Dream drive: Ferrari F40

ADMIT IT. THE F40 is visually arresting. It is not Sophia Loren curvaceous and sexy. It is Sylvester Stallone muscle-rippling testosterone. Raw, with a pair of pumped-up biceps that can punch you into oblivion. Brawn rather than beauty. If ever a car was conceived to be a no compromise representation of what a name represented in the world of automobiles, a celebration of its existence no less, then this is IT. But not just any old name. This is a Ferrari, created 40 years after the Cavallino Rampante marque was unleashed on the world. A race car for the road. A thoroughbred that requires a wrangler with big cojones to tame.

This is the car that was built in 1987 to celebrate the Ferrari marque’s 40th birthday and the last model to be signed off by Enzo Ferrari himself, 14 months before he passed away, aged 90. As a result, the car was dedicated to Il Commendatore as a symbol of his achievements. But it was a bit more than an extravagant birthday present. At the time, Ferrari was being criticised for moving away from its core values, not helped by a less-than-enthralled media and public reception for the Testarossa. The F40 was designed to put Maranello back at the pinnacle of supercar stardom. It was a bare-knuckled street fighter looking to take on all comers.

Approaching the F40 is a strange experience. Head-on, it’s almost bland. The apron contains a trio of air intakes the F40 does not have bumpers, front or rear. Across the full-width bonnet there are two small NACA ducts and a very subtle hint of raised fenders that house covered auxiliary lights and pop-up headlights. The inward-sloping cabin looks like it is not full size, a bit like someone has built an Airfix kit and glued a 1:20 scale nose on a 1:24 body. Number plate housing? Agh, stop being picky…

In profile, the F40 bears some resemblance to the 288GTO Evoluzione upon which it is based and replaced in the Ferrari line-up, but with more aggressive vents and scoops and ducts. Oh, and not forgetting the quartet of GTO-distinguishing louvres just aft of the rear wheelarch. Ignore for the moment the park bench-sized rear wing (it is difficult I agree, but try) and follow the near-perfect arc from the lip of the bonnet over the windscreen and roof and down the louvred Plexiglass engine cover. Styled by Leonardo Fioravanti at Pininfarina, such symmetry is admirable and seemingly aerodynamic the Cd figure is given as 0.34.

At the flat-back rear, echoing the outline of that fixed and substantial rear wing there is a full-width mesh panel containing a quartet of oh-so-classic-Ferrari round lights. A shallow diffuser underlines a trio of tail pipes at the base of the valance the centre exhaling the turbochargers wastegate. Again, there is a certain symmetry and functionality about the whole layout that stands out for its simplicity. And its width. The F40 is w-i-d-e 1981mm no less which when matched with a height of 1118mm gives some indication of just how flat this supercar really is.

It is worth taking a walk around the car before climbing inside not least to see what is around the car because once ensconced, rearward vision is limited to say the least. Opening up the cockpit gives a clue to another racing aspect of the F40 weight. The ultra-light door with its interior cord handle is made from Kevlar, and the whole tub is made from composites including the high and wide sills that require some dexterity to climb over in order to drop down into the thin, hard, fixed-shape bucket seat that offers only fore/aft adjustment.

Which is more than the small, three-spoke Momo steering wheel does. It is angled away and slightly skew from the normal two-dimensional planes but felt immediately right in my hands. Surprisingly, so did the driving position, which is not always the case given the combination of my long-legged, 1910mm frame and period Italian-percentile ergonomics. Yes, the F40 is wider than I am tall. And I am tall… The headliner is scalloped slightly above each seating position, adding to the sense of well-being.

In the acutely tapering footwell, the pedals are offset slightly to the centre of the car, with the massive, drilled aluminium brake and clutch pedals in rather stark contrast to the slender accelerator, which requires a narrow-shoed foot to operate there is very little space between the brake and the centre tunnel. The flock-covered facia is as functional as you can get, topped by a compact cowl housing the main gauges.

Twist the key, hear the fuel pumps whirr into life, hit the start button and the engine sitting just aft of the nape of your neck … does NOT explode in a wall of sound. It rather simply bursts into life and quickly settles into an even beat that disguises what three litres of fuel-injected, twin-turbo (1.1bar boost), quad-cam, 32-valve, all-alloy 90-degree V8 can unleash 356kW at 7000rpm and 578Nm of torque at 4000. In standard form. But this car has been fitted with a Stage One Michelotto conversion that, amongst other things, raises peak power to 400kW. In a car weighing just over 1100kg, that means a staggering power-to-weight ratio of around 395kW/tonne. (Michelotto Automobili is a Ferrari dealership cum race car constructor based in Padua that in 1969 began converting a very limited number of road cars to Le Mans sports car-type spec.)

The unassisted steering is heavy at low speed but not overly so, and the clutch is equally stiff but linear in action. A tall, polished gear lever topped with a simple black plastic ball sprouts from the tunnel with each of the gears lightly etched into the classic Ferrari metal gate. First of the five gearbox ratios is dog-leg left, and engages with the kind of precision that is a tactile delight. With so much torque on tap, the shift action is never quick but once the box is warm, the lever silkily snicks into its slot. (Reverse is above first, selected by a gentle push down on the knob.) The F40 pulls away with remarkable ease, popping and banging a little from the exhaust on the overrun but utterly docile and with absolutely no threat of coming to the boil.

Then as the road opens out and the throttle gets squeezed a bit more, the two IHI turbos spool up from 2500rpm and with a rising Rocky soundtrack engages in a bout of sparring with the speedometer before the sucker punch is delivered at 3500. WHAM, BHAM thank you, man! The power hits home with the gentleness of a heavyweight’s knockout uppercut, bludgeoning the senses with brutal force and catapulting the F40 forwards with lightning ferocity. The F40 takes no prisoners you have to be in the mood and have extreme confidence (certainly more than I can attest to, but I get the feeling…) to exploit this car’s total trigger-like prowess.

The chassis is a spaceframe with wide-based unequal-length wishbones and Koni fully-adjustable dampers at each corner. The ride is rock hard and despite such a massive rearward weight bias, grip is neutral leading into gentle understeer the more power is applied. Feedback through the wheel is accurate and wriggle-free even though part of this car’s Michelotto conversion was replacing the Speedline 17-inch split-rims with 18-inch Enkei Sport alloys. With 245/35 ZR Pirelli rubber at the front and steamroller 335/30s at the rear, handling limits are even higher than standard, but plant the loud pedal to the floor and the rear will step out with a trigger-like reaction yet in an absurdly predictable way. For retarding such hooliganism, the non-assisted, non-ABS Brembo brakes have been enlarged too, from 13- to 14-inch, and are reassuringly strong and fade-free.

Oh yes, the LOUD pedal. Despite the noise-suppressive effect turbochargers inherently provide, the mayhem of cranks, rods, cams and valves spinning up to 7750rpm is amplified by the Tubi-Sound exhaust and rises to a crescendo that is almost deafening. It is such extremes that give a supercar a distinctive character.

With no launch control and the on-off nature of 1980s turbo technology, the claimed 4.5 seconds from 0-96kph may not appear to be the ultimate today but 25 years ago it sure was something special. However, road tests at the time recorded 0-100kph times as low as 3.8 seconds. Zero to 200kph took less than 12 seconds, and the top speed of 325kph made the F40 the first production car capable of exceeding the double ton 200mph. It became the yardstick for subsequent supercars including even Gordon Murray’s McLaren F1. As an aside, when it was launched in 1987, the F40 lapped Ferrari’s famed Fiorano test track quicker than Gilles Villeneuve could manage in the 1980 flat-12 3.0-litre 312T5 Formula One car…

A quarter of a century ago the F40 well and truly put Ferrari back at the head of supercar hierarchy and a fitting tribute to the man whose name is discreetly inscribed on its carbon-fibre rear deck. Revered today possibly even more than it was back in 1987, this blood red (Rosso Corsa) Italian stallion stirs the emotions of everyone privileged to see it at close quarters. To hear it is something else. And to drive it? Well, pinch me someone, please…

Footnote:

Of the 1315 F40s built, six were imported to South Africa, although one was immediately whisked off to Hong Kong. The remaining five are still in this country, two of which are still in the original owners hands. This car, chassis number 84592, was originally delivered to Frank Taylor in Somerset West on 4 May 1990 and is one of the last to be built. It is now part of the Franschhoek Motor Museum’s collection.

Mandla85

Welcome to my corner of the automotive world! I'm Mandy Lawson, better known as mandla85, and I'm absolutely obsessed with everything related to cars and motorsports. You bet I'm interested if it has four wheels (or sometimes two!) and an engine. For me, cars aren't just a means of transportation; they're a passion, a lifestyle, and an endless source of fascination. I love diving into the world of automotive engineering and design, exploring the latest trends, and uncovering the stories behind the machines. Email / Facebook