MOTOR MOUTH: Twelve-cylinder blues

MOTOR MOUTH: Twelve-cylinder blues - Now here's a question you don't hear very often. 'Exactly why would I want a Ferrari?' With the exception of the late middle-aged men in Tattersall check shirts and corduroy trousers whom you find at Eurotunnel driving vintage Ferraris to classic car meets in Rouen or Luxembourg, only a certain type of customer is attracted to this, the most evocative sports car of them all. And this type of customer is not a very attractive one.

by Stephen Bayley, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Now here's a question you don't hear very often. 'Exactly why would I want a Ferrari?' With the exception of the late middle-aged men in Tattersall check shirts and corduroy trousers whom you find at Eurotunnel driving vintage Ferraris to classic car meets in Rouen or Luxembourg, only a certain type of customer is attracted to this, the most evocative sports car of them all. And this type of customer is not a very attractive one.

Yet, for most people with even a passing interest in cars, just to whisper the word Ferrari is to engage in something extreme and sensual, to join an international community with a shared commitment to beautiful excess.

The Ferrari cult's article of faith is bella figura. And who could deny their allegiance to it? True believers, stop here. Apostates, read on.

My vision of the modern Ferrari customer was formed a few summers ago in East Hampton, the Long Island Manhattan-on-Sea where Wall Street's most florid and finest go to spend more time with their money. It was a Saturday morning, kickback time, and brokers and bankers in brand-new Ralph Lauren warm-up suits were gathered on the sidewalk outside The Barefoot Contessa, East Hampton's celebrity deli where, as I recall, a cappuccino cost about dollars 14.

One such braying specimen, styrofoam to hand, got into his car, a strident giallo Ferrari Modena. He started it up, then, having no clue how to drive this exigent and overbred machine, proceeded up Main Street in a succession of dramatic, lurching bunny hops, only ultimately to stall the thing 200 yards thence.

For the dreamer, Ferraris may be the ultimate mechanical romance, but the cruel fact is they tend to appeal to complete idiots. And just so you don't feel bad about being poor, let me explain what the Ferrari driver gets for his money.

I've been using a Ferrari 575 Maranello, a front-engined car with a classic V-12 engine. As a design it is bruta figura rather than delightfully beautiful.

The time when a road-going Ferrari was a consumerised evolution of a successful racing car has passed, as have the days when great coachbuilders practised their wonderful art on Ferrari chassis. In design terms, Ferrari and its long-term bodywork collaborator Pininfarina are struggling to find a relevant language. The 575 is not very nice to look at. The same goes inside; it lacks any sense of being special, and physical quality is mediocre.

But the big event with a Ferrari is to start it up. This is quite good fun with the Maranello, but not as much fun as, say, an Aston-Martin Vanquish, which easily bests the Italian car in the sonic race towards those under-active hairs on the back of your neck. Still, 12 cylinders whir at low speed with a nice mechanical thrashing that rises to an apocalyptic howl, whose acoustic conclusion you are unlikely ever to hear unless you go for a long, lonely drive in the Nevada desert between Indian Springs and Lathrop Wells.

Never being realistically able to use all the 550hp is only one of the frustrations of a car that is compromised in many other ways as a driving experience. The quaint fly-off handbrake is awkwardly placed and you snag your knuckles. The gear-change is heavy and obstructive, while a few hours with the clutch is like doing leg-raises with buckets of wet sand.

In traffic, even the most insouciant will be sensitive to the responsibilities of steering pounds 160,000 of delicate metal, none of whose extremities can be seen from the driver's seat. Although the more highly evolved of the M25 species will acknowledge aristocracy and concede road space, the majority push in, which is a continuous pain. Sensationally explosive bursts of power can be experienced, but the Maranello is simply too big to encourage fast driving.

So, you get stared at. This begins to pall when you realise that in his lizard brain the starer is cultivating thoughts of the crudest cupidity or, in some cases, is thinking: 'Poor sap, he's actually bought one.'

After a long, hot, angry journey in the Ferrari 575 I got into a new Audi A3 diesel and felt a surge of the purest, most intoxicating relief.

The 575 is an 'exciting' car that is really rather wretched. The A3 is a 'boring' car that is superb. Now, there. I've said it. I feel better now I need never think about Ferrari again. At least, till the next time.

FERRARI 575 MARANELLO - pounds 154,350.

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