Ferrari F40

Built to honour Ferrari’s Big 4-0, this adrenalin-charged device was the fastest production car of them all in 1987. But does it still stack up two decades on?

When it came out in 1987, the F40 was the fastest car in the world, quicker and more powerful than its rival the Porsche 959, and the first car ever to have a three-digit top speed which began with a ‘2’.

Ten years ago I wrote a not terribly good book. And while I cannot claim responsibility for its somewhat cheesy Dream Cars title, the content was all mine. My brief was simply to list in order from first to fiftieth the best sports and supercars I’d ever driven and explain why. I won’t dwell on it other than to say that while coming up with the order in general took days of thought, deciding the winner took no thought at all. It was only ever going to be the Ferrari F40.

Even then the car was a decade old but ever since, when I’ve been asked to name my favourite steer, as motoring journalists are with the same sort of frequency that you brush your teeth, I’ve always automatically parroted ‘F40’. When it came out in 1987 it was the fastest car in the world, quicker and more powerful than its Porsche 959 rival, and the first car ever to have a three-digit top speed that began with a ‘2’. 

Even by the time I wrote the book, I’d driven the Jaguar XJ220, Bugatti EB110SS and Ferrari F50, all of which eclipsed the F40’s performance, and many more have crossed my path since – including the McLaren F1 and Bugatti Veyron. Yet I still said ‘F40’. Perhaps I was deluding myself – it had, after all, been the first ultra-quick supercar I’d ever driven and maybe it had assumed an elevated position in my heart. Its 20th birthday and the 60th of the company which created it seemed the perfect opportunity to find out.

I was worried. As I drove to Bob Houghton’s Cotswold base to collect the car, I recalled that Nick Mason reckons that a modern Ferrari road car like an F430 would have little trouble dispensing with his F40 on the track. His was the first I ever travelled in and I remember well that, at the time, it felt impossibly fast. When I last visited Ferrari, to drive the 599GTB, they told me it would lap Fiorano – a short and twisting track you’d think much more suited to a light, mid-engined car than a heavy one with the motor in the nose – six whole seconds quicker than the F40.

But when I turned the corner and saw it sitting there in the sunshine with that wolfish look on its face I worried no more. Others might be quicker, but for sheer, predatory purpose, this one still beats the lot.

Can it really be 20 years since this aluminium, Kevlar and carbon fibre masterpiece was first revealed to the world? I don’t think anything has made me feel older. It was, of course, Enzo Ferrari’s last car. And while we know he was at best uninterested in most of his road cars and often little short of contemptuous about those who drove them, he clearly made an exception for the F40. In his unforgettable biography of Ferrari, Brock Yates reports the Old Man as saying it was so fast, ‘you’ll s**t yourself.’

Many reasons lay behind its creation. At the time Ferrari was engaged in a horsepower struggle with Porsche, his 400bhp 288GTO being clearly eclipsed by its 959’s high-tech 450bhp, so something with a little extra was clearly called for. Nominally the F40 had 478bhp, but it didn’t take much tickling to raise that figure far further. Secondly, Ferrari’s 40th anniversary was fast approaching and you didn’t need to be as prescient as Enzo to know he’d be unlikely to be around to enjoy the 50th. Finally, and most persuasively, the 288GTO project had proven that there were a great many Ferrari owners who quite liked the idea of being invited to own a supercar made very special even by Ferrari standards. And that then meant he could charge big money for it. 

And this time there’d be none of this ultra-low volume nonsense. Although there was talk was of a nice round 400 F40s being built (still more than the 272 examples of 288GTO created), that figure soon rose to 700 and then to four figures. In the end around 1100 were made. At a quoted list price even in 1987 of £193,000, its bean-counter appeal was clear.

But it was not, as some contended at the time, a cynical fund-raising device designed to prise cash out of foolish buyers. Those looks wrote no cheque the car could not cash in full. The structure was a steel spaceframe clad entirely in carbon fibre, just five years after McLaren had introduced the material into F1. The engine was a 2.9-litre twin-turbo V8 that could trace its technical roots back to the V8 Ferrari had used for all its junior road cars since the mid-1970s,
but in fact owed rather more to that of Lancia’s LC2 Group C car. Its suspension, of course, came courtesy of a double wishbone at each corner while the tyres were as large as any seen on a road car at that time – the rear P-Zeros were 345/35ZR17s covering 13in-wide Speedline wheels.

Much had been learned from the 288GTO. For while that car was gorgeous, fully trimmed and even reasonably civilised to cover distances, dynamically it was badly flawed. Its power came in with a bang its chassis was ill-equipped to handle and on the limit it asked more questions than many drivers had prepared answers for.

So while there was some degree of component carryover between the two cars, their philosophies would be entirely different: the F40’s shape – both on top and underneath the car – was dictated above all by the need for aerodynamic stability at the huge speeds it would reach. Its interior would be completely stripped to save weight. You’d step across a wide sill and fall down into a carbon-fibre channel. The doorhandle would be a piece of wire, the white-on-black instruments the simplest ever used in a Ferrari. There would be no music, no air conditioning, no electric windows or mirrors. Heating would be controlled by two small dials which would have looked cheap in a Fiat Panda, and the only concession to practicality was that it was surprisingly easy to see out of – so long as you were travelling forwards. Reversing an F40 is something you’d emigrate to avoid.

Looked at objectively, it would seem that the F40 was a thinly-veiled racing car, but this would appear not to be the case. A racing version called the F40LM was built, not by Ferrari but well known preparers Michelotto. Promisingly, Jean Alesi came third in the IMSA GT category on its debut at Laguna Seca in 1989 but while LMs continued to race sporadically into 1990 and claim more podium finishes, they never actually won a race.

But the F40’s competition career, which had appeared over in 1990, came back with a vengeance in 1994, three years after the last one had been built, thanks to the BPR Global GT series. Michelotto once more provided the goods, this time in the form of the F40GTE and, despite its now obsolete design and the advent of cars like the McLaren F1, it ran at the front for all three seasons of the BPR, winning races every year and being denied many more times by mechanical frailty. Anyone doubting the raw speed of the F40 should bear in mind that in 1996, its last competitive year, it claimed fastest lap in seven of the 11 rounds. Not bad for a car homing in on its tenth birthday.

But today the F40 is a part of history, and an extremely valuable one at that. After years of prices sitting stable in the £140,000-£170,000 region, they have been creeping up. Bob Houghton, who must see more of them than just about anyone this side of Maranello, says £200,000 is what you pay for a really good car. Not a mint example mind – they sell for even more – but a car that’s in fine fettle, needing no major work and with a proven history. You can find them for less, but Houghton says you wouldn’t want to. The best cars to drive and the simplest to maintain are the earlier examples, before they were forced to run with catalytic converters. Ferrari also offered the option of adjustable suspension to give some much needed extra ride height while manoeuvring – Houghton reckons the car is better without it and the system is not trouble-free. Only problem is, you’ll never get it on a cross-channel ferry.

What many people don’t realise about F40s is that they are among the most reliable Ferraris of their era. Ferrari generally built cars with strong mechanicals, but they were let down by minor but expensive electrical failings. Well, the F40 has no central locking, electric windows or other gimmicks so they can’t go wrong. Sure, they get through consumables such as discs, pads and clutches, but so long as they are properly warmed up, the turbos are allowed to cool off and the car is properly serviced and maintained they are, to use Houghton’s word, ‘bulletproof’. In all his years of looking after them (he has 11 in his care at the moment), he’s never seen an engine let go. The gearboxes are just as strong – he’s had to put a new second gear in one exceptionally hard-worked and high-mileage example and that’s it.

In fact, if you buy the right F40 and look after it properly, the most likely way it’ll land you with a big bill is if you chuck it at the scenery. The front and rear clamshells are one-piece carbon units and though minor repairs are possible, if you need a new one the price will be over £20,000.

And F40s are remarkably easy cars to wreck, as the young valeter working at Maranello Concessionaires discovered years ago when temptation got the better of him and he took the first F40 into the country for a quick and sadly literal spin up the Egham bypass. These days we are too used to modern cars with line upon line of mechanical and electronic defences designed to protect the driver from himself. But for me today there would be none of that: no traction control, no ABS, no power steering and no state of the art engine management gently feeding in the power. Today was me and the F40. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

It’s an odd thing to say, given how badly my 6ft 3in bulk fits the interior of an F40, and how badly displaced are its drilled aluminium pedals, but I felt strangely at home once I’d settled in its race bucket and done up its four-point Sabelt harness. There’s nothing to distract you here, nothing you need to figure out how to work. Its controls are no more or less
hard to understand than those of a Morris Minor.

This car has a sports exhaust and having spotted its owner’s earplugs on the centre console, I was expecting an explosion when I thumbed the button. However, at idle the noise was loud, ugly and threatening, but not deafening.

Trundling through traffic I was struck by how docile this car was. The clutch is weight-lifter heavy but very progressive, the engine doesn’t hunt or bog down and its excellent visibility means you can thread it through gaps with the confidence that you’re not about to snag it. But even at these speeds such is the density of pops and bangs on the overrun that its true purpose is never in doubt. If you want to alert other road users to your presence, you don’t need the horn, you just lift off the throttle.

But soon the time came to find whether reality matched the memory or whether the F40 was now no more than a nice old thing with a bit of poke.

It is nothing of the sort. The engine is tractable from 1500rpm but it wakes up properly at around 3000rpm and when those two little IHI turbos start to thrust, you had better watch out. In second gear, even on a bone-dry road with those vast Pirellis nice and warm, it’ll spin its tyres in an instant, and if you’re not facing straight at the time you’ll be sideways before you can even think opposite lock.Indeed second gear disappears so quickly there is time only to savour the battle-cry of the motor as it heads for its 7800rpm redline. This is not symphonic like the best Ferrari V12s – it is flat-plane crank savage but no less intoxicating for that.

 Third gear is where it all comes together. When it’s dry the tyres will take all the torque the engine can throw at them, so you can just sit back and watch the horizon jump into the foreground. How quick is it? In a straight line at least, there’s not a Ferrari made today that’ll accelerate like this old dear, not one that even comes close to its power to weight ratio. It may have ‘only’ 478bhp, but it weighs just 1100kg, less even than the ultra-light McLaren F1, and over half a tonne less than Ferrari’s current quickest, the 599GTB. Sure, tyre, brake, aerodynamic and suspension advances means it may not post the quickest lap times any more – but this is a road car, so what is the relevance of that?

And even when the roads are no longer straight, the F40 offers something no modern supercar could begin to understand: driver involvement. My time in the F40 made me realise just how light and woolly modern steering systems have become, even those fitted to supercars. In my experience of cars you can buy today, only Caterhams steer with this level of precision and feedback. At once it places you closer to the action than any heavy, power-assisted modern car can. It guides the car so precisely that even on narrow British B-roads it can be driven hard and confidently; its width is nothing like the problem you might imagine it to be.

But just how hard will this car bite? It dates from an era when Ferraris simply didn’t handle. The 328GTB was lovely within its limits but near enough uncatchable beyond; the Testarossa was pitiless if you pushed it faster than it cared to go, while the unloved Mondial was in fact the only one that gave you a chance. As for the 288GTO, the only one I’ve driven scared me witless. In this context you might expect the F40 to be practically undriveable, but in fact it handles beautifully. So long as you’re not stupid with the throttle it’ll not bite an experienced driver even at track speeds. You can use the power to neutralise your line or even nerf the back out of a slow corner without fear. It’s because it’s light, stiff and set up to be driven rather than posed in.

For once, my memory had not been playing tricks on me. The only thing that feels old about the F40 is the level of interaction it affords the driver. I took it back, aghast that my time in it was over and wondering when, if ever, it might come again. It had been every bit as good as I remembered: not just the best Ferrari I have driven, but the best car, period.