Life, legend has it, begins at 40. At the very least, for Ferrari, it was to prove one hell of a year.
In the mid-1980s, the Modenese rumour mill was alive with tales of a radical new prototype taking secretly to the streets of Maranello. The car in question was the Evoluzione, an extreme aerodynamic evocation of the 288 GTO.
Uncompromising and aggressive to behold, it was a world apart from the elegance and comparative understatement of the GTO, and indeed of any Ferrari to have gone before. But the supercar space race had entered a new era, and the Evoluzione was just a stepping stone to something even more remarkable: the F40 which can now be admired also at the Museo Ferrari at Maranello.
When it was announced to celebrate Ferrari’s 40th anniversary in 1987, the F40’s impact stretched far beyond the motoring cognoscenti, rapidly attaining global poster boy status in a decade of extravagance and excess.
Here was a car with a steel spaceframe chassis and bonded composite body, twin-turbocharged longitudinal V8 and an aerodynamic silhouette from Pininfarina unseen this side of the pit wall. But it would be road legal and, critically, built in numbers.
The GTO was a homologation special, but the F40 was specifically designed to bring everything Ferrari had learned through decades of racing to its road-going fan base. This would be a technical tour de force, a performance flagship and a last hurrah for Ferrari’s founder Enzo, who was now in his 90th year.
The F40 was the first series production car to be constructed using almost entirely Kevlar and carbon composite body panels. Suspension was independent double wishbones all round, with hydraulic shock absorbers bearing mighty 13-inch wide Speedline wheels shod in 345/35ZR17 Pirelli P-Zeros. Cross drilled ventilated disc brakes provided superlative, unassisted stopping power.
The 90-degree V, with four valves per cylinder of its 2.9-litre displacement and twin IHI water cooled turbochargers, generated a staggering 478hp at 7000rpm. In a car that weighed a mere 1100kg, this was supernatural stuff.
The performance was accordingly otherworldly, with the F40 not only hitting 100km/h in just 4.1 seconds, but also claiming to be the first road car to breach the hallowed 300km/h barrier. In that respect alone, the space race was won.
Onboard, the F40’s uncompromising racing heritage was further laid bare. A Spartan cockpit with lightweight carpet, cloth bucket seats and rudimentary switchgear eschewed all the conventions of supercar luxury.
There was no leather, no stereo, no electric mirrors or central locking. Even the interior door handles had been usurped by a strip of weight saving wire.
Despite all this, or more probably because of it, Ferrari’s phones lit up. The clamour it had hoped to avoid following the low-volume GTO was actually heightened, despite the promise of a production run four times larger than its Group B forebear.
At the end of the 1980s, early F40s were changing hands privately for in excess of £1 million (€1.14m) against a list price of £193,000 (€219,000). The car had already achieved a near-mythical status.
Thirty years on, the F40’s position in the Ferrari Pantheon is no less significant. Its extraordinary styling and driver focus makes it a halo car for international collectors, but accessible performance and sorted handling also make it genuinely useable day-to-day.
Enzo Ferrari died in August 1988. He had witnessed the definitive union of Ferrari’s road and race histories, a vision of purity and purpose that set the F40 apart, then and now. Once the fastest car in the world, still undoubtedly one of the most desirable.