It’s sometime in the early ’60s. The sun is shining, the sky azure. You’re in Cannes and you need to get to the smart Italian resort of Rapallo, where your yacht lies at anchor. One of the world’s great coastal routes stretches ahead. The car is an open-topped Ferrari. Remember, this was the pre-motorway, prespeed limit era, a time very different from 2011. It’s a dreary fact of modern life that your journey time isn’t greatly affected by the car you drive. Back when roads were twisty yet empty and most cars had feeble power and frail cornering grip, the driver of a Ferrari was in his or her own time warp.
So just imagine howling along the Grande Corniche above Nice, the open cockpit gently marinated in warm aromatic breezes of mimosa and pine, the emerald sea glinting below, the sound of the engine bouncing back off the cliffs as you overtake the sparse but slow everyday traffic, while propelled by a Le Mans winning V12, cornering on road-race suspension and, on arrival, almost out-dazzling the sun with the car’s achingly gorgeous Pininfarina bodywork. Spiders, or Spyders to use the earlier spelling, and Cabriolets and Barchettas, are among the most impossibly desirable cars Ferrari has made over its long history of making impossibly desirable cars. And that re-created journey demonstrate the two reasons why. First, because many of Ferrari’s competition cars have been open-cockpit, and the experience of driving an open car hard on the road is even more intense than when a metal roof is overhead; the feeling of speed, the sound of the engine, and the tangible link with Maranello’s racing cars. And, secondly, because an open car, in the times when it’s not being driven fast, has the potential to be simply a more glamorous conveyance than a closed car. It puts the occupants more intimately in touch with the surroundings they’ve chosen to travel through and it also puts the occupants on show, almost demanding of them that they dress up to match the glamour of the car. Gradually, as competition cars became more specialised and less capable of being used on the road, Ferrari’s open cars have more-or-less split into two different lineages. On the one hand, are the competition-related extreme-performance road cars and, on the other, those that emphasise beauty, luxury, and glamour – bearing in mind that “luxurious” for Ferrari still amounts to “pretty darned purposeful” by any other standards. It’s worth reminding ourselves of these two lineages because right now, in the new 458 and the California, there’s a representative of each kind in the Ferrari line-up. The competition-type open cars are, of course, where it all began, with Enzo Ferrari making his own cars from 1947. To Enzo the engine was really all that mattered, but others in the Company, including ironically the engine designer Gioachino Colombo, wanted a distinctive body design for Ferraris.
They went to Carrozzeria Touring in Milan, which, helped by Colombo, who redesigned the engine manifolds to make them fit under the sweeping bonnet, produced a shockingly radical and beautiful car – the 166 MM. Its name refers to the fact it was to be raced at the Mille Miglia in 1949, but it soon got a nickname that stuck: Barchetta. The word (Italian for “little boat”) perfectly evokes the simplicity of these cars, but it fails to say anything about the ferocity of their performance. It won the Mille Miglia and Le Mans in the same year and for the next season was given Ferrari’s Formula One engine. But, as long-distance racing took place on normal roads at the time, the 166 MM and its immediate successors could also be used as road cars. In return for their awesome performance and handling, a certain kind of driver would live without a roof, and not even a folding one nor a windscreen was provided. And so Ferrari, the race-car company, realised there was a market for road cars, even if at that stage it used racing powertrains and chassis. The 212 Inter and 340 America, which had a bigger, more driver-friendly engine, could be made with coach-built bodies whose detail design was decided by the individual customer. And some of the customers chose to have folding roofs. Then came the 342 America, of which only six chassis were made, longer and wider than the contemporary race cars to give more space inside. One of the six was a special and magnificent cabriolet made in 1952 for King Leopold of Belgium. Enzo Ferrari’s convention was to use even chassis numbers for the racing cars and odd for road cars, but for the 342, because it was so rare and used Aurelio Lampredi’s long-block racing engine, he made an exception.
From the mid-’50s, the 250 GT series was the first model to be made not by the handful or the dozen, but by the hundred. It could be had with near-race-spec engines and bodies, or clothed by one of the Italian coachbuilders as a cabriolet to endow it with extra beauty and luxury, as well as full weather protection. The most famous and sought-after of those cars was the 250 GT SWB California Spider. “SWB” stands for short wheelbase: the 250 SWB coupé was a regular front-line race winner of the era, and the California put a gorgeously proportioned and lushly detailed Pininfarina-designed body on that chassis. Some Californias were even made using aluminium body panels to make them race-capable. They had looks, luxury and heritage, and the client list was what you’d expect. The one originally bought by Hollywood legend James Coburn was sold to UK broadcasting star Chris Evans for more than €7 million in 2008. It seems a cliché to say it, but this era of open Ferraris really are for film stars and royalty and, come to think of it, they’re often used as shorthand by film directors wishing to establish their characters as people both fast-living and quick-witted. Look at the Faye Dunaway character in the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. She was clever and alluring enough to outsmart Steve McQueen as the handsome millionaire who’d pulled off “the perfect crime” – and she drove a 275 GTB4 NART Spider. But by then the 275 GTB4 was a car whose competition career had ended. The factory was by then racing mid-engined machinery. Besides, racing itself had changed: the quality of the tracks had improved, so a race suspension set-up was no longer comfortable enough for the road. Meanwhile, road traffic was getting more congested, and race-car engines grow stroppy when going slowly. And so, with machines like the ultra-luxury 365 California, the powerful 365 GTS and the awesome 1969 365 GTB4 Daytona Spider, the engine and chassis and bodywork were designed from the beginning for the road. They could cope with cities, and traffic, and they were ready for the world’s new motorway network. And yes, they were still a joyful drive on empty mountain passes.
But during the ’70s, fashion, technology and the law turned against fully open cars. With monocoque body construction, instead of the earlier separate chassis, it was hard to make a cabriolet as rigid and safe as the closed version. So, all Ferrari’s GTS versions of the era – most prominently the 246 Dino and 308 – came with just a relatively small removable overhead panel. When Ferrari was ready to do something revolutionary again, it brought out the Mondial Cabriolet in 1982. This was a four-seater mid-engined car, an extraordinarily difficult challenge in packaging the jigsaw of people and components. Sure enough, the car looked a little gawky, and the glamour necessary for an open Ferrari wasn’t really there. A pity, for it was a joy to drive, especially in its later T version. For a mid-engined car, a two-seater layout was the way to get good looks. And so the 348 Spider emerged in 1993 and, with a much more powerful engine, the F355 Spider in 1995. By this time Ferrari’s strategy was to make its midengined V8 two-seaters the most sporting models in the normal-production range. And with the aluminium structure introduced for the 360 Modena, the open version could be light and rigid and truly track-ready. When Ferrari Chairman Luca di Montezemolo married in 2000, the factory had a present for him: workers had secretly built a 360 Modena Spider, lightened by the use of a tiny lowered windscreen. With that it had no call for wipers, wind-up windows or a roof, and it became a true echo of the sports-racing Barchettas of Ferrari’s nascent years.
The Scuderia Spider 16M isn’t too far from that template. It uses the best of the race-team’s expertise adapted for the road and it provides an extraordinarily, starkly exhilarating experience on a track or twisting empty road. One that possibly eclipses even driving the amazing 1995 F50 in roof-off mode – and that had an engine derived from F1 and a carbon fibre “tub”. But Ferrari hadn’t forgotten the front-engined convertible. The 2000 550 Barchetta was another limited edition, but it did actually have a canvas roof, albeit one more reminiscent of a tent than a permanent part of an automobile. A more interesting solution was proposed for the last of the 575 variants, the 2005 Superamerica. It had a novel glass roof that pivoted about its trailing edge, providing perfect weather sealing when closed. The Superamerica was indeed a luxurious car, as well as a brutally fast one at 320km/h. More recently, the California, with its purposedesigned folding-hardtop, is a convertible Ferrari that is converting a whole new clientele. The California took its name from that historic car because, again, it’s as sporty as anything else in its class. But it also marked a new step forward in useability, thanks to the twinclutch transmission, smooth multi-link suspension and colour-screen telematics. It’s as suitable for the rush hour of Shanghai as for Los Angeles or Rome. The exclusive 599 SA Aperta and now the 458 Italia Spider bring this long-running part of Ferrari’s history right up to date. Alongside the California, there are now very different nuances to the idea of a convertible Ferrari. A different level of noise, too, and of interactivity, though all are just as involving as ever. There is unimpeachable glamour here. Yet, when the road opens up, and the roof goes down, the driver rushes not because he needs to, but because the car impels him to. This is at heart still a Ferrari.
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine issue 14, September 2011