Eric Clapton is probably the world’s greatest living guitar player. Ferrari, it could be convincingly argued, makes the best cars. When the two combine, the result is powerful enough to first bring a busy London street to a halt, then, as word spreads, tip the internet towards meltdown.
At HR Owen’s Ferrari showroom in the affluent Kensington district, an unfamiliar looking car is being gently manoeuvred into position. The badges and silhouette suggest this is definitely a Ferrari, and that it is of 458 Italia proportions. But the shape is a fantastic reworking of various Ferrari and Pininfarina design tropes from a handful of different eras, melding into a striking retro-modern whole. Well, what would you do if you could create your own Ferrari? If you happen to be Eric Clapton, you’d do this: the SP12 EC.
‘When the idea was first presented to me, I thought, “this is an opportunity that’s too good to miss”. While this door is open I should get in there,’ Eric smiles.
If you know his music, you’ll know that Clapton is a man who respects history. Like the rest of his 1960s peers, he broke through on a once-in-a-lifetime pop rock boom that saw a wave of bluesobsessed white art school kids reinterpret the work of their unsung musical heroes, before re-exporting it to the country that birthed it. With The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek & The Dominoes and finally as a solo artist, Clapton turned his blues inspiration into pure gold. As the only player who could hold a candle to the incendiary likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, fame and fortune bequeathed Clapton a life of remarkable highs and body-blow lows. He survived. Parallel to it all, though, there was always Ferrari. As he remembered in this Magazine (issue three, 2008 Yearbook), his friend George Harrison arrived at his house one afternoon in 1969 in a Ferrari 365 GTC (‘the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen’) kick-starting a relationship that outlasted most of Clapton’s others. Now, he has contributed
to the Ferrari mythology in the most profound way possible, by creating his own model.
‘Was it an enjoyable process? Oh, unbelievable. One of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. There will never be anything like this again. This is me aged seven listening to [Juan Manuel] Fangio and [Alberto] Ascari. It’s all there…’ You don’t expect someone like Eric Clapton to be a fan; people of his stature are somehow meant to transcend that sort of thing. Yet a fan is exactly what he is, and you only have to listen to him enthusing about what Ferrari has given him over the years to realise that even the man who gave the world that riff on Layla, or the coruscating solo on Cream’s Strange Brew, can be deeply turned on by the sound of an expertly engineered V12. But committing this passion to your own car, well that takes you into another dimension altogether. Working with Ferrari’s Design Centre under the watchful eye of Director Flavio Manzoni and a team at Pininfarina, the SP12 EC takes the Special Project division’s output into double figures. This is the promised land, beyond ticking the options list, beyond even the brilliant opportunities afforded by the Tailor-made scheme. But, as Clapton says, this entails certain responsibilities, and may not be for the faint-hearted. ‘It’s such a great blank canvas to work with,’ he says. ‘Mind you, I found out that a few people had got a certain way down the road with their own projects, then backed out of it. The sheer freedom of it blew their minds.
‘There’s no doubt you need to have a very clear idea of what you want, because this is going to be available for everyone to see at some point. So it better be bloody good! Really, it’s a reflection of my way of looking at things, of my taste, and that’s quite a responsibility. It’s quite frightening, to an extent. That’s partly why I didn’t go with a completely blank canvas: I decided to make it an homage to another car. The BB 512i. Because that was the car I had the best time with.’
In fact, Eric’s owned three Boxer Berlinettas. He suffered a bad crash in one (‘my fault’) and reckons the integrity of its design may even have saved his life. You can certainly see flashes of BB in his new one-off, most notably in the engine cover and the rear three-quarters. He would have liked a V12, he says, but as his BB homage began to take shape he was persuaded that the 458 would provide a more practical and flexible template. The process necessitated many trips to Maranello and Turin, never a hardship at the best of times. For Eric, this was something of a pilgrimage. ‘To go to Pininfarina with a legitimate reason for being there was fantastic, meeting the guys, the family. There are pictures of me in a Lancia Astura, one of the first cars Pininfarina ever designed. That was a massive, imposing thing, that I bought at an auction. I’ve no idea where it is now…’ Legislative requirements mean that, while the body shape is up for grabs, SP cars need to adhere to the engineering hard points of an existing car. Ferrari will not re-homologate any part, and anything that could affect the car’s reliability or quality isn’t permitted, either. There isn’t much that Ferrari doesn’t know about optimising performance, so additional “tuning” is also deemed unnecessary. ‘Our Special Projects cars are developed with the same design rigour we apply to our production cars,’ Ferrari CEO Amedeo Felisa says, ‘to the extent that they can be approved in the normal fashion and therefore driven on the road.’ But the freedom also works on multiple levels.
‘It’s a liberating process,’ Design Director Flavio Manzoni told me last summer, when I spoke to him about the SP division. ‘In some ways it’s like creating a concept car.’ (Manzoni, incidentally, was very fired up by Clapton’s proposals.) Signing up for one of these cars is a totally immersive experience, as the musician quickly found out, and probably not one that would suit an indecisive individual. Fortunately, Clapton is a man who knows what he likes, as well as being someone who’s equipped with a highly developed aesthetic. He’s well-known for his interest in
fashion, art and design. ‘I’ve always liked the 250 LM, the Lusso and the Boxer,’ he says of his inspiration. ‘You look at something like the LM, and you know it was jusfunctional. How do we get the skin to go over this thing? The design was almost incidental. Anyway, the guys knew what I’d owned and enjoyed over the years and they’d already worked up a template for a BB homage. With the 458 platform agreed, it was now a question of getting it right, and applying my requirements.
‘A lot of it was made easy for me,’ he continues. ‘I’d have a choice of five or 10 materials or options, and I’d say, “that one”. That would then be taken on-board for the next presentation, along with other decisions, so it soon evolved into this thing.’ It was a true collaboration, and one that ran pretty smoothly by all accounts, despite Clapton’s legendary perfectionism. ‘There was no friction or disagreement,’ he says. ‘The slanted two-tone line that runs along the side of the car, at one point I wanted it to be straight. They carved a scale model out of resin on a lathe with a different treatment on the two sides of the car, one with the kickline, one without it. They were right to kick it up. I gave the guys their head as designers. [pause] In fact, I’m not going to take very much credit for the car at all. I was there saying, “oh yeah, that’s exactly what I would have done…”’
As anyone who’s au fait with the complexities of car design knows, the HVAC (heating and ventilation system) is a key component and a serious packaging challenge. So, the interior of the SP12 EC is broadly identical to a regular 458, bar the inclusion of an armrest. Well, Clapton needs somewhere to rest that celebrated left arm and hand. The tan leather betrays his classicism. ‘I freely admit that the concept of designing the dashboard of a modern car is way beyond my reach,’ he laughs. ‘Although that might just be a whole other avenue to go down!’
The headlights are borrowed from the Enzo, and Eric expresses admiration for the sinuous front wings. ‘When I first saw the 458, I thought the flow of the fenders was addressing P3/4 principles. I would have preferred big oval headlights, but we ended up using Enzo lights for legal reasons. We wanted to make it as beautiful as possible while still being functional. A car has to work.’
It’s a significant comment. Respecter of history he may be, but Clapton thinks nothing of disposing of a car if it irritates him. Various highend vehicles have come and gone, sometimes barely weeks after they arrived, and he’s clearly a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Or poorly executed motor cars. But as you’d expect of a life lived at 40,000ft, that originally got airborne in the crossfire of the 20th century’s most culturally critical decade, boy, has he got some stories to tell. ‘Ferrari was motor racing,’ he says. ‘When I was a kid, it was Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, and Ferrari. Ferrari has always been there, always striving to be first. I remember visiting Maranello, and seeing Enzo leaving the factory, in the back of a Fiat, as I was arriving. I don’t recall many things that have enthralled me as much as seeing Enzo Ferrari. [pause] I met Elvis and I don’t think I was as impressed. There was something about Enzo, he was a really frightening guy.’
Elvis v Enzo: you read it here first… ‘My production manager knew one of his cronies, who’d said to come over if we were ever in town,’ Clapton continues. ‘So we went to this cinema in the middle of the night, in Memphis, when it had been specially closed. He sat at the front with his guys inventing their own dialogue to the film. Elvis was very nice, very approachable, a cuddly teddy bear. Whereas Enzo looked like the kind of guy who wouldn’t give you the time of day unless maybe you had something he needed. Just to see him in the back of that car… he was the man, absolutely no doubt about it.’ I suspect that Enzo Ferrari would have admired Eric Clapton. He would have appreciated his dedication and his no-nonsense approach. And while the SP12 EC one-off now enters the Ferrari annals, by dint of its exclusivity and the status of its creator, it is still a car, which means it exists to be driven. Driven like a Fender Stratocaster guitar exists to be played.
‘Driving a BB512i was like being strapped to the front of a V12,’ Clapton remembers. ‘It intimidated me for a while. I took it fishing one day, and on the way back I realised I’d left my rod on the bank. It was getting dark, but I was very fond of that rod, and I couldn’t just leave it there. I knew it probably wouldn’t be there the next day. So, I drove the car back as fast as I could, with a different perspective. And something happened on that drive, I established my authority over it. From that point on that car and I had the best time together.’ He takes a sip from his glass of mineral water. ‘That’s what I need to do with this car. As much as it’s a beautiful, one-off thing, it still has to be used properly. It’s like riding a horse. At some point you have to establish the relationships. So the truth is there might be a few dents along the way… it’s going to happen. And I’m fine with that.’
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine 17 issue May 2012