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After protracted legal battle, first-built Ferrari 375-Plus going to new owner

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1954 Ferrari 375-Plus, chassis 0384 AM. Photos courtesy Bonhams Auctions.

In June of 2014, a 1954 Ferrari 375-Plus carrying chassis tag 0384 AM sold at a Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed auction for 10,753,450 pounds (then $18.3 million), at the time the highest price ever paid for a competition Ferrari at auction. Following the sale, however, the lot was withdrawn by the auction house, which cited an ongoing legal dispute over the car’s ownership. Now, nearly two years after the auction, a resolution has been reached granting ownership of the first Ferrari 375-Plus built to Victoria’s Secret owner and Ferrari collector Les Wexner.

Built to contest the 1954 World Sports Car Championship, the Ferrari 375-Plus used the 375 MM as a starting point, adding a more powerful 4.9-liter V-12, rated at nearly 350 horsepower, and a strengthened chassis. Pinin Farina once again created the aluminum body, which featured flush fenders and a pronounced trunk bulge to accommodate the car’s spare tire and 180-liter (47.6-gallon) fuel tank. Just five examples were constructed by Ferrari, making the 375-Plus far less common than the revered Ferrari 250 GTO.

Though other 375-Plus models were more successful, 0384 AM scored just two wins for Scuderia Ferrari during the 1954 season, including a a win at the Grand Prix d’Agadir with driver Guiseppe Farina and a victory at Silverstone in the hands of Jose Froilan Gonzalez. Following a DNF at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the car was sold to Jim Kimberly, an avid racer and heir to the Kimberly-Clark fortune. Kimberly kept the car for just four races and a practice session before passing it along to Howard Hively, who enjoyed reasonable success with the car from late 1955 through the 1956 season.

1954 Ferrari 375-Plus

At the 1957 Grand Prix of Cuba, Hively experienced a fire that would end 0384 AM’s racing career. At some point following the race, Hively sold the damaged 375-Plus to Karl Kleve, an Ohio engineer, reportedly for the sum of $2,500. Kleve stored the car on a property outside of Cleveland Cincinnati for close to three decades, perhaps unaware of the car’s increasing value on the collector market.

In January of 1986, a trailer with the Ferrari’s chassis, body panels, radiator and transmission was reported stolen from the Kleve property, ultimately kicking off a multi-decade court battle that would span continents. What’s clear and well-documented is this: the unrestored car found its way to Europe, where it was eventually acquired by Belgian Ferrari importer Jacques Swaters. Swaters restored the car, replicating the missing body panels and installing a period-correct engine, as the original had gone missing over the years.

In 1997, Swaters was reportedly contacted by Karl Kleve, who proclaimed ownership of the missing Ferrari. Swaters claimed to be unaware that the car had been stolen, and agreed to pay Kleve a settlement of $625,000, thus (in theory) ending the dispute over the car’s fate. By that time, Kleve was said to be in failing health, and it isn’t clear if the promised payment was ever received or deposited, further complicating the car’s odd and contested history.

Karl Kleve died in 2003, and Jacques Swaters died in 2010. Before Swaters passing, however, his daughter Florence tracked down and purchased the original engine used in 0384 AM, reuniting it with the 375-Plus in 2009. The Kleve family still claimed ownership of the car, but this was largely a private matter being hashed out by lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic.

1954 Ferrari 375-Plus

In 2014, Bonhams announced that 0384 AM would head to auction at its Goodwood sale in June, declaring in late May that any outstanding ownership claims had been resolved. The car crossed the auction block as scheduled, selling for the aforementioned record-setting price, but shortly after the sale the transaction was withdrawn. Ownership, it seemed, was still in dispute, prompting a new legal battle between the buyer, Les Wexner; the buyer’s agent, Copley Motorcars; Bonhams Auctions; the Kleve family; and the Swaters family.

As reported by The Daily Mail in November of 2015, the High Court in London, England, declared Florence Swaters the legal owner of the car, which meant she had the right to offer the Ferrari for sale though Bonhams in 2014. The ruling paved the way for Wexner to file suit against Bonhams, seeking a refund of his purchase price, plus interest and damages.

On Monday, April 18, The Daily Mail reported that all parties involved in the current lawsuit had reached an agreement before the case was scheduled to open in London’s High Court. As part of the agreement, Wexner will be getting clear title to the Ferrari 375-Plus, which will join a number of historically significant cars in his Ohio collection, while Bonhams will contribute to costs incurred by Copley Motorcars. We’ve reached out to Bonhams for commentary on the matter, but have not yet heard back.

Had the transaction completed in June of 2014, the Ferrari 375-Plus’s time in the spotlight as the most expensive competition Ferrari ever sold at auction would have been short-lived. In August of 2014, a Ferrari 250 GTO with an in-period racing resume crossed the stage at a Bonhams Quail Lodge auction, selling for a record-setting hammer price of $34.65 million, or $38.115 million with fees.