actual seating position is comfortable, slightly laid back, but my legs are spread to reach the pedals; the driveshaft runs right between them. The gauges are what one would expect: tachometer, oil temp and pressure, water temperature and fuel pressure. Very straightforward.
The starting procedure when the car is cold is truly a procedure. The Dino must be towed around the paddock slowly to get the fuel pressure and oil pressure up. Once this is accomplished, I have to quickly switch on the magnetos, engage the clutch, slip into second gear and "bump" start. When the Dino fires up, I can't exceed 2500 rpm until the oil temperature is up. There were no mounted starters in GP cars back then, so it's a push start in pit lane-and don't let the engine die on circuit.
In over 20 years of driving a vast array of current and vintage race cars, I don't think I have felt so many sensations on just the "out lap." I have run at circuits such as Goodwood in a Maserati A6GCS and Le Mans in an RSR, but the Dino represents something else entirely-the aroma of Castrol R; every vibration and track undulation coming up through the seat bottom; the strange shift pattern; figuring out the only way to see the track and gauges at the same time is to look through the steering wheel and just over the instrument panel; sliding all over the seat; getting the tires and brakes up to temperature. Most important, though, was getting used to the V6's powerband, being careful not to go over the 8000-rpm redline.
What fabulous noise! The Dino has one of the loudest, most beautiful ear-piercing screams I've ever experienced in motorsport, and that includes Cosworth and Ferrari and Matra V12s. Ear plugs should be permanently glued in.
After a couple of laps, everything starts to come together. The L-section Dunlops and brakes are up to temperature, making the car very stable and predicable under braking for a car with 5x16-in. wire wheels. The Dino was Ferrari's first use of disc brakes on a GP car; thank you, Peter Collins! The Dino is geared a little too tall for Sears Point, so I'm only using second, third and fourth gears, which is fine with the exception of turn 11, where on corner entry the engine falls off the powerband. However, when the V6 comes back on, the Dino steps out a little on the exit. All very nice and predictable.
Setting myself at a conservative pace, there is a bit of mid-corner understeer, but as I pick up the pace, the front tires start working and the Dino shows neutral handling with some slight oversteer at the corner exits. This seems to be typical of Dunlop-shod cars of this era. The car is very tight, and as my confidence builds, it really starts getting fun. I'm sliding around a lot in the seat and hanging on to the steering wheel. I'd always heard and read about this-no belts and a lot of sliding around-but for me it was a new experience.
The Dino has a much more purposeful feel than any of the sports cars from the '50s I've driven, and I guess even today a Grand Prix car is a tool as much as a car. The strange gear pattern starts to become familiar, which is good, because if I do miss a shift (I did once), everyone is Sonoma County will hear. On the final lap I can't take the smile off my face. I had so much fun, but the overriding impression the Dino left with me is more of an appreciation for Hill, Brooks, Gurney, Hawthorne, Collins, etc., the men who drove these Dinos with courage and precision in the world's best racing.