Maranello Model Mystery

An interest in automotive design history can result in a fair bit of detective work, and occasionally, a surprise ending.

Ferrari 412i. (c) autoevolution

For three years, all the money in the world wouldn’t buy you a brand new Ferrari Gran Turismo. It may appear almost impossible to imagine from today’s perspective, but Maranello’s premier car maker wasn’t always the money printing machine it is nowadays, which would historically entail the odd glitch and hiccup in terms of production planning.

It was for this reason that certain models would outstay their welcome on a somewhat regular basis. But not offering a mainstay product for several years appeared very odd indeed, even before Ferrari evolved from being the maker of enthusiast’s cars to the status of luxury goods purveyors.

From 1989, when production of the long-serving 412i four-seater model finally ceased, until 1992, the year the 456 GT successor was unveiled, anyone looking for a Ferrari that could accommodate not just driver plus wife/mistress, but also the dog and/or kids, would need to go for the unloved Mondial. If this kind of customer was hellbent on a V12 engine under the bonnet, he’d have to take particularly good care of his 412 for the time being. Such an unusual state of affairs obviously intrigued me, once I’d learned about it.

Years later, I found out about an abandoned 412 predecessor that might have fallen victim to Luca di Montezemolo’s arrival at Maranello, which famously saw some drastic changes brought to the company and its products. Allegedly, that mystery car had been developed so far that even some mules were spotted on the road – a piece of information that did much to further my interest in the subject.

Another few years later, I met a high-ranking former Pininfarina member of staff, who candidly told me that not only had that Ferrari Fantasma been ready to go into production, but that it was cancelled at the last minute on the rather blunt basis that it ‘looked too much like a BMW 850i‘ – which may constitute the greatest compliment BMW’s somewhat maligned GT ever received, even if only in clandestine fashion.

Having discussed this during a conversation with none other than DTW’s editor himself, I was – finally – presented with some photographic evidence, courtesy of Car magazine. The car depicted on these pages from 1990 could also have been one of Erich Bitter’s lost creations (of which there are a great many), but hardly constituted a great loss to car design history.

As far as finding out more about the Fantasma, my hopes now rested on the promise of people knowing people who might have some photographs among their possessions, maybe depicting sketches, drawings or possibly even photos of the lost Ferrari GT. One day, I believed, I’d solve this pleasantly entertaining mystery. Little did I know that the day would arrive sooner, rather than later.

For just a few weeks ago, I got to see the Ferrari Fantasma in all its glory. Not in some cellar or a nondescript Turinese cafeteria, under secretive conditions. But on Instagram, where none other than the car’s designer shared some sketches.

The designer in question isn’t any old sketch monkey, but a man who hopefully is an honorary member of the global Ferrari Owners’ Club – and wined and dined by its paying members on a regular basis. For Pietro Camardella acted as exterior designer of about half of the Cavallino Rampante’s ’90s output, including the Mythos concept car, before eventually joining Lancia (which is a different story altogether).

Camardella’s design of the 400 successor – finalised in 1985, according to the sketches – is very much in keeping with Pininfarina’s overall output from the period. The more sensuous house style of the 1970s had given way to a very graphical approach, which was most prominently championed by Enrico Fumia (Audi Quartz, Alfa Romeo 164/916 Spider & GTV), but also designers like Diego Ottina (Alfa Romeo Vivace, Honda HP-X) – and Camardella, who joined the company early in the decade.

(c) Instagram

Very faint traces of the Ferrari Pinin – which started life as another proposal for a 400 successor that was rejected – can be found in the Fantasma’s clamshell bonnet, whereas the rear lights cannot deny being related to the contemporary Ferrari 348’s arrangement. In conjunction with the ‘corrugated’ appearance of the lower body’s cladding, they make for a very 1980’s ‘high-tech’ appearance – a trait that, alongside the basic proportions, the Ferrari indeed shares with the BMW 850i.

If it wasn’t for these proportions, the car the Fantasma most closely resembles happens to be a rather more mundane offering than the Bavarian GT: The first-generation Ford Probe. From certain graphics, to the way in which the wing mirror is connected to the wings/bonnet, it’s difficult to deny that the thinking at Cambiano and Dearborn went along astonishingly similar lines.

In a way, the Fantasma encapsulates a lot of what was not exactly wrong, but also not quite right with much of Pininfarina’s output during the 1980s. Just as the Testarossa was no match to the 512 BB in visual terms (the less said about the 348 in relation to its predecessors, the better), the Fantasma wouldn’t have fared terribly well either, in terms of elegance and visual longevity.

Next to new, highly accomplished competition in the form of the Mercedes R129 SL or the BMW Achter (which, for all its flaws, could never be mistaken for a Ford Probe), the Ferrari might have found it very difficult indeed to cement its status as the world’s finest GT. Historically, ‘practical’ Ferraris were never subjected to quite the same kind of unconditional devotion as the sports cars – as the Mondial found out the hard way.

Against that backdrop, the Fantasma’s slightly faddish style was unlikely to make it through the new decade in dignified fashion. The incoming Ferrari management under Luca di Montezemolo were therefore undoubtedly correct in pulling the plug on the Fantasma, no matter how late in the day.

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As if to prove just how dependent upon the right set of circumstances any individual talent is, the successor to the GT-that-wasn’t-to-be was again designed by none other than Pietro Camardella. The resultant 456 GT we all know and many – myself included – love isn’t remotely some mediocre stab at a mass market sports car, but instead marked the start of a new era in both Ferrari and Pininfarina design .

The bold, but occasionally rather blatant graphics of the previous decade were abolished, in favour of a more classical approach. Gone too were the louvres and strakes, further setting Ferrari apart from the competition from Sant’ Agata, where the tropes of the ’80s lived on. Or, in other words: The prancing horse had regained some class.

Studying Camardella’s 456 sketches, another factor becomes clear: The way in which the individual work of any designer working at Pininfarina was edited and augmented while the carrozzeria was at the top of its game. For some of the graphics as proposed by Camardella were still a bit outré for a Ferrari Gentleman’s Express, just as the original frontal aspect was a bit too soft and lacking in definition. The final production car turned out to be superior to the designer’s undiluted vision, which isn’t something that can often be said today (but that too is another story).

Both the 456 GT’s final design and the Fantasma highlight the value of making decisions. And sometimes being brave enough to correct them.

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs www.auto-didakt.com // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

22 thoughts on “Maranello Model Mystery”

  1. On this argument I suggest to find the Enrico Fumia’s autobiography, “Autoritratto”, where he describes the “Fantasma” and shows his 456 proposal (you can see it in the book’s cover), dismissing the final approved style as lacklustre and conservative (!).

    1. Federico: Having seen the Fumia render on the cover of his biography, one can certainly say that he was channelling the more classic style of the ‘Daytona’, rather than anything more modernist in spirit – which I wouldn’t immediately have thought Fumia would have been in favour of, but then, given the work he was responsible for with the stillborn version of the Lancia Lybra, perhaps so.

      Certainly, we can say that the final style was a successful melding of old and new, and while I don’t particularly feel that its styling has weathered all that well, it remains one of Pininfarina’s better efforts for Maranello at the time. Mind you, I wouldn’t say no to the shooting brake version that was built for a collector.

      I’m going to go out on a limb and profess a liking for the design as shown in the Car scoop photos. I approve of its clean surfaces. Would it have been a classic Ferrari for the ages? No. They probably made the correct decision.

    2. With all due respect: Dottore Fumia has a tendency to dismiss other people’s work and champion his own in a manner I personally don’t find terribly dignified. Against this backdrop, I’m hardly surprised and would like to refer to his idea of a Ferrari supercar for the ’90s:

  2. A fascinating tale, thank you Christopher. Actually, the abandoned 400i successor was uncannily similar to the humdrum 1984 Nissan 200SX and Mk1 US Ford Probe, even more than the Mk2 you picture:

    It’s just as well that this design never made it to production. Although quite different to each other, both the 400i and 456GT were delightful designs, the latter being one of my favourite Ferraris.

    More generally on Ferrari, one cannot help but decry the crass commercialisation of the brand, from the Ferrari World “experience centre” in Dubai to the authorised Ferrari branded goods, which have included golf shoes clothes and accessories, a “limited edition” surfboard for $1,700 and even Majong and Chess sets, yours for $2,050 and $2,200 respectively:

    1. Daniel: The Probe Christopher was referring to in the text was indeed the first series model and not the later one as originally illustrated. That however is my doing, so any and all blame lies with me and me alone. I have removed the offending image from the main body and since you have appended a more appropriate image here, there is probably no great necessity to upload another.

      My thanks for pointing this out and my apologies to the author of the piece.

    2. Thanks for the clarification, Eoin. That should have been apparent to me if I’d read the text of Christopher’s piece more carefully!

      Incidentally, here’s the Nissan 200SX, also known as Sylvia in some markets:

      I rather fancied these back in the day.

  3. In terms of exterior styling could never really get into Ferraris to be honest, it always seemed something was off about them beyond my general dislike with popup headlamps all Ferraris featured at the time when growing up.

    Sure can appreciate the proportions of the V6 Dino, the back-end of the Testarossa and 348 as well as most of the 360 (despite believing it could have benefited from a 456/456M-like rear-light arrangement) and Mondial (sans popup headlights) respectively.

    Could probably even appreciate 412 had it received a more refined and tasteful fixed-headlight treatment, loosely along the lines of the 1984 Ferrari 412 Scaglietti prototype and 1989 Ferrari 412 Pavesi Ventorosso.

    As far as Ferrari’s little known unbuilt prototypes (including the ASA 1000 “Ferrarina”, Innocenti 186 GT, etc) and unproduced styling themes are concerned, would be interested in reading up on Ferrari if there are any comprehensive books available that delve into that subject and allow one to see a different side of the marque (as well as whether Ferrari looked at any latter-day V6 successors to the Dino / Mondial).

  4. When I saw the canned 400-replacement I though “Lancia Kappa”. It is so very plain around the flanks and the rear lamps are full-width affairs with a little wrap aoround the corners. Not a coincidence?

  5. Thank you, a fascinating piece.

    It makes me nostalgic for two things: the 456 itself (what a beautiful car) and CAR magazine’s news and scoops, which used to be the best in the business.

    V12 super GTs are approaching the end, and a monthly magazine cannot possibly compete with the deluge of online publishing.

  6. Sorry for the banal comment, but; Fantasma, what a great name!

    Oh, and the 456 GT, what a lovely thing; understated elegance and nice proportions.

  7. Thanks for this piece, Christopher! Again I’m learning about cars I wasn’t aware of before. This is especially welcome in this case, as I’ve always had a soft spot for Ferrari’s 2+2 seaters. I found the 412 much more interesting than the ‘proper’ sports cars, and admired its clear lines and perfect proportions. I see a Mondial on my way to work from time to time, and I almost think the same as with the 412 – although the proportions are probably more interesting than perfect…
    Now the 456, I was a total fan when it was new (and me in my late teens). It showed enough of the roundness that was coming up in the early nineties, but without being flabby or too cute like many of the cars in that era. I still find it lovely, especially in dark blue (no red here, plase!).

    1. Here is where you find the date stamp running through my like words in a stick of rock: the last Ferrari I accepted as the real thing was the 456. After that they seemed like impostors. Funnily, the same thing doesn´t apply to cars from Ford and Renault and Opel, for example. I never stopped seeing their latest cars as part of a long line, no matter how different they were. The current Fusion/Mondeo feels like a Ford; the Insignia is today´s big Opel. The Megane is a Renault just like the 18 and 12 and 5 and Clio. Porsche have changed a lot but there´s a 911 thing in there and the horrible Cayenne is a Porsche, for better or for worse.
      Some car companies have lost their identity and others still have a fundamental sense of self in their, changing with the times though it might.

    2. Hi Richard. That’s exactly what I was getting at in my comment above. Ferrari seems to have lost its authenticity in a grubby scramble to maximise the exploitation of the brand. The current cars exhibit a vulgar “more is more” aesthetic, designed to appeal to customers for whom status and an explicit display of wealth is uppermost. The ridiculously overpriced trinkets, most of which have nothing to do with driving, are simply meeting the demands of this mindset.

    3. Richard: “[…] the last Ferrari I accepted as the real thing was the 456.”
      Exactly my feeling! You could tell me any number (or name) of Ferrari afterwards, and I wouldn’t be able to even remotely recall what it looks like. You could probably even call a fake number and I wouldn’t notice.

  8. A great article! Chapeau.

    What puzzled me, though, is that Instagram-published sketch of the Fantasma:

    The flanks, doorframe,
    C-pillar, and the general “richly padded wedginess”, are executed in a manner that speaks a way more Bertone ‘parlance’ than a Pininfarina one.
    Almost all those particular elements, on that sketch, actually remind me a lot of the Xantia and perhaps even
    the Espero.

    Whilst it is in itself weird enough, it triggered a thought that, perhaps (if only the sketch is viewed in isolation, not the prototype), the Fantasma had all the elements of a ’90s reincarnation of the Citroën SM.

    A profoundly mysterious destiny, that’s for sure.

    1. The Xantia and Daewoo Espero encapsulate Deschamps’ autumn years at Bertone the same way Gandini’s post-Rainbow concept cars do. Whereas Gandini appears to have become a bit too self-satisfied by the dawn of his ‘brutalist’ phase, the latter-day (Bertone) Deschamps designs were just a bit anodyne. In either case, the difficulty to maintain constant levels of creativity is highlighted.

    2. Again I feel I have to speak up in favour of the Xantia. Yes, it’s bordering on the anodyne (especially if compared to earlier Citroën designs). Yes, its A-pillar is a mess – especially in light colours. Yes, it’s very wedgy and straight-lined in a time when everything became rounded and flowing. But exactly this point nowadays makes it stand out from many of its contemporaries. Look at the first Mondeo from the same year: its flabbiness and insecure roundings make it look very old today and required a major facelift after only a few years.
      The Xantia’s strong point are its very citroënesque proportions with the long wheelbase – a point apparently not many people are able to see, as they tend to muse over the ‘boring’ detailing. (Richard and Christopher: don’t get me wrong – I know that you can see what I’m thinking of…). Unfortunately, it’s also quite specs-sensitive. I already mentioned colour… But it’s also true that an Activa with 15″ wheels and wider front wings looks much more planted, assured and valuable than an early, lesser version with 14″ plastic hubcaps and the chevrons on the bonnet.
      At the end, the Xantia still marks a high point for Citroën in my view, between the ZX and things like Saxo, Xsara and C5 that came later. And it was the last larger Citroën that sold in big numbers even outside France – presumably for a reason.

    3. I’ll second your endorsement of the Xantia, Simon. Yes, that sail panel overlapping the A-pillar is a mess, but otherwise I rather like it and think it has aged rather well:

      The Daewoo Espero really is a dead ringer for the Xantia, apart from the glazed C/D-pillar treatment. It even has the same crappy sail panel overlapping the A-pillar:

      Controversy advisory: I never quite got on with the BX. It always looked too much like it was made out of Lego for my taste and that glazed C/D pillar on the upper spec versions looked a bit weird.

      I’ll get my coat…

    4. The BX is certainly weird for weirdness’ sake with the strange C-pillar window. The Lego impression is probably not wrong, as it contains a lot of plastic body panels, along with the dyed plastic bumpers. In the first series, even the dashboard looked like a Lego car.
      Most people are put off by this, but these things are exactly the reason why I like it. And let’s not forget, the BX was a rather capable vehicle – as long as it wasn’t used for crashing into walls or other vehicles, one might add. It offered tremendous space for its small size (its wheelbase and overall length are just slightly bigger than those of a C4 Cactus!), and great comfort. It came with very frugal diesels and petrol engines, but also with a torquey turbo diesel and a powerful 16 valve variant. It was also a car that was very widespread across Europe, despite its quirkiness.

  9. I saw the “Fantasma” as a camo’d prototype passing me by when I was at Maranello for an interview with the racing team in the summer 1992. Pretty impressive sight to see a “secret” (Fanatasma?) car that was making the rounds of magazines. Not as impressive though of sitting in an office by the Fiorano test track and having the conversation interrupted by the sound of a screaming V-12 being hustled by Jean Alesi.

    The Instagram sketches you associate with this car I don’t believe are right. The “Fantasma” looked to have a visor-type wrap-around windshield with either a Pinin-style, hidden A-pillar or an ersatz version with black pianted A-pillar. Also, the A-pillar grew out of an ostensibly horizontal beltline and not blended out from the front fender, like the Mercedes SL of that period. Ferrari at that time seemed to want to trend away from the arched A-to-C pillar roofline for more of a visor look. This was even evident in the 408 4wd study cars.

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