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Old 22nd May 2004, 11:39   #1
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Rare beasts of the prancing horse stable

When Peter Sellers decided he wanted "the most expensive car in the world", it was to Enzo Ferrari that he turned. The maestro's response - 1,400kg of shiny red steel and cream Connolly leather powered by a 5.5-litre engine - was the 500 Superfast. And with a price tag of $24,000 in 1964, it clocked in at $3,000 more than the most expensive Rolls Royce of its day.

Sellers' Ferrari now lives in the Maranello Rosso Museum in the tiny republic of San Marino, an enclave in the middle of Italy. It is in the company of 24 other illustrious models from the stable of the prancing horse. From James Dean to Tom Cruise, Herbert von Karajan to David Beckham, Ferraris have been the choice toys for boys - but few have been able to indulge their passion like Fabrizio Violati.

Scion of a landed family that made its fortune from olive oil and mineral waters, former yachtsman and twice European motor-racing champion, Violati owns the largest collection of historic Ferraris on public display.

"I fell in love with Ferraris as soon as I saw my first one, as a boy in 1948," he says, the ne plus ultra being the 1962 model 250 GTO. By 1965 Violati had managed to track down a rare example, belonging to racing driver Ernesto Prinoth. "Trouble was that the asking price was L3.5m, and I only had L2.5m" [about £850].

No matter: he acquired the car for L2.5m, and despite a family ban after a youthful accident on the Vallelunga circuit in 1960, took to racing it. Together they won, inter alia, the notorious Targa Florio in 1989. But it was the ban that led indirectly to the creation of the collection.

Forbidden to race, in 1972 Violati considered selling his GTO: "I was swamped with offers. Only then did I realise how much interest there was in the GTO, particularly from foreign buyers who wanted to export them. So instead of selling, I decided to start collecting, to save our heritage."

It was a labour of love, fuelled by a friendship, since 1967, with Enzo Ferrari. Over the years, the collection expanded to other models, tracing the marque's stylistic and technological developments: from the early 1950 195S to a 1987 480CV F40, the most powerful car of its time, and the last model made by Ferrari before his death the following year. (The first Ferrari model, the 125S, appeared in 1947. "But only three cars were made, and they were all crashed.&quot

Most of the cars were purchased during the 1970s oil crisis, when few could afford to run these gas-guzzlers. The Maranello Rosso Museum, named after the site of the Ferrari plant and the colour most associated with the car, opened in 1990.

About 70,000 people a year visit the museum. You don't have to be a cognoscento of valves and cylinders to be carried away by the romance of Ferraris; the museum sees itself as a temple to design, and is as much about the people behind the cars.

"Each car has a story to tell," says curator Sandra Lodi, pointing me in the direction of a space-age Ferrari 365 P that once belonged to the creator of Astérix and won the Daytona in 1967. The 250 GTO, Violati's first love, looks almost sober in comparison. Don't be fooled.

"That model won the World Championship in '62, '63 and '64," says Lodi.

There is a 312 T3, in which Gilles Villeneuve won at Brands Hatch in 1979, and a funny little Asa 1,000, the result of Ferrari's short-lived interest in entering the budget market with a 1-litre car. The following year, 1960, saw the first mass-produced Ferraris in the form of the 250 GT Coupé. (As with budget, so with mass production: everything is relative, and a total of only 450 Coupés were produced).

There are tragic tales, too, represented by the Dino 246 in memory of Ferrari's son, who died in 1956 at the age of 24. It is unique among Ferraris for its six-cylinder engine, such as the one Dino himself had tried to develop.

In this predominantly incarnadine sea, it is the magnificent misfits that stand out. "That belonged to Marilyn Monroe," explains Lodi of a voluptuous ivory-coloured 250GT Spyder with a tan leather interior. "It is a prototype, designed by Pininfarina;and the first Ferrari hard-top model." It is unique. A blue 1961 GTE turns out to be the first ever Ferrari four-seater, Enzo's own choice of car. And that purple one . . . ? "The 1963 GT Superamerica? That belonged to the Shah of Persia. There are only three like it in the world".

Legend has it that in an attempt to impress the beautiful Empress Soraya, Ferrari - who personally approved all non-standard requests - initially refused the demand for a purple Shahmobile. Ferrari subsequently relented, with spectacular results.

And do the cars still work? "Of course!" says Lodi. "When Ferrari suggested to Violati that he open a museum, his only stipulation was that the cars be kept in working condition".

They are regularly taken for a spin, their V12 rumble turning heads wherever they go. As for the 250 GTO, it turned 40 in 2002. Some 40 Ferraris turned up for its birthday bash, which involved a cultural tour through Tuscany. Not racing, you understand: it is growing old gracefully - with an estimated value today of £8m.
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