Cavallino 29: A Sea of Red at The Breakers in Palm Beach

If you want to see the finest Ferraris on display, there’s just one option

I’ve wanted to attend the famed Cavallino Ferrari meet for years, but it always conflicted with the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona. This year I decided to forsake hot rod Fords for Ferraris.

Once I was in in Palm Beach, the excitement was not long in coming. As I walked up the long driveway at the posh Breakers Hotel, I heard the unmistakable sound of a high-revving Ferrari – not a V-12, mind you, but a 4-cylinder, 750 Monza. Seconds later, a low-slung black two-seater, replete with a faired headrest and twin prominent red Mobiloil Pegasus logos, roared across the driveway, then stopped and sat idling loudly.

0428MD was a road racer that started life as a 500 Mondial, and was later upgraded by the factory. Ferrari built these 3-liter 4-bangers along with its powerful V-12’s, because the 4-cylinder cars developed a hefty measure of torque that suited tight tracks very well. This car’s owners, Tom Peck and his pretty wife, wore the confident look of moneyed folk who hadn’t a care in the world. It was opportune that I saw 0428MD first, because a few days later it won the Scuderia Ferrari Cup for the finest competition Ferrari present. That was a considerable feat, given the number and high quality of Ferrari’s present at this unique event.

Arguably, Ferrari, more than any other living marque, embodies all the special traits that make it worthy of its own major annual Concours event in a breathtaking setting. Porsche is fragmented, with popular shows like Luftgekühlt and Rennsport appealing to diverse air-cooled Stuttgart fans. No other make even comes close. You might posit that Mercedes-Benz could share this role, but over time, Mercedes-Benz has offered many practical low-priced models that eschew collectability. Ferrari never has.

To be sure, Ferrari, S.p.A., founded in 1947, missed the golden era of the acknowledged classic period, the ‘20s and ‘30s. But from the outset, all Ferrari chassis received custom coachwork, and even when series production began in the 1950’s, unit totals remained small, so the Ferrari brand was almost unattainably rare.

Think of it this way: Ferrari embodies nearly every tenet of automotive greatness (save high volumes). They have had great success in F1 and in many forms of racing, there’s a large cadre of surviving custom-built and even unique models, and there’s the long association with great engineers and coachbuilders, paired with a host of wealthy and distinguished patrons.

The closest thing to an affordable Ferrari was the 246GT/GTS Dino, which never officially carried a Ferrari badge, and even Dinos today sell for six-figure sums. Despite the fact that Ferrari’s star in many Concours d’Elegance worldwide, putting the Cavallino Classic in context, it’s not surprising that this weekend, celebrating Ferrari’s best of the best, is in its 29th year. The lavish five-day celebration includes a track event, a Ferrari-only Concours on the lawn at The Breakers in Palm Beach and a Ferrari and multi-make “Classic Sports Sunday” at Mar-A-Lago, the former Vanderbilt Estate in Palm Beach.

Organized by John and Alicia Barnes, founders of Cavallino Magazine, the roster of domestic and international judges is a “Who’s Who?” of the contemporary Ferrari world. A week of perfect “Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce” weather this year made it even better. Many Ferrari Club judges, possess positively arcane knowledge of their respective models. I co-judged with Bill Orth, Clete Gardenhour and Christopher Dugan. Clete Gardenhour’s specialty is the Ferrari 330/365 GTC, about which he’s written a 96-page judging manual (!). I reckon he knows as much if not more about these cars as anyone at Maranello.

The biggest challenge for successful judging at Cavallino is the requirement of just 15-to-20 minutes to scrutinize each car. That’s nearly impossible, even when the team members separate the judged areas into mechanical, interior and exterior – which we did. I’ve owned a Ferrari 275GTB and a 246GTS Dino, written two books on Ferrari, and I’ve judged at Pebble Beach for 30 years. Nevertheless, some serious studying in advance was a necessity.

Cavallino awards include Best in Show, Best in Class and many special trophies. All cars can qualify for coveted Platinum (Platino) awards, signifying that a car has scored at least 97 of 100 possible points. A platinum award enhances a restorer’s reputation, and follows the car indefinitely. That means there’s palpable tension while the cars are scrutinized and started.

“My” class consisted of a 250GT/L “Lusso,” a pair of GTB/4’s, a 330 GTC and a 365 GTB/4 Daytona. Score-sheets in hand, we scrutinized each car closely, warily watched by owners and handlers. With just 15-to-20 minutes per car, there’s no time to waste. A quick introduction, a few pages turned in the presentation book, if one is offered and it’s down to a close inspection. My colleagues and I focused on our respective assignments, then consulted for a few minutes while we assessed deductions, if there were any. Our top two cars, both Platino award winners, were Joe and Eileen Dash’s Ferrari 250GT Lusso, restored by Greg Jones (whose late father Ray was a talented restorer), and a Ferrari 275GTB/4 Berlinetta, owned by Larry and Anne Page, and presented by David Carte, an award winning craftsman who restores cars for hotelier Bill Marriott.

To the uninitiated, both cars are lovely, but cognoscenti know they possess very different character. The 250GT Lusso (which translates to luxury in Italian) is arguably one of the prettiest Ferraris. Just 350 examples were ever built. With its sensuous flowing lines, sparkling Borrani wire wheels and curious central twin instrument binnacles, the Lusso packs a ‘detuned’ 250-bhp OHV V-12 version of the Ferrari SWB’s race motor, along with a 4-speed gearbox and a live rear axle, it’s an elegant grand tourer, not a sports model. In contrast, the 300-bhp GTB/4 has the sleek body of a barracuda on wheels, complete with a trio of shark-inspired gills in its front fenders. The GTB/4’s stiletto shape is slimmer and the coupe’s specifications are far more advanced. There’s a 4-cam, 3.3-liter V-12, fully independent suspension and a 5-speed transaxle, the first in a road-going Ferrari. Only 330 were sold.

These rare Ferraris were originally hand-crafted and assembled, and you can still see that aspect, especially when you look closely at upholstery and even the shape of the grille and fenders, which can be very slightly different from side to side. Correct Ferraris have an aura – perfection in metal, the crispness of the black crackle finish on the cam covers, the pale golden braided fuel lines, and the gray cast of the exhaust headers stand in complimentary contrast to the minutely uneven edging of pile carpets and a hand-stitched leather interior. We’re not saying that every bolt and screw should be clocked, but correctly-done Ferrari’s have ‘the look,’ and you know it when you see it. Both these cars did.

Cavallino judging is intense, partly due to the time restrictions and the pressure to get it right. The stakes are high and these cars are insanely valuable. David MacNeil brought his 1963 250  GTO, for which he’d paid $80 million (!), along with his 1958 250 Tour de France. Both cars were clad in matching silver livery. And there are over two dozen special awards. To name a few: Les Wexner had a stunning 1952 340 Mexico Vignale Berlinetta, one of just three such brutalist coupes (and one roadster), and won the Ferrari Competition Cup; Jack and Debbie Thomas’ 1951 340 America by Carrozzeria Ghia captured the Gran Turismo Ferrari Cup. Stephen and Kim Bruno brought their 1952 212 Export Pininfarina Cabriolet, and won the Robert Tallgren Memorial Elegance Cup. And there were many more awards honoring literally the finest Ferrari’s in existence. As a bonus, three pre-war sporting Alfa Romeos were present, forming a link with the past when Scuderia Ferrari, run by Enzo Ferrari himself, was the official Alfa Romeo Factory Team in the late 1930’s.

Accompanying Cavallino, there’s the traditional Classic Sports Sunday event at Mar-a-Lago, where many of the previous day’s Ferraris are joined by still more sports and classic cars for a sunny day on the estate’s lovely lawns. Interestingly, Tom Peck’s 0428MD Mondial won the Personal Favorite “If I could take one home…” Award on Sunday. Best of Show at Mar-a-Lago was the immense 1937 Cadillac V-16 Series 90 cabriolet by Hartmann – owned by Jim and Dot Patterson, and David McNeil’s Ferrari 250 Tour de France was the “Finest GT.” We especially liked Kim and Stephen Bruno’s 1953 Fiat 8V Supersonic by Carrozzeria Touring.

All too soon, this fine car-filled weekend came to a close. For a special experience, it’s not to be missed. Next year’s dates are January 20-24, 2021. Put it in your calendar.