Much of Ferrari’s early history was based around open-topped cars, with the 250 California Spyder arguably the most famous and desirable of them all. Admired by celebrities and racing drivers alike, the California Spyder is the spiritual predecessor of the current Portofino

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll already have twigged to the significance of that cryptic quote. It’s a line from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, released in 1986 and starring a rising young actor named Matthew Broderick. It also starred a Ferrari 250 California Spyder.

Ferrari 250 California, Putney, London.
Photo: James Lipman / jameslipman.com

Well, actually, it didn’t – the car used in the movie was a fibreglass replica. Even in the mid-80s, a California Spyder was far too valuable to use in a low-budget flick. But it undoubtedly helped propagate the California Spyder as the ultimate soft-top classic. If you doubt the potency of cheap movies, to misquote Noel Coward, then consider this: the replica Ferris Bueller Ferrari was auctioned in 2013 for $235,000. Not bad for a lookalike.

Real California Spyders, of course, are worth a lot more. The famous barn-find example from the Baillon Collection went under the hammer for $26.1 million, at Artcurial’s 2015 Rétromobile sale. That was for a car complete with rust, filler, a vinyl retrim, and non-original bumpers and hood frame.

What the Baillon car had in spades, though, was glamour, and that’s something you almost can’t put a price on. After a 250 GTO, a California Spyder is simply the Most. Desirable. Classic. Ferrari. Ever.
“It’s the iconic collector’s Ferrari,” explains Swiss-based Ferrari historian Marcel Massini. “The name California alone says it all. Imagine one of these soft-top rarities on the French Riviera in the Swinging Sixties! All the stars and VIPs had one, and today it’s a must-have for the serious enthusiast.”

While a California Spyder would indeed have been utterly at home on the French Riviera (or indeed, in the Italian Riviera town of Portofino), it was really targeted at the USA, as its name suggests. The story goes that either Luigi Chinetti (who founded the North American Racing Team, or NART) or his West Coast agent Johnny von Neumann came up with the name, realising there was a market for a sporty Ferrari that would be equally at home cruising in Santa Monica as it was hammering around Laguna Seca.

Pinin Farina had already designed a 250-based soft top, revealed at Geneva in March 1957, and the prototype 250 Spider (with an ‘i’) was given to racing driver Peter Collins by Enzo himself. But the soon-to-be-dubbed California Spyder (with a ‘y’) was commissioned from Scaglietti, which picked up on some Pinin Farina design cues such as the faired-in headlights, kicked-up rear haunches and louvred front wings to create its own interpretation of a dual-purpose soft-top Ferrari. Scaglietti’s prototype was completed late in 1957.

The first iteration of the California had a longer wheelbase – 2600mm – than the second generation (pictured here), which had the 2400mm wheelbase of the new 250 SWB. Not surprisingly, Californias are therefore divided into ‘Long Wheelbase’ and ‘Short Wheelbase’ versions; 50 of the LWB Californias were made from mid-1958 to early 1960, and then a further 54 SWB versions up until early 1963; easiest way to tell them apart at a glance is that the LWBs had three front-wing louvres, while the SWBs had two. They could be bodied in steel or alloy, and could feature open or faired-in headlights.

Most purchasers were seduced by the style, and to namecheck just a handful of the famous owners: movie director Roger Vadim bought SWB #2175GT for Brigitte Bardot; Bonjour Tristesse author Françoise Sagan acquired SWB #3021GT; Alain Delon owned the Baillon Collection car, SWB #2935GT; and James Coburn purchased SWB #2377GT, albeit second hand, in 1964.

While the California Spyder was often used by those who wanted to be seen, a few buyers were inclined to take full advantage of that Tour de France-derived chassis and engine, and among the most dedicated was a New York car dealer named Bob Grossman.

He decided to enter his nearly new California for SCCA events in 1959, and to do so like a proper gentleman-racer.

As Sports Cars Illustrated related: “In true-blue sports car fashion, he drives it to and from the races, complete with luggage in the trunk…” The magazine went on to describe how, after practice at the circuit, he would reply to questioners who asked “How in the world can you race such a beautiful car?” by simply stating “Because it’s meant to be raced!”

Grossman’s California high point was at Le Mans in 1959. Driving a brand-new example, LWB #1451, he finished fifth overall. That was despite never having raced at Le Mans before, and being unable to converse with his French-speaking co-driver, who knew no English.

Like all classics, today the California seems compact and almost dainty compared with almost every other vehicle that surrounds it. You feel you could stretch out and touch each extremity with your fingertips, and that gives confidence in traffic.

The car is lively and agile, darting in and out of gaps in the traffic like a minnow between trout, while I try not to remember that this car has no bumpers or overriders to protect its voluptuous curves. That vulnerability aside, the Spyder feels perfect. It steers nicely, with enough feel and feedback to be comfortable without being nervous, and the four-speed gearshift is positive and satisfyingly mechanical in action. There are four-wheel disc brakes, so no worries on that score, and because you’re rolling in a mobile bathtub you’re treated to the full surround-sound of that Ferrari V12, its crisp blare bouncing back from shop windows and underpass walls.

Fact is, whether you live in London, LA or Portofino, the California Spyder will never disappoint. As Ferris Bueller put it in 1986, with all the accumulated wisdom only a teenager can possess: “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.” He’s not wrong.