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?

Classic Cars (UK) - - Contents - Words ROSS ALKUREISHI Pho­tog­ra­phy SAM CHICK

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

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