The following is the story about how a very special Ferrari was discovered in a junkyard. Recounted by Rob Cotter, this tale was originally published in Tom Cotter’s The Corvette in the Barn. It is reprinted here with permission for you to enjoy. Be sure to signup for email updates because every week one lucky subscriber will win a copy of an In the Barn book. Also, dont forget to send in your own find stories because one is going to get into Tom’s upcoming book!
It was 1979, I was 23 and my sweetheart, Maureen, and I were taking time off to do the proverbial cross-country adventure that was so popular when a gallon of gas was one-quarter the price of a gallon milk. I had recently restored an old Volvo 122 wagon for the trip. The car had a few mishaps during the 10,000-mile journey but came through when it mattered most. When Maureen rolled it several times down the steep passes of Yellowstone Park, both of us were unscathed from the accident. After several weeks of bending and welding, the Volvo was back on the road again. It just didn’t look quite the same.
Although the old Volvo had flipped several times, it also bounced, so the passenger side looked like it was hit by a southbound train. Amazingly, the driver’s side was perfect. We were roughly only halfway through our journey, and the car’s condition led to numerous conversations along the way. (I was tempted to write “His” and “Hers” on each side of the car, but that would’ve made for a long, cold trip.)
In Arcata, California, the heart of redwood country, we had one of our weekly breakdowns. It was the usual routine. We’d visit friends and locate the appropriate auto parts store, and then I’d spend the remainder of our visit on my back on our friend’s driveway.
I was pulling into downtown Arcata when I noticed quite a unique vehicle; a mid-1960s Comber camper van. At the time it was probably the only one I’d ever seen, sort of a British version of a VW Camper. I looked it over and was amazed it was still on the road and running. I went into the parts store, but when I came back outside, a fellow was staring at my Volvo just as intently. It was the guy who owned the Comber. He wanted to know if I needed any Volvo parts and instructed me to follow him and the Comber back to his place.
I remember lots of twisting roads up steep hills. That Comber was the slowest vehicle imaginable, desperately sputtering and straining to go even five miles per hour. It made my old, demolished 122 wagon seem like a Turbo Carrera as I slowly crawled behind him. After about 20 minutes of driving we arrived at his house/junkyard/laboratory, only two miles away from where we started.
My first impression was that it appeared to be a typical foreign car junkyard from the mid-1960s, only decades later. The lot contained Peugeots, Morris Minors, Humbers, Alfa Romeos—the list went on. But there were some distinctly unique aspects to the atmosphere of this salvage yard. One was the music (don’t all junkyards have piped-in music as the customers rummage through rusted Citroëns?). The classical music was performed by a group called the “Harmonicats,” which is an all-harmonica band. During my time in Arcata, the music was always on and the Harmonicats were the only thing playing. My other impression was of his office, which was housed inside a 1930s streamlined bus. The office was decorated with rows of purple velvet drapes with gold cherubs hung from the walls every six feet or so. As strange as this all was, the office and music was pretty mundane compared with the automotive oddities that rested on these hallowed grounds.
The scruff y-looking junkyard owner introduced himself as Lou Brero Jr. He seemed nice enough, as well as exceedingly eccentric. He mentioned he was going through a rough divorce.
We became car friends, and he shared some of his life experiences with me and showed me some of his inventions. There was the 4WD Morris Minor pickup truck with the Porsche 356 motor mounted to a dual-range eight-speed gearbox and the Bultaco motorcycle with the Honda engine and the strange sidecar that doubled as a canoe and hot air balloon gondola.
The streamlined bus/office with purple curtains and gold cherubs was being restored and highly modified to maintain 100-mile-per-hour speeds. The back of the bus was being fitted with a drop-down tailgate that would serve as a garage for the Porsche-powered Morris. This was all in preparation for an around-the-world trip of a lifetime, and I got the impression he was waiting for some sort of financial settlement to begin his trip.
As we extracted parts from the old collection of Volvos (I needed a lot!), I learned a bit about his personality, which could benevolently have been described as peculiar, if not cause for concern. At one point I had gotten some rusted car crud in my eyes, and Lou saw I had to stop and deal with the irritation. “Oh, let me show you how to deal with this,” he said, at which point he grabbed a handful of dirt and tossed it into his open eyes. Then he grabbed a file and aggressively started grinding away at his knuckles until they bled. “Then you wipe dirt and grease into the cuts, and NOW you are ready to work on a car!” He did all of this to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth being played by Mighty Mouse. I began to get seriously concerned about spending time with this man. But the thought of continuing driving the 122 with a rear shock bouncing though the floorboard was worth the risk of dealing with this, um, frustrated artist.
Sometimes I would get to the yard and he would be dealing with other issues, and I would mill about through the glorious rubble. As I’m kicking about between the cut-in-half English taxicabs and the bombed-out Sunbeam Rapiers, I spy a unique engine block. It was a V-12!
Quickly my mind started racing. “How many brands of V-12s are there even out there?” The heads were stripped off and the cylinders looked smallish. Wait, there were more. Two more V-12 blocks outside under old vinyl tablecloths!
WOW! What a discovery. Now my goal was not only to get the Volvo parts for my ailing wagon, but to purchase from this crazy man these V-12 blocks and the magnificent piece of iron that hopefully went with them.
Lou returned to give his attention to me. It turns out he was chasing cats on the property with a tire iron. “Filthy, murderous bastards! They kill for pleasure. I hate them and won’t have them around me,” he said. Now I’m scared again.
As he was hauling out a cutting torch to dismember a donor Volvo I timidly asked, “Hey Lou, I noticed a V-12 block over there under the tarp?”—only mentioning one in hopes that he’s too distracted even to remember about the other two. “Yeah, that’s to my ’53 Ferrari,” he mentions matter-of-factly.
I stammer, “F-F-Fifty-Three F-F-Ferrari?”
“Yeah, it’s a 1953, the one my father raced at the Nassau races.”
I’m sure he could hear my jaw drop when it hit the ground. This led to a whole other unique chapter in this man’s life. Yes, his father was a Ferrari racer and had one of the earliest Ferraris in the United States. But Lou himself raced for Alfa Romeo in Italy. He went into great detail as to being the outcast of the team, the “Young American Rebel.” Alfa management had little patience for his radical style. I seemed to remember him telling me that one of their gripes was that he would spin his wheels too much on the turns. He thought it would orient his car better in the turns, but they just thought he was a showboat. And I think there was also alcohol involved.
Eventually, he said, Alfa management worked with the Italian police to have him removed from the country, thus ending his international racing career.
Closer to home, he once raced an outdated Kurtis sports car that famously beat the Corvette factory team.
Anyway, I was still starstruck with the notion of leaving with a 1953 Ferrari. “Hey Lou, how much do you want for the old Ferrari anyway?” He dryly responded, “I want one million dollars.” I almost fell over. Bear in mind, this is back when a million dollars was like . . . a MILLION DOLLARS! My heart sank. I guess he wasn’t that crazy. But at least I needed to see it before I left.
He pointed out where it was. A dozen yards away was a series of old storage containers where cars and other items were stored. Overstuffed doesn’t begin to describe how tightly these containers were packed. Collectively the units held about 12 cars in them. Cars were literally stacked on top of each other. Inside was a Hudson, a Packard, picnic tables standing on end, swing sets, an aluminum rowboat (powered by an inboard 305 Honda Dream motorcycle engine, with some sort of jet-drive installed, of course). And way in the back of one unit, peeking out from all that junk, was the edge of a left front fender, headlight, and the corner of a grille of a 1940s Ferrari. Underneath mounds of dust and gunk, it almost looked red. It was like getting a glimpse of a starlet from afar that you could never embrace—nor would anyone else—for a couple of decades.
This was the same car—375 MM serial number 286 AM—that won the Nürburgring 1000 in 1953, and the next year Phil Hill and Richie Ginther used the car to finish second in the Carrera Panamerican.
I occasionally think of that strange junkyard with the numerous contraptions, but only one popped back on the radar. In the 1990s, a group of wealthy investors and Ferrari collectors rescued the Ferrari and paid the required ransom, overpriced but a worthy cause. For me, I felt grateful to get out of there in one piece and with enough Volvo parts to continue our journey. I wonder if anyone knows about an all-wheel-drive Porsche-powered Morris out there?
And I wonder if Lou ever took that around-the-world extravaganza in his streamliner?
I hope so.
Update: It has been nearly 40 years since Lou Brero’s famous 1953 Ferrari 340 MM Vignale Spyder RHD with the oversized 375 engine was last seen in public. In its early days, it came in first at Nürburgring piloted by Alberto Ascari and Giuseppe Farina. Later it ran in the Pan Americana with Luigi Chinetti and accumulated numerous first and seconds with Phil Hill, Caroll Shelby, and Lou Brero Sr.
It was later sold by Lou Brero Jr. for $1.5 million, complete with an interior filled with cedar chips and a partially installed Jaguar drivetrain. But the car was complete and intact though well-rusted and in pieces. Just weeks later it sold again to Bruce McCaw of Bellevue, Washington, for $1.8 million and was immediately sent for restoration to Pete Lovely Racing.
In 1997, it debuted at the Monterey Historic Automobile Races. With Phil Hill at the wheel, it won by lapping the entire field. It has since won the Pebble Beach Cup at the 1997 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and the Concours d’Competicione at Amelia Island in 2007.