Ohio Lawsuit Recounts One Ferrari’s Long and Winding Road

CINCINNATI (CN) – Pinin Farina designed just five Ferrari 375 Plus race cars to compete in the 1954 World Sports Car Championship. Many decades years later, one that had been left inexplicably to rust away in an open lot outside Cincinnati wound up stolen, exported to Belgium, restored and finally sold at auction in 2014 for more than £10 million.

And while the sale of the Ferrari to Victoria’s Secret owner Les Wexner should have brought the tumultuous saga to a close, a new lawsuit in Ohio is raising more doubts about the car’s ownership and the path it took to end up in Wexner’s collection.

Sporting a classic Ferrari red paint job, the 375 Plus is a curvy and elegant speed machine but when Karl Kleve purchased the chassis in 1958, it was literally in pieces.

The partially disassembled race car sat in an open lot outside Cincinnati for close to three decades, “exposed to the elements [and] deteriorating from neglect,” according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday by two of Kleve’s three daughters, Katrina English and Karyl Kleve.

After the car was stolen in the late 1980s, it embarked on a journey across the globe to Belgium, where it was later sold to Jacques Swaters, a former racing driver turned Ferrari collector.

Swaters restored the vehicle, but the state of affairs regarding its ownership remained murky at best.

As Kleve’s daughters tell it in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas, their father received a certificate of title for the Ferrari 375 Plus in 1993, even though he did not possess the car.

Swaters, who died in 2010, claimed he made a deal with Kleve in 1999, and paid him $625,000 for outright ownership of the Ferrari.

Kleve, who died in 2003, disputed the validity of the agreement, and claimed his agent, Mark Daniels, acted without his authority when he accepted the offer.

Following Kleve’s death, his daughter Kristine Lawson became the administrator of his estate and attempted to recover the Ferrari on behalf of the estate and her sisters, English and Kleve.

Swaters meanwhile had filed a 2010 lawsuit in a bid to enforce the alleged 1999 settlement with Kleve, which in turn forced Lawson to seek counsel.

Enter Joseph Ford III, described in the most recent suit as a “south Florida hustler and conman.”

Though apparently unlicensed to practice law in any state, Ford convinced Lawson of his experience in dealing with international litigation involving classic cars, ultimately signing two contracts that gave him and another individual, Christopher Gardner, an ownership interest in the Ferrari.

Ford allegedly used Gardner’s money to pay a $100,000 commitment included in one of the contracts signed with Lawson.

Represented by the Cincinnati firm Crehan & Trumann, English and Kleve claim in the lawsuit that both contracts were “for champerty and maintenance,” which made them illegal and unenforceable.

Champerty is defined as “the ‘maintenance’ of a person in a lawsuit on condition that the subject matter of the action is to be shared with the maintainer,” while maintenance is “the intermeddling of a disinterested party to encourage a lawsuit.” 

In essence, Ford and Gardner agreed to support and finance Lawson’s suit against Swaters for an ownership interest in the Ferrari.

This conduct encompasses the lion’s share of the complaint filed by English and Cleve, who allege that several attorneys and law firms failed to advise them or Lawson that the contracts signed with Ford and Gardner were illegal.

Ford and Gardner’s relationship soured, however, and in 2013, Gardner met with Florence Swaters, the daughter of Jacques Swaters, and attempted to negotiate a deal directly.

The parties eventually signed a document known as the Heads of Agreement, or HOA, which “provided the proceeds of the sale [of the Ferrari] would be divided equally between Swaters on the one hand, and Lawson and those claiming through her (Ford and Gardner) on the other hand.” (Parentheses in original.)

But the legal morass encompassing the car and its purported owners would get worse after the HOA was signed.

Gardner filed suit against Ford and Lawson after Ford attempted to increase his ownership interest in the Ferrari by disseminating Gardner’s confidential information, at which point Lawson hired attorney Tim Smith.

Smith is the first defendant listed in the most recent complaint. While English and Kleve claim he failed to notify Lawson about the illegality of the champerty agreements between the estate and Ford, they also cite a laundry list of defects in his representation of Lawson.

“During the various proceedings,” the complaint says, “Smith failed to perform his duty as Lawson’s counsel … [by] failing to plead necessary and appropriate claims and defenses, failing to transmit settlement offers, failing to attend all court hearings and depositions, failing to pay attention during court proceedings and depositions, playing video games (Candy Crush Saga) on his iPad during court proceedings and depositions … and other negligent conduct.” (Parentheses in original.)

Eventually, in June 2014, the Ferrari 375 Plus was sold at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in Chichester, England, by Bonhams to Les Wexner for £10.7 million.

Ford and Lawson both objected to the sale of the car, however, and it wasn’t until over two years later that Wexner was finally awarded full ownership of the Ferrari.

English and Kleve claim if they and their sister had competent legal representation, they would have received more than $8 million from the sale of the car.

As it stands, however, Lawson received $300,000, while English and Kleve each received $150,000.

Ford received over $2.4 million from the sale of the Ferrari, while the lawsuit says “approximately $1,100,000 of the Lawson/Ford settlement proceeds was used to pay Ford’s attorney fees incurred [in] connection with his litigation with Gardner, which conferred no benefit on Lawson, English, or Kleve.” 

Kurt Ernst, the editor of Hemmings Daily, offered insight to the car and its place in history.

“As for the Ferrari 375 Plus,” Ernst said in an email, “the model was built in 1954-55, intended as a limited-production open-cockpit racing car to contest for the World Championship of Manufacturers.

“All were powered by a 5.0-liter V-12 producing 330 horsepower, and the model enjoyed racing success at various tracks throughout Europe, and perhaps most notably in the Carrera Panamericana, an open road race held in Mexico.”

Ernst said that because only eight of the cars were built – six of which survive today – “the 375 Plus is a very desirable model, and chassis 0384AM … had a significant racing history.”

He added that, when the Ferrari previously owned by Kleve was sold at auction, “the fee-inclusive $18.3 million winning bid was the highest price paid for a competition Ferrari,” although that record has since been eclipsed.

English and Kleve’s attorney Robert Thumann did not respond to a request for comment.

While it may have taken a circuitous route, the Italian sports car built to compete against the best in the world in 1954 and sold for a then-record amount of money at auction eventually ended up in Columbus, Ohio, as a piece in the collection of a lingerie magnate.

Perhaps more remarkable than its journey across continents, however, is that it ended up just over 100 miles from where it sat in an inconspicuous lot for three decades, rusting and awaiting its revival.

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