The fever dream of a Ferrari F40
In the summer of 1987, I turned nine and a man named Enzo Ferrari presented the F40 to a small group of journalists in Italy. Built to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the company that bore his name, Enzo’s final project was as uncompromising as the man himself.
That’s because two years earlier, the Porsche 959, more powerful and faster than anything Ferrari then made, had debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The 959 wasn’t just a vanity project; it was Porsche’s best guess at the future of performance. Featuring sequential turbocharging, all-wheel drive, and a 197-mph top speed, the 959’s mission statement seemed to be, “This is what technology can do. This is the future of the supercar.”
This had to hurt Enzo, who had nothing so exciting or technologically advanced to offer. His equally frustrated president, Giovanni Razelli, declared that “the fastest roadgoing sports car has to be a Ferrari,” and Ferrari engineers leapt into action to respond to the German threat. It was a matter of pride, and the Italians take such things seriously.
The starting point for Ferrari’s response was the company’s then-current supercar, the 288 GTO—specifically the GTO Evoluzione the 288 spawned. Created for the ill-fated Group B rally series, the Evoluzione looked a little like the contemporary Ferrari 308 of Magnum, P.I. fame, but underneath it was built to race. A twin-turbo, longitudinally mounted 2.9-liter V-8 made 400 horsepower, the suspension was height-adjustable, and much of the bodywork was either fiberglass or composites. The 288 GTO was destined to become legend, and the last of the 272 GTOs built was personally offered to F1 champion Niki Lauda by Enzo Ferrari as a way of clearing up the bad blood that had existed between the two since Lauda walked away from the rain-soaked 1976 Japanese Grand Prix.
The man they called il Commendatore was not known for making amends, yet as Enzo approached the end of his life, he was thinking of how history would remember his name. Ferrari had last won the F1 championship in 1979, and if the old man’s last victory was not to be on track, it would have to be through ultimate dominance on the road. Indeed, the F40’s purpose was not only to beat Porsche, but also to preserve Enzo Ferrari’s legacy.
Of the five 288 GTO Evoluziones that Ferrari built, none saw racing action, but the turbocharged race car was a splendid platform for development of an ultra-high-performance street car. Design was handed over to longtime Ferrari partner Pininfarina. Chief stylist Aldo Brovarone was responsible for transforming the insane Evoluzione into something appropriate for the road. It was his last major design project before his retirement, and he got it absolutely right.
The F40 was angular in the 1980s fashion, brutal, yet somehow graceful. It hugged the ground like a race car, and every line, every scoop had an evident purpose. The car was tiny, sitting just four inches taller than a Ford GT40, and nearly twice as wide as it was tall. The fat, 17-inch five-spoke Speedline wheels were deeply dished—some 13 inches wide at the back—and the car’s bodywork hunched out over them as if struggling to contain the power.
The rear view of the F40 is scandalous. A thin mesh barely screens the keg-sized muffler, and the slotted Lexan rear glass is the automotive equivalent of fishnet stockings. The triple rear exhaust features a pipe on either side for each bank of cylinders, with the center pipe for the wastegate dump. And that wing! Has any other wing been so beautifully integrated into rear bodywork as the F40’s? Not as far as I’m concerned.
I fell in love with the F40 the first time I saw it, pictured on a poster at an elementary school book fair. I ignored the books on hockey heroes and instead spent my allowance on that poster, proudly carrying it home and pinning it to the wall above my bed.
Starting with the aluminum V-8 from the Evoluzione, Ferrari engineers increased the bore slightly to 82 mm (3.2 in) and shortened the stroke to 69.5 mm (2.7 in). Displacement was now 2,936 cc, and the V-8 retained its DOHC, 32-valve heads. Twin turbos rammed nearly 16 psi of pressure into the engine, with each bank of cylinders receiving its own Weber-Marelli fuel injection and ignition systems. Output was a claimed 478 horsepower at 7,000 rpm, with 425 pound-feet of torque hitting like a hammer at 4,000 rpm. Redline was 7,750 rpm, and a five-speed dogleg gearbox was geared such that the F40 could brush 200 mph.
The F40’s interior construction was not so much Spartan as it was Stone Age: exposed composites, a fat seam of green filler, a felt-covered dash, and a couple of red Nomex racing seats. The only jewelry, if it could be considered such, is the exposed H-pattern of the gated shifter. Air conditioning was standard, but there was no radio.
Rather than a phoenix emerging fully formed from the ashes of a successful racing program, the F40 was simply a stripped-out racing car for the street. With time and money in short supply, Ferrari developed the chassis, engine, bodywork, and driving dynamics in only 13 months. Porsche had the edge in engineering and lined the 959 in leather and luxury and offered a comfort package.
Not every independent test was able to replicate the F40’s 959-squashing top speed. Further, when the two cars came together, the 959 was often declared the better, more polished car overall. Gordon Murray, who would go on to design the McLaren F1, called the F40 “a big go-kart with a plastic body on it. It’s the lack of weight… there’s nothing else magic about the car at all.” He further criticized its old-fashioned tube-frame construction.
Yet nothing could touch the Ferrari for pure excitement. The F40 didn’t just overcome its crude edges with volatility, it celebrated the raw nature of speed. Most of the reviews sounded like people trying cocaine for the first time. “The F40 has made our knees tremble involuntarily, our hearts do little stutter steps,” said Rich Ceppos in the February 1991 issue of Car and Driver. “And it made our palms disgustingly wet. Doctor, doctor!”
I pored over my father’s British and American car magazines, reading every F40 road test and sucking up the hyperbole into a fever dream of obsession. For a kid growing up in small-town British Columbia, any car represented freedom, and pictures of the F40 at speed on faraway European roads might as well have been images from space.
The videogame revolution of the late 1980s also hooked me on these cars. Test Drive II: The Duel launched in 1989, promising adolescents the chance to settle the Porsche-Ferrari rivalry in a head-to-head race. The premise was simple. A Ferrari F40. A Porsche 959. The public road. Cops out to get you. First one there wins.
As one of the first games to give you a view from the cockpit, The Duel put me right in the driver’s seat. I put in hours behind the artificial wheel, to the point that I can still hear the synthesizer soundtrack running through my head.
And then, a year or so before I got my driver’s license, I saw Microsoft founder Bill Gates driving his red Porsche 959 west along the highway that ran through my hometown. I was transfixed. These cars weren’t only dreams, they were real, stuff you could touch, experience in person. It would take nearly two decades before I saw an actual F40 for the first time, tucked behind a rope in the LeMay Museum in Tacoma, Washington. But the car was locked and polished, and the static display barely registered to my adult self.
I truly saw the car for the first time last summer, outside an anonymous outbuilding near Calgary, Alberta. Owner Fred Phillips had offered to let me drive his F40, an offer almost too surreal to beleive. Covered in bugs, gleaming red in the prairie twilight, my childhood dream car was waiting for me. In the museum, the F40 had been a statue; here, it was a living thing, and it was spectacular.
We had to push an equally dirty 427 Cobra out of the way to make room to wash the Ferrari. The Cobra was just back from a 4,000-mile tour of the Pacific Northwest. Like the F40, it is owned by Phillips, who has a large, varied collection of cars, most of which are driven regularly.
That Phillips has agreed to allow me to live out a childhood dream seems unbelievable, unless you’ve met Fred. He is like Calvin and Hobbes wrapped up in a single person, all boyish glee and love of adventure. He is dedicated to the preservation of history—he owns machines that won’t ever see the road—but also deeply interested in the experiential part of driving. His as-yet-unfulfilled dream car? A prewar Alfa Romeo 8C2900B to hammer through the Rockies on the Colorado Grand road rally.
The Phillips F40 is one of 213 U.S.-spec 1990 models. Differences include aluminum fuel tanks, additional bracing to meet 30-mph crash restrictions, and catalytic converters. To make up for added weight, Ferrari retuned the engine to 515 horsepower. The F40 came into Fred’s collection after a 288 GTO got away and, if pressed, he’ll admit a preference for the earlier car’s styling.
“For me,” he says, “the F40’s all about the underpinnings. I forget all about how the car looks when that boost gauge comes up. It’s the Jekyll and Hyde nature of it—I don’t know if anyone can put into words what driving an F40 does to you.” Fred shakes his head. “It’s not just the power. It’s the delivery.”
The delivery—and the danger. As essentially a stripped-out GT racing car for the street, the F40 has no safety nets. Once, at a Porsche media dinner, I listened to former World Rally champion and Group B veteran Walter Röhrl tell of the time he crashed an F40 and nearly burned to death. I’m no Walter Röhrl.
On an empty, lolloping road along the Elbow River, southwest of Calgary, I flop clumsily into the F40’s driver seat, twist the key, and press the starter button. Nothing. Press it again, more firmly. The F40’s V-8 comes to life with little of the basso profundo of the big Ferrari V-12s. It’s corked up by the turbo impellers whirling gently in the exhaust stream. First gear, left and back, requires both a solid stomp on the clutch and more effort than you’d expect, more railway switch than rifle bolt.
Gently easing the steel shifter into second…doesn’t work. Force and decisiveness are required. Ditto the throttle, which spins up through 3000 revs while the engine takes a nap. Straight road ahead. Foot down.
Boost comes in a tsunami of torque. It’s not like getting rammed from behind. Instead, it’s a building wave of incredible thrust that intensifies all the way to 7000 rpm. Clutch in, back to third, foot in. Holy Mary, Mother of Acceleration. The Ferrari F40 is basically a jet aircraft.
My most modern point of reference is a McLaren 570S, which gets to 60 mph in three seconds or less in most tests. While the F40 posted slower numbers (Car and Driver, 1991: 0–60 in 4.2 seconds; 12.1-second quarter-mile at 122 mph), its screaming, nonlinear surge to redline is pure adrenaline. There’s seemingly no end to the power, the F40 thrusting forward as hard in fourth gear as in second. Modern turbocharged cars hit hard down low, then taper off as engine speeds rise, but the F40’s boost builds with revs, acting more like a turbine than pistons.
Yet the relentless nature of the power can’t match my joy at how the F40 slices its way through the first corner we come to. The steering isn’t just talkative, it’s Italian talkative. It jolts and shimmies and wrenches in my hands, all gesticulation and emphatic shouting. The comparison between this and a modern supercar is the difference between seeing the road, and placing your hand on it.
The brake-pedal effort is heavy. The steering is heavy. The gearshift is heavy. The rest of the car, however, feels as weighty as a tin garden shed. Frontal cortex concerns about the value of this thing and its unforgiving nature have retreated, while my hindbrain hoots with glee. There’s so much grip and boost and agility, all of it mechanical. Come off the throttle, and the turbo’s compressor surge chitters away behind you; get back on and the sound of shredded air drives any coherent thought from your head.
No modern supercar demands this much attention from the driver, outside of a racetrack setting. The F40 lacks all driver aids short of a limited-slip differential, and the afterburner-equipped V-8 behind your head requires constant management to provide power when you want it. If you want to relax, you need to stop the car and get out. I never want to stop.
I want to run this road in the eastern foothills of the Canadian Rockies all day. The F40 is crude, it’s elemental, it’s everything my nine-year-old self hoped and dreamed it would be.
And then it rains.
Suddenly, the surging turbo heart of the F40 is a liability. Mild throttle pressure lights up the tires in fourth gear. The interior fogs and the defroster is useless; I have to wipe the windshield with a microfiber cloth. A deer lopes across the road, blurry through the windshield. What just felt exhilarating suddenly feels very dangerous.
It should also feel like crashing back to earth. The 959 wouldn’t have any issues here. Neither would any modern Ferrari. A dream drive evaporates into the real-world demands of driving.
Enzo Ferrari died the year after he presented the F40, and a ghoulish speculator market took over, driving prices from a factory-suggested $400,000 well into the millions. The initial production run was supposed to be 400 cars, but Ferrari recognized the profiteering and cut itself a piece of the pie, building 1,311 F40s between 1987 and 1992, which made it common by supercar standards. The speculative F40 bubble would eventually burst, but many F40s remained undriven, stashed away in collections.
In 1992, the McLaren F1 eclipsed the F40 in both performance and exclusivity. The F40’s replacement, the F50, was unlovely and unloved and did little to restore Ferrari’s supremacy. It was a better-finished machine, but not as extreme. Every subsequent roadgoing Ferrari would be measured against the F40 for raw intensity.
Ferrari is 70 years old, and if you look across the curve from the racing successes of the 1950s to the technological mastery of the current cars, the F40 stands out like a jagged spike. In construction, it was old-fashioned. In technology, it presaged an era when nearly every Ferrari would turn to turbocharging and meticulously crafted aerodynamics.
Today, the F40 is seen as more than merely a hastily assembled attempt to put Ferrari back atop the supercar pyramid. It was the razor’s edge of engineering for speed, unblunted by the need to engineer for safety. The modern 488 GTB, the first Ferrari to use turbocharging since the F40, is inspired by its Kevlar-bodied ancestor, but it has to be far more tractable. Sure, Ferrari could build a street car like the F40 again, but it wouldn’t be allowed to sell it.
Back at Phillips’s garage, I climb out of the F40 and close the door with a flimsy-sounding click. Water has beaded on the hood and road grime has worked its way up from the wheels and lies scattered along the ducting. I think about the way the car tried to turn and bite, as soon as conditions weren’t perfect. The F40 sits there, dripping wet, dirty, fierce, unforgiving. It was no dream. The legend is real, the hero is worthy.