Most eager observers hailed it as yet another glorious Maranello creation. Andrew Frankel takes a closer look before passing judgement
Good eggs, rotten apples
I remember the first letter i ever wrote to a car magazine. The Ferrari 308GTBi had just been announced and there, bled across more pages than I can remember was a comparison with a Lotus Esprit Turbo. I fell upon the script, keen to savour every moment of yet another rout by the rampaging horses of Maranello only to find myself reading words which, with a ghastly compulsion, led me to the now obvious and inevitable conclusion: The Ferrari lost the test.
I wrote a short, concise and wholly devastating critique of the piece to the editor, showing exactly where his misguided lieutenant had missed the point, failed to understand the breed and made a complete mockery of the magazine. Stirred by the courage of youth, the mere facts that I had never so much as sat in either car nor did I have a driving licence did not slow my pen for a second as the incontravertable evidence of such wilful wrong-doing flowed across the page.
They didn’t publish the letter. They knew then what I know now: Ferrari, just occasionally, gets it wrong.
To be honest, Ferrari always has had its fall-guys. Some, like the first 330GT and Testarossa deserved their poor-relation reputation while others, like the Bertone-bodied 308GT4 and later Mondials did not. There has, however, been one Ferrari which has escaped, one donkey in the world’s greatest stable of priceless stallions. It is the Ferrari 348.
It was a Canadian colleague who first spotted it. Like most from that continent, he’s a man impressively unimpressed with the form book. I don’t think he’d driven a Ferrari before and he certainly had no time at all for the notion that a badge alone can make a bad car good. We spent two days with a 348GTS and took a Porsche 911 and Honda NSX along to keep it honest. How he hated that Ferrari! Where he’d been expecting some defining experience, he found a car which was unrewarding to drive slowly and tricky in the extreme to drive hard. For him it was a promise as empty as it was undeniably beautiful.
I didn’t hate the 348 myself; but even that would have been better than the disappointment I felt. It was a car I could have no relationship with because I simply did not trust it; so, while everyone else romped their way over the hills and far away in the Honda and Porsche, I drove the Ferrari rather more slowly, at which velocity it was, sadly, a little dull by comparison. And I’d rather a Ferrari were wholly appalling than slightly dull.
The car’s problems were obvious. It was a complacent car, borne from that era where Ferrari seemed happy to rest on its reputation. While its rivals (and never be told a Ferrari has none) strove to ever greater heights of dynamism, the 348 suggested that, so long as all was right in the looks and engine departments, then the badge would do the rest, including support a royal price.
Ferrari, of course, was right The queues formed for the 348 and, when the storm of recession came, Ferrari was able to ride it out in rather better condition than any of its erstwhile opponents.
This is not really the point. The simple truth with the 348 and the reason for its failure as a driving machine, if not a commercial proposition, is that its gearbox and, in particular, its chassis, in no way matched the lofty standards suggested by its ever excellent engine. So while the 348 was quick enough on paper to claim credibility, the figures were not matched by the on-the-road experience.
You can see why the decision to mount the 348’s gearbox transversely made sense. The ultra-successful 312T-series of Formula One racers had shown Ferrari that a transverse gearbox on a longitudinal engine did wonders for your packaging and weight distribution. The snag with the 348 was that it also brought perhaps the worst gearchange quality of any road-going Ferrari. When new, the lack of a sixth speed was not lamented as such a practice was not common at the time; the same could not be said for the spindly steel lever’s baulky, disobedient progress around the gate.
The 348’s real problem, however, lay within its chassis. With the exception of an F40 on a dry road, all road-going eight-cylinder Ferraris that predated the 348 needed particular care if they were to be driven quickly, but none was quite so keen to snap back at an unwise driver as a 348. I remember taking one to a steering pad with my then colleagues from Autocar and trying to make it behave. We discovered that if you kicked the tail just a few inches out of line, it could be sorted out with swift and accurate use of steering and throttle. Let it stray further though, and nothing could be done to prevent the car from spinning.
Thankfully, the car had so much adhesion in the dry that stumbling inadvertently across the limit on the public road was unlikely, but those who trod too hard in the wet, were unlucky or just plain stupid could count on little mercy from their charge.
Yet the most damning evidence of all against the 348 was the car that replaced it. The margin of superiority of the F355 over the 348 could not be explained by age alone. With the F355, Ferrari just tried harder and, in the process, created one of the five finest road cars in its history, one as capable of destroying Porsches as the 348 had proven inadequate. There is not a single area where the F355 did not triumph over its unworthy parent.
In the end, the 348 got away with it. It lasted just long enough not to be perceived as an obvious failure and not so long that it did the reputation of Ferrari any material harm. I wonder to this day, however, what kind of reception it would have received had it boasted anything less than a prancing horse on its nose.
Verdict: Rotten apple.