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.
11 thoughts on “Two Fingered Salute”
I remember driving along Autoroute 4 to Strasbourg on a summer day in 1989 or 1990. Suddenly a red flash appeared in my rear view mirror. It passed me with near supersonic speed and ear splitting noise in utter disrespect for the French speed limit. The red flash was a French registered F40 at or near full speed, an impression I will never forget.
That was the only time I ever saw an F40 in action.
1980s Ferrari was indeed a very different beast, but I am not sure the ‘increasingly corporatised’ influence of Fiat could be detected.
The cars were still wilfully difficult and flawed. The company itself seemed adverse to promotion or good publicity. The Testarossa was a blatant pitch for Wall St and Miami property developer dollars, and arguably the least likeable Ferrari ever. The 412 was plain weird.
Brand Ferrari is a fairly recent construct. The F355 (perhaps one of the greatest Ferraris) was launched in the mid-90s and perhaps it was around then that the company started to take a much more market-led approach.
The F360 Modena was the first Ferrari with high proprity on a roomy interior.
Ferraris slowly underwent the same changes in character as the E-Type or Porsche 911 over time and these were mostly driven by the same favourite export market.
In the Commendatore’s era a car like the Ferrari California wouldn’t have happened.
Enzo once was asked why he didn’t use a Ferrari as his personal care. “Are you mad? Do you know the cost of one of those?”
The F40 isn’t the most beautiful Ferrari, but, compared to the Enzo, it is a beauty queen. I saw my first one in Russia (at the Sochi Circuit car museum) last month, and I found it impressive. I agree the F40 will be remembered for being a paradigm of raw power, but also because it was the last car to be launched whilst Enzo Ferrari was alive. That’s enough for the F40 to be glorious. When Luca di Montezemolo became chairman, as Jacomo said, the Ferrari brand was reconstructed and they never came back to their roots anymore.
As for the Sochi Circuit car museum: it is not huge, but nevertheless interesting. Sadly for the F40, there were a Mk1 E-Type DHC and an XJ220 surrounding it. And some finely-tuned Lada offerings.
Hyperbole at its very best:
“The F40 then (advanced composite materials and sophisticated engine management apart) was about as technologically advanced as the earliest Tipo-125s.”
Did the F40 have a live rear axle on leaf springs and a front V12 engine or two-valve heads and carbs? No. The 125S did. As did road going Ferraris until 1964, when the E-type had been out almost five years and looked like a space rocket compared to Ferrari’s road stuff.
Now a BMW M3 will keep up with an F40 and give you a better ride, while a Corvette LT1 will trounce the thing around a track, and a Tesla Model S in Ludicrous mode will out-accelerate it. Afer all, it only does a 12.1 second quarter mile at 122 mph. Many cars manage that these days in air-conditioned comfort, not least of which is the 488 GTB at 10.6 seconds. All figures Car and Driver. Ferrari 125S specs from ferrari.com.
Such is progress. Personally, I love the F40’s style, especially compared to that ugly wide Testarossa, but that’s difference of opinion for you. I will agree that Ferrari was master of the one-finger salute and knew how to humble the rich and make them grovel to buy one of a limited edition few, fearing their friends might get one and they might miss out, oh the horror. For that we owe him much.
I suspect that for many years I have struggled to delineate my considered views about the F40 from the fact that it is one of the first cars I recall having any awareness of, and in superlative terms at that – pinnacle of the Ferrari range, fastest, most expensive road car, etc. At age four (I admit it – I had no chance for a normal existence in which cars assume their appropriate role as transportation pods), all this stuff has powerful formative effects.
Looking at it now and trying to set all that baggage to one side, I see what is a generally well-proportioned and attractive car, although it’s really stretching things beyond reasonableness to call it beautiful. I think the lens of history, by which I mean the existence of the F50/Enzo/LaFerrari, has really cast it in a significantly more positive light and emphasised the value in Pininfarina’s work on that occasion.
And yet, here’s a weird thing. I have never been bowled over by the classic 308 GTB shape. Given the choice, I would take a 308 GT4 over a GTB (never mind that I think the GT4 is particularly underrated). And yet I think the 288 GTO is spot-on aesthetically, to the point I would prefer one over an F40 without hesitation.
300SL and Ferrari F40: the first two scale models I remember being presented with, courtesy of Bburago. At an autostrada service station, no less. So yes, I’m as guilty as anyone else of a bit of nostalgia, which probably explains why I like the F40 (but doesn’t in the Enzo’s case – the car, that is -, whereas F50 and LaFerrari leave me entirely cold).
Anyway. No less an authority than the great Aldo Brovarone played a significant role in the F40’s design process, which, hard to believe in retrospect, included a pre-production facelift. For dear old Enzo himself didn’t like the car’s front and rear aspects, which was when Brovarone came to the rescue.
I’d like to believe that these sketches gives us some idea of what F40 looked like before Brovarone applied his touches to it:
Here they are (hopefully):
It’s comforting to see that others make the same mistake in drawing cars as I sometimes do. The first image is distorted towards the bonnet and the front wheel hidden from view. The rendering is factual though; the line-work is off.
Thanks Kris. Good thing they gave it a face lift!
It does beg the question though – why did it take Enzo so long to realise the ‘strakes’ were hideous?
Maybe Fioravanti was a strakes man?