It’s Rome, 1962. No, not the romantic, silver-screen backdrop to Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn’s tour on a Vespa, but an ancient city in full color: the noise of the traffic, the smell of cooking wafting along narrow streets, a busy market, voices raised in argument, the acrid tang of two-stroke exhaust, life, bustle, crime.
On the surface, La Dolce Vita. Below, an underbelly of vice, violence, and theft. Towards the end of the 1950s, Italy has been experiencing an economic boom, and the newfound cash sloshing around has emboldened the criminal element. Armoured car heists — in broad daylight. Bank robberies and shootouts. At his wit’s end, Italian National Police chief Angelo Vicari assembles his best men and demands to know what they need to fight this rising tide. Someone in the back speaks up.
“Di cosa abbiamo bisogno, eccellenza? Una Ferrari!” What do we need? A Ferrari.
The man’s voice carries authority. He is Brigadier Amando Spatafora of the Mobile Squad, and his service record shows dozens of arrests. Within the force he is known and respected for his dedication and his craft, and he has risen swiftly through the ranks. Spatafore’s swiftness behind the wheel of a Mobile Squad Alfa Romeo 1900 has earned him the nickname “The Lynx.”
Perhaps Spatafore spoke in jest, but the comment is received as wisdom. Spatafora will get his Ferrari, and in a short time the thieves and murderers of Rome will nervously whisper to each other, “Se vai in giro a tarda sera, occhio sempre alla Pantera!”
At night, beware the black Panther! Beware Spatafora!
And so, one of the great legends of modern Rome is born. No longer will the criminal underworld step into the light with impunity. Brigadier Spatafora and his Ferrari are on the case. Or at least, such is one telling of the story. In another, Spatafora and his flying squad comrades are so effective at fighting organized crime that Giovanni Gronchi, then president of Italy, arranges for the Ferrari to be presented to Spatafora as a gift.
Whatever the case, Italian officials reached out to Enzo himself with the request for a 250 GTE. Figuring he could sell a high-speed pursuit version of his V12-powered 2+2 to other police departments in Europe, Enzo agreed to give the police two 250 GTEs. One was crashed before it could properly go into service, but the other survives.
Since this is a Ferrari story, it’s best to start with some Alfa Romeo origins. The Alfa Romeo 1900 police special was a quick little pursuit sedan, the predecessor to the Giulias of 1969’s The Italian Job. It had armoured windshield glass, a rear sunroof that allowed the support officer to stand up and shoot from the car, and an 1884cc–1975cc twin-cam four-cylinder engine good for between 100 and 115 hp, depending on year and trim.
Not bad, but take a quick look at the tools used by the London gang who held up a payroll truck at Heathrow in 1962, who got away clean with today’s equivalent of more than a million pounds sterling. That outfit drove Jaguar Mk II sedans, each equipped with a straight-six engine that made nearly double the power of the little Alfa. It was the same story in Rome, where thieves would steal a Maserati or Jaguar as a getaway car, then scamper away from the bank before the police had a hope of catching them.
But the Colombo V12 of a 250 GTE was up to the task. Producing 237 hp from 3.0 litres, and married to a racing-derived chassis, the GTE was more than up to the job of chasing down would-be bank robbers. The question, of course, was whether a driver could be found to handle the Ferrari at high speed.
Three of the best officers of the Mobile Squad were assembled at Maranello for testing, Spatafora among them. According to the legend, Enzo was there in person to observe, and Il Commandatore was so impressed by Spatafora’s skill behind the wheel that he offered him a position on the racing team on the spot. Spatafora turned him down, joking that it was safer to be a crime-fighter than a racing driver.
By the summer of 1962, Spatafora and 250 GTE chassis number 3999 were out on patrol in Rome. The car was black, like all Mobile pursuit vehicles, and on its fender was the image of a leaping panther. The wildcat is the symbol of the Mobile force, its name taken from the days of black Alfa Romeos.
One of the first outlaws bagged by the pair is another big cat, a Jaguar Mk II 3.8. Previously, this specific car had eluded police; finally, its driver languished morosely in the clink. As whispers about the new police Ferrari spread across the underworld, a few of the more brazen thieves thought they would still try their luck. They even called in and reported themselves, daring Spatafora to try to reel them in. He frequently did, in daring and well-publicised late-night chases – though always being sure to turn off his sirens when passing the Vatican so as not to wake up the Pope.
If you’re asking yourself, “Never mind all this Marvel superhero nonsense, where’s the movie about this?” then good news, because one actually exists. Released in 1977, Politziotto Sprint is a retelling of Spatafora’s story, with him as a grizzled older cop mentoring a young hotshot. It’s pretty formulaic action-movie stuff, but the stunts are impressive, including one where a black 250 GTE chases the bad guys right down Rome’s famous early-18th-century Spanish Steps.
According to several stories about the real Spatafora, this event actually happened. There are two versions.
In one, a French gangster from Marseilles was in town on some bad business, driving a Citroën DS. With Spatafora in chase, the gangster pointed the car down the steps, figuring the hydropneumatic suspension would give him an advantage over the more powerful Ferrari.
In another version, the villains were two well-known car thieves nicknamed lo Zoppo and il Pennellone – the Cripple and the Brush. Prowling through Rome’s heart, Spatafora spotted a stolen Alfa Romeo 2500 and gave chase.
In both cases, the Ferrari was badly damaged and the bad guys end up in handcuffs. While there’s no official police record of what actually happened, 250 GTE chassis 3999 is said to wear tell-tale scrapes underneath.
Spatafora and the Ferrari served Rome until 1967, after which the car was used as a high-speed inter-city courier for blood donations. It was retired in 1968, and eventually sold off at auction. Spatafora himself, by this time at the rank of Marshall, also retired and relinquished the spotlight.
Happily, the car was preserved by the Cappellis, a family of car collectors. They reunited Spatafora with the Ferrari 250 GTE in 1984 at the Coppa d’Oro delle Dolomiti, a vintage car race held in the Dolomite mountain range. Spatafore finished a very respectable second.
Sadly, his life came to an end just a couple of years later, and he died aged only 58. The 250 GTE, complete with original lights and sirens, has since been shown everywhere from the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance to Rome’s police vehicle museum. It is no longer in the possession of the Cappellis, but the Panther Ferrari is still well preserved.
Should you ever find yourself in its presence, get down on your hands and knees and take a peek underneath. Look for the battle scars, evidence of an Italian policeman who never held anything back in the pursuit of justice.