Home at last: A Ferrari’s long journey back to the man who loved it as a kid
Bob Boniface was just a boy when he fell in love for the first time.
“I was an easily impressed 7-year-old when my father told me he was going to import a Ferrari 250 GTE from England,” said Boniface, a GM design director and connoisseur of Italian automobiles. “I had only a vague notion of what a Ferrari was, but I understood that for our Ohio family, importing one from across the pond was a big deal.”
In truth, it would have been a pretty big deal for the family of any car lover. Contributing to the automobile’s prominence was its ownership history: It had belonged to Pink Panther actor Peter Sellers. Young Boniface had no idea who Sellers was, but he figured his father, Ray Boniface, must have mentioned it for a reason. The family anxiously awaited the prized machine, and they were not disappointed when the car arrived in July 1973. Resplendent in Ferrari red and powered by a throaty V-12 that played sweet music through four tailpipes, the gorgeous automobile promised adventure.
With a base price of about $12,645 (U.S.), the 250 GTE was the most expensive Ferrari production model in 1962, more even than the California Spyder. Among all Ferraris, only the GTO factory race car carried a higher price tag. But while Maranello may have put a premium on the 2+2 coupe, the brand’s fans did not, criticizing its slab-sided look and roofline. When Ray Boniface bought the Sellers car, used 250 GTEs were priced like subcompacts and many were being sold to Spyder owners for parts.
Although not embraced by enthusiasts of the day, the 250 GTE was an excellent machine. It had good weight distribution for a front-engine car and a respectable-for-the-day 240 horsepower. And when properly tuned, the 3.0-liter V-12 was smooth as silk and generated a delightful exhaust note. By the ’80s the cars had regained some value. Today they are priced well into six figures but still play second fiddle to the seven-figure Spyders and eight-figure GTOs.
But the interesting history of Bob Boniface’s 250 GTE separates it from the pack. Like other Sellers-owned cars, it was imported by Englishman Tony Crook, a former race car driver and the actor’s automotive bag man. According to an obituary published in The Telegraph upon Cook’s passing in 2014, he was “an unofficial vehicle scout for Peter Sellers, whose buying habits were often augmented by peculiar, not to say unreasonable, demands.”
Among the multitude of documents that support the provenance of the Boniface Ferrari is a 1962 letter to British importer Colonel R.J. Hoare. Written on Maranello Concessionaires Ltd. letterhead, it refers to Crook in the third person but is signed “Tony.” Perhaps it was written by an assistant. Nevertheless, “Tony” insists the car be provided without safety belts and the radio aerial be “on the roof above the windscreen.” When advised that such placement would be inadvisable due to ignition-noise suppression problems, “Crook pooh-poohed (that) very much.”
Today, the radio antenna remains on the roof above the windscreen, just as Sellers and Crook specified. However, the car, which was white when Sellers took delivery, was repainted in Ferrari red early in its lifetime.
According to the original order signed by Sellers, the 250 GTE cost the actor £6,272 British pounds, including taxes. Using the 1962 exchange rate (2.81 dollars per pound), that’s about $17,624 American dollars—equal to more than $142,000 today.
The Youngstown, Ohio, neighborhood where the Boniface clan resided in the early 1970s wasn’t home to many Ferrari lovers; the senior Boniface was an exception. He had served in Europe during World War II and stayed behind after the armistice to attend medical school at the ancient-and-revered University of Bologna. While there, he developed a passion for all-things Italian, automobiles in particular. When Boniface arrived in Italy in 1948, Ferrari was a newborn marque and Italian auto sport was in ascendance. Plus, the factory is a scant 30 miles from the university. Ray soaked it up. After being awarded a medical degree, he departed Italy and set up practice in Youngstown, where he was soon seen driving a 1955 Alfa Giulietta. Other Italian lovelies, including Ferraris, Alfas, and Lancias, would follow.
“As soon as I was old enough to sit up in the car, I became Dad’s sidekick,” Bob said. “I tagged along any time he drove one of his cars, and I particularly enjoyed riding in the 250 GTE, in part because it was right-hand drive. When another motorist would pull up next to us and see a little kid in what they thought to be the driver’s seat, they would do a double take. I loved it.”
Despite young Bob’s fascination with the 250 GTE, his dad was ready to move on, and he sold the Ferrari for $4,800 two years after he bought it (that’s about $22,330 today). Other great cars would follow, including a ’64 Ferrari 250 Berlinetta Lusso, a Daytona, a Lancia Aurelia, and a PF Cabriolet. Today, at age 93, Ray Boniface still owns a number of Ferraris and other Italian cars and drives them regularly. For Ray, the 250 GTE soon became ancient history. But his son, who rose to a prominent design position at GM, couldn’t forget it.
His feeling that the automobile was special is borne out by the facts. One of only about 50 right-hand-drive models produced, and, according to the Ferrari 250 GTE Registry, one of 30 extant, the car is indeed a rarity. And to Bob, it will always be the car that he and dad had first enjoyed together, a special machine inseparably linked to a special time.
In late 2014, Bob got a call from his father, who had found the owner’s manual for the unique Ferrari he sold some 40 years previous. Understanding the importance of provenance in the collectible car world, he wanted Bob to try and locate the owner, so he could turn over the manual.
Bob got in touch with the 250 GTE registry and learned that a car with the correct serial number was owned by a man in Switzerland. The supposed owner was located, but the car was not. Apparently, a couple of digits of the serial number had been transposed, and the Swiss car was not the one Bob hoped to find. The only alternative was to try to locate the man to whom Ray had sold the car so many years ago. But after months of research, Bob concluded he had disappeared.
Fast forward to 2016 and a discussion of Sellers-owned Ferraris on ferrarichat.com, an online forum. Bob shared the story of his dad’s car. Several weeks later, the man to whom Ray had sold the car contacted Bob and told him he still owned the car and wanted to sell it. A deal was struck, and the car, lightly and lovingly restored by the last owner to nice driver condition, now resides in Bob Boniface’s Michigan garage, where it keeps company with a couple of Alfas and a Lancia rally car. All good Italians. All pretty cars. All driven regularly.