Triple-Digit Speeds In A Wagoneer
On a recent trip to the Off Road Motorsports Hall of Fame in Reno, Nevada, a particular vehicle caught our eye. It wasn't the Big Oly Bronco or the famed Baja Boot. In fact, it wasn't in the Off Road Hall of Fame at all. As a small part of the National Auto Museum, the exhibit houses over 200 of the late Bill Harrah's 1400-strong car collection, including everything from the Thomas Flyer (Google it...) to Elvis's Cadillac. But the vehicle that captured our attention, though not as old as the Thomas Flyer or as audacious as Big Daddy Roth's Beatnik Bandit, looked like just another Jeep from the outside. It was Bill Harrah's personal ride: a '77 Wagoneer fitted with a Ferrari V-12 engine. And while we weren't able to fire up the Jerrari, shop supervisor Jay Hubbard was nice enough to let us crawl all over the Jeep and provided us with the rich history of the vehicle.
The chassis of the Jerrari was relatively unmolested. Harrah needed a competent 4x4 vehicle to transport him between his casinos in Reno and Lake Tahoe, and the Wagoneer fit the bill admirably. Still present are the factory leaf springs under the axles and the stock frame. Even the Jeep steering box is still as it was when it left Toledo in 1976.
The drivetrain is where things start to get interesting. According to local lore, an "overly ambitious" salesman was transporting a Ferrari 365 GTC/4 from San Francisco to Harrah's dealership in Reno and wrecked the car. After dispatching the salesman, Harrah decided to shoehorn the engine from the Ferrari in his Wagoneer. Clyde Wade was responsible for overseeing the engine swap. Harrah had a full staff dedicated to his automobile collection, so the entire project was able to be completed in-house.
"Shoehorn" is an oft-used term these days, but it is particularly applicable in this instance. The Ferrari engine only displaces 268 cubes, which is nearly 100 cubes less than the AMC engine it replaced. The small displacement engine loves to rev though, and power doesn't come on until nearly 3,000 rpm; the horsepower peak is a stratospheric 6,000 rpm. Six Weber 38 DCOE side-draft carburetors feed the fickle engine and required near-constant adjustment to keep them synchronized. The Ferrari mill is a DOHC V-12 engine that makes 365 hp and is physically much longer than the AMC 360. The length didn't allow room for a traditional radiator and fan arrangement, so dual radiators were mounted on each side of the engine under the spacious hood of the Wagoneer. Oil coolers from a helicopter were also added and route cool air from under the bumper.
Power is then sent through the five-speed manual transmission that originally came with the Ferrari engine. The paltry 2.49 First gear didn't help the heavy Wagoneer get off the line very easily, but once it was moving the Jeep could haul the mail. Harrah's staff built an adapter to mate the transmission to the stock Quadra-Trac transfer case to retain the use of four-wheel drive. Power is then routed to the stock Dana 44 axles, which didn't require any changes to meet Harrah's objectives.
Body and Interior
The body on the Jerrari is relatively stock. This vehicle is actually Harrah's second version of the Jeep and Ferrari marriage. The original Jerrari was recently found for sale on eBay and has a small-block Chevy under the hood these days, as the original engine was transferred to the Wagoneer pictured here. The first Jerrari featured a Ferrari front end grafted onto a Wagoneer body. While the craftsmanship on this project is superb, the premise itself was less pleasing to the eye. "Harrah must have agreed," Hubbard observed, "since he built a second one with a stock Wagoneer body."
In this iteration, the only body modification was lengthening the front sheetmetal 2 1/2 inches to allow fitment of the engine, even with the offset radiators. Other exterior clues suggesting that this is not your average Wagoneer are the wipers on the headlights and the ice alert system under the bumper that notifies the driver when the roads are frozen. Out back, four ANSA exhaust tips from the original Ferrari expel spent gases. Custom emblems and license plates front and rear somewhat defeat the sleeper look as well.
The additions inside the Jerrari are minimal. A Ferrari steering wheel sits in front of a custom gauge cluster filled with a host of VDO gauges. The aftermarket radar detector on the A-pillar and power mirrors were cutting edge 30 years ago, but look dated now. The interior is otherwise stock and in excellent condition.
Good, Bad, and What's It For
Legend has it that a man came to Reno with the intent to sell Bill Harrah a helicopter so he could travel more easily between his property in Reno and South Lake Tahoe. "Let's make a deal," Harrah is reported to have said, "you fly your helicopter and I'll drive my old Jeep. If you get to Tahoe before me I'll buy your helicopter." Top speed of the Jerrari was reported to be 140 mph, but of course the poor helicopter salesman never knew that.
Why I Featured It
This vehicle is the great grandfather of the SRT-8 Grand Cherokee. Bill Harrah saw the utility of a fast four-wheel-drive vehicle three decades before the masses did. While it would have been a privilege to ride down the road in the Jerrari, just having the opportunity to pour over the vehicle and access the files at the Auto Museum was enough.-Harry Wagner
Vehicle: '77 Jeep Wagoneer
Engine: 368 cubic-inch Ferrari V-12
Transmission: Ferrari five-speed manual
Transfer Case: Borg Warner Quadra-Trac
Suspension: Stock leaf springs front and rear
Axles: Stock Dana 44s
Wheels: Factory 15x7 aluminum
Tires: 215/70R15 Michelin XWX
Built For: Canyon carving in foul weather
Estimated Cost: $75,000