25 Years of the F40

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Just read and watched  this – Dream machine: Ferrari F40 (video below).

Dream come true for this lucky _____ (<– insert chosen expletive here). Wouldn’t we all like to be a motoring journalist? And wouldn’t we all just love to get behind the wheel of one of these?

Recently Autocar did a piece about the 458, and how Ferrari’s baby is now faster than it’s previous top of the tree model, the F40.

So just why was/is the F40 so special? And if the 458 is so much faster, is it still really that special??

In short, I believe the answer to be a firm Yes. Why?

To start with, historically, the F40 was nothing short of astonishing. The first road car to hit 60 mph in under 4 seconds, AND the first road car to see the other side of 200 mph. Shockingly fast back then, and not too shabby by today’s standards either! Journalists at the time also confirmed the F40 wasn’t just fast, but also sublime to drive as well.

Powerwise the old girl still stacks up well. Weighing 1100 kgs and initially producing 478 bhp, gives a power to weight ratio of…

…wait for it…

Ta dah! – 435 bhp/ton

This compares quite well with the recent (and also quite bonkers) 599 GTO which has 448 bhp/ton, so even by today’s standards, still deeply impressive.

So why is it slower than the 458?

Several reasons. It only has 5 manual gears, versus a 7 speed double clutch ‘box for the 458, which certainly makes a big difference to the stop watch, but I would counter, probably less so on the road. Think about when you drive up the road and change gear yourself, there’s a significant delay when there’s no power going to the wheels. Still, if you take in gear times, I’m willing to bet the old girl can still show the 458 a thing or two.

And then there’s the electronics.

The 458 is a master class in the application of technology, with E-Diff3, F1-Trac, and high-performance ABS, all things the F40 does without, that make the young upstart quicker off the line, more stable under braking into turns and powering out of them again. Apparently all these electronic gizmos and the transmission with it’s instant shifting, make up for a 3o bhp/ton and 300 kg deficit to the old timer.

So why is the F40 still seen as so special? So special that some people lucky enough to have the money would pay out 3 times as much for a used but pristine, 2nd hand F40 versus a brand spanking new 458??

It’s all about feeling. Here’s a comparison:

When you go on holiday abroad, you are likely to go on a large passenger jet that will propel you through the sky at 500 mph in reasonable comfort. Of course, in this case, comfort means being able to have a cup of tea. Now imagine doing the same journey in a World War I biplane like a Sopwith Camel at a “mere” 200 mph. Bit of a difference isn’t there? And although the Sopwith would probably be deeply uncomfortable, there’s no doubt it would be endlessly more thrilling.

And that’s what the charm is with classic cars.

When I go out in my old ’69 MG, there’s no power steering, and the difference that alone makes is incredible. I can push the car around a corner with far more conviction because I can feel through the wheel exactly how much grip I have left, and I don’t need ABS, because I can feel when the wheels are on the point of lock up, and so much more. It makes me feel so intimately connected to driving in a way that modern cars just cannot touch, so much so, that even low speed  pootling about is fun. Returning to a modern car is such a let down, as the steering will feel almost totally dead in comparison. Now I haven’t been lucky enough to gain entry to an F40 (yet), but this explains a large part of it’s magic.

Next, the weight issue.

Weight, as we all know, is the enemy of performance. A heavier car needs more power to accelerate as fast as a lighter one, it needs stronger brakes to haul it down from speed at the same rate, and it puts more force through the tyres when cornering at the same speed. If you want to improve the performance of your own car, the easiest and cheapest way of doing that is to strip out everything that’s not required.

And that’s exactly what Ferrari did with the F40. No carpets, no electric windows, not even internal door handles – you pull on a string to get out, I kid you not!

This brought the benefits of good handling and performance, but also helps maintain that all important connected feeling. For example: all the parts of the suspension, to a greater or lesser extent, will deform slightly under a cornering load. When a heavier car corners at the same speed as a lighter one, this deformation is more marked as the parts of the suspension are put under more strain. This increases the deformation which will make the car feel more “mushy” to the driver.

You can make up for some of this by stiffening and strengthening the bushes, springs, dampers, tyres and chassis, but in the end you start to run up against more and more undesirable compromises. A very stiff car may handle well in the dry, but at the expense of it’s wet weather handling. Or as the car crashes over imperfections in the road, you may feel it’s your fillings that are more connected to the open road than anything else.

Contemporary reviews of the F40 at the time, describe the handling as being “kart like”. A very overly used phrase amongst motoring journos if ever there was one, but it does give us an idea of the alacrity with which an F40 can change direction. I’m sure many of you dear readers have driven a kart on occasion 🙂

So back to the 458. Ferrari have done some amazing work to make this car faster than it’s Grandaddy, but here’s the thing, it’s just not as thrilling to drive.

Here’s an example – The F40 has a manual gearbox with the famous metal open gate to help you guide the gear stick around. The 458 is paddleshift only. I’ve driven cars with both these set ups, and I have to say, I was genuinely surprised by how much the metal gate helps slot gears home. More importantly, the way you can whip the lever round the box and snick it home so effortlessly and accurately is a real pleasure, pulling a paddle back just doesn’t compare. You don’t really feel like you’re part of the process as much with paddles.

There’s also one further point I want to bring up. An F40 is now actually quicker than when it first left the factory, so in truth, an original lap time set by an F40 at Fiorano back in the 1980’s is no longer representative. Maybe, the 458 isn’t quicker after all.

Why is an F40 quicker now?

Well, old cars can also benefit from modern technology. Today’s tyres are far superior to their predecessors and that goes for shocks and brake pad materials too. Past brake materials were so naff, the brake discs on my MGB are the same size as the one’s you get on a Mondeo ST220 that weighs 500 kgs more. Plus today’s ECU’s are so much better at controlling fuelling that you can potentially pick up a few bhp throughout the rev range even on a motor that’s already highly tuned. I don’t know if there was a problem with the original ECU’s but many F40s have had theirs replaced over the years.

So I definitely think the F40 is  worth celebrating as a sensational car. Seems I’m not the only one though, as the F40’s 25th anniversary is also being celebrated at the “Silverstone Classic” later this month, so if you want to get up close and personal with one of these legends, get yourself down there!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZfJzziNN7A]

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