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March 22, 2006

Ferrari Blind-Spot

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I confess I'm a Car Guy. When I was a kid I wanted to style cars when I grew up. I love to drive 'em. I have years of back-issues of Road & Track and Automobile Quarterly.

So I'm really hard-core, right?


I have this other confession to make. You see, I've uh, never exactly been a Ferrari fanatic. No. Not ever.

Well, there goes my reputation.

Maybe it's a case of having been born at just the wrong time. Although Enzo Ferrari was active in car racing between the world wars and began to develop his own cars, a Ferrari racer didn't appear until 1947 and it was two more years before a sports car was introduced.

I began paying serious attention to European cars in the early 1950s when I was in junior high school. By that time Ferrari was already something of a cult and the reason why almost certainly had to do with the fact that Ferraris were powered by V-12 engines.

So what's the big deal about V-12s? -- several luxury-car brands offer them these days. The big deal was that Ferrari was just about the only car with a V-12 in the early 50s. Such motors were found in a number of 1920s and 1930s luxury cars including Packard and Cadillac. Lincoln sold V-12s through the 1948 model year, but that was the end of it in America at least. Car Guys who grew up in the 20s and 30s were really excited about V-12s and got depressed when they went out of production. Then presto! here came this new Italian-built V-12 that powered both racing cars and sports cars. Time to fall in love again.

However I missed the 1920s entirely, saw just the last two months of the 1930s, and only became car-conscious in the late 1940s. I had missed the V-12 experience. I hadn't lived the history that set up the instant mystique for Ferrari. For me it was "Okay, a V-12 is a nice thing. Yes I read that those fancy Thirties cars had 'em, and that was nice too. But sorry, I just can't get excited."

Even though the engine was a non-issue for me, I did like the styling of many custom-bodied Ferrari sports and Grand Touring cars of the early and mid-1950s. Back then, several coachbuilders supplied bodies for Ferrari, and there was a lot of variety. Sadly (to me) this ended in 1957 when the Pininfarina (todayís name) car styling and body-building firm became essentially the sole supplier of Ferrari non-racing bodies.

At the time Ferrari made the deal with Pininfarina, Farina was still a hot hand in Italian carrozzeria circles, but already slipping, in my opinion. Another reason for selecting Farina might have been because his firm could deliver bodies at a higher rate than his competitors.

I think Iíll hold off on getting into detail on Italian coach building firms -- itís a topic that could chew up several posts. Let me just assert that, in my judgment, Pininfarinaís work since the early Sixties has been competent, but seldom outstanding.

Yet another reason for the Ferrari mystique has been the firmís commitment to racing. Other car makers aside from specialist firms have tended to dabble in racing, doing it when they think it necessary. Examples of dabblers include Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Honda.

I followed sports car and Formula 1 racing through the pages of Road & Track from 1955 until the early 1970s, when I gradually lost interest. I lost interest because the car maker and its nationality got sublimated by advertising stickers being slapped all over the car bodies and by the general "professionalization" of the sport that sapped it of its original amateur flavor.

(Before the Seventies, British cars were painted dark green, Italian cars bright red, French cars light blue, German cars silver or white, and so on. Although there were many professional race drivers, there were still amateurs participating in the 1950s -- the Marquis de Portago comes to mind.)

A final factor Iíll mention regarding the mystique of Ferraris is their rarity. Ferrariís have always been expensive and annual production has been low. Many guys find rarity and high price a turn-on, but I seldom do. I find it hard to maintain a strong interest in a car make if I know that I can never ever afford to buy one. My interest increases if I think that just maybe Iíll have one some day. (And not necessarily the hot racing job: just a Jaguar S-Type sedan, letís say, or perhaps a Porsche Boxter. Hmm. Come to think of it I did buy a new 1971 Porsche 914 and drove it for three years.)

To conclude, Ferrari fails me (or I fail Ferrari) on every count. Intellectually, I can see why it has its cult following. But emotionally Ė- and thatís how I often approach cars -- I just donít get turned on by Ferraris. I donít hate them either. When I see one I give a shrug and continue on my business.



posted by Donald at March 22, 2006


Supposedly, many people who buy Ferraris soon regret the decision. Maintenance costs are said to be horrendously high.

Posted by: Peter on March 22, 2006 10:07 PM

I knew a guy in SF when I lived there 20+ years ago who had a beautiful vintage Ferrari, a right-hand-drive British import (and indeed, dark green - I didn't know about the color-coding), but kept it off the road 9 months out of the year because it was so expensive to ensure. And he was rich. An acquaintance in Boston - also loaded - told me he sold his Ferrari after just a couple years for much the same reason. The expense and the fear of something happening to his precious jewel took all the joy out of it.

I'm with you: if I can never own one, I'm not interested. There are a lot of cool cars out there. Still, my friend in SF let me drive once on Hwy 1 between Mill Valley and Stinson, and I gotta say, "Whoo-whoo!"

Posted by: robert on March 23, 2006 4:39 AM

Now if I can only find someone who's not a fan of ANY sporty cars at all.

I like large, elegant luxury sedans -- think Lexus LS, older Mercedes S class, -- and find annoying the continual pressure to "sportify" the big rigs. I figure, everyone else is always pushing sportiness, Why can't they leave us barge-lovers alone??

Me, I loathe the BMW feel of the road thang. That doesn't mean I want old American bloat. But the emphasis should be on an elegant, serene ride in a supremely powerful car with an understated exterior. And it must be uber-reliable. Thank God for Lexus. If the new 2007 sportifies the LS too much, I may have to go postal.

Posted by: anon on March 23, 2006 9:06 AM

You can try out luxury and performance cars at the Classic Car Club.

I wrote about it yesterday at:

The club has a 1989 Ferrari 348 GTB.

Membership in the club starts at $7,500 a year. No maintenance to perform.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 23, 2006 3:48 PM

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