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The 456 GT: A Grand Legacy

Three decades after its release, this elegant prancing horse is now well down the road to becoming a modern-day classic
Words: Ben Barry - Video: Rowan Jacobs

A naturally aspirated V12 engine, elegant design and 2+2 seating to cosset passengers while accommodating luggage have been hallmarks of Ferrari grand tourers since the company’s origins in the late 1940s. But in 1992 Ferrari deftly reimagined the template for the 21st Century with the 456 GT.

The 456 GT’s powerful V12 was all-new, its design far more modern and aerodynamic than its forbears and the construction method advanced for the time. It made for a confident statement amid the turbulence of the early 1990s, when markets around the world were mired in uncertainty and recession. 

Watch an exclusive video reliving the design and development of the 456 GT, a car which has undoubtedly become a classic 30 years on

No wonder there’d been a three-year vacuum since the 456 GT’s predecessor departed Maranello’s production line. The luxurious 412 had debuted only in 1985, but it ended the gentle evolution begun with the 365 GT4 2+2 way back in 1972. 

While still resonant of Ferrari’s heritage, the 456 GT took a far more modern path. The elegant Pininfarina design inspired by the two-seat 365 GTB/4 ‘Daytona’ and its four-seat 365 GTC/4 coupe sibling.

Like those predecessors, Ferrari again used a tubular steel spaceframe for the 456 GT’s foundations, introducing sportier, more compact dimensions that remained generous enough to accommodate most adults in its plus-two rear seats.

The classic lines of the 456 GT were inspired by cars like the 412 and the 365 GTB4, with Pininfarina taking notes from the past while employing the latest in aerodynamic techniques

With Pininfarina’s graceful pen strokes realised in lightweight metal, the results were breathtaking, the 456 GT’s bonnet stretched long to house its extravagant V12, the cabin was regally set back and its roof gently tapered into a tightly drawn tail, while the lines were smoother, more rounded and more aerodynamic than the set-square geometry of the 412 – itself, a product of the 70s.

In echoes of those classic 365s, pop-up headlights rose on demand from the incredibly low-set nose with cooling air inlets subtly sunk into the bonnet behind like a mirror image.

This air-inlet graphic was then repeated in a C-shaped scallop down the body side, beginning behind the front wheel and flowing neatly into both sideskirt and rear haunch. Pininfarina had masterfully added definition to the streamlined flanks while visually subtracting metal.

Understatement continued with an electronically activated spoiler tucked away in the rear valance, discreetly adding downforce as the 456 GT homed in on its 300 kmh-plus top speed.

The 456 GT was steeped in quality; the interior was plushly appointed and the car even came with its own set of luxury luggage

That represented a huge 48 Kmh increase over the previous 412, as the 456 GT’s slippery bodywork and all-new V12 engine conspired to slice through the air with ease. Codenamed F116, the new V12 replaced the previous long-standing Colombo unit, introducing an advanced all-alloy design with double-overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and a larger 5474cc displacement that – when divided by 12 cylinders – provided the numbers in the 456 GT’s name.

Producing 442 cv at 6250 rpm with a flexible 550Nm of torque (both triple-digit increases over a 412) the V12’s prodigious if remarkably unstressed performance was delivered to the rear wheels via a six-speed transaxle gearbox integrated with the rear axle for near-perfect weight distribution.

Independent double-wishbones all-round, electronically controlled shock absorbers, self-levelling rear suspension and speed-sensitive power steering all helped corral the power.

The beauty of the 456 GT belied the enormous power sitting under the bonnet - with an all-new V12 engine capable of sending the car to a top speed of over 300kmh

Underlining the 456 GT’s long-distance chops, a luxuriously appointed and ergonomically optimised cabin featured plush Connolly leather hide, air-conditioning, an eight-speaker CD player and even fitted Schedoni luggage as standard – a four-piece set for manual models, or a three-piece alternative tailored specially for the GTA automatic that arrived in 1996 with a slightly smaller boot!

Whichever transmission was chosen, a huge 110-litre fuel tank ensured those aboard could settle back in total comfort as long-distance adventures melted away.

The 456 GT debuted at the Paris Motor Show in 1992, went down a storm with the press and customers alike and was produced through to 1998 before being superseded by the closely related 456M GT and GTA.

Three decades since its debut as a modern grand tourer that took Ferrari into a whole new era, the 456 GT is becoming a thoroughly modern and highly useable classic.