Saturday, April 4, 2015

A Troubling Phone Call

McLaren’s 1987 Gemballa Ferrari has only around 7,700 miles on the clock
 Gemballa - PDFI get occasional notes from readers telling me about interesting cars and owners in town. The cars will
have an noteworthy tale of provenance, or the owner will have a nice personal story attached to it. But the email I got recently from Archie McLaren went beyond these elements. He laid out a tale of a super-rare and exotic looking car, shady financial dealings...and murder. 

Uwe Gemballa (pronounced “OOH- vay”) made a career of modifying high-end cars, particularly Porsches, with performance equipment and radical body mods, and giving them names  like Mirage, Avalanche, and Tornado. 

Operating from his shop near Stuttgart, Germany, he also included interesting innovations that car companies themselves would later ape, such as steering wheel accessory controls and telecomm gear.

In 1987 he took one of the hottest cars around and made it even more extreme. The Ferrari Testarossa (fun fact: it means “redhead” in Italian) was one of the most lust-worthy cars of its day, aided by a starring role in the hit show Miami Vice. The design was already radical, but Gemballa took the super-wide car and widened it by nearly five inches.

He also replaced the Testarossa’s signature side strakes with a split air intake for better breathing. He added custom wheels, and naturally he restyled the front and rear, complete with spoilers, in addition to shrinking the side-view mirrors. To compensate for the latter change, Gemballa pioneered a technology now somewhat ubiquitous on modern cars: the rear-view camera.

The interior boasts a custom wheel with controls and a screen for the rear camera
He also did a fully custom interior, which included a dash display for the camera, Recaro seats with yellow piping, and steering wheel controls. The engine remained stock, but Gemballa’s exhaust had a unique six-pipe arrangement.

Including the donor car, the final product cost the equivalent of around $200,000 at the time. And he did this conversion only three times, with only two of those cars reportedly surviving to present day.

Several years ago, McLaren heard one of the cars was available in New York, and flew out there in the middle of winter.

“It was being shown in a very upscale, hip clothing store in SoHo,” McLaren recalls. “Didn’t just buy the car, I bought a really nice coat in that shop.”

McLaren owned the car for several years before the intrigue began. In January 2010, he got a call from the man himself. Gemballa wanted to buy back his car. He claimed there was a client of his who wanted to open a Gemballa museum. While McLaren wasn’t much interested in selling, he indulged the builder with a price that he believed was fair, given its rarity and pedigree.

“There was a hesitation, a silence, and then he said, ‘Well, I was hoping to get it for a good deal less than that,’” recalls McLaren. At that point, they were the only Ferraris that Gemballa had ever modified.

“He said, ‘Well thank you, I can’t do that.’ And then a month later, he disappeared.”

McLaren believes that phone call came from Europe, but he went missing in South Africa, where he was later found dead, that October.

Contemporaneous news reporting laid out a money-laundering scheme that Gemballa had been roped into involving his cars. His business was on the verge of a bankruptcy filing, and to escape his precarious finances he was convinced by a Czech crime boss hiding in South Africa, Radovan Krejčíř, to smuggle money inside the cars.

The car’s rearview camera was a first for its time
It was reported that one vehicle, a Porsche Cayenne, had actually been sent from Germany to South Africa with €1 million, but the money went missing along the way. Shortly before he disappeared, Gemballa called his wife to request that she place a large amount of cash in his account right away. 

McLaren explained that Gemballa “spoke to her in English, which he never, ever did,” likely tipping her off to the precariousness of the situation. McLaren believes it’s highly unlikely that she complied because they didn’t have access to any significant quantities of cash. Like other tuners in Germany, Gemballa’s business was suffering from a major slowdown in the high-end market, and he was desperate to save the company he’d built.

Eventually, the South African authorities did manage to arrest, try, and convict a man, Thaibiso Mpshe, for the murder, all in the course of a single day.

Regarding the phone call that McLaren received, he believes that Gemballa was trying to get the car “for a song” so that he could turn around and sell it for the real market value to pay off Krejčíř, or perhaps just give it directly to the man as payment. It seems that Gemballa theorized that he could use his name and the story about the planned museum, to appeal to McLaren’s sense of pride, and pry away the car for chump change.

Since that time, the company has emerged from bankruptcy, and continues to make radical conversions of a wide range of cars, from Porsche to McLaren (the British supercar builder, not our friend Archie) to Mercedes- Benz. Not surprisingly, there’s no mention of the company’s tumultuous history on its website. Sadly, though, I couldn’t even find a single mention of the founder, whom McLaren describes as “a very gracious guy.”

“He was nice, there was nothing arrogant or intimidating about him,” he says.

For this story, I met McLaren at his condo in downtown Santa Barbara. He showed me the car in the ground-floor garage, and it’s quite a sight. One of the most striking features is the diminutive side mirrors, a high contrast from the extra-long originals. The rear-view monitor sticks out of the dash prominently, since Gemballa had no access to flat LCD screens in those days, but it is still nicely integrated to the interior design.
And the sound that emerged from the car when he cranked it up was magical.

The name Testarossa, or “Redhead,” stems from the red paint on the cam covers, 
but also the companies penchant for comparing its cars to beautiful women
McLaren’s own story is quite compelling as well.

“I was born in Atlanta and moved to Memphis the next day ‘cause the music was better.” His career in legal publishing took him to the western U.S. and all over eastern and southeastern Asia. In retirement, though, the real fun began, with deep involvement in the worlds of fine cuisine and rare wine.

He has been involved in several organizations in the wine world, and even founded the Central Coast Wine Classic, a prestigious food and wine event more than 25 years old. The event has also raised more than $2.5 million over the past decade to support the healing, performing, and studio arts.

Beyond these activities, McLaren’s bio is too long to adequately capture here, but suffice to say he spends his days traveling the country and the world helping out with charity auctions, chairing events in the wine and food industries, and studying subjects like language, art, music, and anthropology. He has also done some writing on topics like multiculturalism and women’s rights.

A renaissance man, I suggested.

“I don’t know about that,” he replied, mentioning his liberal leanings. “I don’t know if I’d have been well accepted in the Renaissance.”


  1. I have met this man in person and he is very gracious with his time showing his car. The car is very unique and he has a great time at Cars and Coffee with it.

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