Ferrari F355 F1 Spider
Jason Gibson owned an Alfa Spider before converting to Porscheism. Will a blast in a Ferrari F355 Spider rekindle his love of roofless Italians?
He’s over there,’ says Daniel Till, pointing across the Slade’s Garage showroom. My eyes follow, rolling slowly over a smattering of modern fare including a Mercedes-benz SLS in a matt grey wrap and a white Mclaren 570S, before a head and torso pop up from the interior of the Sepia Brown 1972 Porsche 911 2.4S tucked in just behind. ‘There are some toys in here,’ says Classic
Cars reader and today’s lucky dream drive candidate, Jason Gibson.
I’ve known Jason in two incarnations, firstly when we both owned Fiat 124 Spiders (him a ’73 CS, me a CSA of the same vintage) and secondly in his later life when he crossed to the dark side and became chairman (now retired) of The Independent Porsche Enthusiasts’ Club. None of his fellow Spideristi ever understood his forgoing of Pininfarina and Lampredi for the cold Teutonic efficiency of Stuttgart – as Egon Spengler rightly advised in Ghostbusters, ‘Don’t cross the streams’.
When editor Bell sent through a familiar looking name for this month’s aspirant, a quick glance at the cars on his top ten – four Italian and three German – was all I needed to confirm the identity of the man in question.
I could have put him behind the wheel of a Mini Cooper, Morris Minor Traveller or Chevrolet Corvette C1, but with Jason’s best interests at heart I tell him to step away from the Porker. It’s time for a bit of re-education with the Nineties sports car poster boy – the Ferrari F355 Spider.
As we lay eyes on today’s car, unusually dressed in Blu, Steve reveals, ‘Most Ferraris are red and in the case of the F355 often yellow, but I like this colour, it’s lovely and subtle and suits the car. As for body shape, I love convertibles. I owned my Fiat Spider for 13 years and have had two Porsche Boxsters. I think closed cars can be a bit claustrophobic, but in an open one you feel free.’
We hit a mild impasse as Jason works out how to open the door. After a bit of scallop recess fumbling the driver’s door opens, and he joins me in the cabin.
He studies the simple, elegantly crafted dials and slight curvature continuation of dashboard into door card. ‘I’m known for my cars not being totally standard, but it’s almost perfect in here. I’m not a small lad – 6ft and 15 stone, in old money – and the seat is spot on, firm but with big enough bolsters.
‘If I’m honest, the only thing I’m not a big fan of, is this,’ he says, gripping the leather steering wheel in both hands. ‘It looks like it’s off a Mondeo and had a Prancing Horse badge stuck on it. Give me an old-fashioned three-spoke Momo Prototipo or Montecarlo and I’d be happy. Sadly the large airbag isn’t my cup of tea – maybe the F575 and F360 wheels are a better compromise?’
There may be a bigger one coming up. ‘Eh?’ states Jason, as he reaches for the gearstick – cue a double take, before he clicks. ‘I didn’t realise we were testing an F1.’ Me neither, like Jason I’d assumed it was the blue manual Spider on the company’s website. ‘Is that a deal breaker?’ I ask. ‘No way, it’s the first production car fitted with the so-called “flappy paddles” – let’s see what it can do.’
He pulls both paddles to put the ’box in neutral and the naturally aspirated V8 fires with a sensuous quad-tailpipe rasp, before settling into a belligerent tick-over – think angry hornet, mollified momentarily. Flipping into first, he releases the fly-off handbrake and we’re away, heading towards the Chiltern Hills.
As we gather speed he shifts into second and a sharp jolt passes through the chassis. ‘Blimey, that’s a bit agricultural. Perhaps it’ll be better when warm. I’ll tell you what though, it’s a user-friendly thing. I was expecting it to be less well behaved, especially around town. It’s as easy and comfortable as any modern saloon.’
It’s true. Perhaps the biggest contributor to that is the power steering (a first for the company) although a lack of supercar histrionics plays a part too. Having had the life scared out of it by Honda’s NSX, Ferrari consigned complacency to the past by re-engineering the disappointing 348 in every conceivable way. In came two-stage electronic dampers and relocated suspension mounting points to offer handling that didn’t cause owners to scream in surprise as things went Fronty Mcbackwards.
Borrowing heavily from Ferrari’s F1 technology, the new 3456cc V8 featured five valves per cylinder, forged aluminium pistons and titanium alloy con-rods for 380bhp and a screaming 8500rpm redline. The one thing it didn’t have on its 1994 launch was the F1 ’box, which appeared three years later.
It’s ironic that we’re circumventing High Wycombe, waiting for this once-new tech to warm up – more so because the manual featured double cone synchromesh on first and second, so it was the first Ferrari gearbox not to have a difficult second until warm.
‘It’s getting better already,’ states my driver, flipping down to demonstrate. ‘I’ve driven modern cars with similar shift systems and the Porsche PDK ’box is awesome, but even though it’s markedly slower I like the feel of this one – it’s nice and positive.’ Finally, after 20 minutes of driving, we escape Civvy Street only to be stuck behind a bloomin’ white van.
It turns right, slooooowly. Jason drops a couple of gears in anticipation and, as the road clears, nails the throttle; suddenly the rev needle hits the 5500rpm sweet spot and the F355 begins to sing a howling urgent song. ‘Oh, that’s a sweet, sweet sound,’ he says above the cacophony. ‘There’s a big hit of Axel Rose, mixed in with an angel on a harp – it’s heavenly, but it’s absolutely screaming at you. Oh boy, I could get used to this. I never understood why Ferrari owners did such low mileage in cars they obviously love. I understand it now, it’s to keep the points down.
‘As he continues playing with the throttle, I point out he’s grinning like a Cheshire Cat’
‘I remember reading period road tests and reviewers saying the F355 ‘screamed like a banshee’. Now I’ve never actually heard a banshee scream, but I’ll bet it’s not far off this.’ As he continues playing with the throttle I point out he’s grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat, but that only provokes a wider smile – fair play, he’s had to wait a while before giving it the full beans. ‘If I could go back and tell the teenage me that one day I would get to drive this, I’m sure he’d scream like a banshee too.’
As we whip round a long sweeping corner a broken down lorry causes his first serious use of the brakes. ‘That warmed them up. I hadn’t needed them other than the odd dab to adjust speed before entering some of the bends. They do their job perfectly, no fuss – not even a squeak.’ We head crosscountry; Jason knows these roads well, having organised numerous road trips in the area for his Porsche crew.
The first bend is a sweeping right, going uphill into a tighter left-hander and then it’s foot to the floor, before he slows for a blind right. He’s working the car harder now but still nowhere near its limits. ‘My grin’s starting to hurt,’ he says. ‘The tyres’ sidewalls and suspension damping take out the road’s small ruts; I can’t feel the bumps, but it doesn’t feel soft either. It’s a nice compromise, unlike today’s rock-hard suspension and crazy low-profile tyres.
‘Every bend feels like it’ll take much more than I’m prepared to give; from turning in to powering out it’s so well balanced. Keep inputs smooth and it rewards you with total control. Modern sports cars are brilliant but you don’t feel like it’s you driving them. This feels like you’re in control. It’s very obedient and the steering gives great feedback to what’s going on with the tarmac.’
I’ve not been paying attention to the direction of our journey, allowing Jason to go where his fancy takes him. After an hour and a half we’re deposited from our rural playground at Princes Risborough, and just as quickly Thame flashes past. And 20 minutes later and we’re ensconced in the car park at The Akeman Inn, between Bicester and Aylesbury.
It’s National Burger Day and it’d be rude not to, so we sit outside to eat, admiring the F355 and discussing the day so far. ‘The reason it’s on my list is that it’s the last of the smaller Ferraris; it feels like a sports car, rather than a big GT. In fact, it’s actually smaller than my old 993 (only just), and that’s something I wasn’t expecting.’
I ask him to justify his perverse Italo-deutche leanings. ‘My first car was Italian and my first job was in my dad’s Fiat workshop. I love so many Italian cars. There is a passion and they are made from the heart – not perfect, but they stir something deep inside. The Porsche love was always there, but it’s different. They’re great everyday driving machines. Turn the key and they start, get you from A to B, sometimes via C, D and E. No dodgy electrics, great build quality, very efficient and very German.’
We pull out of the pub car park and bomb along the A41 before hitting road works. Jason stops at the lights and there’s a bleep neither of us pays attention to. At green he prods the throttle… but we’re going nowhere. Jason smiles, engages first and we’re finally off. ‘I forgot it does that. If you take your foot off the brake, after about 30 seconds it tosses you into neutral. Don’t worry, you only make that mistake once or twice.’
On our return journey Jason takes the opportunity for some analysis. ‘This car is the same vintage as my old 911 and in many respects they’re very similar; dimensions and weight are almost identical. Both are so very agile on my favourite types of roads – tight and twisty. The F355 has around 90bhp more but then it wasn’t a direct competitor; that would have been the 993 Turbo, which had 35bhp more than the F1 – I’d still have this, though.
‘Despite its supercar aspirations it reminds me more of my Fiat Spider. It too had Pininfarina styling, and ex-ferrari man Aurelio Lampredi designed the engine, although it was a mere 1.8-litre, modified to give 130bhp, so only a few ponies compared to this and half as much bhp/tonne. However, it was a fair bit smaller and lighter. The twin-cam engine loved to rev too, though the red line was only 6500rpm. The F355 feels like its big brother.’
As we return the car to Slade’s it’s time for Jason’s final thoughts. ‘I expected it to sound great and I wasn’t disappointed. It was everything I had dreamt it would be, but better. I’d have to drive a manual before deciding on which ’box, but the F1 acquitted itself well. That engine scream is so addictive, you spank it just to hear it again – it’ll stay with me long after the grin goes. The real surprise is that it’s so damned easy to drive. If it were mine it would be a daily – sod the mileage and resultant devaluation.’
My job here is done, Jason arrived in a Cayenne but tonight he’ll be dreaming Italian.
Jason feels at home in the F355 F1 Spider after owning a Fiat Spider for 13 years
This late Series 2 Lagonda runs on four Webers; electronic injection was introduced a year later The V8 soundtrack makes you want to downshift at every opportunity
A day in the F355 Spider has challenged reader Jason’s Porsche addiction