Ferrari 400i vs. Jaguar XJ-S, BMW 850 E31, Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129 and Aston-Martin DB7 - the best V12 from £5k

   
Ferrari 400i vs. Jaguar XJ-S, BMW 850 E31, Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129 and Aston-Martin DB7 - the best V12 from £5k 2017 Drive-My and Jonathan Jacobs

 

Ferrari 400i

The oldest design, and the one with the longest direct lineage, is the Ferrari 400i. It feels like a throwback to a different era the moment you swing open the wide, low door and settle into an airy cabin that drips with hand-made charm. Light tan hide that would be dismissed as boring beige in a car from any other nation somehow becomes stylish in the hands of Italian trimmers, and contrasts with the dark brown dashboard and Pininfarina-badged centre console peppered with over-sized, over-styled switches. It’s a stretch to the angled, alloy-spoked Momo, behind which sits a comprehensive collection of deep-set Veglia dials that spring urgently to attention when the engine fires.

Remarkably, the 4.8-litre, fuel-injected V12 in this mid-Eighties 400i can be traced all the way back to the first cars Enzo Ferrari made under his own name in 1947. Ferrari engaged ex-Alfa engineer Gioacchino Colombo to design the engine, which originally displaced just 1497cc, but soon swapped to a bigger naturally aspirated V12 designed by Colombo’s erstwhile assistant, Aurelio Lampredi. However, that was far from the end for the Colombo V12. Capacity grew progressively, up to 4.4 litres when placed in the 365 GTB/4 ‘Daytona’ and the 2+2 fastback 365 GTC/4.


Ferrari 400i road test

1984 Ferrari 400i road test / A544 MFD UK reg


The latter lasted fewer than two years before it was replaced by the longer-wheelbase 365 GT4 2+2, which became the 400 in 1976 when the venerable V12 was increased to 4823cc, which made 335bhp. The 400i of 1979 added Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection but dropped the power output to 310bhp to satisfy emissions regulations, though a few of the missing horses were restored in a 1982 update that introduced new cams and exhaust manifolds.

The 400 was the first Ferrari with the option of automatic transmission, a three-speed GM Turbo-Hydramatic. Maranello diehards were aghast but buyers had no such qualms, and most 400s were speciied as autos. It was probably a transmission better suited to torquey American V8s rather than thoroughbred European V12s, and though it made the 400 easier to drive and vastly more convenient to use on a daily basis it knocked the edge of the Ferrari’s performance – particularly at low speed where the near-two-tonne overall weight was a handicap.

Pulling a big automatic transmission selector back into D seems an odd thing to do in a Ferrari. At low speeds there’s more commotion than action: you’re aware of a multitude of cylinders, valves and camshafts whirring away up ahead but that doesn’t seem to translate into much forward progress. Low-geared steering that’s dead near straight ahead just adds to the stodgy feel and the angled wheel makes this a cumbersome car to handle.

That, and its sheer size, make it a handful in the city or on a tight country lane. It’s only when you have the space to pick up the pace a little that the 400i really starts to make sense.

Load up the suspension through a fast, sweeping corner and the steering becomes more fluid and more precise, and the big Ferrari maintains its line even if the road surface is less than perfect. As the speed builds the transmission begins to work in harmony with the big V12, but noise levels stay low. The 400 revs with a cultured hum – it doesn’t have the raw edge of Ferrari’s mid-engined cars, and for some that is an essential ingredient that makes a Ferrari a Ferrari. But this isn’t the Italy of blood red racing cars and fiery temperament, it’s the Italy of opera and art, of Leonardo and Puccini and Armani. The three-box body penned by Pininfarina’s master stylist Leonardo Fioravanti is as elegant as they come, with crisply folded corners and a wedge silhouette that was in vogue at the time and has aged surprisingly well, thanks to the fine proportions of the basic design. It lived on beyond the 400i to become the 412 in 1985, when the Colombo V12 was expanded once more to 4943cc, and a higher rear deck was introduced to enlarge the boot at the expense of a slightly plumper profile.

Today 400s start from around £15,000, and at that level you need to look out for body corrosion, exhaust condition (they’re expensive to replace) and the cost of tyres because many have metric-sized wheels. Cheaper 400s are also likely to be automatics. The best cars can fetch £70,000 or more, with the rarer manuals inevitably fetching the highest prices.


‘There’s plenty of choice of sound examples around £8000 and above‘


Ferrari 400i

Despite purist outcries, most 400s were specced with GM’s three-speed auto... ...which doesn’t suit the Colombo V12’s revhungry Demeanor. From 356 GT4 2+2 to 412i, the Ferrari enjoyed a 17-year production window.


Owning a Ferrari 400i

Mike Wheel of Rardley Motors says ‘the 400 range provides an entry point into classic V12 Ferrari ownership. They’re handsome and useable.

‘All variants imported into the UK amounted to only 342 cars. Assuming 15% have been written of, exported, scrapped or you just wouldn’t – that means there are fewer than 300 potential cars to buy, before you start looking at personal preferences of carburettor/ fuel injection, manual/automatic etc.

‘The newest car is now 32 years old, so go in with eyes wide open. This range of cars became very inexpensive to buy, therefore they were bought by people who didn’t necessarily have them properly maintained. So get the car checked by a known marque specialist, and buy the best you can afford. We encourage our buyers to have the car independently checked even if we prepare the car ourselves – it reinforces what we do.

‘Budget for £2500-£3000 to run a car doing 6000 miles or fewer a year, as an average. Oil, filters, brake fluid each year in conjunction with an MoT will keep the history maintained, and help to prevent problems. Most parts are available but trim items can be a problem – I’m sure 3D printing will soon be more common.’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1984 Ferrari 400i

Engine 4823cc V12, dohc per bank, 24-valve, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection

Power and torque 311bhp @6400rpm, 304lb ft @ 4200rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual ZF gearbox or GM TH400 three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Suspension Front and rear: independent, double wishbones and coil springs.

Steering Power-assisted recirculating ball

Brakes Servo-assisted discs all round

Weight 1814kg

Performance Top speed: 152mph; 0-60mph: 7.5sec

Fuel consumption 13mpg

Values now £15,000-£70,000


 


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