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Great Ferrari Innovations: The Retractable Roof

For 75 years, Ferrari have been perfecting the concept of open-top driving
Words: Jason Barlow
Film: Rowan Jacobs

What is the etymology of the term Spider?

Sometimes spelt with a ‘y’, sometimes not, it’s closely associated with Italian marques to denote a car with a convertible roof.

This despite the absence of the letter ‘y’ in the Italian alphabet. Anyway, the nomenclature pre-dates the car itself and has its roots in the ‘spider phaeton’, a type of horse-drawn carriage lightened for sporting or show activities rather than touring use, and offering only rudimentary protection from the elements. Observers noted that these vehicles looked rather ‘spidery’ on their spindly wheels…

The 166 Inter was the first Ferrari road car with a retractable roof  

The concept survived and flourished, and the cars would become more innovative and voluptuous. Ferrari’s very first car, the 125 S, was a racing ‘barchetta’ – little boat – a name and format that was replicated in its first Le Mans 24 Hours, where Luigi Chinetti won in 1949 in the 166 MM. 


Before the Forties were out, the company’s first road-going GT car, the 166 Inter, gained a Spider version, designed by Stabilimenti Farina. Following that famous meeting midway between Modena and Turin in 1951, Enzo Ferrari would grant the Turin-based carrozzerie the exclusive rights to ‘style’ his cars. 


The first in what was destined to become the most fruitful creative collaboration in automotive history was a 212 Inter Cabriolet…

Watch 75 years of open-top driving from Ferrari 

Many more would follow, often at the behest of wealthy, warm weather-loving clients. Some fly a little under-the-radar by Ferrari standards: the 400 and 410 Superamerica models, perhaps, or were more decorous, like the 250 PF cabriolet. 


Ferrari’s most famous Spider is probably the 250 GT California, inspired by a request from Enzo Ferrari’s confidant and US man Luigi Chinetti and the company’s west coast importer John von Neumann to create something more overtly sporting. Two versions duly appeared, a longer wheelbase car based on the Tour de France, and in 1960 a shorter car that drew on the 250 GT passo corto. 

Rather than retract, the 1977 308 GTS employed a detachable roof first seen on the 1972 Dino 246 GTS

At the other end of the Sixties came the glorious 365 GTS/4 ‘Daytona’ Spyder – with a ‘y’ – whose body was the work of Leonardo Fioravanti at Pininfarina. Converting that epochal shape required significant effort from Ferrari and the fabricators at Scaglietti: it needed numerous new body panels, a new windscreen frame, and a boot-lid, as well as chassis reinforcement to bolster the structural rigidity lost by the removal of the roof. 


Meanwhile, Ferrari’s sense of innovation extended to the introduction of a detachable roof panel on 1972’s Dino 246 GTS, a clever way of delivering fresh air within the constraints of the mid-engined configuration. The chassis was strengthened along the sides and on the front of the engine frame, with reinforcements added to the roll hoop. 

The 812 GTS can deploy its roof at speeds of up to 45 km/h

A similar approach was taken on 1977’s 308 GTS, and 1983’s Mondial Cabriolet somehow managed to package a folding roof and four seats, while encompassing the obligatory structural upgrades. The 348 Spider arrived in 1993, Ferrari’s first two-seater convertible since the 365 GTS in 1969. Its successor, the F355, would be available as a Berlinetta, as a targa-roofed GTS and as a Spider, losing the GTB’s iconic rear buttresses but gaining an ingeniously packaged folding canvas roof. 


Its successor was cleverer still. The 360 Modena Spider was the first all-aluminium Ferrari GT car, and Pininfarina’s design leaned into a new, modernist aesthetic. The roof folded away in 20 seconds in a complex mechanical ballet of interlocking sheet metal and panels. Two roll hoops behind the occupants underscored the safety emphasis, aided by fairings that also helped define the shape at the rear of the car. Then came the minimalist 550 Barchetta, and 575 Superamerica, which used a remarkable ‘Revochromic’ roof, patented by former Pininfarina design chief Leonardo Fioravanti and co-developed with Italian glass specialist Saint Gobain. The roof rotates 180 degrees on a single axis to sit flush with the boot or trunk; Ferrari went further by allowing owners a choice of five different degrees of tint for the metre-square glass panel, operated by a dial on the centre console. 

Zero turbo lag and a retractable hard top that can be closed or opened in 14 seconds are the hallmarks of the Ferrari F8 Spider

In 2008, things became cleverer still. The California’s roof consisted of two rather than three sections, folding on top of one another before disappearing beneath the boot panel. It was a true feat of engineering, optimised once again on the Portofino, which you’d swear is a fixed coupe until you watch its roof magically disappear.


Of course, the Spider continues today in the guise of the F8 Tributo, and the 296 GTS is newly launched. We should also acknowledge limited series cars such as 2010’s 599 SA Aperta (80 examples), 2014’s mesmerising F60 America (10 cars) and the same year’s Sergio (a mere six units), as well as some notable one-offs. The LaFerrari Aperta followed the F50 as the ultimate in sensory – and tonsorial – overload, while the Spider version of the SF90 is the most powerful ‘open’ Ferrari ever made. And let’s not forget the Monza SP1/SP2, a car that dispensed with the idea of a roof altogether…