Myriad special and unique road, racing and rally cars pass through the courtyard here at Belchers Farm, though few boast a story as fascinating and tinged with Le Mans intrigue as this 1974 Ferrari 308 GT4 LM, which we’ve recently helped to rehome. We thought it was high time to explore this one-off Ferrari thoroughbred…
Among the greatest privateer racing teams, Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team (N.A.R.T.) was a staple of motorsport – both in American and Europe – for over 30 years. The equipe was born after a Christmas Eve conversation in 1946 between Chinetti and Ferrari, who’d kindled a friendship during their respective (and very successful) tenures as drivers at Alfa Romeo in the 1930s. Ferrari spoke of his plans to start building sports cars, which Chinetti thought potentially fruitful given his affluent friends in America, where he’d emigrated before the Second World War. Little did the pair know it, but this was to be the start of Luigi Chinetti Motors Inc. and, ultimately, the North American Racing Team.
As well as becoming Ferrari’s official concessionaire in North America, Chinetti began providing Ferraris to wealthy individuals for racing purposes, along with his mechanical expertise and influence with the American racing authorities. Naturally, he relished the chance to drive the cars he was able to procure and his success was extensive, including wins at the Le Mans and Spa 24-hour races. For over three decades, N.A.R.T. took on the factory might at high-profile races across the world, working with a small group of loyal volunteers and employees. Highlights were plentiful, but undoubtedly the greatest achievement was the brilliant albeit unexpected outright win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1965. Suffice to say, it was a mutually beneficial relationship between Chinetti and Ferrari – N.A.R.T. was supplied with a steady stream of competitive ex-Works racing cars, which enticed famous drivers and indulgent amateurs alike, while the exposure and success on the track was effective advertising for Ferrari, especially in North America. It was a win-win scenario.
Over the course of its history, N.A.R.T. raced its fair share of left-field cars, not least the Chevrolet Corvette or the Sunbeam Alpine. This car, the unique Ferrari 308 GT4 LM, is another which falls under the same umbrella.The oil crisis of the 1970s was a curious time for Ferrari dealers, especially those in the United States, a market which had outlawed the then-flagship V12-powered 365 GT4 BB and 365 GT4 on the grounds of emissions. As a result, in 1975, the only new Ferrari American customers could buy was the wedge-shaped 308 GT4, a car which didn’t actually have a Prancing Horse on its nose but rather a square emblem bearing the name Dino.
“Chinetti needed to raise demand for the baby 308 GT4, and quickly. The most logical course of action? Well, isn’t it obvious? Take the car racing, of course!”
Chinetti needed to raise demand for the baby 308 GT4, and quickly. The most logical course of action? Well, isn’t it obvious? Take the car racing, of course! An approach was made to Enzo Ferrari in Maranello and once a wealthy backer had been found in the shape of the Los Angeles-based collector Bill Schanbacher, development work began on the first – and only – 308 GT4 LM. First, the road-going GT4 was subjected to a crash diet. The heavy steel panels, floors and wheel arches were replaced with lightweight aluminium or glass-fibre and the glass windows swapped out with Plexiglass, while the chassis was shaved of weight wherever possible.
Competition-specification braking and suspension systems were installed, in addition to a single 180-litre endurance fuel tank. Finally, the wedge-shaped bodywork was given an aerodynamic makeover with the addition of flared arches, dams and intakes feeding various ducts and an enormous ‘whale-tail’ rear spoiler.The result was a staggering 200kg weight loss. Combined with a transversely-mounted V8 upgraded with various 365 GTB/4 Competizione components to produce a healthy 300bhp at 8,200rpm (versus the 255bhp at 7,700rpm of the road car), the 308 GT4 LM was quick – 176mph quick. That was ideal for what was to be the unique racing car’s first race: the hallowed 24 Hours of Le Mans in June of 1974. But because of the nuanced homologation rules and requirements for the different categories in which cars could compete at Le Mans, the 308 GT4 LM found itself in somewhat of a grey area.
The only class for which it was technically eligible was Group 5, since the 308 GT4 was too new and not enough of them had yet been built for the car to satisfy the Group 3 and Group 4 requirements. The trouble was that while Group 5 had no minimum production requirement, it was the category specifically for the all-out purpose-built prototypes – cars capable of winning the race outright, unlike the 308. Undeterred, chassis number 8020 was subjected to a number of tests at Fiorano in Maranello before being refinished in the signature N.A.R.T. livery and sent to the Circuit de la Sarthe, where it was to be driven by Giancarlo Gagliardi and Jean-Louis Lafosse. It’s fair to say the 308 GT4 LM was in good company in the N.A.R.T. camp – the team fielded five cars at that year’s 24 Hours: three Ferrari 365 GTB/4 ‘Daytona’ Competiziones and an older Ferrari 312P which had been modified to resemble the angular 312 PB. Bizarrely, because of the homologation quandary, chassis 8020 was technically competing against the latter prototype and not the GT ‘Daytonas’ against which it was more equally matched.
“Despite Gagliardi and Cluxton putting on a fine showing in pre-qualifying with the 308 GT4 LM, the ACO unfairly argued that the car was not quick enough compared to the Group 5 prototypes with which it was grouped and disqualified it.”
In fact, Gagliardi and Lafosse’s qualifying spot of 38th would have been good for 16th position in the GT class – impressive for a brand new racing car with limited testing under its belt. Alas, after four hours and 30 laps of the race, clutch failure forced chassis 8020 into retirement. Clearly encouraged by its performance at Le Mans, Enzo Ferrari blessed Luigi Chinetti with permission to enter the 308 GT4 LM in the following year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was to be arguably the most controversial moment in the N.A.R.T. story. Le Mans in 1975 was curious in that it was not included as a round in the World Sportscar Championship. As such, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) assumed full control of the Le Mans race’s running. And they had a bone to pick with Mr. Chinetti, whose N.A.R.T. outfit was fielding four cars, including a fascinating Michelotti-bodied 365 GTB/4.
Despite Giancarlo Gagliardi and his new teammate Harley Cluxton putting on a fine showing in pre-qualifying with the 308 GT4 LM, the ACO unfairly argued that the car was not quick enough compared to the Group 5 prototypes with which it was grouped and disqualified it. Fuming and visibly stressed, Chinetti threatened to withdraw all of N.A.R.T.’s cars should the decision be upheld. The officials called his bluff and barely an hour before the start of the race, he was forced to concede defeat. Call it passion or arrogance, the rules were the rules. Despite the wholly negative circumstances in which this Ferrari made its final competitive appearance, Chinetti retained chassis number 8020 for almost a decade, before selling to the US-based collector Howard Torman. Torman enjoyed several outings at North American historic racing events including the Monterey Historic Races at Laguna Seca.
The next – and final – owner of the 308 GT4 LM, a prominent Ferrari collector based in the UK, acquired the car in 1999. Not only did he commission a thorough restoration to return the Ferrari to optimum running conditions, but he also made the pilgrimage back to Maranello to have the car’s authenticity as a factory-built racing car certified by the Classiche department. In a fitting turn of events, chassis 8020 was returned to the history steeped asphalt of the Circuit de la Sarthe for both the 2004 and 2006 editions of the Le Mans Classic. It was a real treat to play a hand in selling this unique Ferrari thoroughbred for its longstanding owner and briefly hosting it here at Belchers Farm for a photo shoot. An unlikely candidate for a competition makeover, the Bertone-styled 308 GT4 is a fascinating chapter of the Ferrari story from an exciting period of aesthetic and commercial change for the Prancing Horse. Thinking about it, the decision to take it racing made perfect sense, even if it didn’t turn out to be the success story Il Commendatore and Chinetti had envisaged. That also is a testament to Chinetti, a man whose passion for life and motorsport, tenacity and ability to wield influence with the right names – be it marques, customers, racing drivers or authorities – has written him not only into Ferrari folklore, but that of motorsport in general.
Photography courtesy of Veronica Lane-Girardo for Girardo & Co.