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On Driving a Manual Transmission Ferrari V12

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Ferrari is no longer in the business of selling cars with manual transmissions. Primarily, this is because they’re in the business of selling cars, and hardly any supercar buyer these days seems to give a crap about the appeal of a close-ratio six -speed and the three-pedal waltz. Not that you can’t still buy a very fast car with a manual transmission, but when Lamborghini and even Porsche both kiss-off the stick in their track-focused models, we can hardly be surprised. The last Fezza to be offered with a self-shifter was the California, and just three were sold. I sorta hate the California and all its showy. too-tall extravagance, but that’s still sad.

Like the manually-operated ignition advance or the crank-starter, the row-your-own gearbox is rapidly approaching relic status. Yes, it can make a dull car fun, but when you’ve got the best engines and best chassis in the world, it’s like trying to run your BlueRay player down a tin-can telephone line. Sticking a manual in an F12berlinetta  would be like installing a rotary dial on your iPad – it’s old technology, so untie the onion from your belt Grandpa, and get with the program.

And so, a car like this with its leg-press clutch-pedal and railway-switch gearshift gets outclassed, out-dated and overshadowed. It depreciates to a quarter of its original value and fades from the spotlight, caught in a trough between the skyrocketing prices of the classics and the nouveau-riche razzle-dazzle of thrusting modernity. It is a dinosaur.

Yep, it’s a dinosaur all right. What kind of idiot wouldn’t want to ride a dinosaur?IMG_3213

This is a Ferrari 550 Maranello, 1999 model year. It has a 485 horsepower V-12 engine mounted in the nose, a steel-gated six-speed with a shifter like a bed-knob mounted on a broomstick, and 70s style seats, ribbed for your pleasure. The interior is not very exciting otherwise, apart from being coated in leather that looks like it was stitched together on a Friday afternoon at 5:45 p.m., shortly before a four-day long weekend, and yes, that’s a fire extinguisher. Someone has also installed a Kenwood CD changer, which will doubtless win points next time the car attends a Mini-Truckin’ show and shine.

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When the Maranello first launched, in 1996, reviewers of the day likened it to a Toyota Supra Turbo. That’s because they were idiots.

Don’t get me wrong – I really like the Supra Turbo, and I’m awfully fond of the C6 ‘Vette, which the 550 also resembles, but as it ages, Pininfarina’s Kamm-backed design just keeps getting better and better. Imagine a Ferrari showroom in the ’90s, with one of these parked next to a F355 coupe.  Anyway, point is, there’s not a bad angle on this car; I absolutely love it. Especially in blue.

And then there’s how it drives.

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See how this engine is all shapely carbon-fibre accents and powder-coated trim? No? No indeed – it looks like something Halliburton would use for fracking operations. It ain’t pretty, it’s just colossal, with lungs like Pavarotti and torque like a tractor. Click-clack goes the shifter as I slot it into first, and the 550 shuffles off down the back street without even breathing on the accelerator.

Don’t ask about the fuel-mileage, as I’m not sure the numbers would make any sense to anyone who didn’t own an early Dodge Viper.

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Once warmed up, well – if there’s one thing you’ve got to put on your gearhead bucket list, it’s experiencing the noise that a gated shifter makes when you go 2nd-to-3rd under full acceleration. It feels like you’ve just thrown the switch that separates the first stage of a Saturn V rocket and then the liquid-fuel rockets of stage II kick in and you are outta here. Remember, in its prime this car would run to 199 mph and if you’re foolhardly enough to keep your boot in, it will. Lift throttle and the overrun briefly sounds like a drum-roll on the tympani.

But what’s the point? A new Ferrari will do the deed faster, and keep on pulling past the double-tonne. So will a Shelby Mustang coupe, come to think of it. We live our lives bathed in a sea of high-performance, and so feats of speed and strength have somehow started losing their Wow appeal.

And this is where the 550 really starts to shine.

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Despite being relatively easy to drive, you also have to work at it. It’s not Guitar Hero, it’s an actual guitar hooked up to a stack of amps, and it’s not going to play itself or cover up your flubbed notes. Dial it back and cruise if you’d like – the big Ferrari is intended as a long-distance tourer for someone with stocks and bonds in all the major oil companies – but better yet, ask her to dance. You’ll have to take the lead if you do, you’ll have to use both hands and both feet, and your brain and heart and whatever rhythm you possess.

If you do so you’ll discover, as I did, that it doesn’t matter a damn what Ferrari builds these days. Because once they built this thing – twelve cylinders, six gears, three pedals, two doors and one soul – and I can forgive them anything for having done so.

Well, except for “LaFerrari”. Good God.

Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer

Currently there are "54 comments" on this Article:

  1. Maxichamp says:

    Damn, that's a sweet ride. One of the few contemporary Ferraris I would like to have in my Fantasy Garage. A friend's neighbor has one but curiously parks it overnight outdoors regularly. People.

  2. Number_Six says:

    Is that the road up to Cypress? Good times. Totally jelly – the 550 is an underappreciated beauty.

  3. hwyengr says:

    When the 550 was first released, I resented it so much for replacing the Testarossa. Being 16 makes you think stupid things. But after years of costly therapy, I can finally say this: Ferrari 550 Maranello, I'm sorry I ever hated you. Maybe we can hang out sometime?

  4. skitter says:

    I won't even allow myself to look. I'm just going to assume these are more expensive than an NSX, and continue saving for that. Isn't it tempting? Isn't what tempting? I don't see anything in those pictures or text.

  5. boostedlegowgn says:

    Maintenance isn't even that bad, by Ferrari standards. T-belt every four years, eats tires, but they're 18"s, the usual small irritants re: sensors and so forth, and 1998 ones had a gluing issue mid-year. Aside from that, they don't depreciate, so it's cheaper than buying a new Cayman S.*

    YMMV, printed in forty foot high letters and set on fire.

    • Scandinavian Flick ★ says:

      And since the engine is front mounted, I imagine the Haynes manual for it doesn't have these instructions for replacing the timing belt:

      Section 12a: Timing belt replacement
      __Step 1) See Section 1b: Engine removal and re-installation.

      • boostedlegowgn says:

        I have a quote for $2500 to have the local Ferrari dealership do the t-belt. By Ferrari standards, this is effectively free.

        • Scandinavian Flick ★ says:

          Not bad, considering the same job at a dealership for a BMW is in the $1500 area, depending on model. I also just noticed that it's one of the 4 Ferrari models that have parts available at Rock Auto!

        • FreeMan says:

          crap. big thumb, tiny screen. that was supposed to be a thumbs up. $2500 for anything Ferrari beyond a baseball cap is essentially free.

  6. taborj says:

    Despite being relatively easy to drive, you also have to work at it. It’s not Guitar Hero, it’s an actual guitar hooked up to a stack of amps, and it’s not going to play itself or cover up your flubbed notes. Dial it back and cruise if you’d like – the big Ferrari is intended as a long-distance tourer for someone with stocks and bonds in all the major oil companies – but better yet, ask her to dance. You’ll have to take the lead if you do, you’ll have to use both hands and both feet, and your brain and heart and whatever rhythm you possess.

    (emphasis mine)

    See…that's a proper paragraph, that tells you everything you need to know. And it applies to just about any sports car made in the last 100 years.

    • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq says:

      I lifted my beer can to my lips and thought in my head, "D*mn right," when I got to, "That’s because they were idiots."

  7. Gooberpeaz says:

    I'm imagining four sections of bicycle inner tube hanging off the quad exhaust.

    • Scandinavian Flick ★ says:

      BRRAAAAfffFfFFFFFFffFfBRBRFRBRBRBFFFFF… *lift* CraCKaflubaflubCRACKflubbaaCRACKCRACKflubba….

      • TX_Stig says:

        YES! Going back and forth between the farty noise and the overrun sounds… This is what the Corolla from yesterday was missing. Haha

  8. ZomBee Racer says:

    Automated gearboxes are like player-pianos. They never miss a note. But that does not make them any less evil.

    When I was a kid even our video arcades had manual shifters, not silly up/down buttons and automatic/cheat modes. And when I pretended to race a car, I stomped my imaginary pedals and slammed an imaginary shift-knob while screaming "RRRRRRRR!!", not push a tiny button with a dainty little "pew-pew". The video games screwed it up for the rest of us. The video games and their stupid little buttons.

    Evil has won, that's what I say.

    • jeepjeff says:

      Marcal just posted a 392 HEMI Convertible Challenger with a six speed. There's still a sliver of hope left in the world. A ray of blessed light beckoning us to the true path.

    • nanoop says:

      Oh, player-pianos were big in the late 19th century! When in Amsterdam, go to the Pianola Museum!
      But actually, I think your comparison fits pretty accurately: There were player pianos, and then came gramophones, radio, vinyl, tapes, CDs, MP3s, streaming. So in that comparison, automatics are just an early step, but they'll belong in a museum soon.

      Actually being able to play an actual instrument always was, is, and will be, an acknowledged profession, sometimes producing genuine awe. Ever listened to somebody playing heel-and toe at a historic track event?

      And: hooniworth car and article!

  9. Jacob Friedman says:

    This car is one of my all-time heroes. As a kid, I loved the Testarossa and was definitely pissed when the 550 replaced the 512M. A few years later, though, my dad decided to develop a costly, stupid habit daily driving italian sports cars. In 2002, he started with a Maserati Coupe with the awful paddle box, then totaled it in a rainstorm. Naturally, he decided to give up on that dream and started leasing a 456GT instead, and then found a 550 to replace it when that lapsed. That car was a gem, a 2001 with 3000 miles that some futures trader in SF used as his weekend toy. Sure, it drank oil, shredded tires and had a stupidly expensive maintenance cycle, but that car was the car than really made me a petrolhead. The car made you work like hell through the twisties, and it was finicky as hell on cold starts, or frankly any time it felt like being a primadonna (read: all the damn time), but to this day, it was the most satisfying car I've ever ridden in, and even when it was being cranky, it was just a really friendly car that just wanted to be driven.

    I've driven a handful of supercars since (911 GT3, Ferrari F430, etc), but I still think my most memorable supercar experience was blasting down I-5 at 130 with a Testarossa in the 550 after the Concorso Italiano. Absolutely amazing…

  10. Neen85 says:

    Riding dinosaurs is suggested for everyone of this mortal plain as well as our fellow immortals.
    Shift On. Ride On.
    <img src="http://i597.photobucket.com/albums/tt55/brewsben8/Jesus/JesusRidingDinosaur-1.jpg&quot; width="600">

  11. MVEilenstein says:

    I told my sister-in-law, who's learning to drive, that when she's ready to drive a REAL car, she can use my F-150 (5-speed).

  12. Rich says:

    A customer took me for a ride in his 550 manual fifteen years ago. I was trying to act all cool…but with every shift the tires chirped and the back end kicked out just a bit…and I giggled like little girl at a Bieber concert. (just a guess on that part)

  13. Dean Bigglesworth says:

    Even if I had the means to buy a new Ferrari I would still rather buy one of these. Or a 575. Then daily-drive the shit out of it.

  14. boostedlegowgn says:

    By the way, anyone who wants to connect via twitter: @brendan_mcaleer

  15. dropgate says:

    Bought one in May of this year, a Rosso Corsa (red) '98. It broke down and cost me $5000 THE VERY FIRST DAY.

    Still totally worth it.

    • Maxichamp says:

      Jesus. What broke down?

      • dropgate says:

        I spent 2 months negotiating with the owner, getting the car inspected, smogged, etc. On May 3rd I finally flew to LA to pick up my new toy and drive it back to Sacramento. The first 50 miles were uneventful, though I was mired in Friday afternoon LA gridlock. Just as traffic freed up and I started up the Grapevine, I noticed a loss of power. Then shortly thereafter I got a dreaded Check Engine light. Then came the "Slow Down" warning message (in Ferrari-speak this means you're overheating the catalytic converters).

        I should have stopped immediately, but I carried on for about 10 miles, babying it. When I finally decided to throw in the towel (and had found a safe spot to stop) the damage was done. I had blown a hole in the right side catalytic converter 50 miles into a 400-mile trip.

        The root cause turned out to be a cracked pressure hose on the right side fuel pump, which starved the entire right bank of cylinders. The misfiring overheated and killed the cat. The tow home was $1500 (AAA covered the first 200, the last 150 came in at $10/mile). Once home, I found a great mechanic who took mercy on me and located and installed a used catalytic converter and fixed the fuel system ($3700). They key was the used cat – even though it cost $2300 (!!) a new one from Ferrari is…wait for it…$11,000. And since it's illegal for a junkyard to sell a used cat in California, the fact that this mechanic was able to pull it off was a miracle.

        So that's my $5200 story. Things have gone much better since then and the car is a joy to drive. But I got a baptism by fire into Ferrari ownership. It's almost as if the car was trying to see if I was "worthy" of owning it. :)

        • Maxichamp says:

          Bravo.

          Well, on behalf of the Hanzels, I cordially invite you and the 550 to this August's Seconds Saturdays. It will be this year's final meet.

          Or, in the alternative, are you going to Concorso Italiano? I wanna see your car!

          • dropgate says:

            I'm thinking about Concorso Italiano, but the 10th is out for me, unfortunately – I managed to over-commit myself that day!

            Here's a pic of the 550, with some of its older and much slower roommates:

            <img src="http://home.comcast.net/~minkt/ferrvw.jpg&quot; width="400">

            • boostedlegowgn says:

              Holy crap! ( the garage!)

              And by the way, my Subaru has cost me ~5K because of an inherent failure before, 5K by Ferrari standards is not bad considering what the mandatory 355 service is like.

              • dropgate says:

                No doubt, I have a friend with a 355 Spider and it seems like it's engine-out for everything!

                I also neglected to mention that 1 block into the first drive, I went to adjust the rearview and it fell off in my hand, taking a hunk of the windshield with it. Not kidding. That whole day was a comedy of errors.

                • boostedlegowgn says:

                  Well, the rearview has only fallen off the Subie once, and the windshield remained intact. So you've got me there.

            • Maxichamp says:

              Nice. If I see your car at Concorso, I'll say hi.

            • ZomBee Racer says:

              Oddly, my favorite car in the pic is that beautiful orange Thing.

              • dropgate says:

                Thanks. When I decided to buy the 550, I knew I needed to sell off some of my VW collection, to free up both space and capital. The two in that pic were the "untouchables"…no way I'd sell them.

  16. timothymcn says:

    I expect the rare manual versions of modern Ferraris will appreciate better than their flappy paddle counterparts.

  17. ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq says:

    Boosted, that was a great read, thanks. Also early Viper gets 14MPG typical usage commuting to Chicago from the burbs and back.

  18. AB6 says:

    I am not sure why but I really think that these 550s are almost Jag like in their subdued beauty. Observe the headlights. They are simply headlights. Not a trace of vulgarity. They light the road ahead and nothing more. Save the LEDs for the leather faced bimbos in Escalades. This is a wonderfully subdued design. An absolute master class in subtle flares and tasteful aggression. Those haunches tell you that this is something to respect. The hood scoop whispers speed. Yet it is not flashy. IT HAS THREE PEDALS!!! IT DOESNT HAVE SCREENS PLASTERED EVERYWHERE! Perhaps I fall in love too easily…

  19. Rust-MyEnemy says:

    A real winner would be a man who had a 550 for fun and a 456GT for the daily grind. A beater, if you will. Unfortunately, not a single one of my friends owns a Ferrari of any description. Lowlife.

    Excellent words and experiences, Lego.

  20. DaepNYC says:

    This is a great article man, really well written. But maybe I'm a bit biased because I've always wanted a 550 Maranello in blue ever since saw one on the cover of Road & Track magazine parked right next to a 250 GTO. Epic stuff. What I didn't realize then, and what most journalists couldn't have foreseen was this was the beginning of the end of big sexy V12 manual grand-tourers. I'm saving up all my pocket change to get one of these even if it means I have to live in a cave to do afford the maintenance. Prices on these are going to skyrocket pretty soon.

  21. lahtiain says:

    This was maybe the greatest thing I've read in the internet in 2013. It's a 100% match to my own opinion of modern cars in general. It was also pretty close to perfection when describing the beauty of having to learn to drive the car, and the reward you get when you succeed in it.

    Thank you.

  22. cars says:

    Online reading is not my thing. But after reading your blog I am really pleased. I don’t know about other blogs but this I will definitely keep coming back to.

  23. jeeva says:

    And btw this is the best articke i've ever read abiut driving a car for a long long long time. It's right up there with Clarkson's best

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