Motor mouth: Untamable beast

Motor mouth: Untamable beast - This is possibly the first time in the history of journalism that Robert Maxwell has been mentioned in the same sentence as Ferrari. The Ruthenian swindler, one of industrialised capitalism's nastiest products, may sit uneas

by STEPHEN BAYLEY
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This is possibly the first time in the history of journalism that Robert Maxwell has been mentioned in the same sentence as Ferrari. The Ruthenian swindler, one of industrialised capitalism's nastiest products, may sit uneasily with the Emiglian sports car, one of its finest, but after a few days with the latest Ferrari 360 Modena I was irresistibly reminded of what Mrs Maxwell said of her late husband after he went face-down in the sea. She quoted Henry de Montherlant: 'Tu m'as rendue fades touts les hommes et mediocres touts les destins' ('You have made all other men insipid and all other destinies shabby').

The Ferrari is much the same, except with cars. Even for the experienced, it has a sort of oh-my-God quality lacking in, say, a Peugeot. I have driven a McLaren F1 with my foot against the floorboards and once destroyed a Dodge Viper on the way to lunch in Sloane Square but, before driving the 360, I felt I needed to walk around it a few times, kicking the tyres and looking for leaks and anomalies, getting the feel of it, the way airline captains are said to do. This primitive familiarisation process complete, I sat in the driver's seat for 10 minutes just looking and checking and boggling before I dared start the engine.

In all fundamental respects the Ferrari 360 is straightforward. It has a steering wheel, a brake pedal, a clutch and an accelerator. A wand operates the indicators. Just like a normal car, to start the engine you need only to turn a key, but that's when the ordinariness ends.

At first there's a subdued mechanical clatter, as though someone is carefully, but quickly, emptying a tool-bag into a mountain of insulation and then, really rather suddenly, all the isolated components of valves, pistons, springs, con-rods, bearings, gears and cams, which were hitherto acoustically separate, get their act together and rise up in a ferocious, penetrating, synchronised, feral, exhilarating and almost painful choral howl. If you have ever doubted that machines have life, blip the throttle on a Ferrari 360 and become a true believer.

Truth be told, the Ferrari 360 is a nightmare to drive. It is uncomfortably wide, rear vision so compromised you might as well be wearing blinkers, and the ride, even on the adjustable 'comfort' setting, is like being dragged across ribbed concrete in a wheely bin. What's more, I simply don't believe anybody who says he is not scared to the point of tense, nervous headache at the continuous prospect of kerbing the wheels or scratching the gorgeous bodywork in the low-brow scrum of city traffic. As a result, your 400 horsepower F360 cannot, in reality, overtake a laundry truck or contest road position with an authoritatively driven Astramax van. Yet people gawp and roll down their windows in congestion to give you a knowing and admiring leer. You think: what is the point?

Then for a sweet moment on a road away from central London's gravitational pull you can see clearly and give the car about 40% of its potential for about 10 or 15 seconds around an interesting bend, you manage just one upchange from second to third, with the engine howling and the tyres sucking hard and then you have to back off because neither your nerves nor the law can accommodate the rate of change of progress. It's a fragile, ephemeral experience, but also intoxicatingly intense.

Like all other forms of access to the sublime, it is the more powerful because it is so transient, restricted and rare. The limitations of the experience are what defines it. And then you are back in traffic and your neck's aching and you are almost pleased to be giving this car back. And when you do, you discover how insipid and mediocre the rest of existence is. Compare swapping a late Rembrandt self-portrait with a Hello! spread of Ruud Gullit.

Luca di Montezemolo, the president of Ferrari, says what defines his product is neither the lascivious beauty nor the extreme performance, each of which it has in abundance, but the passion the cars inspire. It is this access to emotion that you are paying for. Not everyone gets it, but then not everyone sees the point of Haut-Brion '45. I showed the 360 to John Brown, publisher of Viz and Gardens Illustrated. He noisily said: ridiculous, Riviera spivs, what's the point? - a BMW does the same for half the price. And then I started the engine. He went quiet and said: 'I have got to have one'. pounds 110,000.

Stephen Bayley is an author and design consultant.

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