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Heir of legendary Ferrari importer sues to cancel Prancing Horse trademark

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Heir of legendary Ferrari importer sues to cancel Prancing Horse trademarkThe heirs of the man who did more than anyone outside of Enzo Ferrari to make Ferrari a world-renown builder of sports cars have asked a U.S. federal judge to cancel Ferrari's famous trademark for its prancing horse, accusing the company of abusing its power to control sales of classic Ferraris. The lawsuit even involves one of two Ferraris ever built with three seats, a beautiful car to be caught in such an ugly dispute.

Luigi Chinetti was an Italian racer and mechanic who emigrated to the United States before World War II but returned after the war. When his friend Enzo Ferrari mentioned he was thinking of building a machine-tool factory rather than betting his future entirely on cars, it was Chinetti who urged him to focus on race cars. "If you sell six cars for me," Ferrari reportedly told Chinetti, " I will build them."

Chinetti, who had won the 24 Hours of LeMans twice before the war, began racing Ferraris around the world to help establish their reputation, while overseeing the distribution of Ferraris in America. He was at the wheel in 1949 when a Ferrari 166MM won LeMans for the first time; after retiring as a driver, Chinetti's North American Racing Team would rack up many other victories, including the 1965 LeMans, the last won by a Ferrari. Meanwhile, Chinetti would use his connections to boost the racing careers of many drivers, including Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney and Phil Hill.

Even then, relations between Chinetti and Enzo Ferrari were often strained, with both sides suspicious of the other. Chinetti's son, Luigi Chinetti Jr., sued Ferrari last year over the 1949 166 Formula 2 V-12 race car that sits at the front of the Ferrari museum in Modena, Italy. Chinetti claims his father lent it to the museum as a death-bed promise to Enzo Ferrari in 1988; Ferrari claims the car was given by the family and belongs to it. That case will be heard by an arbitrator soon, and could go to trial next year.

But the new lawsuit, also filed by Chinetti Jr., throws a stronger punch at Ferrari -- and involves one of the rarest, most beautiful cars ever built by the company.

Unveiled at the 1966 London Auto Show, the Ferrari 365P Tre Posti combined a beautiful design by Sergio Pininfarina with a 380-hp racing V-12 and one of the strangest features ever put on a Ferrari: A central driver's seat, flanked by two passenger seats set slightly back. The joke of the era was the car could hold both the driver's wife and mother-in-law -- or two girlfriends.

Ferrari built just two copies, and the white one above was the first one delivered to Chinetti. It's among a number of classic Ferraris owned by Luigi Chinetti Jr., who accuses Ferrari in a second lawsuit filed in May of trying to control the market for classic Ferraris through its Classiche division, which performs restorations and offers inspections to verify the heritage of any given Ferrari. Such papers have become key to selling high-end Ferrari classics today, but Chinetti claims that Ferrari attempts to block sales of vehicles that don't pass through Classiche, or plays favorites with the system to favor some clients. Chinetti also claims that Ferrari had charges of counterfeiting filed against him in Italy after he brought two 275P race cars there for restoration by outside shops; those charges were later dismissed.

Chinetti says three of his cars, including the 365P, couldn't be sold without a blessing by Classiche -- and that doing so would cost tens of thousands of dollars apiece. "Ferrari is misusing its trademark by trying to place restrictions on what can and cannot be modified on its vehicles after the vehicle is placed in the stream of commerce," Chinetti says in his lawsuit, which asks the court to cancel Ferrari's trademarks and deem his cars authentic.

One could only imagine the effect on the market for Corvettes, Mustangs, Thunderbirds, Coupe de Villes and other classic cars routinely sold at auctions if Cadillac, Ford and Chevrolet began issuing certificates of authenticity for their classic cars; but denied the automobiles recognition as a manufacturers original make upon failure to certify the car.

In its response, Ferrari asks the U.S. District Court in Miami to throw Chinetti's case out of court as far as the wind will carry it, saying Chinetti has no right to ask for anything because Ferrari hasn't acted against him. The lawsuit "is running on empty," Ferrari says in its reply. Chinetti "merely complains that he cannot control how Ferrari does business even though he pleads no right to exercise such control." The court has yet to make any rulings in the case, but it's a sad coda that after 60 years of working together, the only place Chinetti and Ferrari race today is to the courthouse.

Photos: Getty, Carspotter via Flickr

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