“A newcomer from Italy!” Archie Vicar takes a short look at a new motor car from Italy’s Ferrari concern and determines whether or not it cuts the mustard in an increasingly competitive market.
From “Sports And Racing Motor Car Gazette” November 1953. Photographs by Noel Rupert Beresford. Due to the poor quality of the original images, stock photos have been used.
For those ‘in the know’, Ferrari manufacture road cars that are closely related to their more famous racing cars. Two years ago a car not unlike this won the Carrera Panamericana with Chinetti and Taruffi at the wheel and a second car came second, with two other Italians driving. Not many marques can claim such prestige on the race track.
The road-going motor vehicles are produced in small numbers in a manner not dissimilar to the traditional hand-made methods used by the great British firms of Rolls-Royce, Bristol and Alvis. The prices are correspondingly high but the products of the Ferrari manufactory are somewhat different in character compared to the vehicles on sale in Britain which appeal to a well-heeled, often famous, class of buyers. At the moment, Ferrari is offering the 212 series of cars for connoisseurs of high-speed motoring and it is this car we shall investigate in this abbreviated review.
Visiting Italy is always a bit of an adventure and the same was true this time, my first visit since 1945. I commented to my guide at Ferrari’s factory that the war damage must have been quite severe, if the dilapidation evident was anything to go by. He responded that the war had not affected Modena at all and walked off in indignation.
After a light lunch of piadina (pancakes to you and me), cotechino (not unlike a Cumberland banger), coppa (cured pork neck which they don’t do in Malvern), washed down with Malavasia di Candia, I went out to look at the car and have a pipeful of Virginia flake. A Colombo V-12 engine provides the 212 with its power. I was surprised to find the capacity was just 2562 cc, which is nothing that would impress a Humber owner. Three Weber carburettors supply the juice and I can’t imagine the trouble involved in keeping these in tune. Ask a Humber man whose engine just has one.
The power output is said to be 170 horses at a rather hysterical 6500 rpm so one has to wait until lunch is digested before the car reaches its peak. On the plus side, generous fifteen inch wheels try to keep the Ferrari on the road and the 8ft 6 inch wheelbase ought to be long enough for a car of this sort but this does have consequences for the car’s behaviour, as I found out.
Ferrari have unusually chosen a five speed gearbox to conduct the engine’s activities and one wonders where this will all end. Six? Seven? Many sports car makers manage with four and I think even this could be excessive and indicative of a rather highly-strung machine. Drum brakes try to stop the car and here at least Ferrari is staying close to proper engineering tradition. In between the body and the wheels can be found at the front an independent wishboned suspension and a transverse leaf spring; the rear is fitted with elliptic leaf springs.
Rather antiquated Hadouille lever-arm dampers soften the blows of the rotten Italian roads in these parts and may just work in Britain too. These rotary shocks are the same sort of design used on pre-War Fords. The main problem I can think of is that they can get rather over-heated during prolonged use. On the other hand, a Ferrari is an Italian car so I expect they rarely expect them to run long enough to get overheated.
Getting into the car one is surprised to find it is a rather Spartan affair, not all that dissimilar to an Alfa Romeo or one of the swankier Fiats. Bentley and Rolls owners won’t be impressed and Bristol owners will be disgusted. The steering wheel is large enough to manage but the seats are low and rather thin, nothing that Reutter can’t best with their fine chairs.
Two large gauges flank the steering wheel, showing speed (in kilometres per hour, I ask you), engine revolutions, engine temperature (useful to keep a close eye on), battery level, and fuel tank contents (“benzina”). The rest of the controls are distributed across the red-painted dash panel like dead soldiers on a battle field. Turning on the headlamps involves stopping, getting a stranger to open the passenger door and asking them to press the lever. Best to leave them on but this can drain the battery.
Vignale, the coachbuilder, are responsible for much of this though other coachbuilders can provide designs to their or your specification. I should say that the exterior of the car is a bit brusque but at least this version of Ferrari’s road car has a single pane of glass for a windscreen. There are no exterior mirrors (Ferrari drivers never have to consider cars behind them, I suppose). The grille looks a little on the unhappy side, as if turned the wrong way around and the low roofline meant I could not wear my hat. The boot seems quite large but opening it was very hard indeed as the key broke in the lock.
There are lots of sources of noise in the 212. What little trim there is rattles and the leather seats squeak like a box of mice in a tornado. From the gearbox comes the most distressing clank of parts and in any case the difference between fourth and top makes me question fifth’s existence. If you can get the gearchange right it seems pleasing enough but I found most of the time it was like fiddling with golf clubs in the dark on a rainy night at Gleneagles. Lots of motion but little by way of reaction.
I must admit the car does go like the clappers and this is where it distinguishes itself from a Rolls or even a Bentley which seem placid in comparison. Though I really can’t fathom the ways our celebrated film actors and captains of industry like to spend their time, it doesn’t seem all that appealing to me to be in charge of car with so much power and so little control. It must be very tiring if this vehicle is any guide. The steering, clutch and brakes are not heavy, relatively speaking. It is in their orchestration that one finds a want of finer sentiment. The worm and sector steering turns the car with some play and movement in the straight-ahead which must be a characteristic intended to suppress the inputs from road shocks, perturbations and camber changes.
I took the 212 on an excursion around Modena to get used to the set-up and stopped in at a hostelry for a spot of dinner. Many children were keen to get a closer look. I don’t suppose they have seen many Englishmen hereabouts. I had two plates of passettelli (again, not on the menu in the Midlands) and bottle of a rather coarse Gutturnio which the photographer declined to finish so I had to help. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant and I could not get a receipt. It’s the only one between the Via Cerveto and Piazza Grande. They only seat ten, oddly.
After dinner I went for an evening canter in the 212. My developing impressions were of a car that resisted one’s attempts to get used to the casual gear-change and rather hysterical engine. And I never really got comfortable with the seats. My legs were set a peculiar angle to my spine. The car tended to want to go as fast as the engine would allow but at the same time the suspension and steering seemed to encourage caution and reticence.
In a peculiar outcome, one might get the impression that a less costly and less powerful vehicle could provide more driving entertainment. Certainly a Triumph 2000 roadster, by comparison, is a more tractable car costing far less and offering far more by way of comfort even if the engineering is inspired more by the farrier’s art than is commonly given admittance. After three hours of idle touring and struggling to keep my cigarettes off the floor I stopped in the district of Palanzano, west of Modena for a bit of a breather.
The landscape here in the area is rather fine and I drove the 212 gingerly down a rutted track to get a good view where I could stretch my legs and have a few smokes while the engine cooled down. That done it was time to think about bed and I found myself engaging reverse to go back up the track to the main road. As I say, the Ferrari lacks side mirrors and the gear change is at best approximate so it was really only a matter of time before I managed to locate an obstacle, damaging the boot of the car rather flamboyantly.
With time running out before I could get back to my hotel before it closed for the night (the owner was clear on this point) I had to press on rather. Those winding roads which seemed picturesque at lower speeds now became something of a challenge. The car began displaying its tendency to oscillate between understeer and over steer and much precautionary braking was needed on the downhill run.
In the end it was not the horse, the abandoned beer crate nor the unexpected wall that ended the test drive. Rather, the combination of the wayward handling, over-heated and uncompliant dampers led the car to reach the point of no return just short of the outskirts of Modena. I collided lavishly with a carefully arranged stack of fruit boxes left on a corner. Plums, I think they were. Quite nice ones too as I had a chance to nibble a few while waiting for a lift into town.
I probably should have been doing fifty but the brakes only lowered my speed from 100 down to 60. And perhaps I ought to have been in fourth but I think I was still stuck in fifth so engine braking was no use. I broke my pipe.
For many of the rich clientele for whom this car is intended the 212’s attributes of rarity and high price will be sufficient to justify purchase. And few will ever drive the car in the manner suggested by its sporting pedigree. However, I suspect a small but significant minority will feel like testing their mettle having sampled David Brown’s car or having tired of the plutocratic pampering of Alvis and Bristol. Such drivers may find the 212 Inter more than they are expecting.
I grant that the Colombo V-12 is a fine little motor and that the coach-work is in some areas pleasantly shaped but the overall arrangement of the other elements leaves something to be desired. On the other hand, the food in Modena is very good and I am sure one can rent a nice Fiat from the airport in Rome should you wish to visit the area and return unscathed.