Road cars: Ferrari 550

The new Ferrari Daytona?

In creating the 550 Maranello, Ferrari chose to entertain a brief as long as it was wide. The talents of this car are extraordinary by any automotive standards, but unlike its predecessors —Testarossa, 512TR and F512M — anyone with a small amount of skill can climb into a 550 and, almost immediately, get a lot out of it. Which is precisely what Ferrari wanted: accessibility.

The key argument surrounding the factory’s decision to replace the mid-engined TR models with a front-engined GT like the 550 is whether a car of such straightforward configuration can truly capture the thrill and spirit of its forebears. But then Ferrari would probably offer two answers. First, that the TR was burdened by a gearbox mounted beneath its flat-12 engine, which therefore sat too high in the chassis. Second, the 365 GTB/4, more affectionately known as the Ferrari Daytona. Given that the 550 leans so obviously on the Daytona in inspiration, maybe the doubters should pause for thought before dismissing it as an improper Ferrari.

Naturally, though, it’s what happens when the 479bhp 5.4-litre V12 is given its head that makes the 550 so outstanding. The Maranello is savagely fast. Autocar clocked it at 4.6sec to 60mph, 10.1sec to the ton, and at 180mph it was still tugging at the horizon with enthusiasm.

And yet this is an engine that will carry the 1693kg 550 from 30-50mph in top gear (sixth) in exactly the same time as it takes a Golf GTi to do the same in third. That’s what modem engine management can do for the manners and flexibility of a big V12.

For the 550’s chassis, Ferrari shortened, stiffened and lightened the 456 GT. It also dispensed with the rear seats, partly to achieve a perfect 50/50 weight distribution, but also to accentuate the car’s overtly sporting role over the more soothing 2+2 456.

Either way, the 550 Maranello remains perhaps the finest driver’s Ferrari since the 246 Dino. With models like the F355, 512TR and Mondial to contend with, praise comes little higher. — SS
January 1997