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Built to win the world’s most dangerous race

The Ferrari 340 Mexico was created to do one thing: win the 1952 Carrera Panamericana
Words – Ross Brown
Photography – Darin Schnabel ©2021 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

Only four examples were ever built, yet the 340 Mexico played a crucial role in both Ferrari’s commitment to endurance racing and the Prancing Horse’s success at what many consider to be the most dangerous road race ever run. 


Conceived by the Mexican government as a global advert for the newly completed Pan American Highway, the Carrera Panamericana was a five-day event that covered the complete length of the new road, running over 3,500 kilometres across nine stages. 


For many Americans the challenge of this unique, demanding race proved too hard to resist and amateurs and professionals alike answered the call, with over 130 sedan cars lining up on May 5th 1950 for the inaugural race. 

Adapted from the 340 America, the 340 Mexico was designed from the outset to cope with the huge distances and varying road quality of the Carrera Panamericana. Amongst other things, the rear axle and transmission were strengthened and a big 150 litre fuel was added

Although certainly dangerous (three drivers would sadly die over the five days of the first event) the race attracted the attention of Europe’s elite racing community when the winner, Hershel McGriff, crossed the finish line first in his Oldsmobile 88. 


While most competitors had entered in heavy, customised vehicles that required team support (trucks would follow the race carrying spare sparts and more importantly, new tyres and brakes to cope with the demanding roads), Hershel’s light, unmodified Oldsmobile made easy work of the steep winding mountain roads and his victory over the big American pack convinced Enzo Ferrari he could enter a factory team and win the following year in 1951. 


The route followed the recently completed Pan American Highway; One of the 212 Inters that finished first and second in 1951; Luigi Chinetti whose 340 Mexico crossed the finish line in third place in 1952; Crowds flocked to see household names like Ferrari's Phil Hill 

Enzo was right. Ferrari took first and second place with a pair of 212 Inter coupés driven by F1 champions Piero Taruffi and Alberto Ascari, and the decision was made to return the following year, but this time with the 340 Mexico, a car built from the ground up to deal with the unique demanding conditions of the five-day event. 


From the outset, the competition was much stiffer than previous events. By now the race had captured the imagination of Europe, and there were enough entries from the likes of Jaguar, Mercedes, Lancia and Porsche to convince organisers to create a new European sports car category. 


The 340 Mexico was an adapted Ferrari 340 America, a car which had already proved itself with a win at the Mille Miglia the year before. The Vignale design for the Mexico included a long 77.5 inch hood which covered a 4.1 litre Lampredi V12, capable of producing 280 horsepower and taking the car up to 282km/hr. A revised fifth gear was added as were new cylinder heads with quadruple carburettors that would further boost the engine’s already impressive power. The rear axle and transmission were also further strengthened and bigger 150 litre fuel tank was added to compensate for the distances the car needed to cover. It was built to win, but unfortunately it was not to be. 

With one of the longest hoods ever to appear on a Ferrari, the 340 Mexico sported a 4.1 litre V12 capable of 282km/hr

Luigi Chinetti, sole agent for Ferrari in America and founder of the North American Racing Team, had been the accompanying driver for Piero Taruffi the year before, so he knew the course well, as did Alberto Ascari, who had come second the previous year and wanted victory this time around. But in a race where only thirty-nine cars finished out of ninety-two entries, the course proved too challenging for Ascari, who crashed on the first day, leaving the task of finishing to Chinetti who eventually crossed the line in third place.


Lancia would win the following year, but in 1954 Umberto Maglioli took victory in a Ferrari 375 Plus, followed by Phil Hill in his 375 MM. It was to be the last ever race. With so many deaths involved – twenty seven over five years – the event was eventually cancelled for good, but for nearly half a decade Ferrari had proved their ability to dominate in one of the most dangerous endurance races of all time.