Andrew Frankel – Road cars

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Who’ll buy this beauty?

Times change. This week a press release landed not on my doormat but, as they all do these days, in my ‘Inbox’. It was entitled ‘Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo test-drives the new California’ and in it he opines that it is ‘a great Ferrari that delivers unique driving pleasure’. Contrast this with the statement reputedly released by Maranello’s first boss Enzo Ferrari who, when asked in 1987 about his then new F40, said: ‘This car is so fast it’ll make you s*** your pants’.

But whatever you think of mealy-mouthed press releases and the value of company presidents being first to pass judgement on their new product, from where I’m sitting the California still looks like a beautifully judged piece of work. The era when Pininfarina seemed unable to produce a less than utterly gorgeous Ferrari now seems like a very long time ago, but at last the styling house appears to have dramatically rediscovered its form.

More beautiful still is its concept. Purists will sniff at its folding metal roof and automated transmission and conclude that Ferrari has gone soft, when in fact it’s just returning to one of its historically happier hunting grounds. Indeed I think there’s every chance this new California will prove a better car in its time than the original did half a century or so ago.

It will not have escaped your notice that a 1961 short-wheelbase California recently changed hands at an auction held in Maranello, with DJ Chris Evans paying a reputed £5.6 million, finally beating the auction record set by the Kellner coupé Bugatti Royale sold by Robert Brooks for Christies at the Albert Hall in 1987 (see Auctions, p123). If it seems strange that a reasonably rare but not particularly distinguished variant of a standard Ferrari road car can outprice one of the greatest automotive icons of all time, it’s nothing compared to the fact that the California also fetched more money than did an ex-works, Le Mans winning Testa Rossa at the same sale last year. I’ve never so much as sat in an original California but back in the ’60s my father briefly owned and hated an example of its successor, a 275GTS, never more than when suffering the indignity of discovering it was unable to keep up with a moderately well driven E-type.

The new California, with its 454bhp V8 motor and a likely 3.8sec sprint to 60mph, will rarely if ever be outpaced by anything it’s likely to come across on the public road. Also, and for the moment at least, I have total confidence in Ferrari’s refusal to sit back and let the brand do its talking. At certain times in its past, notably in the early 1990s, it has become lazy and produced underwhelming, overpriced cars that sold simply because they were Ferraris, but I see no sign of such complacency at present. True, I don’t much care for the ugly and outsize 612 Scaglietti but there’s no doubting the integrity of its engineering, while the Scuderia and 599GTB are among Maranello’s greatest road cars of all time.

But even Ferrari at its finest will be eyeing the immediate future with rather less confidence than it has become accustomed to of late. Of course there will be factors to mitigate the slow down – sales in China and Russia being the most frequently cited by the world’s luxury car manufacturers – but the emergent markets still represent a small proportion of overall sales compared to the giants of Europe and America, and there only the most blindly optimistic will assume it will be business as usual for makers of cars that are expensive both to buy and run.

Evidence is not difficult to find. The British appetite for such cars can be traditionally relied upon to be more voracious than most, but some recently revealed figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders suggests that the edge has come off even our hunger for these machines. Ferrari, Maserati and Rolls-Royce sales are not listed because the volumes are too small, but year to date sales (up to the end of May) for both Aston Martin and Porsche are down by over 20 per cent, while Bentley and Land-Rover are both down too, but by a more modest 7.6 per cent. This in a market that, as a whole, is off by only 0.6 per cent. Interestingly the big premium brands like BMW, Audi, Mercedes and, gratifyingly, Jaguar are all strongly up but if you could break down their sales further, I suspect you’d find it’s only because their volume sellers are relatively inexpensive and powered by diesel.

Even so, the greatest danger for all these companies is not the price of oil, but irrational fear gripping the market and knocking the confidence from it. The truth is all these marques have weathered storms far worse than any currently predicted to be heading this way and done so from positions far worse than those they find themselves in today.

Whether the classic car market will match that resilience remains to be seen. The view I get from talking to people in the trade is that really good cars with great provenance continue to command exceptionally strong money, while more commonly occurring cars with more complicated histories are already starting to fall back. Time alone will tell whether Mr Evans’ California will turn out to be a shrewd investment or not. But even if it halves in value over the next couple of years, he’ll be able to take comfort from the fact that his would be far from the most heavily depreciating Ferrari of all time. That dubious honour must belong to a 250GTO sold privately in 1990 for £10.5 million and shifted on again two years later for £2.5m. To save you doing the maths, that’s a depreciation rate of approximately £11,000 for every day of ownership. Things might be bad now and they may be getting worse, but they’re nowhere near as bad as that.

*****

Alfa Romeo MiTo

There’s something wrong with a car’s name when even journalists know neither how to spell or pronounce it. I’ve seen Mi.To, Mito and MiTo, the one currently used by Alfa Romeo. As for its pronunciation, I still don’t know whether it’s Meeto, Mitto or Myto.

Nor do I know whether it’s any good because Porsche, Alfa and VW all decided to launch cars to the press on the same day, and I’ve yet to find a way of being in Germany, Italy and Spain at the same time. What I do know is that it looks fabulous – and, in the Alfasud, has one hell of an act to follow. I’d argue that the ’Sud was the greatest small car of the 1970s, at least until the Golf GTI came along, and is still capable of teaching modern cars a thing or three about steering, poise and, above all, charm. My favourite was a pre-hatchback, 85bhp 1.5Ti, not least because aged 17, I was in one when I drove at an indicated 100mph for the first time.

I’m not making any predictions about the MiTo, either. I’ve seen too many Alfas fail to live up to their promise. All I would say is that the astonishing recovery and return to profitability of its parent, Fiat, has been strongly product-led. There will rarely be a better opportunity to do the same for Alfa than that presented by the MiTo.

*****

Aston Martin V8 Vantage

Aston Martin’s domestic sales may have dipped of late, but they’re going to be boosted by this new Vantage whose almost unchanged looks conceal a raft of welcome changes under the skin.

Most importantly, its V8 motor has swollen from 4.3 to 4.7 litres to bring 40 extra horsepower which, while welcome, is nothing like so important as the huge slug of additional mid-range torque it offers. At once the most serious criticism of the Vantage has been addressed.

It’s a better-handling car, too, thanks to the adoption of Bilstein dampers, while its transaxle has been modified to improve gearchange quality. There is a new suspension sport pack, comprising springs, dampers and much lighter wheels, which looks good value for £2500 and makes the Aston a very serious B-road weapon.

Nor is Aston Martin using the opportunity to put the Vantage’s price through the roof. At £85,000 in standard form, it costs just £2000 more than the 4.3, despite now having gorgeous 19in wheel rims.

There are problems still, notably an interior which for all its good looks simply doesn’t work very well thanks to its nearly unreadable dials and horrendously fiddly switchgear. But you’re likely to forgive it all its failings the first time you find an open road. Aston Martin has thought hard how to address the shortcomings of the Vantage and the results speak for themselves.

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