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California Dreaming

As we welcome a new spider – the Roma – it’s time to look back at one of the most famous open-top Ferrari nameplates, the California
Words: Gavin Green - Video: Rowan Jacobs

Ferrari’s first car back in 1947 was an open-top spider, and they’ve been a staple of Maranello’s line-up ever since. Yet there remains something very special about a new Ferrari spider. It is surely the company’s most sensual, most stylish and most desirable breed of car.

So, as we welcome the new Roma Spider – a car that combines 1950s La Dolce Vita style with 2020s Ferrari tech and performance – it’s worth celebrating one of the most special of all spider nameplates, the Ferrari California.

Watch an exclusive video tracking the history of the Ferrari California, from the open-top cruisers of the late 1950s to the lightning-fast California T launched in 2014

Just as Ferrari’s early model names – MM (for Mille Miglia), LM (for Le Mans) and Monza – reflected the Scuderia’s extraordinary early motor sport successes, so the California badge summoned images of sun, fun and sensuous soft-top driving. Every subsequent Ferrari California has, similarly, reflected the glamorous sun-kissed world of Malibu, Beverly Hills and Santa Barbara.

The California name wasn’t just a marketing moniker, to evoke a dazzling West Coast lifestyle. The first Ferrari California was aimed squarely at the US market. 

Let us time travel back to the mid-1950s, not long after Luigi Chinetti (the Scuderia’s first Le Mans winner) began to successfully import Ferraris into America. The United States had become an important market, and the West Coast representative John von Neumann thought there was a market for a spider version of the delectable 250 GT Berlinetta, the greatest Ferrari road-going coupé of the era. The first Ferrari California of 1957 was born.

The first Ferrari to bear the California name was unveiled in 1957; a Spider version of the beautiful 250 GT Berlinetta, aimed at the West Coast US market

Scaglietti constructed the special bodies, and 106 were duly built. They came in long- and later short-wheelbase guises and, being a Ferrari, it’s no surprise that some raced. One came fifth at Le Mans in 1959. 

The 250 GT California was sold alongside the less sporty 250 GT Cabriolet and was the preferred choice for those who wanted more performance and, it’s generally agreed, more style. All were made in left-hand drive form, appropriate as the car was aimed squarely at America. 

It wasn’t just successful on the West Coast. American East Coasters liked it too, and one particularly delectable short wheelbase example – built for the 1962 New York Auto Show – was recently sold at an auction in the US for just over $18 million.

California production ceased in 1963 and it wouldn’t be long before another Ferrari would wear the Golden State’s name: at the 1966 Geneva Show, Ferrari presented its new 365 California. This was a high performance droptop – although more cabriolet than spider – and it reached new heights of luxury for an open Ferrari. Long, sleek and elegant, it used a 4.4-litre version of the venerable Colombo-designed V12 (soon after to be used in the iconic 365 GTB/4 Daytona), and its streamlined style bore similarity to the iconic 500 Superfast gran turismo coupé. It remains one of the rarest of Ferraris; only 14 were built.

The 1960s saw a follow up California model, the 365, which was a longer, sleeker model with a powerful 4.4 litre, V12 engine. Just 14 examples were made

The California name was revived in 2008, and this time on a car with much more ambitious sales volumes than the exclusive ‘50s and ‘60s Ferrari Californias.

The new California had a mid-front mounted version of Ferrari’s superb naturally aspirated V8, and a retractable hardtop that meant it could easily morph from top-down convertible to proper metal-roof GT coupé. With a top speed approaching 310 km/h and 0-100 km/h acceleration in four seconds, its performance hinted at genuine supercardom. 

I went on the media launch – in Sicily, rather than California – and recall it was blistering fast. The wonderful throttle response and exhilarating engine note – urgent, animalistic and so distinctly Ferrari – further stimulated. So did its fine paddleshift seven-speed gearbox, so smooth that only the loud, menacing crack of the exhaust betrayed the gear change, each gearshift a magic Schumacher moment.

When the California name was brought back by Ferrari in 2008, the car retained the style of previous models but with a hugely powerful V8 engine and a top speed of almost 310kmh

Yet, metal roof lowered in just 14 seconds, it could beautifully play the boulevard cruiser, especially with the manettino in its ‘comfort’ setting. Quite the perfect car for carefree sunny Californian days. 

I wrote, back in 2008, that there had never been a Ferrari with such a wide and appealing range of capabilities: a car for all seasons and reasons. It was succeeded by a turbocharged version, the California T, in 2014, that was sold successfully until replaced by the Portofino in 2017. 

And now we look forward to driving the Roma Spider, a car with an Italian name but with California very much on its mind.