• Vincent De Rossi

Che Bella Venezia

Updated: Feb 1

The mere mention of Venice conjures up images of couples taking romantic Gondola rides through tight canals, gastronomic adventures, a cool glass of Prosecco or a splendid Cappuccino in Piazza San Marco and racing cars from Scuderia Serenissima. What! Wait a minute. Racing car? From Venice?

Serenissima 308 Jet Competizione at the 2006 Villa d’Este Concours

Let me explain; firstly, we have to go back, in fact we have to go way back to the year 451 when the city of Venice was better known as La Serenissima. It translates to ‘most serene’ as it was established by people fleeing warring barbarians. Over the centuries Venice became famous for many things but least of all cars, especially racing cars, it’s best known for its canals, Gondola’s and introducing Italy to pasta and table forks amongst many other things.

Fast forward to the nineteenth century and enters one Giuseppe Volpi who became a successful businessman and politician. Amongst many accomplishments he’s best remembered for developing utilities which by 1903 had bought electricity to Venice, northeast Italy and the Balkans.

The Serenissima badge by Bulgari

From 1925 to 1928 Volpi was the Kingdom of Italy’s Finance Minister and successfully negotiated Italy’s WW1 debt payment to the USA and UK. Later he would become Mussolini’s finance minister and was given the title of ‘Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata’ from King Vittorio Emanuele himself. Volpi died in 1947 an extremely wealthy man, he left his huge fortune to his only son and heir 24-year-old Giovanni who would assumed the title of Count.

Count Volpi Jnr being obscenely rich, Italian and good looking spent most of his inheritance on fast woman and even faster cars. He established a wonderful relationship with ‘Il Commendatore’ Enzo Ferrari who sold him many cars that not only saw Riviera duties but raced under his Scuderia Serenissima banner, the most famous being the Drogo-bodied Ferrari 250 GTO Breadvan.

1961 was a year Enzo Ferrari would rather forget, by the late 1950s he was on the backfoot, his cars bearing his name were not winning and he stubbornly didn’t want to follow Cooper’s rear engine layout, ‘putting the horse behind the cart,’ but he finally relented in time for Phil Hill to win the Italian Grand Prix clinching the 1961 F1 Drivers Championship at Monza aboard the ‘Shark Nose,’ Ferrari’s 156 GP car. His other driver Wolfgang Von Trips was killed at Monza taking fifteen spectators with him. Shortly after, back in Maranello all hell broke loose, it was the palace revolt with senior engineers walking out because of Enzo’s wife Laura’s meddling, strong and uncompromising Enzo replied with a ‘don’t bother striking, you’re all fired, get out!’ In one wild swoop and proving that no one is indispensable he dismissed key individuals including chief engineer Carlo Chiti, development chief Giotto Bizzarrini, race team manager Romolo Tavoni plus everyone in between. Back then, things looked grim for Ferrari and in fact, experts predicted the end for his famous race team but as we now know, the old man bounced back in such a way that his Scuderia became more successful and prominent reaching a legendary status with a die-hard following that every race team in the world envies to this day.

Ferrari’s championship winning cars of ’61 were also-ran in ’62 and there was no new car for ’63 simply because Chiti, who was working on a new V8 engine when the great-walk-out happened, simply rolled up his plans and walked off with them.

He found some wealthy backers in Giorgio Billi, Jaime Oritz Patino and the Venetian nobleman Count Volpi. The company they formed was called Societa per Azioni Automobili Turismo Sport Serenissima, this was a bit of a mouth full even for Italians so it became Automobili Turismo e Sport better known as ATS. Understandably this did not make Enzo Ferrari particularly happy and he refused to sell or supply any more of his cars to the Count.

1965 Serenissima 308V GT Prototipo

So many egos and Italians being hot blooded and ‘Italian’, the infighting started almost immediately. Count Volpi as a result left or as some suggest, was pushed. Carlo Chiti persisted with his F1 car program and sports car.

To cut a very long story short, Chiti and ATS ran out of money, what was left of the sportscar side of the ATS was moved to Modena, the cars tubular chassis was modified to produce the first Serenissima and this happened because Count Volpi was seduced back as sole backer. The engine powering the Serenissima was effectively the 1.5 litre SOHC V8 that Chiti designed at Ferrari, later he would open it up to displace 2.5 litres to power his own F1 project, now in the Serenissima with twin overhead camshafts per bank would displace 3.0 litres.

Dubbed the 308V GT Prototipo, the car was engineered by Alberto Massimino with bodywork designed by Francesco Salomone then built by Carrozzeria Gransport (Vaccari & Baccarini) of Modena. To finish off the bodywork, renowned jeweller Gianni Bulgari (Bvlgari jewellery) presented the Count with a Serenissima badge that was placed on the car's nose.

Serenissima Spyder in action at Le Mans 1966

Initial testing was carried out by Willy Mairesse, with mixed results, both Salamone and Massimino were not too happy with the car’s performance, they returned to their factory, then a few months later a revised version of the Serenissima appeared sporting revised bodywork and much modified and shortened chassis. In October 1965 this new car carrying chassis 003 made its public appearance and was christened ‘Jet.’ Months of testing and development followed before it was taken to the Le Mans trials in April ’66, but before leaving for France the Serenissima Jet had ‘Competizione’ added to its moniker.

1966 McLaren M2B with the 3.0 litre Serenissima engine.

Bruce McLaren at the wheel of his McLaren M2B 1966

At the trials, the Serenissima was slow compared to the rest of the competition, it was driven by Louis Corberto, his fastest lap was 50-seconds slower than the quickest time set, in fact it was two seconds slower than the Count’s old Ferrari 250 GTO driven by Andre de Cortanze. Unhappy with the results it was back to the drawing board. The Serenissima reappeared at Le Mans 24 Hour race in June with a more potent 3.5 litre V8 engine, chassis and new Spyder bodywork by Fantuzzi called Torpedo P538 Spyder. This was driven by Jean Claude Sauer/Jean de Montemart even slower than in the trials before eventually retiring with gearbox trouble after 40 laps. Meanwhile the Jet Competizione was entered in an Italian hill-climb race finishing second in the prototype class.

Scuderia Serenissima Ferrari 250 GTO 'Breadvan' by Drogo.

The Serenissima story doesn’t end there though. Volpi befriended Bruce McLaren, his ’66 Grand Prix car was without an engine. The Serenissima engine in 3.0 litre form (from chassis 003) was installed in the McLaren M2B Grand Prix car. At the ’66 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, McLaren finished sixth and earned his team first ever World Championship points. Later Volpi’s team bought a McLaren Can-Am chassis and had it rebodied to his own design, replacing the Chevrolet engine with one of his own. Jonathon Williams drove it in minor International races in Europe with minimal success. In 1970 Volpi sold his assets to Moreno Baldi and no more was heard of Serenissima until 2006 when the ‘Jet Competizione’ was the star of the Villa d’Este Concours looking splendid wearing its original paint and interior and since it saw very little competition use, the car was described as "brutally beautiful".

1963 ATS 2500 GT

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