THE HORSE THAT DIDN’T BOLT

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By Graeme Hurst with photos from Adrian Ivan & Graeme Hurst

It’s safe to say that having a Ferrari in your garage is high up on most petrolheads’ bucket lists. And while the keys to a set of wheels wearing the famous Cavallino badge may elude most of us until we’re too old and grey to enjoy the experience, one lucky classic car enthusiast in Cape Town got his fix in his early twenties. And again almost three decades later, with the exact same Maranello beauty.

I can’t speak from experience but I can well imagine that checking out a Ferrari as a possible purchase must be a heart-racing experience on the excitement scale. More so if you’ve already owned one and realised what you gave up when prices were still well within five figures. That was the case for Capetonian Brian Berrill, who sold his 1978 308 GTS 33 years ago. Only, his trip to view a smart GTS on offer via a classic car broker got him more than excited. It had him breaking out in goose bumps after the car looked uncannily familiar. “Although it was also left-hand drive, the interior was a different colour and the registration number had changed so I didn’t give it much thought,” recalls Brian. “But then I noticed the engine lid prop, which is unique to early 308s, had been converted with a gas strut kit. I had had mine done at Vigliettis. The front bumper had a slight bend in it too, just as mine did after I accidentally dropped the clutch while in the garage,” adds Brian whose bout of déjà vu over the car came to an abrupt end after he opened the driver’s door. “I spotted the same speakers I had installed behind the seats and knew the car was mine!”

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The Pininfarina-styled sportscar’s history file confirmed it was indeed his 308 … a car he’d been lucky enough to buy back in 1980 when he was just 24 years of age and which he’d sold six years and 24 000km later, after emigrating to the USA. Back then, Brian – who’s had a career in fashion design and production – was already a huge fan of the Maranello marque after he was taken for spin around Florence in a Daytona when he was just 15 years old. “I was in Italy with my mother who was in the fashion business. A business friend of hers took me for a drive in his Ferrari and the sound of it reverberating on the walls and the sight of the people egging it on while the Fiats around us scattered like chickens was just unforgettable,” says Brian. “I thought: ‘I’m having a Ferrari!’ No discussion.  It was the only car I wanted.”

And although he fulfilled the dream (first time round) just nine years later, Brian honed his driving and spannering abilities on a number of cars in between, many of which will sound familiar to petrolheads his age. “My first car was an Anglia. It came with a standard 997cc engine and a mate and I used a pole and chain to whip it out and dropped in a 1640cc motor. In the end it had side draft carbs and Jag valves and was good for 7500rpm.  All this in an Anglia!” laughs Brian who recalls it making the papers but not for its on-the-road performance. “It got squashed after a dirt truck ran out of control outside my mother’s house.”

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The angle box was replaced with its big brother: a Ford Cortina. “It was a 1300 and I went for a two-door as I wanted to turn it into a Lotus. I put in an engine from a 1600XL and added competition brakes and anti-roll bars,” explains Brian, who entered in a gymkhana at Killarney. “It was a fabulous car and I would love to have it back.” The Cortina in turn made way for another a Ford: a 3-litre Capri. “That was also a great car but it had 35 000km on it and was worn out. I put in a Meissner cam and one track day at Killarney pretty much destroyed it.”

The Capri was superseded by a W114 Mercedes-Benz. “It was a 280 and had the best power to weight ratio. I put Recaro seats in it and lowered it.” The three-star sedan may have been tweaked but it was Brian’s everyday wheels as he had a Sunbeam Tiger to play with. “It was a lovely original car with factory steel wheels and hubcaps. I bought it from a lady in Rondebosch. She and her late husband used it to commute to their place in Hermanus. It was a great car with a fabulous engine but dangerous as it could swap ends very easily,” he recalls.

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By the late ‘70s an early Beetle had joined the Tiger in Brian’s garage but the latter had to make way for the 308 which he heard of for sale in Johannesburg. “At the time there were only around four Ferraris in Cape Town.” Brian’s 308 – one of the earliest steel-bodied cars after Ferrari switched from glassfibre – was one of two he considered on his trip up to the Reef. “The other wasn’t as mechanically as good so I opted for this one. It cost me R50 000 and had been imported recently from Germany.”

Despite being just two years old with a little over 12 000km on the clock, it needed some paintwork which ended up putting paid to Brian’s plans to enjoy it immediately. “The paint guys dropped a knife in the cambelt which went undetected and then led to the exhaust valves being bent on the one bank.”  Brian had the car shipped down to Vigliettis in the Cape to be sorted. “Luigi pulled the engine and replaced everything and anything we could while it was in bits.” But just as the work was completed, the new paintwork started to deteriorate and the Ferrari had to be trucked back to the Reef for the paint to be re-done. “From the time I bought it until I was able to drive it took four months and resulted in a spastic colon over the stress.”

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But the wait was worth it as Brian was thrilled with the car. “It was one of the first GTSs built – I’ve yet to find an earlier one. The early ones had the hot cams and were the quickest and this one came with the optional Pirelli tyres. Ferrari was racing in F1 with Michelin at the time. But Pirelli came out with the P7 and this was the first of the low profile tyres and so it was a quiet option that Ferrari offered with one inch bigger rims,” explains Brian, who’s driven both variants. “They’re completely different cars – the Michelin tyres are more balloon-shaped and the car slides round the corner. The Pirellis make it more like a go-kart and it hangs on more but then hands it to you after it lets go,” he chuckles. The Pirelli option came with revised suspension settings, a front spoiler and no air conditioning. “It’s what they would call the Scuderia today.”

Back in 1980, Brian’s initial idea of using the Ferrari every day soon fizzled out when he realised the GTS wasn’t suited to short distances. “I started using it to my office in Woodstock but by the time I got there it was barely warm. They’re unfortunately very cold-blooded cars, so you can’t enjoy them until they’re properly up to temperature.” He did, however, enjoy it once it was, mind. “There was one weekend when I’d had an unhappy moment in a relationship and I tore up the West Coast in the 308 to get my mind off things. I ended up getting totally lost on a gravel road! Luigi at Vigliettis nearly had a seizure when he saw the car covered in dust and insisted on changing all the filters and cleaning the carbs.”

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Brian’s first stint with the 308 came to end after six years.  He went to live in America and the car was in storage in Cape Town for a year and then, in a weak moment, he decided to sell it for eighty grand.  But his time Stateside wasn’t totally bereft of automotive entertainment.  “At the time there was no import duty on old cars so I shipped the Beetle over with my household furniture,” recalls Brian. “It was a ’58 model with trafficators and pre-dated all the emissions regulations so I could just bring it in.” The Beetle was quite a hit with locals, one of whom chased Brian through a large open air VW car meet as he wanted to buy it.  He came running after him and said, “Where did you get this? My wife had one and she’s desperate for another!” Brian ended up parting with the Volksie, which he had to deliver 100 miles away in Santa Barbara.   “I got $4 000 for a car that only cost me R1 000! But I was sad to see it go as it was a lovely little car and very original; the motor had never been out and it still had its original clutch.”

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In the end, he was in the US for a decade and, while still Ferrari-less, owned several superbikes and a Mercedes-Benz 280SE 4.5-litre … a specification of the W116 S class that we didn’t get and which was unique to the US market. “Man, that thing used to take off. If the fuel tank was close to empty it would spin the wheels between gear changes,” chuckles Brian. “There was one night on Sunset Boulevard when I was coming home at 2am and two kids in RX7s tried to dice me off the lights but I left them standing.”

Back in Cape Town, Brian got his performance fix from a succession of superbikes including an Aprilia 1000 that he raced at Killarney for a season to mark his 50th birthday. “I won Class B one day which was my best achievement with a 1.21.1 lap which felt pretty good!  I spent most of my life on motorcycles because I realised early on that you could get Ferrari performance for very little money.”

On the classic front he enjoyed driving a 1968 Rolls-Royce Drophead (or Corniche as the model was later known) “It was a lovely one-previous-owner car but it was horrendously heavy on fuel. I took it to George Car Show one year and even with gentle cruising it did 22 litres per 100km!” Brian also struggled with the sheer size of the car in the narrow streets of Sea Point and he wanted something more manageable. Ideally something Italian and carb-fed. “From a purely mechanical point of view, Italian cars are just so well balanced – the gear ratios are always spot on. And there’s a certain charm about them.”  This time a 1750GTV Alfa on sale up in Polokwane fitted the bill and Brian had it extensively worked on once it was back in Cape Town.

But he still hankered after something with the Cavallino badge. “Over the years I agonised about buying a Ferrari 308 but you don’t know the history and don’t know the problems.” He eventually opted for something more contemporary:  a 430 coupé but it left him underwhelmed. “I was never really into it and it was expensive to run. I used to say it was the quickest way to burn a R1 000 worth of fuel,” muses Brian, who had to stomach some eye-watering bills. “A month after I bought it the clutch went and it was R95 000 to fix it.”

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Then just four months into 430 ownership the phone rang about a 308 for sale in Cape Town, which led to that bout of déjà vu. That was in the middle of 2015 when 308s were well into seven figures. “It was a market price and there was no negotiation!” Although he had to dig deep to buy it back, Brian was pleased to see that his old 308 – which by then had 107 000km on the clock – was in great condition. “It had had only two owners since, and had been cared for. The interior had been changed and one owner put a lot of money into it mechanically, but hadn’t used it much.’

Brian may be a huge fan of Italian cars but he’s not afraid to admit that they can test your patience and so he decided to part with the 1750GTV shortly after the Ferrari was back in his garage. “A friend of mine joked that if I kept both I’d need two separate bottles of headache tablets … one marked Alfa and one marked Ferrari!” Eighteen months on he’s still delighted with the purchase and grateful the car turned out as good as it looked. “I was very lucky as I gave away a cherished piece and the two guys who had it looked after it.”

Today it remains a special item that shares a garage with an E46 BMW M3 and a Jaguar XF. And Brian has no plans to part with the Ferrari. “When I sold it the first time I kept the factory key ring and used it on all my cars including the 280SE 4.5-litre Mercedes as it brought back fond memories. I never imagined for a moment that I’d have it back on the original set of keys!”

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