Bill Harrah's 'Jerrari' Married Jeep Go-Anywhere With Ferrari Ferocity

For some, building a hot rod is about squeezing as much speed and performance out of a given platform as possible. For others, the goal of a custom vehicle is to attract huge amounts of attention with a unique build that breaks all the rules. Sometimes—especially if the person commissioning the project is wealthy beyond all imagination—you get both at the same time.

Such is the case with the 'Jerraris,' a pair of trucks with powertrains so improbable they could only have been conceived in the mind of one of Nevada's ultimate showmen, William F. Harrah.

For The Casino Owner Who Has Everything

Harrah, who would found Harrah's Hotel and Casinos as well as the Nevada Gaming Control Board, was a notorious gearhead whose legacy of nearly 1,500 warehoused vehicles would eventually help fill the National Automobile Museum (and the attached Off Road Motorsports Hall of Fame) outside of Reno. Among the collection—which includes celebrity-owned fare such as an Elvis Presley Cadillac, James Dean's Mercury from 'Rebel Without A Cause,' and a gold-plated DeLorean—sits one of the two Jerraris Harrah had constructed just before he died in 1978.

What is a Jerrari? In broad terms, it's a Jeep Wagoneer that's had a Ferrari V12 engine transplanted under the hood. More specifically, it was the pet project of the gambling magnate who felt he needed a fast, reliable, and outside-the-box 4x4 to guarantee all-weather transport between his Reno holdings and his Lake Tahoe properties.

One Of One

The original Jerrari is one of the weirdest automotive creations to have graced an American highway. Despite his fabulous wealth, Harrah couldn't convince Enzo Ferrari to create a custom four-wheel drive hauler for him. Frustrated, he decided to kill two birds with one stone by slicing the front end off of a Ferrari 365 GT and then marrying it to the chassis of a 1969 Jeep Wagoneer—thus irritating Enzo with his chimaera creation while simultaneously creating a seriously quick winter-ready ride.

The vehicle was built by Harrah's own in-house engineering team (with parts sourced through his own Ferrari franchise), making use of a triple-carbureted 268 cubic inch V12 good for 316 horsepower at a healthy 6,600 rpm. The slant-nosed truck even maintained the original wood paneling along the side of the front fenders—despite its Ferrari proboscis—and Harrah himself drew a 'prancing kangaroo' logo to replace Maranello's prancing horse.

The mongrel was quick for its era, with Road & Track stopwatched it at 9.4 seconds during the 0-60-mph sprint during a road test in the early 70s. It boasted a top speed of 125-mph, which is somewhat frightening to think about when considering the build maintained the original solid front and rear axle suspension setup.

Until Number Two Came Along

There was no mistaking the Jerrari coming down the road—anyone who saw the unusual beast immediately knew that they were in the presence of Bill Harrah. This eventually became a problem, and his security team began to press the magnate to seek out something more low-key for his daily driving needs.

The genesis of the second Jerrari hinged on a stroke of 'bad' luck. Due to the over-enthusiastic actions of one of his sales staff a Ferrari 365 GTC/4 on its way to his personal collection was totaled during transport. Seizing the opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade, Harrah had one of his in-house mechanics, Clyde Wade, set about combining the comforts and capabilities of his favorite SUV (a 1977 Jeep Wagoneer) with the beating heart of the Italian exotic that survived the GTC/4 wreck. This time, there would be no exterior tells indicating to passersbys that the Waggy was anything other than stock.

1977 Jerrari Jeep Wagoneer with a Ferrari V12.

The upgrade was a substantial one. While the wheezy 360 cubic inch AMC V8 that came with the Grand Wagoneer from the factory struggled to crest 130 horsepower due to smog controls, the Ferrari's 12 cylinders of fury were good for 365 horses. Snugging that dual-overhead camshaft design under the original Jeep hood would require extending the front of the vehicle by roughly 2.5 inches so as to handle the upgraded cooling system (which had to forgo a one-radiator-plus-fan setup in favor of dual offset radiators) and longer overall design of the power plant. Harrah's engineers would also have to create their own adapter plate for the five-speed Ferrari transmission to make it play nice with the stock four-wheel drive transfer case.

Other unique features for the second-generation Jerrari included a system that mounted under the bumper to let the driver know when ice was forming on the road (whose exact science has been lost to the mists of time), a Ferrari steering heel, a radar detector and headlight wipers. The power boost from the mightier Italian engine also helped increase the SUV's top speed to 140-mph on flat asphalt.

Dare To Be Different

Today, the two Jerraris have taken divergent paths. Although the second version of the vehicle remains on display at its museum home in Reno, the more extroverted original has done its rounds of the auction circuit, albeit without its Ferrari engine (having been converted to small-block Chevy power at some point in its life).

Still, the fact that either of these vehicles exists at all is a reminder that long before the Sultan of Brunei strong-armed an Enzo-less Ferrari into building him station wagons, there were free-thinkers like Harrah out there who simply wanted to put on a show even during the simple act of driving to work in the morning.

Love fast cars from the late '70s and early '80s? Check out Bonzai Runners: Cracking 200mph on California Freeways.

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