THIS is the legend of the Algar Ferrari F50.
It begins with an airline pilot with such a taste for speed that he conned his way into driving the $729,000 roadster, then stole it, leaving a stunned Main Line car salesman behind.
The legend ends years later, after the government recovered the car and an FBI agent ran it into a tree in Kentucky.
Now the wrecked 1996 Ferrari is collecting dust somewhere, object of a legal brawl between the U.S. government and the insurance company that owns the car.
In a federal lawsuit filed earlier this year, Motors Insurance Corp. is asking the feds to pony up $750,000, the amount they say the car is worth now. The insurer also wants to know why the agent and a federal prosecutor were driving the 520-horsepower car in the first place.
The answer, one car-lover said, is simple. It’s probably the same reason why pilot Tom H. Baker stole the car from Algar Ferrari/Maserati of Philadelphia in the first place.
“Everybody likes fast cars,” said John Nardolilli, a private investigator whom Ferrari hired to help find the F50 after it was stolen.
On Sept. 16, 2003, Baker strolled in to the Algar dealership in Rosemont with a Rolex on his wrist, no driver’s license, and iced blood running through his veins.
He had his eyes on the red 1996 Ferrari F50, No. 29 of only 349 built. Baker claimed he was a tech CEO from California who had flown in from Atlanta. He had a limo waiting outside, and was willing to wire the down payment that day – after a test drive.
Soon Baker was behind the wheel of the F50, described by one auto website as “part Batmobile and part ballistic missile.” Baker sped away, leaving the Algar salesman on a suburban street in Villanova.
“Everyone was dumbfounded,” said Detective Charles Craig of the Lower Merion Police Department. “This guy totally played the part.”
Investigators initially believed that Baker had help, with an enclosed flatbed truck waiting nearby. He didn’t.
They also figured that the Ferrari, one of only 50 sent to the U.S., would be shipped to black markets in Europe or Asia, packed away in an unassuming crate in the bowels of a freighter. It was not.
In the years that followed, the car’s fame grew on the various websites and chat rooms for Ferrari enthusiasts, with everyone guessing who could have pulled off such a heist and where on earth the exotic roadster, basically a Formula One race car in a pretty red dress, would turn up.
It turns out Baker, a divorced father of two, just really liked Ferraris. He kept the car for himself in not-so-exotic, suburban Kentucky.
It wasn’t the first time he had stolen a Ferrari either, authorities said. But the Algar job in 2003 was his most daring exploit and the most formidable car he had stolen.
“The dealership is on Lancaster Avenue; it’s a very busy road,” Craig said. “He raced off at 100 mph over the crest of a hill.”
The salesman who watched the F50 speed off on Spring Mill Road in Villanova no longer works for Algar and didn’t return requests for comment.
Neither did the dealership’s owner nor the other employees listed as witnesses on the police report.
A North Carolina car dealer victimized by Baker said Baker had come in so often in 2003 that they’d become “backslapping buddies.”
Steve Barney said that he had cancer at the time and that Baker had claimed to be a radiologist, earnestly staring at his X-rays, inquiring about medications Barney was taking, and seeming genuinely concerned.
“If my 16-year-old daughter needed a ride, I would have put her in the car with him,” Barney said.
Baker was interested in a 1989 Ferrari 328 GTS, worth about $55,000. He asked to take it for a test drive, just down to a local gas station and back. Barney consented. He never saw Baker again.
“I was conned. I was conned and he did a beautiful job,” he said. “I try to believe in the genuine goodness of people. I won’t let that happen again.”
Baker had also stolen a 1985 Testarossa from a Long Island dealership in 2003.
Baker sold the Algar Ferrari, which he sometimes even took to car shows, to an emergency-room doctor in Kentucky for $375,000 and another collectible in 2008. When the doctor called Ferrari to check on the engine and vehicle-identification numbers, he learned his new car was the infamous Algar Ferrari and contacted authorities.
The doctor, who asked not to be identified, owned the car for about two bittersweet months and can still recall watching the FBI seize it.
“That was the most sinking feeling in the world,” he said. “The car was gone and I didn’t have my money back.”
But Baker, perhaps out of fear, wired the doctor’s money back after the doctor told him there were some issues with the vehicle-identification number. The doctor said Baker, whose former wife is also a doctor, acted “suave and debonair,” not like a car thief. He used forged documents to make the sale look legit.
“If you knew Tom Baker, it just boggles your mind. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to go through with stealing an F50. I didn’t think he, pardon the term, had the gonads.”
Shortly after the failed sale to the doctor, Baker was arrested and charged, the insurance company that owned the car after paying Algar $625,000 was notified, and the F50 was put into U.S. government storage.
But before Baker, who pleaded guilty, was sentenced, something even more dumbfounding happened.
On May 27, 2009, FBI Special Agent Frederick Kingston and Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Hamilton Thompson, the man prosecuting Baker, took the Ferrari out for a drive and rammed a tree, totaling one of the world’s rarest cars.
A television report at the time said Kingston and Thompson were moving the car to a warehouse and lost control of the vehicle. Police told the television station that Kingston was going only 40 mph and that a tire may have blown out, explanations that elicit snarky comments on Ferrari websites.
“Why is it I get the feeling this was a case of ‘Now it’s my turn’? This was the last joyride, not the first,” a commenter posted on Ferrarichat.com.
A few months after the F50 was wrecked, Baker was sentenced to eight months in prison but was allowed to serve just two days per week so he could ” make his scheduled flight from Lexington, Ky., to Orlando, Fla., for purposes of his employment.”
Baker could not be reached for comment, but his attorney, R. Tucker Richardson, said his client had no criminal record beyond the sports-car thefts.
“I don’t know what drove this man to do this. It was out of character. It was a weird case,” Richardson said. “He kept it in a warehouse and got it out and drove it every once in a blue moon.”
The Department of Justice denied a claim for $750,000 filed by Motors Insurance Corp., claiming the accident occurred “while the Ferrari was being detained by the FBI.”
Earlier this year, the company filed a lawsuit against the DOJ and the FBI in an attempt to recoup its losses and to get a valid explanation for why the car was being driven.
An attorney for Motors Insurance Corp. said he didn’t know where the car is and declined to comment further. Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said he didn’t know where it was either.
“I know it’s not in my garage,” he said.
On Sept. 16, 2003, the F50 was on the Main Line, at a dealership in Rosemont, ready to eat up the road for a buyer with a fat bankroll. Then Tom Baker walked in, and it was gone.
Now it will probably never be driven again, unless a person who really likes fast cars is willing to fix it.
“It really was one hell of a car,” Richardson said. “One hell of a car.”