1954 Ferrari 500 Mondial Series 1 Spider

Knotty Nawadhinsukh Words by Knotty Nawadhinsukh
0438MD's Ferrari Classiche certifed nut & bolt restoration completed in '15 back to how Rubirosa raced it in 1954 at Santa Barbara

It would have been easy to pick one of many dramatic modern day photographs taken by Pawel Litwinski sent over to us by Bonhams as the main pic for this tale of the Ferrari 500 Mondial Series 1 Spider from 1954.

Dean trying to get accustomed to driving on the right—typical of most early Ferrari racing cars

But with all due respect to the photographer, a period black & white shot of James Dean sitting in the very car, chassis number 0438MD, we thought would offer more sagacity that this super rare early racer from Maranello holds so much throughout most of the 65 years of its life.

“International Man of Mystery”—First owner ‘Rubi’ loved women and Ferraris but unfortunately perished abruptly in one too—with another Ferrari I mean…
Correct blue paintwork over original red as per Rubirosa's choice before he took it for racing

0438MD will be one of the several outstanding cars with quite a rich history that Bonhams will be putting up during their Scottsdale auction this month on the 17th at Westin Kierland Resort & Spa. It is one of only 12 Series 1 Spiders ever produced for the smaller-capacity racing class from the coachwork of Pinin Farina that was equipped with the 2-litre 4-Cylinder Lampredi unit—a similar block that powered the Ferrari Grand Prix cars that made Alberto Ascari back-to-back World Champion in 1952 and 1953 (hence the name “Mondial”—which is “World” in Italian).

Rubirosa dicing with a Jaguar
Cockpit had flat one-piece wraparound screen

What made this particular Ferrari that extra noteworthy, aside from the fact that James Dean once sat in it is the many star-studded associations that came with the car. Because right from the beginning the 500 Mondial was ordered and purchased by none other than Porfirio Rubirosa, the jet-setting, polo playing, racing driver and  international playboy (your quintessential grand tourer, basically) who first took delivery of the car in the summer of 1954.

“Rebel Rebel”—Porsche dealer von Neumann trying to impress a Porsche guy with the new Ferrari he had just acquired
Sideview shows Pinin Farina Series 1 cars' resembling the big brother 375MMs

Accompanied by his then girlfriend, the beautiful socialite and starlet Zsa Zsa Gabor, Rubirosa took 0438MD, now painted in distinctive blue over the original Rosso and with the number “235”, for its first maiden race in Santa Barbara. Soon after however, the Ferrari changed hands to Johnny von Neumann, another cult Fifties figure and a bon vivant character himself no less (which I can vouch for first-hand many moons ago, having seen his escapade during his later years sporting a ponytail, driving a Ferrari F40 fitted with power-steering—and a nubile Senegalese companion in tow…). The Austrian-born von Neumann became a transplanted Californian and during World War II, raced cars himself, founded the California Sports Car Club and built the Competition Motors dealership that sold Volkswagens and Porsches—including the 356 Speedster and THAT ill-fated 550 Spyder that he sold to James Dean.

Under von Neumann's ownership, the Mondial's windshield now only remain on the driver's side, as this shot with Dean shows
Quite a number of historical motoring figures sat here

Thus it was this association between Dean and von Neumann that led to these series of rare images of the Hollywood legend trying the Mondial which von Neumann had taken over out for size at one of the races that they both attended—sadly some time just before the tragedy that befelled Dean in which we are well aware of. As von Neumann concentrated soon after on importing and distributing Ferraris on the West Coast under Competition Motors as well, the Spider then was entrusted to Californians Richie Ginther and future Formula One World Champion Phil Hill to race it for the following year, making it as one of the several cars that help spring boarded both their careers toward the international stage.

von Neumann with then-wife Eleanor Bigelow, the Spider now repainted back to red
All major original components had been rebuilt and preserved as before, such as the bodywork, gearbox, axle, suspension and brakes—at the cost close to half a million Euros!

Like most racing cars of their days, the 500 Mondial had to make way for the newer models for the subsequent seasons. Hence throughout its course it has been through a number of modifications and repaints under various ownerships both in the U.S. and in Europe. Fast forward to the present day, 0438MD has been returned to how it was delivered to Rubirosa, thanks to the painstakingly thorough restoration (and extremely costly) process that the current owner had commissioned to Ferrari Classiche back in 2013.

von Neumann at the wheel of the Mondial himself
Meticulous details contributed to its show-winning pedigree such as that at Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance

This Ferrari 500 Mondial Series 1 Spider took nearly two years for the people back in Maranello to complete in order to comply with the owner’s stipulation that the condition must be faithfully be returned “As New”. To the point that upon completion it won the Class Award at the 2015 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance under the Pebble Beach Road Races category as well as the Best Competition Ferrari at the Annual International Concours held by Ferrari Club of America that same year. In order to be presented with such accolades at this level, the Mondial has to be Ferrari Classiche Red Book certified—which it is—indicating that the car maintains high originality and authenticity of all its components.

Phil Hill racing 0438MD at Torrey Pines
“You race it, you fix it!”— Future first American Grand Prix World Champion Hill (Left) tinkering with the original 4-Cylinder engine. This Ferrari has had a Chevy V8 installed afterward during its lifetime!
Correct Tipo 110 motor reproduced by Ferrari to exact specs
The car is eligible for Mille Miglia as well as many other events

Historically though, the well-documented fact that this Ferrari 500 Mondial has had brushes with such iconic legends as Rubirosa, von Neumann, Dean, Hill and Ginther would add so much intrinsic value and luster on this particular car to be coveted by its next owner that even those at Ferrari would not be able to certify—nor would there be a need to, for that matter.

All  Period & Contemporary Photos and Video Provided By Bonhams/P.Litwinski

Contemplating a trade-in with the 550 Spyder? We will never know...