In 1987, Maranello went back to its roots, launching the precursor to today’s track-bound limited edition wonders. But in looking to the past, was F40 the modern Ferrari of all?
The Ferrari F40 is a car that brooks no ambivalence. Like the company’s founder and imperator, F40 is indifferent to the notion that you might find it vulgar, somewhat silly, a virtually unusable statement of machismo and status, because it’s all of those things and a great deal more besides. Because, perhaps more than anything, F40 remains the essence of Enzo.
Ferrari was not a man of sophisticated tastes or a sensitive disposition. Self-made, rough around the edges and in possession of a mythology which over time outgrew that of the cars which bore his name, by the mid-80s, Enzo Ferrari was (amongst marque acolytes at least) akin to a living saint. A man ironically, to whom even the pontiff was denied an audience. But with a motoring press in thrall to a narrative they themselves had colluded in weaving, the products of Maranello, almost regardless of merit, were greeted as the very seraphim itself.
Ferrari (the business) was in fact having a rather torrid run of things during the 1980’s. The formula one successes of the previous decade had evaporated, the road cars becoming increasingly corporatised under the influence of Fiat. The arrival of the Group B racing regulations however provided Maranello with an opportunity, which saw them develop the powerful and shapely 288 GTO, a limited-production sports prototype series. It’s unclear how serious Ferrari was about competing in Group B, but with the formula’s cancellation in 1986, the GTO was redundant.
However, it was fast, it was pretty and it was rare; enough for it to sell out to collectors and well-heeled enthusiasts. A number of even faster, more track-focused Evoluzione versions were produced, but with only total of approximately 272 cars built, it quickly became apparent that not only could they have sold many more, but limited-edition cars like this would prove vital in preserving the Maranello mystique now that the race cars were failing. And thus a seed was sown. An even faster, road-going, but rigidly focused machine – a back to basics Ferrari.
Enthusiastically backed by the company’s 89 year old founder, Enzo himself however was becoming increasingly infirm and reclusive. Nevertheless he took an active interest in the car’s development (Ferrari rarely gave the road cars a moment’s notice) and delighted in its performance. According to (unofficial) biographer, American journalist Brock Yates, Enzo is said to have told an intimate, “this car is so fast, you’ll shit your pants.”
The source of any likely incontinence was simple enough – the time honoured equation of power to weight. No wonder Enzo approved. Strap a hugely powerful engine to a fairly rudimentary tubular chassis, strip it of all fripperies, (no carpets, sound-deadening, interior door handles – even the non-winding windows were plastic) charge a king’s ransom and hang on for dear life. The F40 then (advanced composite materials and sophisticated engine management apart) was about as technologically advanced as the earliest Tipo-125s.
The core of the car’s reactionary engineering concept was an enlarged version of the 288 GTO’s twin IHI turbocharged four-cam V8. With an engine capacity of 2936 cc and developing close to 500 bhp, mounted longitudinally to a tubular chassis clad in kevlar and composite body panels, the 1369 kg F40 was stupendously quick. Aiding performance was the car’s bodyshape, which was formed in Pininfarina’s wind tunnel. Shaped as much for downforce as air penetration, to say nothing of the necessity in cooling the car’s formidable power unit and brakes, the F40 eschewed its predecessor’s elegance for brute aggression.
Writing for Car, veteran correspondent, Roger Bell reported on a car which by turns thrilled and terrified. Describing the car’s acceleration as “alarming in its ferocity” he wondered if at times he was in control of the F40 at all. Describing the car’s chassis refinement as non-existent, he suggested, “at best, it’s unpleasant, at worst it’s painful”. On the right road surface, under benign conditions however Bell described the Ferrari as “an unparalleled experience – the most exciting, exhilarating car I have driven in 35 years.” On pockmarked UK minor roads however, the F40 was almost undriveable.
At launch (timed to commemorate the marque’s 40th anniversary), critics suggested Ferrari was cynically pandering to the market, one which was well on its way to viewing the Cavallino Rampante as traded commodities akin to fine art. They weren’t necessarily wrong either and while Maranello spokespeople denied it, those who knew the Ferrari mindset saw through all protests to the contrary.
Enzo Ferrari understood better than anyone how best to part the wealthy from their cash. He is said to have viewed his customers as fools and through a combination of flattery, access, insult and sheer awkwardness he constructed a burning desire only his cars could salve. The F40 was his most awkward car yet, and the market loved him for it. It was Ferrari, undiluted, triple distilled. Reassuringly, witheringly expensive.
It was also perhaps the first wilfully ugly, projectile-like Ferrari from carrozzeria Pininfarina. Yes, the 1984 Testarossa was no ravishing beauty, but within its purposeful lines lay a suggestion of elegance. The F40 on the other hand was an affront and probably intended as such. With it, Ferrari created his most eloquent metaphor and quite aptly, would the following year stand as his final will and testament. A four wheeled ‘up-yours’ to his customers, to Fiat, his real or perceived enemies and all those who he felt had slighted him over his long, often successful and highly lucrative career.
Viewed in those terms, isn’t F40 in fact rather glorious? Because like Enzo himself, it’s something of a monster, but such is its strength of character that even this deeply ambivalent observer feels he probably wouldn’t necessarily be without either.