Ferrari GT legends Cover Story. From Daytona to Superfast. We gather Ferrari's greatest GTs of the last 50 years, including the 789bhp Superfast. Ferrari has a glorious tradition of fitting . stupendously powerful V12 engines into GT bodies. We drive five of the greatest examples, from Daytona to new Superfast. Text John Barker. Photography Dean Smith.
Pursuit of power 'In the beginning was the V12, and it was good.'
Twelve cylinders mounted up front and driving the rear wheels: it's a creed to which Ferrari has long adhered, one evident in creations from the 125 S to the 812 Superfast.
Seventy years of development separate those cars, of course. The busy 1.5-litre engine of the 125S made 118bhp back in 1947. Its new 6.5-litre descendant offers close to 800bhp. That's the sort of power you'd be happy to find in a full-on supercar, and which seems generous in a GT - but this is the Ferrari way.
Lamborghini's mid-engined Miura was arguably the first 'supercar' but Ferrari stuck to its front-engined guns and countered with the 365 GTB/4, or Daytona as it came to be known. While the transverse V12 in the Miura made a claimed 345bhp, the newly enlarged 4.4-litre Colombo V12 in the Daytona pipped it with 352bhp. Today, there's a Lamborghini Aventador with around 740bhp, which finds itself shaded by the aforementioned 789bhp Superfast...
Ferrari's modern V12-powered GTs are clearly all designed with the same basic engine configuration and with the same purpose: to trump the cars coming out of Sant'Agata. But do they have more in common than that" How closely related are the Daytona and the Superfast? Do the models that came in between reveal a steady evolution of the form? With the help of some generous owners, we're going to find out by gathering together the five most significant front-engined GTs that Ferrari has made in the last 50 years.
The rendezvous point is a remote car park in south Wales and I'm heading there in the Superfast. Three days after collecting it, I'm wondering if it's a GT or, as a bald reading of the ingredients might suggest, a front-engined LaFerrari without the electrical drive system or the low-slung inconvenience. With each new generation of GT, the power has jumped up significantly, but 789bhp is some proposition. At least it's not turbocharged horsepower; the big-lunged, naturally aspirated V12 makes its numbers by revving to almost 9000rpm - as high as some Honda VTECs.
Rewind to day one. A few exploratory squeezes of the Superfast's throttle lit up the first couple of red lights embedded in the steering wheel rim. Boy, it felt fast. Little did I know that this was just a hint of the available performance, an amuse-bouche. The car was warmed up, the ambient was into double figures, so I reckoned we were clear for lift-off. I floored it and the world jolted on its axis. The steam catapult I hadn't realised we were attached to suddenly released, traction control artfully suppressed a small riot at the rear tyres and, as the lights rapidly lit up and the dizzying shove intensified, the car was filled with the wail of an '80s FI car howling through the tunnel at Monaco.
I was so shocked that I didn't hold the throttle flat to the end of the gear. Has anybody, on taking the 812's wheel for the first time, managed that" I doubt it. I've driven the F12, the Superfast's 730bhp predecessor, but the 812 is something else. The extra 248cc, the shorter gearing, the escalation of power and the incredible hunger for revs put the 812 on another level. It has more power than Mansell's Ferrari 640 F1 car of 1989.
Two hours later, I had started to get my head around it. And by the end of the day, when a suitable corner presented itself, for the first time I turned off the stability and traction control systems. Just to see. It turned out OK; I made it to that Welsh car park.
When you assemble a bright yellow Ferrari 812 Superfast, a Daytona, a 550 Maranello, a 599 GTB Fiorano and an F12 on the top of a hill off a Welsh B-road, you don't expect to get upstaged. But there's something in the air today More precisely, there's something in the sky: the sun, shining bright. Lots of people have been drawn to this spot, among them another band of motoring enthusiasts whose six or seven cars include an Exige, a rumbly AMG Coupe... and a Porsche 918 in Martini livery. It's a close thing, but I reckon our royal flush beats their high card.
The car park is now so rammed with interesting machinery that it's beginning to feel like a rustic version of the Grune Holle cafe car park at the Nurburgring - except only a third of the folk are here for the wheels. Others have come for the superb view, a walk or both, and it seems a fair number are here for a Mr Whippy or a pizza from the wood- fired oven of the excellent Little Dragon Pizza Van.
If you are of the opinion that modern Ferrari GTs have sacrificed too much form in pursuit of (increasingly, aerodynamic) function, the sight of the Superfast parked beside the Daytona certainly will not change your mind. The surfaces of the wider, squarer 812 are slashed with ducts and vents but alongside the Daytona - and the 550 and 599 for that matter - it's the comparative lack of a clear theme that is most apparent.
Growing up, I admired the Daytona equally for its claim to being the fastest car in the world (174mph!) and its beauty. As with many cars of the '60s, it was such a wonderfully sculpted shape that it appeared to have been created without regard to awkward little details such as bumpers and wheels. It's also one of those cars that looks like it's accelerating hard when it's standing still, and its designer, Pininfarina's young Leonardo Fioravanti, gave it a front end that would inspire the likes of Wayne Cherry at GM and David Bache at British Leyland.
Beneath its vast, smooth bonnet nestled the biggest, most powerful Colombo V12 that Ferrari had thus far put into production, boasting 365cc per cylinder for a total swept volume of just under 4.4-litres, and four cams - hence its 365 GTB/4 designation. At the rear it featured a five-speed transaxle and independent suspension, both of which had appeared first on the 275 GTB of 1964, and are still to be found, in principle, on the Superfast. It helps with the distribution of mass, but there's also a downside that's apparent on a bright, chilly day such as this.
'Being at the rear, the gearbox doesn't benefit from the warmth of the engine to get it up to operating temperature,' says owner Matthew Lange from the Daytona's passenger seat. He's not kidding. Second gear can take an age to become viable and generally you have to be patient slotting the long lever around the dog-leg gate, matching revs and, with gentle pressure, encouraging rather than forcing the lever home.
This is my first time in a Daytona and it's pretty much what I hoped it would be. It's smaller inside than I anticipated, though - surprisingly intimate. The short-back bucket seats with the now-classic 'Daytona' trim pattern are just big enough, and the large-diameter Momo wheel is tilted far back but still almost in your lap.
Beyond the wheel, set into the fabric-finish facia, is a classic panorama of dials. On the left is a large 180mph speedo and on the right is a large tacho yellow-lined from 6800rpm, with a cluster of vitals in between.
Turn the key and the double-speed whirr of the starter turns into the languid, throaty idle of a V12 with just a small dip of the floor-hinged throttle. On the move, each time you press the throttle you can sense the multiple links and joints operating the regiment of six Weber carbs sat between the banks, yet the pick-up is always clean and strong, and when you get the throttle to the floor, the V12 sounds glorious, especially in the mid-range.
Quite early in its life, this car had a 400i hydraulic power-steering pump fitted, so it's relatively easy to manoeuvre and has good weighting at speed, too.
Still, the Daytona has to be conducted with the same sort of considered approach as the gearshift. By modern standards, it's not an especially quick car (its genuine 350bhp is propelling a realistic kerb-weight of 1500kg-plus) but, as Matthew says, it's plenty fast enough for the braking, which is the least modern of the Daytona's features. Behind those iconic, centre-lock alloys with their balloon-like tyres are small discs.
Allow for this, adopt a positive but unhurried approach, turning in early and with some firmness and letting the car find its roll angle, and you can lean on good grip to carry speed into a turn. Then squeeze on the throttle to energise the rear and you carve through the apex and corner exit with the tail squatting and gripping, emulating its resting stance. It's engaging and utterly absorbing, and you find yourself measuring success by the sweetness of your cornering lines and the slickness of your gearshifts.
You'd expect the car's successor, the 550 Maranello, to be a huge leap forward because it was launched in 1996, more than 20 years after Daytona production ended. In between, Ferrari strayed. It pursued a mid-engined doctrine, replacing the Daytona with the flat-12-engined 365 and 512 Berlinetta Boxers, and the BB in turn with the achingly '80s Testarossa, the final iteration of which was the F512M (for Modificato), a car that was, symmetrically enough, great to drive and less good to look at.
It wasn't quite a cold start after two decades. Under the direction of Luca di Montezemolo, Ferrari had launched the 456 GT, and much of that car and the learning from it was deployed in the creation of the Maranello - including the new 65deg V12, only this time in four-valves-per-cylinder form, which helped boost power to 478bhp. The V12 still had an individual cylinder displacement of 456cc but, having already released a 456 GT into the world, Ferrari elected to name its new two-seat GT after the total 5.5-litre capacity.
Aesthetically, it wasn't an obvious classic like the Daytona but it was neat and unfussy and it was aerodynamically efficient (0.33Cd), Pininfarina stylists Lorenzo Ramaciotti and Elvio D'Aprile having spent many thousands of hours in the Ferrari wind tunnel delivering slipperiness and a bit of downforce over each axle.
The 550 was faster around the Fiorano test circuit than the mid-engined F512M it replaced and, a couple of years after its launch, it set some new speed records, too, averaging almost 189mph for 100km and over 190mph for 100 miles at the Transportation Research Center test track near Marysville, Ohio.
All very laudable stuff but kind of irrelevant, because when it came to doing what really mattered - being a GT - the Maranello was simply brilliant. It was one of those cars that you knew was right within a few minutes of taking the wheel. It was effortlessly agile but, crucially, combined sportiness with an uncanny ability to stand easy and soak up the miles when required. It was a quite emphatic return to the front-engined GT format for Ferrari after two decades away.
Shared DNA with the Daytona? Twin rear tail- lights are an obvious link, then there's the fact that the 550, too, is not a big car, feeling more compact from behind the wheel than it looks. And the over- the-shoulder view is surprisingly similar, with the extended parcel shelf and slim-pillared rear glazing. Its V12 is not especially vocal either, so it's not going to chafe, aurally, after a couple of hours. It suits the car's innate refined, relaxed feel.
Relaxation, though, is not on my mind as I climb into Simon Tate's pristine, 21,000-mile example. He's behind in the Superfast and has asked me not to spare the horses on the ride back to the hotel about half an hour away The sun has slipped below the horizon and, in the twilight, the B4560 twists off down the hill and up the other side. Game on.
Every time I am lucky enough to drive a 550 Maranello, the same wonderful thing happens: very quickly, everything feels just right. In fact, by far the best compliment you can pay a car's steering, ride and brakes is that you don't notice them. They don't draw attention to themselves, so you can just get on with the business of driving, which is what I'm absorbed in doing now What you do notice and enjoy is the action of the gearshift and the lovely sound the lever makes as it slots between the tines of the exposed gate. When I look in the mirror, there's no sign of the 812. Simon will have a tale to tell about that later.
I'm into this now. The Maranello feels so natural, so calm - such a confident and confidence-inspiring car. As I pick up the pace it just gets better and better. The steering remains intuitive and the whole car feels willing and planted and grippy and alert. This is a car for adventures, a car that you could fire up in the morning and point to some distant, exotic location a thousand miles away, or just take for a run on your favourite local road .
It wasn't certain that the 599 GTB, which was launched in 2006, would be a worthy successor. The 575 that followed the 550 hadn't quite hit the mark, getting back the original's dynamic sparkle and poise only when fitted with the Fiorano handling pack. We need not have worried . Ferrari upped its game, dropping a version of the Enzo's V12 into the long, low nose of its new super-GT.
It introduced a raft of new technology, too, including carbon-ceramic brakes and the paddle-operated 'FI SuperFast' automated single-clutch gearbox.
The 599 moniker was arrived at by taking the total displacement of the V12 - 5999cc - and dividing the number by ten(!). The thinking behind other aspects of the 599 was easier to follow, and the car was significantly more sophisticated than the outgoing 575, boasting adaptive dampers and ASR traction control. It introduced the mode-selecting manettino switch to the GT line, too, giving the driver the ability to adjust the character and response of the damping, traction control, engine and gearbox. With said switch, of course, came the danger of engineers feeling compelled to show the extremes of adjustment possible.
At evo magazine, I remember anxiously awaiting the verdict on the 599. Editorial director Harry Metcalfe had fulfilled a long-held ambition and bought a 550, which a colleague drove down to the 599 launch. Talk about keeping the new car honest. I admit, I wasn't much taken with the look of the 599, another Pininfarina-plus-wind-tunnel effort. The V12 GT had expanded in all directions. Among Maranello's preoccupations at the time was the idea that a front-engined Ferrari should have the weight distribution of a mid-engined car, and here the goal was achieved in part, it seemed, by an elongated nose.
The 599 wiped the floor with the 550. I could hardly believe it, but when I got to drive the car myself I understood. The 599 was true to the philosophy of the 550, just with everything turned up to eleven. Power had grown from a respectable 478bhp to a chuckle-inducing, jowl-lifting 611bhp but everything else - grip, traction and balance – was either equal to it or in proportion. It was amazing. And so wonderfully tactile.
Things are different today, for better and worse. Surprisingly to me, one of the aspects of the 599 that has improved is its looks. The open buttress around the edges of the rear screen remains a rather contrived feature, but the proportions and the balance and the overall effect are compelling. Most of us here, contemplating the 599 afresh, have a 'Why, Miss Jones... you're beautiful' moment. It is as if the car has taken off its glasses and shaken its long hair free.
Unsurprisingly, across these challenging Welsh roads, the 599's dynamic prowess and range still shine through. The way it flows unperturbed over wicked surfaces is remarkable, while the quickness of its steering is balanced wonderfully against the poise of its chassis.
If we're being honest, this HGTC version sacrifices a lot of the regular 599 GTB's subtlety and delicacy in pursuit of grip and track-day control. It looks so good, though, and sounds so rich and melodic and complex at idle. In short, the 599 ticks a lot of boxes, though if you want the absolute best 599 experience, it needs to be a non-HGTC car with the manual gearbox, unless of course you've never experienced a DCT (dual-clutch transmission). Ferrari claimed some of the most impressive shift-times for the 599's single-plate-clutch system, but in terms of slickness and speed it has been left behind by the DCT.
It's hard to imagine the F12 without a Dual-Clutch Transmission. The car was developed around the concept, and the idea of wringing out the 730bhp V12 to 8500rpm and nailing a near-instantaneous upshift with a 599-style open gate and stick shifter is utterly absurd.
Until the 812 came along, a GT of the F12's potency was an astonishing proposition. The leap from the 599's Enzo-lite 611bhp to the F12's 730bhp in 2013 is testament to the work of Ferrari's XX programme, which continued to develop the 6-litre V12. It is valid to ask why a GT would need 730bhp, though a check on what Lamborghini was up to at the time might provide the answer.
Driving the F12 could have felt like a ride on an Exocet missile if not for the efforts of Ferrari's engineers, who managed to make its massive amount of power properly deployable; the speed and precision of response of the control systems was remarkable, as was their integration into the F12's overall dynamics. It was inevitable, then, that all a certain type of journalist would want to do was turn off every control and see how sideways the F12 would get and how controllable it was. The answer to both questions was 'very', thanks in large part to the 730bhp being naturally aspirated.
When I first drove the F12, I thought there was no discernible trace of the 599, but swapping from the 812 back into the F12 shows that there is appreciable carry-over. It's there in the more organic feel of the F12's dynamics, the sense that its massive power is working principally against mechanical grip.
When, inevitably, the traction control gets involved, it is considerably more finely modulated than in the 599, allowing both more power to be used and more grip to be found. But, compared with the 812, the F12 feels more rounded, less fidgety along a Welsh B-road, smoother. And, surprisingly, initially less connected through its steering, feeling a bit light and glassy until the wheels have some real speed beneath them, though the addition of rear-wheel steering also helps the 812.
There's something a little warmer about the F12. It's as hard below the surface in terms of ride, but there's a layer of suppleness, a veneer that's useful in a GT as it smooths away the pimples and cragginess of the tarmac. So it feels more approachable, more the iron fist in a velvet glove.
Get the throttle to the carpet and the acceleration of the F12 is every bit as shocking as the 812's in the low- to mid-range, but the shift-lights don't illuminate as fast; there isn't the same top-end fury, the same unhinged craziness. Mind you, not even the most enthusiastic drivers on the F12 launch thought that this let the car down...
And so to the 812 superfast. If you have a logical, engineering sensibility, it's probably not the car for you. I was conflicted.
The front-engined, rear-drive layout is my favourite for engaging yet straightforward driving fun, but with the Superfast I came close to conceding that there might be a limit to how far the concept could be pushed. It's hard to get away from the maths: 789bhp divided by two (rear tyres) equals almost 400bhp per tyre, which is ridiculous, especially when you consider that the latest Audi RS4 has 444bhp divided by four.
It's the least GT-like of all the cars here, even ignoring the optional bucket seats and harness belts.
In many respects it's a match for the F12: wind noise is well-muted, road noise is fair and, although at a motorway cruise there's a bit of tailpipe boom, it's not a deal-breaker. What makes it less of a GT is its demeanour: it's a bit less settled on the road, as if there's an underlying tension in the chassis, so it's not a relaxed ride.
The Daytona is still a sensationally good-looking car, one that is admired by everyone. To drive, it's not modern at all and all the more charming for that. You have to engage with it, think about your inputs and plan for the road as it unfolds ahead of that long, glorious expanse of bonnet. When you have driven it well, exercised it and exploited it, creamed the gearshifts and not overworked the brakes, there's a special satisfaction.
The 550 is the same but different. In most respects, you don't have to consider its age; everything just works and the car encourages you to press on with a willingness to get stuck into the road. And it does so with a rare poise and balance that is timeless. Dynamically, the 550 is one of the greats, as compelling and rounded and magical as an E30 BMW M3 or an original Lotus Elan. Then there's the other side of it, the GT side, which it pulls off with equal aplomb. I suspected it might still shine brightly; on evo magazine in 2004 we gathered ten years' worth of Car of the Year winners together and the 550 came out of retirement to win ahead of three 911s and the race-bred Honda NSX Type-R!
The 599 GTB is a natural evolution of the 550, carrying over all the best elements - the wonderful balance of power and grip, the superb ride comfort and control compromise. The looks of the 599 have matured, too, and - whisper it - it seems like a bit of a bargain right now Just not the HGTC version, unless you're thinking of trackdays, because the gain in grip is far outweighed by the loss of suppleness and flow.
Then there's the F12. More than fast enough for most drivers and most roads, it is nonetheless a car you could use everyday, the bulk of its performance being low- to mid-range and thus accessible. It also does crazy if you keep it pinned beyond 5000rpm, for when you feel the need for a thrill.
A better everyday, any-journey super-GT than the Superfast? Perhaps. But viewed from the other end of the telescope, the Superfast is an incredible car, the greatest ever front-engined supercar. A near- 800bhp coupe that will potter around town, accommodate a stack of luggage and (with the right seats and belts) soothe its passengers over huge distances. And then deliver a stunning 9000rpm hit of acceleration complete with the wail of a V12 Formula 1 car. Superfast by name...
With thanks to Guy Cherry, Matthew Lange, Simon Tate and Scott Tyler for sharing their wonderful cars.