Well, well, well what do we have here? a $30 million 1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa ‘Pontoon Fender’? Yes, I would love to take it for a ride. With these cars fetching so much money, I certainly wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to drive one.
The car came into the shop because it was on a rally and its charging system had failed. They were on their way from San Francisco and heading toward Monterey when the the car ran out of juice. We happened to be close by so the car was brought to me. I ran a couple of test and determined that the generator itself was good, but the voltage regulator was faulty.
Let me tell you a little about external voltage regulators. Today’s cars have a regulator built into the alternator. In the old days, the regulator was a separate unit. They made millions of these voltage regulators and they were all of similar design. Sometime in the 60’s or 70’s, cars converted over to internal regulator and thus the amount of new replacement external regulators that were made plummeted. After a while the factories that made them shut down or shifted priorities. Now there are just a handful of suppliers for regulators and they all seem to be of questionable quality. Some are made in China and some in the US. I’m finding really hard to get a good regulator straight out of the box and certainly learned my lesson on this car.
Somewhere in time, this Ferrari’s original Magnetti Marelli regulator was replace with a Ford regulator. This was probably an OK decision because the one used was very similar in design as the Magnetti Marelli and honestly, could have been made in the same factory. The one that was in it was obviously old and had served its purpose. The new one should have been plug and play, just drop it in and the charging system would be working normally. As is always the case in my business, this didn’t happen.
Regulators have an important feature called a cut-out relay which serves to disconnect the charging system when the car is turned off to prevent a drain on the battery. You shut the key off – the relay opens and the system is off. If the relay doesn’t open, then you have a serious drain as there is very little resistance in the circuit. There are little adjustment tangs inside the regulator where you can set maximum voltage, maximum current, and an adjustment for the cut-out relay. In the regulator I received, the cut-out relay was improperly adjusted and current would still flow when the key was shut off. Lots of current!
I thought I had everything working correctly and was cleaning up my tools when I began to smell the stench of electrical smoke. Then I saw the clouds of white smoke pouring out from under the dash! Luckily, the battery was easy to reach and I had already left the negative terminal loose. I was able to quickly disconnect it and avoid disaster. Unfortunately, the regulator was ruined. Its cut-out relay points were melted and I had to order a new one. After installing a new one and carefully adjusting it everything was working as designed.
My boss came out to check on me and I explained what was going on and told him I had gotten the system working properly. There was a brief pause and a wink then he said, “Make sure you take any papers out of the cockpit when you drive it, I’d hate for them to fly out”. So it was onto the streets I went to do some ‘durability testing’.
Out on the road it drove just like any other Ferrari from it’s era. The Columbo V12 sounds amazing. Handling was on par with what you would expect from a 1957 Ferrari. I certainly wasn’t going to push the car too much considering its value, but I have a corner I feel safe leaning heavy on the throttle in. Out on the freeway I was a bit disappointed. I know damn well what a good running Ferrari V12 runs like and this was not one. It popped and snorted and shot flames off the carburetor velocity stacks. The six two-barrel Webers were in desperate need of a rebuild or at least some tuning. The gear box religiously clashed both up-shifting and downshifting into second.
Overall, it was a disappointment. I was angry that the owner, with all his wealth, had not taken better care of the car or had not found a better mechanic. When I talked to him, he didn’t seem concerned and actually thought the car ran quite well!
I have found that people have this notion that old cars just didn’t run well back in the day. This is not true. Any old car should be capable of being tuned to run smooth as silk and I have proven it time and time again. I offered my services to further make the car runs well but alas, he was in a hurry. His wife was waiting for him back at the hotel, mad that the car was unreliable.