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Great Ferrari Innovations: The Cockpit

How a car looks and feels behind the wheel is as important as it how it goes. Ferrari understood this from the beginning
Words: Jason Barlow
Film: Rowan Jacobs

Tactility is an under-rated attribute in any car.

Look at 1950’s 166 MM Barchetta, with its huge, three-spoke wood-rimmed wheel, dominating an interior of deceptive simplicity.

A large centrally mounted dial contains three smaller inset ones, monitoring temperatures and fuel level, flanked on either side by a rev counter and speedometer. The 250 series that followed evolved rapidly during the Fifties, reaching its peak in the 250 GT SWB passo corto, a GT and racing car. The steering wheel is smaller and less formal, making the car wieldier. 

The steering wheel dominates the interior of the 1966 Ferrari 330 GTC

The main instruments look familiar, big dials supplied by Ferrari’s partner Veglia. The supplementary dials were now spread right across the dashboard. Incidentally, the late, great Stirling Moss raced a 250 GT Competizione to victory in the 1960 Goodwood Tourist Trophy, and was able to listen to the live race commentary on the car’s radio. It helped, he said, to know how big the gaps to the cars behind were…


In 1964, the beguiling 250 GT Lusso added more luxury, as well as dramatically reconfiguring the instrument layout. Now the main dials were moved centre-stage into a double cowl, with the five auxiliary dials in a separate binnacle ahead of the driver. In 1966, the 365 P Berlinetta Speciale showed what was possible in terms of interior packaging by somehow fitting three seats into the car, despite its mid-engined configuration and compact dimensions. 

Watch the Ferrari cockpit evolve over 75 years of ceaseless innovation

But it was 1968’s 365 GTB4 – known as the Daytona – that set the idea of the front-engined Ferrari GT on fast forward, outside but also within. Now all the instruments were arranged in a single binnacle ahead of the driver, eight in all. Ventilation, once an after-thought, was handled by a series of vertical sliders. The seats featured contrast-coloured inserts, and even the door panels were strikingly futuristic. 


Its successor, the 365 GT4 2+2, was square-cut and contemporary inside and out. The steering wheel remained three-spoke, if a little more padded of rim, but the auxiliary dials were now gently angled towards the driver and sat at the top of an enlarged centre console. The mid-engined Berlinetta Boxer was a more minimal creature inside, deleting the centre console altogether but introducing toggle switches to the central tunnel and modish door cards.  

Everything sits at driver's eye level in the 1980 308 GTS Quattrovalvole     

The F40 is one of the great jewels in the Ferrari back catalogue, its singularity of purpose evident inside and out. The dashboard is a simple grey expanse, the roof headlining a perforated vinyl. There are no interior door-handles; instead, you pull on a length of cord. 

The F50 that succeeded it operated to a similar philosophy; a simple but beautiful carbon fibre panel stretching the width of the cockpit, the wheel not dissimilar from the cars that kick-started the whole Ferrari story, yet somehow very modern. 

The 456 GT and 550 Maranello both had imposing centre consoles and a renewed emphasis on materials and build. As with the F50, the open-gate transmission and gear-lever mark these cars as the last of the manual V12 breed. The paddleshift and semi-automatic arrived first in 1997’s update of the wildly successful F355, a direct transfer from the track to the road. So, too, did the airbag, a vital piece of safety innovation but not a particularly pleasing one aesthetically. 

The manettino interactive steering wheel first appeared on the F430 in 2004

But it was 2002’s Enzo that deepened the innovation associated with F1, and heralded a time of rapidly maturing technologies. Ferrari upgraded the hardware and software on the Enzo’s automated manual transmission, for incredibly interactive gearchanges. And the steering wheel? This one takes its cue from F1, with controls now migrating onto the wheel itself. It was flat-topped, with a set of LEDs that display the sharp end of the rev range. They illuminate in 500rpm increments once past the 5500rpm threshold. There are indicator buttons on the two thumb spars, and six buttons either side of the wheel centre. 


Ferrari went further on 2004’s F430, which saw the introduction of a wheel-mounted rotary switch called the manettino (little lever in Italian). This is such an intuitive piece of design that it remains in use today. Flicking through each setting allows the driver to alter the suspension, the CST stability and traction control, the e-diff, and the speed of the automated transmission. The red ‘engine start’ button is a glorious throwback. 

The cockpit of the new 296 GTS with the Assetto Fiorano package 

That philosophy was revisited in 2009’s 458 Italia, although the car’s cabin ergonomics took another huge leap ahead. The large, centrally mounted rev counter was front and centre, with audio and sat nav displays flanking it, and accessed via two little satellite pods either side of the wheel. 


Now Ferrari’s control logic is oriented around the ‘eyes on the road, hands on the wheel’ mantra. The latest models, including the 296 GTB, Roma and SF90 Stradale, have cockpits that are dazzlingly innovative by 2022 standards. The latest generation, 16in, digital binnacle ahead of the driver is the ultimate in multi-tasking: it combines the instrument panel (rev counter still pre-eminent), infotainment display, and the navigation system. Capacative buttons on the steering wheel control a number of other, secondary functions. The gearshift paddles, indicator buttons, wiper and headlight controls, and drive mode manettino all live on the steering wheel. 


But tactility remains a key precept.