As the Ferrari F40 turns 30, here's the time it met the family
288 GTO, F40, F50, Enzo. In our world, it’s like reuniting John, Paul, George and Ringo.
As we were plotting this summit – and it wasn’t easy – the working title was “bloodline”, but actually “continuum” is probably better. Because, as we watch these four sainted cars being decanted from their transporter, it’s a reminder that the LaFerrari is part of a continually unfolding mythology, the best and purest in the business. Porsche gets close, but the operatic Italians edge the German technocrats when it comes down to it.
The LaFerrari’s chassis uses various grades of carbon fibre in different areas of the car; some of it is so specialised only the very latest fighter jets feature it, while the nuclear industry reinforces the centrifuges in which it enriches uranium with another strain. Heady stuff. But the new Ferrari hypercar owes just as much to its four predecessors. To find out how Maranello got here, you have to start by going back there, 30 years in fact, to 1984’s 288 GTO.
The morphology of the 288 is pretty obvious, but its 308 roots are no more of a blight on it than the 1962 GTO’s were on the various 250 GTs that predated it (another great bloodline). Conceived to go racing in the subsequently aborted Group B category, the 288 had the F1 team’s fingerprints all over it, and used a high tensile steel spaceframe, with Kevlar, fibre glass and aluminium elsewhere. Its 395bhp, 2,855cc 32v V8 was mounted longitudinally, which allowed the ancillaries, gearbox and twin IHI turbochargers to be more efficiently packaged, though Pininfarina design boss Leonardo Fioravanti still had to stretch the wheelbase by 11cm and widen the track.
In 1984, there was no ABS, traction control, or four-wheel drive. In 2014, this purity has a grail-like quality to it, but, back when the Porsche 959 arrived in 1986, it pulverised the 288 with its techno onslaught. The F40 arrived three years later, the last Ferrari to be personally overseen by Il Commendatore. It too uses contemporary F1 tech, with a tubular steel spaceframe chassis with Kevlar panels bonded on, while the doors, bonnet and bootlid are all carbon fibre. The engine is a 2,936cc V8, twin-turbocharged to 471bhp, rocketing the F40 to 100kph in 4.1 seconds and more importantly to a claimed 323kph top speed. In 1987, that really was something, the first production car to breach that magic marker. Now it was the pulveriser.
Post-Veyron and all the rest, I’m far more interested in its 1,100kg weight, not to mention the reputation for flame-spitting turbo unruliness the F40 trails. Ferrari planned 400, but in the mega-money late-Eighties demand saw production run to 1,311. Conflagration and driver error has claimed a few of these over the years, turning the heat up on the F40’s hairy supercar rep. This is a special car, even in Ferrari terms.
The F50 and Enzo were both products of a rapidly maturing supercar culture. The Enzo is now a scarcely believable 12 years old, yet still wears its F1-inspired body like a renegade from the future. It remains one of Pininfarina’s most outrageous designs, and is Ferrari’s most overtly technical looking car. Back in 2002, there was a fair bit of handwringing about the death of the “beautiful Ferrari”, but the Enzo’s epic sense of drama is an appropriate aesthetic substitute. It’s also a fantastically advanced bit of kit, even now: 651bhp, 6.0-litre V12, ultra-light and ultra-stiff carbon monocoque, brutally aero efficient, not just an F1 car for the road, but honed by Michael Schumacher in his heyday. Priceless provenance.
The F50 is almost 20, but its years flying under the radar are now emphatically over. The F50 is the Ringo of the quartet – The Beatles would have been lost without him – mainly because it arrived in a world redefined by McLaren’s virtuoso F1, cost roughly half as much (£329,000 to the Mac’s £540,000), and was all done at 325kph compared to the McLaren’s 386. Its V12 shared some DNA with Ferrari’s stunning 641/2 (Alain Prost’s 1990 F1 car), and the engine was also a stress-bearing member, but Gordon Murray’s singular supercar vision eclipsed the Ferrari as surely as it eclipsed everything else.
I remember all this vividly, having tried both F1 and F50 back in the day. The McLaren, a commercial failure at the time, now sells for upwards of £5m (RM28 million). The F50, limited to 349 units, saw values dip below £200k, but you’ll need £800k (RM4.5 million) for a top example now.
We owe today to the Ferraris’ custodian, Karim Said. He reckons he’s one of maybe only 50 people on the planet to own all four, and graduated to this rarefied strata over the years via a 308 GT4, 308 GTB and a 512 TR. He’s had the F40 longest – since 2002 – and says he’s driven it all over Europe. “I slept in it, many times actually,” he remembers with an enigmatic smile. There was a Porsche Carrera GT interloper, before the F50 was sourced in Germany – “It took six months just to get the Pirellis sorted,” Karim says – in 2011, while the Enzo and 288 GTO arrived late last year. Rarely have I met a supercar owner who mixes passion, knowledge and respect for what are considerable financial investments like this guy, not to mention the willingness to let us drive them.
Karim reckons the 599 GTO – he owns one of those, too – should really be here, and expertly summarises the cars and their allure. “Only Ferrari has stayed on the same journey,” he says, “which is partly why these cars are so special. I don’t like the way the McLaren F1 looks, or the fact that it has a BMW engine. Pagani uses an AMG unit. Ferrari does it all.”
We mix the photography with the driving, and I specifically avoid trying the cars in chronological order. The lure of the F40 is strongest. By this point, the 288’s 308 genealogy had given way to something new, somewhere beyond testosterone and closer to Group C, and though there are wings, ducts and air intakes, it’s distilled rather than cartoonish. The doors are very light, the seats and belts are pure racing car, and the dash makes a mockery of our current obsession with connectivity.
Connectivity, you say? The F40 is 4G, 4D, 7.1 surround sound or, if you prefer, as in-yer-face as a Rottweiler straining on its lead, salivating maw and all. It immediately gets your blood pumping, strains every muscle and sinew. It physically and mentally asks as much of you as any road car I’ve driven, demands that you have your s**t very much together or else. On which basis, it’s absolutely chuffing sensational, every bit as good as everything you’ve ever heard or read. Better, in fact.
Yes, the clutch is pretty evil, the synchros obstreperous, and the gearbox will terrify anyone who’s grown up with a paddleshift. The turbos spool up in a dramatically old-school way, kicking you in the back and whooshing in your ears. But when it all gels, the human lump behind the wheel is suddenly transformed into a key part of a chain reaction Einstein or Oppenheimer would have appreciated. The steering wheel writhes in your hands; the tyres squirm for traction on the tarmac. Has any car ever felt so alive? God knows, I wouldn’t want to try it on a wet Wednesday in Wales, and the brakes aren’t great but, you know, wow. Accelerating hard in an F40 reminds me of that bit in Pulp Fiction when Travolta plunges the hypodermic of adrenalin into Uma Thurman’s chest.
If the F40 is an Eighties car that throws forward to the Nineties, the 288 GTO can’t quite disguise its Seventies underpinnings. This isn’t a wholly bad thing. It’s beautiful, for a start, proper Scarlett Johansson-style effortless, indisputable loveliness. It idles like a four-cylinder car, as so many flat-plane crank Ferrari V8s do, and buzzes and vibrates. It’s easier to drive than the F40, and though it’s also a twin-turbo it doesn’t fast-forward towards the horizon with the same eye-widening hysteria. It’s also beautifully damped, with a suppleness that gives it the most GT-like character of the four. But its chassis feels less rigid, and it doesn’t move with the telepathic responsiveness of the others. On the other hand, it’s a 288 GTO. Do you care? Me neither. I’m having a moment here.
The Enzo and F50 are harder to split. Neither is as easy on the eye as the 288 or the F40, but stepping into them after the two Eighties cars is a mind-blowing experience. Firstly, the F1 connection is unarguable – in the technology, the packaging, the materials used. Secondly, they have 12 cylinders. Thirdly, they have 12 cylinders. It bears repeating.
The Enzo might have a problem, though, and it’s one the new generation of hybrid hypercars will inherit – you simply can’t future-proof futuristic tech. There’s no arguing with its structure, the weave of the carbon fibre, the sense of lightness and yet simultaneous strength. The driving position is perfect, the interior almost as thrillingly minimalist as the F40’s. The steering wheel is a prototype for today’s F1-style set-up, with reverse, traction control and race buttons flanking the boss.
But the semi-auto ’box slurs upshifts in a way that’s very last decade, and even though you quickly learn how to finesse it, it’s a reminder that this sort of tech has a sell-by date that a conventional manual doesn’t. The Enzo’s steering, turn-in and chassis are all as good as on any car, ever, and its Schumacher-honed electronics prevent embarrassment without hobbling its monstrous performance. But other bits of its armoury date it. Again, this is a first-world problem. In fact, on reflection, it’s not really a problem at all. The Enzo’s bloody brilliant.
That leaves the F50. All things are cyclical, and the F50 – the recently unfashionable Ferrari supercar – is having A Moment. Maybe the Nineties styling tropes suddenly look good again – the LaFerrari even apes that black swage line that bisects its entire body side – and collectors understandably want the set, which has boosted values of what is a rare car.
In all other respects, though, I fail to see how the F50 could ever have had an issue in the first place. Karim’s car is running a very cool, very loud bespoke exhaust, so it sounds uncannily like the F1 car it was inspired by. That it has a 60v, 4.7-litre, quad-cam V12 – one with a higher specific power output than its McLaren F1 nemesis – good for 513bhp at 8,000rpm, also helps. A lot.
But, and I remember this from my last drive in one, it’s the F50’s chassis and transmission that really grab you by your now frantically fizzing nether regions. There’s a twin-plate clutch so no real effort is needed on the manual six-speed ’box, and the gearlever just glides across the open metal gate with shocking precision. There’s no power steering either, no servo assistance for the brakes and no traction electronics, so you’re on your own. Its handling stakes out the territory somewhere between the F40 and the Enzo; it’s less savage than the former, more progressive than the latter. It even rides well.
In the F50, somewhere midway along the Top Gear track, I find myself shouting an obscenity at the top of my lungs. The V12 screams right back, and birds scatter from the distant treetops. Ringo always was my favourite Beatle.