Bill Vance: Ferrari built reputation with little 166 MM

Not since the classic Bugattis has an automobile elicited quite the cachet of the Italian Ferrari, a mystique created by sometimes temperamental road cars and racers that amassed an enviable competition record.

The car that established Ferrari in North America, however, was not that big or impressive. In fact, it looked decidedly small. With its 2,200 mm (86.6 in.) wheelbase, 3,658 mm (144 in.) length and 927 mm (36.5 in.) height it was smaller than a Mazda Miata.

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The eggcrate grille was a simple yet classic shape complemented by the tiny almost nautical windshield. Nicknamed barchetta (little boat), that small Ferrari 166 MM roadster was the car that launched the Ferrari fascination some 70 years ago.

The first few 1947 and ’48 Ferraris were built mainly for competition, but it was the sports/competition 1949 Type 166 MM that really established the Ferrari name.

The 166 designation came from the cubic centimetre displacement of one engine cylinder, a nomenclature long retained by Ferrari. MM was inspired by the annual Italian 1,000 mile (1,610 kilometre) open-road Mille Miglia race which Ferraris won eight times.

The father of the little machine was Enzo Ferrari, born in the northern Italian city of Modena in 1898. Introduced to auto racing by his father at age 10, it made an impression so indelible Enzo would pursue it until his death in 1988.

Enzo began race driving in the 1920s and scored some significant victories, but after his son Dino arrived in 1932 he largely discontinued driving to manage Alfa Romeo’s factory team. He then ran Alfa Romeos under his own Scuderia (stable) Ferrari, collecting some impressive victories.

But it was neither driving nor team management that earned Enzo the almost God-like reputation, one that saw him dubbed “The Pope of the North.” It was constructing racing and road cars, starting especially with the Ferrari Type 166 MM.

After the first chunky-looking 1947-’48 road/racing Farraris from the Maranello factory, the 1949 166 was smooth, svelte and sculpted. The superleggera (superlight) aluminum body was fashioned over wooden bucks by skilled panel beaters, usually of Milan-based Carrosseria (coachbuilder) Touring, then mounted on a small-diameter tubular metal framework attached to the chassis.

The chassis had oval and round tubes and independent front suspension via A-arms and a transverse leaf spring. The solid rear axle was carried by leaf springs.

While esthetically pleasing, the 166’s heart was the V-12 engine. Enzo was inspired by Packard’s V-12 and he and his engine designer Gioacchino Colombo believed the greatest power potential lay in many cylinders with generous piston area.

In 1946, Colombo designed a 60-degree 1-1/2 litre V-12 for the Type 125 Ferrari, enlarged to two litres for the Type 166. Cylinder heads, block and sump were cast aluminum alloy. The crankshaft had seven main bearings and the tiny (60 mm; 2.36 in.) pistons slid in cast iron sleeves.

A single chain-driven camshaft in each head operated two valves per cylinder via rocker arms. Valve springs were not conventional coils, but two lightweight hairpin types, allowing shorter, lighter low-inertia valves.

The V-12 developed 105 to 125 horsepower depending on carburation and fuel.

While modest by today’s standards it was respectable for the period, and the 166 weighed only some 726 kg (1600 lb). Power went to the rear wheels through a five-speed manual transmission with fifth an overdrive.

Performance was excellent for a 2.0 litre car. In a retrospective Road & Track (12/59) reported zero to 97 km/h (60 mph) in 10.0 seconds and top speed of 201 km/h (125 mph).

Production began in 1949 and the 166 MM established instant credibility by winning the famed Le Mans, France 24-hour race co-driven by Luigi Chinetti and Lord Seldson. Chinetti, who later became Ferrari’s U.S, distributor, was the superior driver and demonstrated iron-man endurance by driving 23-1/2 hours at an average of 132 km/h. The 166 MM also won the gruelling Belgian Spa-Francorchamps race and the Mille Miglia.

The 166 MM posted numerous racing victories in Europe and North America where it arrived in limited quantities in late 1950. An approximately $10,000 price (enough to buy a house) limited early ownership to millionaire sportsmen like Briggs Cunningham and James Kimberly of Kimberly-Clark paper.

Fewer than 80 Type 166s were built from 1949 to 1953. The V-12 was soon increased to 2,341 cc for the Type 195, and to 2,562 cc for the Type 212.

Despite a larger V-12 design by Aurelio Lampredi in 1949, the Colombo engine ultimately reached three litres and lasted into the 1960s.

Over the years, Ferraris have come in a dizzying array of models and in several engine configurations, but they all trace their roots to the little Type 166 MM with its jewel-like V-12 engine and sultry Italian shape.

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