Verner column: He enjoyed a Ferrari’s fast company

  • Posted: Sunday, September 8, 2013 1:08 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, September 9, 2013 12:53 p.m.
Even after the Ferrari’s value mounted into the millions, Eddie Smith enjoyed donning his driving suit and hitting the racetrack.
Even after the Ferrari’s value mounted into the millions, Eddie Smith enjoyed donning his driving suit and hitting the racetrack.

At first glance, you wouldn’t think of them as a likely match — a brawny, laid-back Southern boy from the Tar Heel hinterlands and a high-strung Italian beauty with expensive needs.

But as Junior Long recalls, it was love — or at least automotive fascination — at first sight.


“Here I am, a guy who likes to go fast, and here’s a fast car,” he recalls of their initial encounter many years ago.

The fast car was an ultra-rare 1967 Ferrari 275 N.A.R.T. Spider that recently sold at auction for $27.5 million. One of only 10 such models ever made, it had spent its entire life around Lexington, where Long, now 56, helped keep the Ferrari on the road and on the racetrack for owner Eddie Smith Sr., the former Lexington mayor and CEO of National Wholesale. Smith bought the car new in Italy and still owned it at his death, at 88, in 2007. To honor Smith’s philanthropic legacy, his family decided to sell the automotive treasure, with the bounty donated to area charities, including the family’s foundation.

Long went to work at National Wholesale in 1978. A welder by vocation, he’s a lifelong auto enthusiast who’s owned and worked on some speedy muscle cars — which gave him a fast connection to Smith, an avid car buff and auto-racing fan. Long was initially hired to help maintain company equipment. But when Smith gave him a tour of the plant and they walked through a garage area holding Smith’s Ferrari and his other cars — including an MG-TF, an MGA and a Mercedes 280SL — Long’s automotive interests revved up.

He didn’t immediately start working on the Ferrari, however. After Smith became aware of Long’s mechanical capabilities, he started working on the MG-TF and realized the small British roadster needed extensive restoration. Smith “asked if I could fix the MG-TF, and I told him I could.”

As often happens when a perfectionist starts working on a car, one thing leads to another. Long found rust. He found rot in some of the MG’s wooden bits. Eventually, he disassembled the whole car. As Long recalls now with a chuckle, Smith was initially taken aback when he saw the car in pieces.

“He said, ‘Can you put it back together?’ ”

Not only did Long put the car back together — it looked and ran like new.

“It’s gorgeous,” he recalls an appreciative Smith telling him.

While it might seem a leap to go from wrenching on an MG to an exotic piece of machinery like the N.A.R.T. (North American Racing Team) Ferrari, Long clearly relished the challenge. Initially, he performed routine maintenance such as oil changes and tune-ups. Then he progressed to brake jobs, shock replacements and work on the V12 engine.

Eventually, he would shepherd the car through a major rebuild that involved disassembling and renewing the engine and other mechanical components as well as stripping down the body and having it repainted at a shop in Atlanta. Only engine work had been planned, but after discovering rust inside body panels and other nagging issues, Long said he convinced the owner they needed to “fix it right,” even though it would not be a cheap project.

Much of that work took place at the Rowan County Airport, where Smith had a hangar for the aircraft he kept for business and personal use. Long has photos of Ferrari parts neatly labeled and arranged on work benches, and he describes particular mechanical features of the car — the cylinder heads, the quad cam shafts, the six Weber carburetors, the five-speed transmission and drive shaft — with a craftsman’s appreciation for automotive artistry.

The rebuild took about two years, he recalls, and when it was completed, the Ferrari was resplendent in its new red paint and freshened engine. While sorting the car out, Long says he sometimes drove it around Salisbury.

“It always turned a lot of heads.”

He also prepped the car and accompanied it to numerous track events, where Smith enjoyed exploring the car’s performance potential at road courses in Georgia, Virginia, Florida and other venues. Smith continued driving the car on road and track even after its value soared.

As Long notes with some pride, “In about 15 years of track events, we never had a mechanical failure on the race course.”

David Brown of ESP Motorcars in Salisbury, which specializes in collector-car restoration work, was familiar with the “top notch” quality of the Ferrari and with Eddie Smith’s appreciation for Long’s dedication to the car.

“Junior took care of everything,” Brown says. “Eddie had the deepest respect for him.”

Although Long left National Wholesale several years ago and now works for the city of Spencer, he kept up with the Ferrari’s story. When he learned it was going on the auction block in California and estimates put the potential selling price at upwards of $15 million, he admits thinking, “Man, they’re crazy.”

While the Ferrari has headed off to a new home — reportedly purchased by a Canadian multmillionaire and car buff — Long has a storehouse of memories and dozens of photographs. As someone who still appreciates high-performance cars, he’s glad this thoroughbred won’t be stashed away in a climate-controlled warehouse, rarely if ever snarling over an open road.

“I’m glad somebody got it who will drive it and enjoy it,” he says. “I’d like to get a chance to meet him some day.”

Chris Verner is editor of the Opinion page.

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