The amazing Spyder-Man: The Ferrari that came back from the dead

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Built to race, then stolen and ditched by the Mob... and now this Vignale Spyder Ferrari has been lovingly restored to its former glory by a dedicated fan who can't wait to see it race at this week's glamorous Mille Miglia

They found her in pieces, lying among piles of abandoned washing machines and broken refrigerators after police smashed an organised-crime ring and swooped on a scrap yard in the sleepy municipality of Besenzone in northern Italy. It would be several days before David Cottingham would receive the news.

The discovered body, missing for eight years, was that of a Ferrari motor car, hand-built half a century earlier to take part in a race that bills itself, with good reason, as La Corsa Piu Bella del Mondo ("The most beautiful course in the world"). This Vignale Spyder 166 MM took its initials from the Mille Miglia, the "Thousand Miles" race which, for more than 80 years, has obsessed the world of motor sport with its irresistibly heady mix of social glamour, stylish design and unrelenting speed – a dangerous combination that has claimed dozens of lives.

From a verdant site in rural Hertfordshire, Cottingham, a 66-year-old physicist, nurtures vintage Ferraris back to life. He has dedicated a good portion of his existence to this particular Vignale Spyder, bringing the car back from the dead not once but twice, after it had passed through the hands of multiple owners, from Italian gangsters to eccentric German collectors. When it was found in the scrap yard at the end of 2007, he was informed by a German-based Ferrari historian and immediately set about his greatest challenge.

And this Thursday, Cottingham will be at the start line of the Mille Miglia at Brescia, at the foot of the Alps, to watch this extraordinary vehicle – which he refers to as "0314" after its chassis number – take part in the event in which it was originally designed to compete. "It's such a powerful little car," he says. "I was so happy with the restoration because this is what I do: make the cars look absolutely as they were when they left the factory. But the proof of my labours will be when it works properly in the Mille Miglia."

Oliver Wheeler, the amateur sports-car racer who will be behind the wheel for the 1,000 miles next week, has been testing its capabilities at the Millbrook circuit at Bedford. "I've never seen anything prettier or driven anything more challenging," he says. "It's grating, complaining, almost looking over its shoulder saying, 'Can't you drive me?' The steering wheel is a great big diameter with a liquorice-thin piece of wire and it takes an enormous amount of bicep to turn the wheels at that kind of speed. You have to be concentrating every moment or you are going to end up in salad, but it will be incredible to be driving this car through Italian passes at night. With the V12 engine we will be making noises that people haven't heard for a long time – it will be a bit like flying a Spitfire over Britain."

The day this Vignale Spyder left the Ferrari factory was 19 May 1953. Enzo Ferrari and his team had only begun hand-making cars six years earlier in Maranello, the town outside Modena where this most famous of sports-car marques has always been based. The 166 MMs, built for the Mille Miglia, were the first Ferraris to be built for competition. Cottingham, whose company DK Engineering carries the motto "Passion for Ferrari", first visited Maranello in 1978 before the introduction of modern production methods. "Enzo Ferrari was still alive and sat in his little office next to the racing department, which was still quite basic. Meeting him was a bit like having an audience with the Pope."

Enzo Ferrari once said that "the Mille Miglia created our cars and the Italian automobile industry", and in the years after the Second World War, winning the competition was the dream of every racing driver. The race, in typical Italian fashion, had its origins in an argument over respect. In response to a perceived slight by the Milan Automobile Club, which was seeking to advance its race track at Monza, the Automobile Club of Brescia, which had staged the inaugural Italian Grand Prix at its Montichiari circuit in 1921, dreamt up its own prestige event: a figure-of-eight route encompassing 1,000 Roman miles (at 1,617 yards slightly shorter than a statute mile) and going from Brescia to Rome – as a gesture to the Fascist government – and back to Brescia. The first race in 1927, at which 25,000 soldiers were deployed to control the roadside crowds, took 21 hours to complete. The Corriere della Sera reported admiringly that "an express train could not have done better".

But an event so dedicated to speed, taking place at night as well as day along roads lined with screaming spectators, was destined for tragedy. When the great Sardinian Clemente Biondetti achieved the first of his record four Mille Miglia victories in 1938, the winning time was down to under 12 hours, but the race was overshadowed by a Lancia Aprilia going out of control on the Bologna ring road and killing 10 people, including seven schoolchildren.

The Fascist government banned the Mille Miglia from the public roads but, two years later, Mussolini was persuaded to allow an event on a truncated circuit. It was won by the Prussian nobleman and serving Nazi officer Fritz Huschke von Hanstein, who had fitted his BMW 328 with number plates bearing the insignia of the SS.

Despite the devastation to Italian roads and industry during the war, the Automobile Club of Brescia was determined to revive the great race and, by 1947, had done so, using a slightly modified route that took in Turin before returning to Brescia and the traditional start and finish line in Viale Rebuffone.

Enzo Ferrari's new 166 MM, built for an event that was rivalled only by the 24-hour race at Le Mans, achieved overall firsts in the 1948 and 1949 events and was first in its class in the three following years. Only 48 of the hand-built cars were made, just seven with the Vignale bodywork and convertible Spyder design.

The car that Wheeler will be driving next week was assigned to the young gentleman driver Edoardo "Lualdi" Gabardi, a Ferrari privateer who had the back-up of the factory but was able to pay for that support out of his own funds. After competing in a succession of hill-climb events, the car passed to Primo Pezzoli, who competed in the 1954 Mille Miglia with his co-driver Giacomo "Noris" Moioli. But like many other cars that year, the Vignale Spyder failed to finish the course, and the race was won by the Formula One champion ' Alberto Ascari in a Lancia. "It's gruelling every year and loads crash," says Cottingham sympathetically.

The year after the Spyder's failed attempt came the greatest performance in the history of the Mille Miglia as Britain's Stirling Moss, aided by his navigator Denis "Jenks" Jenkinson, smashed the course record forever. Leaving Brescia in their Mercedes Benz 300 SLR at 7.22am, they were back 10 hours and seven minutes later, travelling at an average speed of more than 99mph. Even now, Cottingham, who has raced Ferraris himself, is awestruck at the achievement. "At some stretches they were going at 150-160mph on public roads; imagine that! Imagine doing 1,000 miles at more than a 100mph average, it's just mind-boggling."

Pezzoli drove the Vignale Spyder in several hill-climb races in Italy but the Mille Miglia, in its traditional race format, came to a fateful end in 1957, with yet another tragedy. Alfonso de Portago, a young Spanish aristocrat who was also an international swimmer, water-polo player and bobsledder, blew a tyre in his Ferrari and came off the road at Guidizzolo, killing himself, his co-driver and 10 spectators.

The Vignale Spyder was sold to a succession of Italian owners until, in 1961, it came into the hands of German collector Helmut Frevel, who made his living from investigating sunken ships. "He was a very interesting man," says Cottingham. "He found ships with buried treasure. He bought the car in Italy but raced it all over the world." In 1963, Frevel's deep-sea adventures took him to South Africa, in search of the British ship Grosvenor, the richest East Indiaman ever to be lost at sea, wrecked on a reef in 1782. The German took the Spyder to Pretoria with him. Four years later, he shipped the car back to Freiburg in Germany, where it was to remain – like buried treasure itself – wrapped up in storage for 23 years.

Bought by another collector, the German industrialist Peter Glaesel, it was sent to England by transporter in 1990 to be restored by Cottingham at the company he runs with his wife Kate and three sons, Justin, Jeremy and James, all five of them dedicated Ferrari enthusiasts.

David Cottingham, whose customers include the radio presenter Chris Evans (who owns a fleet of Ferraris), gave up his job as a scientific researcher in the Kodak laboratories to follow his passion. "I started building cars when I was 16 years old and every evening I would be home from my nine-to-five job at Kodak and in my garage restoring cars. I started racing Jaguars in the 1960s when I was 21. Then I turned my hobby into a business."

He dedicated himself to the revival of the Spyder. "The car was worn-out because it had been sitting for a long time. We spent a year restoring it and the result was perfection. You put new moving parts in but just restore everything else, taking the body skins off the frame, reshaping and reattaching them; it's total restoration." The Glaesel family put the car back on the road, racing it at Silverstone among other circuits.

Coincidentally, in 1977, the year DK Engineering was founded, the Automobile Club of Brescia decided to revive the Mille Miglia, in recognition of a global movement towards classic-car collection. No longer was the event a simple test of breakneck speed; the competition was one of precision driving, examining skills of navigation and consistency. In 1999, Walter Fink, another German owner of the Spyder who had purchased the car from the Glaesels, finally drove the Ferrari 166 MM around the complete 1,000 mile circuit it had been designed to race.

The following year, Fink's wife Sandra also mastered the course with a girlfriend as her co-driver. Exhausted by their achievement, they turned in for the night at the Hotel Majestic in Castenedolo, outside Brescia, leaving the car outside in the car park. When they woke, it had disappeared. "I was incredulous and thought it would reappear," recalls Cottingham of the theft. "What often happens in Italy when cars are stolen under those circumstances is that it's a bit like the car has been kidnapped; they demand a ransom from the insurance company or the owner. That's what we all expected to happen but it didn't reappear." Until the police raid eight years later.

"We ended up paying loads of money for it but we were really happy to have it back. We negotiated the purchase for a client," says the restorer. "It was great that the chassis wasn't damaged because they could have cut it in two, they could have done anything. The body was stripped of paint, but apart from a few dents it was in pretty good condition."

Thirty years of travelling the world gathering vintage Ferrari parts ensured that Cottingham could carry out another perfect restoration. "What we didn't have, I sourced from my various contacts throughout the world. All the suspension and steering is original and correct stuff, indistinguishable from what was on the car when it was stolen. It has been a big effort for me, maybe my last total job, because I will be 67 in July. But I always say that..."

Cottingham estimates that over the years he has restored 150 Ferraris in all, but with none other does he have a relationship quite like the one he has with the 1953 Vignale Spyder 166 MM.

The evening before this year's Mille Miglia, after Holy Mass is said in Brescia's Duomo Vecchio, the participants and race-followers will attend a spectacular gala dinner at Villa la Tassinara, overlooking Lake Garda. Then, late on Thursday night, under the proud gaze of David Cottingham the master restorer, the Ferrari that was born three times over will attack the Mille Miglia one more time.

The Mille Miglia takes place from Wednesday to Sunday; for more information: 1000miglia.eu/inglese/home.html

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