The Junkyard Ferrari

Junkyard Ferrari

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.

Restored Ferrari 375 MM

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.

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Comments

  1. Dolphin Member

    Yesterday I was reading the latest issue of SCM and it covered the sale of a 1953 Ferrari 340/375 at the RM auction in Italy this past May. The RM car also had a top international competition history and I wondered whether it might be the same car as the one in this story, but RM’s car was a coupe and this one is a Spyder, so different cars.

    RM’s 340/375 coupe sold in May for $12,812,800.00 once the billions of Lire were converted into US dollars, so the market has moved up a little since Lou Jr sold his car.

    • Dolphin Member

      ……and the intrepid award goes to Rob Cotter and Maureen for finishing their 10,000 mile trip after rolling their Volvo in those steep Yellowstone Park passes!

      Like 4
  2. geomechs geomechs Member

    Many thanks for posting this; it’s a wonderful treat to read a story with a happy ending, or hints at a happy ending. I’d love to be close enough to even touch that Ferrari.

    I love the opportunity of probing around old junkyards and seeing the treasures therein. There was a farm just east of my home town. The bachelor who owned it had over 750 cars all around his place (I know that because eventually 750 cars were crushed and hauled away from there). He wasn’t a junkyard officially but his place became the place to take your old derelicts. Dick, his name was, knew the history surrounding most of the cars. I knew quite a bit of the history on a lot of them as well. You drive out there today and all there is are (2) buildings. Everything else is long gone. So many good things never last.

    Like 2
  3. Clay Bryant

    Nothing like meeting someone that “jams” to the Harmonicats.One of their members,Gene Herndon,was my cousin and played with them.When I was a kid we visited them in Indianapolis,went to his house to visit.He made his living on the harmonica,selling imported chocolate and drawing cartoons for the Saturday Evening Post.Even at 7 or 8 years old I thought “What a life!”. This was in the early 50s so most people don’t remember harmonica playing “big time” but if I remember they used to drive to Chicago most saturday nights and play for $750.(About 150 apiece)Good bucks way into the 60s.

    Like 2
  4. Charles

    Glad to hear that the car was saved. Really cool story with a great ending!

    Like 2
  5. Richard V

    This story blows me away!!! When I moved to Eureka (7 miles from Arcata) and opened my auto repair shop (British Car Service) in 1981 I began to hear stories about this guy Lou Brero and his phantom Ferrari. I never did follow up on the story so it is so cool to read this history! Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Like 2
    • Paul Lubitz

      Richard,
      Is this the fellow who used to play bass in a band with Steve Diggs?
      You found a crankshaft for my old Mercedes diesel.
      Paul

      Like 1
      • Richard V

        Hi Paul, yes, I am that infamous character! I also remember working on your XJ6 as well as the Saab. It’s good to hear from you again and I hope all is well with you.

        Richard (Dick) former owner of British Car Service.

    • Paul Lubitz

      Dick,

      I forgot I had that Saab 40 years ago. The Jaguar with the Chevy kind of died a slow death mostly due to its British parts. Still playing bass? Still wrenching? Ever hear from Steve? You can reach me at: hollyyashi.com
      No exotic cars except a Piaggio APE I just sold and a few interesting motorcycles.

      Like 1
  6. jim

    i wonder is the junkyard is still there. another great story.

    Like 1
  7. Chris A.

    The Lou Brero, Sr. Ferrari 340/375 MM is one of the early 50’s Ferrari icon racers. Probably a brute of a racer, it would have taken all the skill of the famous drivers to keep it on the raod, let alone win with it. LB,Sr. had an unfortunate death being burned to death in a Maserati/Chevy at a 1957 at a race in Hawaii. I always felt bad about Richie Ginther who deserved a better career than he had. Known as ” the guy who rode with Phil Hill in the Carrera Panamerican”, he was better known inside racing as one of the very best race car development test drivers ever. Phil Hill helped get him a team position at Ferrari where he test drove to develop the first rear engine F1 Ferraris that Phil later drove to a championship. Later on Ginther went to Honda where his ability led to his and Honda’s first win at the 1965 Mexican GP. It’s one thing to drive the Carrera Panamerica, but to sit there for 1000 miles is a whole other level of courage and focus. Thanks for the story on a great car and drivers.

    Like 3
  8. Rich

    Was Lou Jrs. shop on Alliance road? Anyone chime in on this. Also trying to get history on his old BSA superflash. Anything helps. Thanks

    • Bob

      Lou’s original shop in 1953 was in the Sunset District of North Arcata it was a small wooden building that was built over an embankment , I recall the Ferrari setting in the corner with a cover over it as I recall it was Red at that time but it’s been a long time .. My friend Buddy V lived across the street at that time so we went over and watched jr work on the D jag – later I had an algebra class with jr and I recall him being gone ( sick ) for 2 or 3 days – he would come back and relive his time off – racing the Kurtis in Oregon etc.I had left Arcata prior to Lou moving to West End road so I have no knowledge of that era . but prior to my leaving I recall Lou jr spending 90 days on the county farm at the Arcata Air port for flexing the D jag muscle on the Burns Expressway – near Arcata Red Wood Mill – as I understand the CHP Dodges would only go 160 mph … not nearly enough … Motorola had to play a part in this drama …

      Like 5
    • Paul Lubitz

      Yes the shop was on Alliance Rd. And yes he is a “character”!

      Like 2
  9. Dave

    Lou’s shop was on St. Louis Road in Arcata. It had been a service station at one time, just off Highway 101. It has been gone for a number of years, and I don’t know what became of Lou Jr. I met Lou through a mutual friend who claimed to have dated Lou’s sister at one time. I used to see Lou driving around town in his green Thames van frequently. During the 1970’s, I visited the yard several times and Lou talked about the “old” days and the racing he and his dad did. A colorful character. He showed me a number of picture albums of he and his father racing. I was restoring an E-type at the time and talked (in the old bus) with him about Jags in general and his D-type in particular. He said it had been already sold. He told me about the Ferrari, but did not invite me to take a look. The thing I remember about the yard was the large number of motorcycles stored in a building on site. I don’t know anything in particular about a BSA that he might have had.

    Like 3
  10. Justin

    I love the “his/her side” comment. LMAO!

  11. Lannis

    Assuming the picture thing works, here’s Lou Jr. himself, in the snappy riding overalls. He attended our BSA International Rallly in Petaluma CA last year, camped with us all week, and rode a BSA B50 everywhere.

    The man’s lived a life and got some stories to tell, and I enjoyed them all! Quite the character ….

    Like 3
  12. Paul

    I was a college student at Humboldt State College (now University) I had bought a used Bultaco Matador 250 with an oblong wheel. I would go to Lou’s for parts. He’d give advice too but it was pretty obvious he was a fringe character. He put a Yamaha rear wheel on my cycle and while I thought it was sacrilege it worked fine. He was an excellent mechanic. He would tell my friend and I that he had a Ferrari and it was buried in the ground. I thought it was a fantasy of his. I bet someone would happily give $20 million for it today.
    For those who knew him, which was every poor motorcycle lover that wanted to keep his (I can’t remember any girls on motorcycles back then) bike running he was most famous for popping a wheelie and keeping that front wheel in the air for as long as he pleased. I easily see him on one wheel for a 1/4 mile.

    Like 2
    • Mike Diggles

      I once saw Lou in a wheelie driving up the curved hill onto the Humboldt State campus past Goldcrest apartments. I think he put the front wheel back down at about the HSC library. Did he not have a pet mountain lion at his shop on St. Louis? –Mike D, HSC geology student.

  13. AJ Nichelini

    Met Lou Brero Saturday Dec 24 2016 in Calistoga Ca. I was able to talk to him for a while. He had some cool old stories. He was a little shakey but seemed all there for an 80 year old. It was a great experience.

    Like 2
    • J Curly

      Sounds like he is still moving around. Trying to contact him. Any chance you have current info. for him? I am over in St. Helena.

      Like 1
  14. Dave Booth

    I heard that Lou rode a motorcycle on the the rear wheel on a bet on the back road from Arcata to Eureka and won a case of beer!! I also saw him race a motorcycle In a tt race at redwood acres in Eureka around 1965 or 1966.

    Like 2
  15. Dave Booth

    I saw Lou in a wheelie contest at redwood acres and the bike came over backwards. Lou was sliding down the track at speed laughing all the way.

    Like 2
  16. Frank Meitner

    I came thru Eureka/Arcata in the spring of 1982 on an enduro bike, a Honda XL 500. While In front of a book store, I belive it was in Eureka, I was asked from a man behind me, if I was interested in a moto bike trail ride. The bypasser was Lou Brero Jr. and he offered me a sleeping couch in his “guest house”, which turned out to be a short bus. The next day, a saturday, we set out with a couple of Lou’s moto bike friends for a cross country trail race in the surrounding hills, all 4 or 5 of us with some sort of an enduro bike, he on his homebrew Bultaco with Honda engine. He won, he had far better riding skills!
    Greetings to Lou from Frank in Germany!

    Like 4
  17. James C Simpson

    I currently have contact with Lou Jr. He is quite a character. He has a love of nature and a good regard for mother earth. He lives in a circle of semi-truck trailers that contain a picker’s dream of tools, partially completed exotic mechanical projects, and a treasure of historical racing including car parts that you could not find such a concentration of and memorabilia even at a car museum. His current dream project that he has modeled is a portable home that folds up- and is on par with Buckminster Fuller ideas.
    Lou can recite in poetic iambic pentameter stories of motorcycle racing that curl the toes of shakespeaheian audiences. Lou is a great, storied, persistent, reclusive idealist that is living when others have give up. Quite a strong individual. I feel lucky to know him.

    Like 3
  18. Jason Curliano

    Have followed this story since the car was found buried in wood chips. Always thought this Spotify would make a great movie. Goes back to the racing day of Lou’s father. Would luv to figure out how to internee Lou. Not sure it would be easy to get him out. Let me know if you can help connect us. lugesq@yahoo.com. I’m down in the Bay Area. Thanks!!

  19. tom stover

    i have a collection of lou’s poetry……i’d like to get it back to him if he wants it….along with his mechanical and racing skills he is an accomplished poet

    Like 1
  20. Jim Simpson

    Lou has been out of my contact for about a month. His transportation needs are overwhelming at 84 years old-and living in a remote and out-of-town location. -yet he has been able to get help from many local services. He went to have several health issues resolved, and I have not heard from him in a while. Winter rains also confound his current living situation. Yes, he is a poet. And a collector, and a philosopher, and an inventor and much more. I have unfinished work for facilitation of one of his inventions. Yet, time is short. If you have information to archive, I have ability to contact him. Post a way to contact me to discuss. oddpartsatvomdotcom Jim Simpson, Sonoma.

  21. Paul Lubitz

    I have mostly fond memories of a gape mouthed youth. After finishing fixing my buddies CZ which was not easy to find anyone who could really work on it, he “tested” it by immediately putting in it’s back wheel and keeping that wheelie for a couple hundred yards and making a U-turn while still on that back wheel.
    He commented how easy and good the bike was to maneuver.
    He sure made it look easy.

    Like 1
  22. W. Johnson

    In the late ‘70s, a co-worker had purchased a Sunbeam Alpine from Louie. I was interested in driving a smaller vehicle due to the gas crisis at the time (OPEC). Another co-worker and I went up to Louie’s quarters on Alliance road for a congenial pop-in visit to inquire if any other vehicles were for sale. Louie was abrupt that we should have called first. My first Louie experience. Over the years, I’ve met many folks with similar Louie tales of an automotive nature as noted in the article and comments. My favorite is the Red Line contest at the V&N Burger Bar in Arcata. Late ‘60s, tachometers were cool accessories then. Locals in the parking lot were seeing who could get to the highest RPM: 7,200, 7,600, 8,000. Louie was there watching with mild interest and said: “That’s nothing.” “I’ll be back.” Sometime later, he appeared in the Ferrari and got it to 14,000. The winner! Glad the Ferrari has been saved.

    Like 3
    • Paul Lubitz

      W. You are so lucky. I think 90 percent of the people who worked with him that the Ferarri was a figment of an overactive imagination! I would have loved to see it!

  23. Graham Wozencroft

    Met Louie last week over by Sonoma. He had got a trailer and pickup stuck in a soft spot in a field . A nearby well had some broken pipes so a bit unusual to get stuck in a wet spot in July . Anyway Lou needed a tow and I had a 4×4 and a chain . I did not have the time but I could see he needed the help . He jumped in and we started a conversation on the way to find his truck . I am a car guy so I was very interested when he mentioned his driving for Alfa Romeo and the Ferrari that had won the Carrera Panamerica . It took a couple of hours to get the truck out , was a 15 minute job but Lou kept me captivated with his tales . I thought he was just an old eccentric guy and did not really believe it till he pulled out a small computer drive chip and I opened it on my laptop . The pictures were amazing . This guy is the real deal . His dad racing the Ferrari , D type and C type jag and the Kurtis . He and his father were a real team .He showed me pictures of him receiving a trophy in the Bahamas with Stirling Moss after he won the F3,race in a Cooper Norton. But he is a true gentleman and I will always cherish meeting him and really enjoying a couple of hours talking to him about his life .He is still in great shape for his age and yes I think his life story should be archived . He is still riding motorcycles !

    Like 2
    • Paul Lubitz

      Lucky you. Yes he’s the real deal. He was rude, crude and a mechanical genius. Everyone put up with him because he really knew his stuff!

      Like 1
      • Jason Curliano

        Is he still living off the grid up in Northern California? Anyone know how to contact him? Thanks!

  24. chris ioakimedes

    Hello,
    Yes Lou is still living off grid in a beautiful vineyard. I helped him move there several years ago. I feel guilty that I don’t call and visit him more often. I plan on visiting him this coming week.
    chris ioakimedes

    Like 1
  25. gordon kuhnle

    I remember lou .we raced@willow creek.He had a issue with billy law.he solved the issue as only he could.

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