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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.