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