DESTINATION AUSTRALIA Life in the fast lane
Michelle Rowe swaps the family Magna for a mean machine on a NSW drive day with a difference There’s something about a Ferrari that sends even normal people into overdrive
HAVEN’T seen my husband this excited since the day I lined him up with a case of Coopers and switched on the footy grand final while I went out the back and mowed the lawn. He’s at the wheel of a $400,000 superstar sports car, zipping along sun-dappled roads within the Royal National Park on the south coast of NSW and, rather like the waiter who famously walked in on footballer George Best, the Irishman’s bed awash with cash and a naked Miss World, we’re wondering where it all went so wrong.
The vehicle in question is a top-of-the-range Ferrari 430 Spider, and we’re travelling in a convoy of five from Marrickville in Sydney’s inner west down to Gerringong, having signed up for a Prancing Horse Ferrari Rentals drive day, a new venture giving those who’ve always dreamed of getting behind the wheel of an Italian stallion the chance to do so without selling the kids.
And it’s clear from the off that this is not any old road trip. There’s something about a Ferrari or, more particularly, five of these sleek red machines travelling nose to bumper, that sends even the most normal of people into overdrive.
As we exit the busy streets of western Sydney, fellow road users point camera phones at us through car windows and distracted pedestrians walk into street signs. Two kids having a punch-up on the side of the street stop and point, clenched fists still aloft and mouths agape, as if in slow motion. This never happens in our Magna.
Our first tentative bunny hops in the Ferraris are taken back in Marrickville, where our convoy test drives the cars along the quiet street on which Prancing Horse’s office is located. We’re talked through the idiosyncracies of each machine — a 1988 328GTS, a 1998 F355 Spider, a 2002 360 Spider and, the most recent release, the 2006 F430 Spider — before being introduced to the golden rule of drive days: never overtake the lead car.
In our case, the lead car is being driven by Walter Szyszka who, with his colleagues, race engineer Matt Thio and operations manager Robert Felato, proves a font of knowledge on all things Ferrari throughout the day.
Szyszka, a Ferrari-owning accountant who for years had been taking his 328GTS to the Piccola Scuderia Ferrari sales and service centre run by Rudolf Masi, saw a gap in the market for a Ferrari-only rental company, and the pair set up Prancing Horse.
Today, the company runs regular drive days to the NSW south coast, as well as individual hire options in which customers get their choice of Ferrari for the length of time they fancy. The only stipulation is that the cars are not to be taken more than 500km from Prancing Horse’s Marrickville base.
We don’t have insurance for anything over 500km away,’’ says Szyszka, who adds that this restriction is not really a problem as most people generally want to show off in Sydney’’.
Fortunately for us, we are showing off on a much grander scale; our Sunday drive takes in not only western Sydney and the superb backdrop of the Royal National Park but Wollongong’s cliff-hugging Grand Pacific Drive and its spectacular Sea Cliff Bridge.
The bridge has something of a synergy with the Ferrari marque; it recently featured alongside New York, Rome, London, Rio, Hong Kong and Monte Carlo in an international television advertisement marking 60 years of collaboration between Shell and the Italian car-maker. The two-minute ad cut to a shot of a 1967 Formula 1 Ferrari 312 shooting across Sea Cliff Bridge and, in the flick of a remote control, Wollongong was on the map.
Despite the incongruity of this little-known southern coastal destination rubbing shoulders with the likes of New York and Monte Carlo, it soon becomes clear why the region was chosen for such coverage. The open stretches of road, the bends and twists and the incredible coastal scenery, combined with the Ferraris’ sleek Italian
Quick off the marque: A convoy of red Ferraris crosses Wollongong’s spectacular Sea Cliff Bridge during a Prancing Horse drive day
Italian stallions: There’s plenty of horsepower under the bonnet in this line-up of Prancing Horse Ferraris engineering, make for an exhilarating drive. We pass through beautiful beachside villages, the ocean shimmering to our left, as my husband masters the art of paddle gears on the steering wheel in our favourite car, the 430 Spider. We get a chance, however, to try each Ferrari as drivers change vehicles at designated points, giving us a taste of how the marque has changed through the years.
Our second car, the 328 GTS, proves a very different experience from the 430. Nearly 20 years older, the 328 seems much lower to the ground and is manual only. (The others can be driven as a manual or an automatic, and the 430 has exciting additions such as sports mode’’, my husband is beside himself to discover.) In the road-hugging 328, I feel as though we could inadvertently shoot underneath the lead vehicle, rather than overtake it, in a sudden braking situation. The cabin feels almost claustrophobic and I am relieved when we move on to the F355, which proves an excellent compromise between the previous two cars.
As well as driver changes, there are refuelling pit stops, for us and the cars, along the way. One of the first is the beachfront Scarborough Hotel at Clifton, where breakfast or lunch can be taken in a stunning clifftop setting overlooking the beach. Then it’s on to the Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk and the small but perfectly formed Bellachara Boutique Hotel in Gerringong. Here, we leave the Ferraris safely tucked up in the carpark (surrounded by the ubiquitous admiring crowd, cameras clicking), as we make our way, under the guidance of a designated Hummer driver, to Coolangatta Estate winery for a tasting session.
Tourism Wollongong general manager Greg Binskin likens the Grand Pacific Drive to Victoria’s famous Great Ocean Road and says that since it opened three years ago, visitor numbers to the region have risen by 10 per cent, no mean feat in times of spiralling domestic tourism numbers.
It starts with a day trip. Then people go: I didn’t know this existed. It’s so easy to get to and so uncrowded’ and they’re hooked,’’ says Binskin. There are nine villages along the strip and the influx of people is creating new product. New restaurants are opening, small business is growing. Four hotels were built recently and there’s another one on the drawing board. We do skydiving down here and that’s going really well, too.’’
Indeed, it’s a car lover’s — and bikie’s — paradise. As our convoy journeys south, we see an endless procession of classic cars, hot little sporty numbers and lovingly looked-after family favourites plying the route. Sleek and glistening Harley-Davidsons share the road with beautifully restored old Dodge trucks. Anybody who’s anybody in the world of cars and bikes, it seems, has cottoned on to Grand Pacific Drive as the perfect place to showcase their No. 1 love, even if the wider public is still buckling up its seatbelt.
As we reluctantly begin our drive back to Sydney, the harsh reality dawns. We’ll soon be swapping the Ferrari for the Magna; our brief stint as king and queen of the road consigned to just a fantastic memory. Then I remember Szyszka’s comment about a new addition to the Ferrari stable: the 2009 California.
You’ve got to have the latest and greatest, or people lose interest,’’ says Szyszka, who aims to add the California to the hire car pool and phase out the 328 later this year. With that, I’m lunging for the booking forms. As the inimitable Mr Best once said: I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.’’ Michelle Rowe was a guest of Prancing Horse and Tourism Wollongong.
Grand Pacific Drive day tours are $880 a person, including breakfast and lunch. There’s a 10 per cent discount on bookings made by 5pm (AEDT) March 28 (quote ‘‘ Enzo’’ when calling Prancing Horse Car Rentals for bookings). An overnight drive package along Grand Pacific Drive is available for $1375 a person ($2750 a couple), including all meals and accommodation at Bellachara Boutique Hotel. More: 1300 307 050; www.prancinghorse.com.au. www.visitwollongong.com www.grandpacificdrive. com.au www.illawarrafly.com www.bellachara.com.au www.coolangattaestate.com.au