As Ferrari celebrates its 50th year of doing business in the United States, the names of many famous racers, designers and even customers have been mentioned. So let us also remember Luigi Chinetti (1906-94), who had so much to do with Ferrari's success in the United States.
Born in Milan, Italy, Chinetti went to technical college for 2 years before beginning work for his father, a mechanical engineer. He joined Alfa Romeo as a mechanic and became a member of Alfa's competition department in 1928. There Chinetti first met Enzo Ferrari. Each had what the other wanted. Ferrari had used his patrician style to transform himself from a mechanic into a car salesman and finally into a race team director, yet he always felt like a provincial from Emilia. Chinetti was a quick-witted city boy, a natural mechanic, an accomplished driver and a real car guy, but he also longed for commercial success.
Through the 1930s, Chinetti won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1932 and 1934 for Alfa Romeo, sold Talbot-Lago cars and Figoni & Falaschi coachbuilt bodies in Paris, France, and finally found himself stranded in America during World War II when he came to the 1940 Indianapolis 500. Once the war ended, Chinetti returned to Europe for a visit. He had a plan to sell exclusive European cars in the U.S., and he met with Enzo Ferrari to tell him about it on the day before Christmas in 1946.
As Chinetti later recalled, Ferrari had decided that he would never again rely solely on automobiles to make his living. Instead he would manufacture machine tools while selling small quantities of sports cars like the Tipo 125, just then in the formative stages of construction. Chinetti told Ferrari that America's industrial might would quickly overwhelm the machine tool business, and he described a culture so rich that it would buy dozens of well-designed European specialty cars each year. Ferrari apparently was persuaded to become more serious about car manufacturing as a result.
Chinetti played his part in the Old Man's success. He drove a Ferrari 166MM to victory at the 1949 24 Hours of Le Mans. He sold the first Ferrari in the United States, a 166 Inter Spyder Corsa that he brokered to Briggs Cunningham in 1948, and he became Ferrari's sales outlet in America. Though Chinetti didn't design cars, he understood the passion of his customers for high-performance sports cars, and his knowledge determined the specifications of the Ferrari 342 America Spyder and the Ferrari 330 America 2+2, among others.
Chinetti's name is most closely associated with the Ferrari 250GT LWB California Spyder. Chinetti's American clients wanted a fast convertible, and he pressured the factory to build one based on the 250GT. The first prototype was built in December 1957 using the mechanical specification of the road-friendly 250GT Tour De France, and some 51 of these long-wheelbase cars were built until 1960. A further 54 California Spyders were constructed on the revised short-wheelbase 250GT chassis until 1963. The California Spyder is among the most collectible of Ferraris, with values ranging from $500,000 to $1.5 million.
Like Ferrari himself, Luigi Chinetti frequently mystified his business to make it seem more profitable than it really was, and he could be as arbitrary and eccentric as Enzo as well. Yet Chinetti's enthusiasm for fast cars (and especially racing) determined the image of Ferrari that still endures today.