The 1954 Ferrari 500 Mondial Spider that was owned, raced and/or admired by four figures central to popular culture, motoring history and California heritage will be featured at the January 17th collectors’ car auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Most recognised – indeed immortalised – in photographs with an admiring James Dean, the Italian sports-racer has the fingerprints of a host of iconic personalities.
Built as the 11th of 12 first series Mondial spiders, it was produced at the factory starting with engine assembly in March 1954, completion of the chassis two months later, and eventual sale in July 1954 to ‘Rubi’. Temporarily registered for the road with Bologna plates, like its jet setting owner, the racer was shipped to New York, then flown across the States to Santa Barbara on the first day of September ready for the Labor Day races on the weekend of the 4th and 5th.
There in the paddock, he paraded his new material toy, the Ferrari as well as his new beau Zsa Zsa Gabor. Not for him a bright red Italian racing colors, instead his brand new barchetta stood out in a rich deep blue scheme, while Gabor wore a light blue dress! Quickly getting to grips with the car, he posted a second in class and seventh overall, but for some reason, perhaps he was made an offer that he couldn’t refuse within the weekend, the car taken over by another luminary of the day, John von Neumann.
Johnny von Neumann was a pioneer in post-war California road racing and automotive culture. An active and successful amateur racer, he was one of the original founders of the California Sports Car Club and, as owner of the highly influential Competition Motors, is regarded as the man who introduced both Porsche (not to mention Volkswagen) and Ferrari to California. after having successfully raced Ferraris and employing drivers such a Phil Hill, Neumann became the southern California dealer for Ferrari. Again, he would be instrumental in the creation of one of the world’s most prized sports cars – the Ferrari California Spider – after convincing Ferrari executives to build an open-top Berlinetta.
0438 MD would be von Neumann’s first Ferrari. Re-liverying the car to more traditional Rosso Corsa within the month he was in action at Palm Springs, placing first in class EM2 and 2nd overall in Race 3. Further south at the Torrey Pines 6 Hours in November he shared the drive with his mechanic William Pringle, placing a commendable 2nd overall. And so this pattern would continue for the next 2 years as his team grew. When the time came to go back to Santa Barbara in 1955, 0438 MD drew its next brush with fame…
As an amateur racer, Dean competed in several races in his Porsche 356 Speedster, even winning the novice class and 2nd second place in the main event at the 1955 Palm Springs Road Races, and 1st in class and 3rd overall at Bakersfield. He entered the Santa Barbara Road Races but had to retire due to a blown piston. (He started at 18th position and moved up to 4th in just five laps). With time on his hands, he walked around the paddocks at Santa Barbara inspecting the various cars and talking to their owners, and was famously photographed admiring 0438MD. Photographers must have loved the sight of the passionate car guy assessing the Ferrari, as there are a handful of souvenir shots taken that day, which serve as some of the most iconic images of the star.