Christmas Road Test

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The Ferrari 400i Automatic

Soothing the Prancing Horses

Purists may decry Modena’s big, 2 plus 2 400 series – the “saloon” of the range – as not a true Ferrari. What with power steering, automatic transmission and the other accoutrements of limousine luxury it sounds a far-cry from the traditional, ultra-fast, race-bred Ferraris the Commendatore has fostered since the War. This “soft” image is easily dispelled merely by opening the bonnet, whereupon the purist’s eyes will assume a glazed and rapturous look as the mouth-watering, crackle-black, four-overhead-camshaft V12 is revealed. And when you tell him that this “sludge-pumped” thoroughbred turns out 310 b.h.p. and will touch 150 m.p.h. you will have him totally beaten. The final crunch will come with a spell behind the wheel; neither power-steering nor automatic transmission can disguise that unmistakable, indefinable Ferrari character of perfectly-honed performance and handling. The charisma of the Prancing Horse is unsullied.

Courtesy of Maranello Concessionares Ltd., at Egham, I have been testing the latest 400 luxury Grand Touring model, the 400i Automatic, on which fuel-injection, of the Bosch K-Jetronic indirect continuous mechanical variety, has been adopted for the first time on a production, road-going Ferrari. In most other respects the 400i is identical to the carburetter 400GT, introduced with six twin-choke Webers at the 1976 Paris Motor Show and superseded by the injection car in late July. Indeed, the Pininfarina designed and built, two-door steel body was first introduced on the 365 GT4 2 plus 2 at the Paris Show in 1972, since when exterior changes have been restricted to reducing the number of tail-lights from six to four and replacing the knock-off alloy wheels with five-stud, bolt-on type. The shape remains undated.

At £31,809 the 400i, now the only front-engined Ferrari, is not the most expensive: the 512 Berlinetta Boxer holds that distinction, at £33,080. The test car had the optional rear air conditioning (front air conditioning is standard), priced at £623. An electrically-operated sunshine roof, fitted in the UK, is the only other optional extra offered. A five-speed manual gearbox is available to special order as an alternative to the General Motors 400, 3-speed automatic, though Maranello say that manual cars are very rare beasts, at least in the UK.

Alas, fuel-injection has brought a drop in power output, from the Webered car’s 340 b.h.p. to a slightly more modest 310 b.h.p. at 6.500 r.p.m., but when so many “horses” remain, such a loss is academic. To say that power remains ample is an understatement. Where the injection car scores is in smoothness, flexibility and above all a reduction in noise level to enhance the general refinement. The mighty roar of Webers resonating in the air cleaner trumpets has gone, but the vibrant orchestrations of the four exhaust pipes remain to tease the adrenalin. The carburetter engine was smooth enough if set up properly, but visualise the task of synchronising six twin-choke carburetters and their complex linkages . . .

The very special character and pedigree of any Ferrari revolves around its engine, especially so in the case of the classic V12s, to my mind the finest and most exciting road-car engines in the world (with the Jaguar V12 and the Porsche flat-six perhaps the best in full series production — or do readers have other suggestions?). As the energy crisis snowballs, could the V12 in the 400i be the last in the line, a line going back to 1946, in the case of this current V12, evolved from the design of Goacchino Colombo, Ferrari’s first chief engineer? This 60 degree V12 relates directly to the Type 209, the first of the large capacity group of Colombo engines, introduced in 1960 for the 400 Superamerica. Probably the most familiar of its more recent ancestors will be the Type 251 engine fitted to the 365GTB/4 Daytona, though the two have fundamental differences: the 352 b.h.p. Daytona has its inlet ports in the centre of the vee, fed by six downdraught Webers; the cylinder heads on the 400 have inlet ports between the camshaft banks, fed on the old 400GT and the earlier 365GTC/4 and 365GT/4 2 plus 2 by six horizontal Webers, now by injection in the same fashion. The Daytona engine is dry-sumped, the variants wet-sumped — the 400i engine holds 30 pints of oil! The earlier engines had a bore and stroke of 81 mm. x 71 mm.; the 400’s capacity is 4,823 c.c., obtained by increasing the stroke to 78 mm.

Silumin (or siluminium) is used for the crankcase and cylinder block castings, into which cast-iron liners are shrunk. The nitrided steel crankshaft, machined from the billet, runs in seven main bearings, and carries connecting rods coupled in pairs. Vandervell thin wall bearings are fitted. The four overhead camshafts are driven by one automatically tensioned chain from an intermediate gear driven by the crankshaft and operate two valves per cylinder, inclined at 46 deg. to each other, via thimble tappets. The traditional Ferrari GT compression ratio of 8.8:1 is retained. Twin automatic electric fans assist water cooling and the vast reservoir of lubricant circulates through a cooler.

A Marelli, fully-electronic, contactless ignition system has been introduced with the fuel injection. It has only one, instead of Ferrari’s usual twin, distributors, tucked away so deeply under the scuttle at the rear of the upper, right-hand-bank camshaft that to set conventional contacts would be impossible. The Marelli “black box” (actually silver) is secured to the inside of the thickly-insulated bonnet.

Ferrari’s application of the Bosch K-Jetronic injection is an interesting one, because it uses separate six-cylinder metering units per bank, effectively considering the V12 as twin engines. The curious induction system foxed D. S. J. and I at first glance, for the inlet manifolds are formed very neatly into the bottom cam covers. Thus the engine is extremely wide, but a beautifully artistic piece of engineering symmetry, spoilt only by the ancillary equipment at its nose end. This includes twin Bosch alternators, a feature new to the 400i, the pump for the ZF power steering and the air-conditioning pump. Access to plugs, no longer a frequent necessity on Ferrari engines, is easy and the twin, red oil filters nestle conveniently in the centre of the vee.

Ferrari GT car tradition is continued further in the 400i with the use of a chassis of oval section, tubular steel members, a construction so rigid that it is impossible to tell on even the bumpiest of roads that the body is not monocoque. Suspension is independent by double, forged steel wishbones and Koni coil spring/damper units all round and anti-roll bars front and rear. Koni oleopneumatic self-levelling struts are paired with each of the rear coil spring damper units. This GT Ferrari has its gearbox mounted directly on the engine, instead of in the transaxle arrangement of the later front-engine Berlinettas. Five-spoke, 15 in. diameter alloy wheels carry massive 215/70 VR Michelin XWX tyres.

This is a big car by Ferrari standards, over 15 ft. 9 in. long, nearly 5 ft. 11 in. wide and with a wheelbase of 8 ft. 10 in. Yet the clean, Pininfarina lines ensure a reasonable compact overall impression, the nose kept low by making the quadruple Carello halogen headlamps — excellent on main beam, Continentally a little dim on dip — retractable. Daytime flashing is taken care of by lights set behind the grille beneath the nose, shown in the photographs; anything more than a cursory clean requires a Phillips screwdriver.

Pininfarina’s unique pull-out door handles felt engagingly familiar, identical to those on my Alfa Spider, though rather better chromed, I hope. A rich aroma of Connolly leather hits the nostrils the moment the wide doors are opened — the definitive smell of luxury. The hides are transported from Connolly Bros to Italy on the lorries which bring spare parts to Maranello Concessionaires. This natural material is used most tastefully almost throughout on the trim, though it is noticeable that the Italian upholsterers are less conscientious than say Aston Martin or Rolls-Royce about obscuring natural damage or flaws in the leather. The cockpit is dominated by an enormous, veneer panelled centre console containing the Philips Turnolock stereo/radio cassette player, the substantial and precise lever for the GM gearbox (definitely one of the smoothest automatic controls and, unlike most GM applications, with a stop to prevent the lever being pushed inadvertently straight from 2nd gear, through Drive, into neutral, the stop being overridden by pressing the top of the T-shaped knob), controls for air-conditioning, heating, switches for hazard warning, fog lights, heated rear screen, electric front windows and electric aerial.

A Momo alloy and leather steering wheel confronts the driver, the Prancing Horse in its central horn-push continuously edifying. The non-adjustable wheel is tilted steeply, the top of its rim rather a long reach with the seat in a comfortable position for short-armed people, one Ferrari tradition I don’t particularly like. Clear instrumentation, by Veglia Bortelli, is one I do like . . . big, clearly, marked, 180 m.p.h. speedometer and 8,000 r.p.m. (red-lined at 6,500 r.p.m.) tachometer flank the oil pressure and water temperature gauges in a heavily cowled panel. Lesser instruments are angled towards the driver in a row in the centre of the facia: ammeter (so much more use than a battery condition indicator); oil temperature gauge; fuel gauge and a very noisy quartz clock, the last named almost invisible to the front passenger.

The driver has a substantial rest for his left foot and man-sized brake and throttle pedals, the latter displaying yet another Ferrari tradition — long travel, for the subtler control of instant power. Lockable chromed levers on the floor to the right of the driver’s seat marked “Baule” and “Benzina” release the spring-loaded boot lid and petrol cap respectively. The forward-hinged bonnet is unlatched by a lever under the facia.

Ferrari are modest about the 8 ft. 10 in. wheelbase 400i’s carrying capacity: a 2 plus 2 they say, yet it feels to have at least as much rear seat room as some claimed four-seaters like the Aston Martin and old Jensen Interceptor. As with those cars, comfort depends on the generosity of the front seat occupants; that allowed for, somebody of my own 5 ft. 7 in. or less will find it very cosy in the beautifully appointed rear seats. Headroom is quite generous, so taller people should find short journeys tolerable. A fixed, soft armrest splits these seats, and cubbyholes and grab handles are tailored into the leather-trimmed side panels. When a front seat backrest is tipped forward for access to the rear, the complete seat slides forward. No matter how often I drive Ferraris I always feel a fluttering of excitement before turning, or in the case of older models, turning and pressing, the key. It’s a sense of expectancy which goes with a unique form of motoring satisfaction. The 400i doesn’t offer immediately quite the same sensory rewards as some other models, for the Magnetti-Marelli starter motor whirrs noisily for a second or two when the big engine is cold, rather longer when warm, and the injection has deadened that marvellous whoop of joy as the V12 fires. Nor is there the same satisfaction in plonking the gearlever into Drive as snicking the lever into first through the precise gate of a manual Ferrari gearbox. But there is an immediate alternative benefit: the twelve cylinders will ease the car away smoothly from cold with barely a sign of reticence, thanks to Bosch’s automatic enrichment. It would be a foolish owner who abused the revs on a cold Ferrari engine, though . . . and the oil temperature gauge should be respected. There is just a hint of mechanical noise for the first minute or two, but once warm this complex V12, so painstakingly hand assembled and bench run-in, emits not a whisper of metal contacting metal. It ticks over smoothly and reliably at 900 r.p.m.

The deep, sloping screen affords a broad panorama ahead and all-round visibility is good. The square tail helps parking and though not much of the bonnet is visible to somebody my height (and the seat cannot be raised) its length is not too difficult to judge. The sides may be a little bulbous and the eyebrows on the wheel arches protrude a little, but this big Ferrari is, if anything, a little easier to place than a Rover SDI, a darned sight easier than a Porsche 928, though not quite so shrinkable through gaps as the slightly wider, slab-sided Aston Martin. Not that a driver deserving of Ferrari-type motoring should have any qualms about judging width . . .

There’s a feeling of tautness the moment this Ferrari begins to move. The ZF recirculating ball, servo-assisted steering has no lost motion whatsoever and the suspension is reassuringly firm, emitting slight knocking noises at low speed over uneven surfaces, as if from spherical rose-joints on a racing car. And though the joints aren’t there the race-breeding is apparent the suspension characteristics not the soft-ride, noise and vibration insulated, refined compromise of a Jaguar, for instance, but with stiff springs, dampers, bushes and anti-roll bars. The result, in spite of the 36 cwt. mass, is a feeling of highly-strung, thoroughbred nervousness, less pronounced than in more sporting Ferraris perhaps, but still there in plenty, as if to give the driver direct communication with the tarmac. By nervousness I mean feed-back of what every relevant part of the chassis is doing, not a reflection of skittishness on the road, for the fat Michelins simply will not shift their grip at anything less than insane speeds on the road in the wet or dry. It is the overall response of the chassis which sets this Ferrari apart from lesser breeds and helps make it such an impressively enjoyable car to drive quickly. The variable ratio steering’s assistance is virtually indiscernible, indeed at times it feels almost heavy, and this big car can be pointed with the accuracy and lack of vagueness of the best non-assisted system. The wheel requires 3.8 turns lock to lock for a cumbersome 43 ft. turning circle. In and out of road junctions around town the steering sometimes felt a little low-geared, exaggerated by my stretch to the top of the wheel rim, which made “shuffle wheel” the best means of control, but the gearing is ideal for the open road. Sharp bumps send pronounced kick-back through the steering, a familiar trait of Ferrari geometry, yet they don’t deflect the car.

A mild groaning from the rear end when turning tightly at low speeds announces the presence of a tightly set limited slip differential. Its efficiency in some slow speed situations, round wet roundabouts for instance when the throttle cannot be applied hard to counteract it; can exaggerate low speed understeer. At all other times it is an absolute boon and helps ensure impeccable traction in all situations.

This low-speed understeer can be ignored. At speeds where it matters the handling is neutral, so well balanced that I itched to try the 400i on a circuit, automatic or not. In spite of the size and weight there is very little roll, or dive, or squat. On one occasion, when the nearside front wheel locked in emergency braking on a slippery road beneath trees and I had to use cadence braking to stop the whole lot locking up, I would have appreciated a more precise message from the front brakes and tyre contact areas, possibly by allowing more dive. But the brakes, the thickest ventilated discs I have seen on a production road car, of 11.89 in. front diameter and 11.69 in. rear, are otherwise splendidly effective, albeit for fairly heavy pedal pressure, servo or not.

Naturally, with such well tied down suspension the ride is firm, at least by the standards of luxury cars of this size, but good damping prevents it from being choppy. Subsided fenland roads alongside the dykes of East Anglia had it crashing and banging somewhat, for suspension travel isn’t over generous. A series of wave-like undulations can set it floating in just the same manner as an Aston Martin, another big, heavy car with massive front engine, though of 3 1/4 in. shorter wheelbase. Yet this largest Ferrari scorns surprise hump-backs without the front-suspension-bottoming nosedive of a Jaguar. Firm maybe, but on all except rough roads the Ferrari is a comfortable motor car, and if the ride it offers is stiffer than one prefers, then £32,000 will buy a wide alternative choice and leave a 400i free for a more discerning and enthusiastic motorist.

The very name Ferrari has a singular connotation: performance. So, does an automatic 400i live up to the name? Factory figures cite 0-400 metres in 16.4 sec., 0-1,000 metres in 29.2 sec. and a maximum speed of 149.1 m.p.h. at 6,500 r.p.m., the standing start figures some 1.5 and 3.7 sec. down on the automatic carburetter car. Yes, it is quick, very quick indeed once the initial inertia of nearly 2 tons has been overcome, but if the gearbox is left in Drive it confirms the aspersions John Bolster casts in his book “The Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow”, quoted by W.B. last month, in that a V12 engine, for use with automatic transmission, has less low-speed torque than a V8. Until the tachometer needle reaches 3,500 r.p.m. (just over 54 m.p.h. in second gear) the engine is a shade lethargic, at least by Ferrari standards. As kick-down into first gear is unobtainable above roughly 28 m.p.h. it leaves a hole in the speed range where kick-down from top to second fails to light the blue touch paper. Upward changes on full kick-down are made (at least on the test car) at 5,400 r.p.m. I was going to say that this seems lower than necessary, until I realised that this equals 84 m.p.h. in second . . . If the gearlever is used manually the performance picture becomes rather different, the tachometer sailing round to the 6,500 r.p.m. maximum with smoothly shattering ease (the change should be made before 6,500 r.p.m., or lag in the automatic lets the revs surge beyond the red line), equal to 61 m.p.h. and 101 m.p.h. in the lower gears. Not too much emphasis should be placed on the hole in the Drive performance, because this Ferrari is still very fast right through the range and part of the feeling of lethargy comes from the sheer unfussed and smooth deception of the 12 short-stroke cylinders.

A simple confirmation of the brute power available came when I tried a few standing starts, using the traditional method with an automatic of left foot hard on the brakes, right foot hard on the throttle to build the revs up against the torque converter. For the first time in my experience I was unable to hold the car on the brakes — and those huge brakes really are good! The handbrake would not prevent the car from creeping at tickover engine speed with the gearbox in Drive, though it would hold in neutral on a steep incline.

Where the automatic and smooth V12 combination really comes into its own is in town driving, to which so many Ferraris are subjected, in London especially, without being totally suited. Or at least they are being wasted. The 400i, takes the heaviest traffic in its stride, trickling along as 1,100 r.p.m. with the sweetest of tractability. Not once did the glorious engine cough when opened up on the M1 after being locked in solid London traffic — and that is a compliment I cannot pay to some much more “cooking” engines used in exactly the same circumstances of late.

Motorways are Mecca to this high-speed cruiser, the vibration-free engine throttled back so well within its limits. A legal 70 m.p.h. equals 3,050 r.p.m., when the engine hardly feels to be switched on. An illegal 100 m.p.h. is just as unfussed. Stability is impeccable, even at an indicated 147 m.p.h. (on a test track, of course). The big Michelins roar, there is some wind noise and the exhausts fill the air with music when the engine is revved, but who would want a totally silent Ferrari? At least it is much quieter than any to have gone before.

In some respects of appointments Ferrari are lagging behind other manufacturers of luxury cars. The most obvious, because the cockpit is so wide and bisected by the centre console, is the lack of central locking. The passenger door must be locked from the inside or by external key. The water valve heater is pathetic in heat output and consistency; there are directional controls and separate switches for single speed fans for both front seat occupants, but one common temperature control. The air-conditioning seems powerful, especially so with the rear unit engaged, from what I could judge on one mild winter day, but the heater is the important item from October to April. The heated rear screen and fog light switches at the base of the centre console are too easily knocked on by accident. The wipers sometimes had difficulty in coping with driving rain at high speed. Some simple form of seat height adjustment would be welcome and steering wheel tilt facility a la Opel Senator.

In other respects this beautiful Ferrari is one of the world’s ultimate GT cars. And by GT I really do mean Grand Touring, for with the luxury, performance and road manners comes a 17 cu, ft. boot and twin, linked aluminium fuel tanks of 26.5 gal. capacity. That brings me to one of the pitfalls of 400i ownership: fuel consumption, at a time when such considerations are prominent. Official Government figures for this car quote 8.6 m.p.g. in the urban cycle, 18.8 m.p.g. at a constant 56 m.p.h. and 15.7 at 75 m.p.h. My own figures gave 12.45 m.p.g. for a mixture of commuting into heavy London traffic and some fast open road use and 15.02 m.p.g. in fast and varied driving in East Anglia. Nevertheless, the big tank should offer a sensible range of 400 miles or more for Continental Grand Touring.

This “gentleman’s Ferrari” is the most refined ever and the most effective attempt to combine the characters of ultra-fast sports-GT car and completely docile and effortless town carriage. A Ferrari for all reasons.— C.R.

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