Cars

The classic Ferrari F40 turned 35 this year. It was the fastest road car of its day and, perhaps more significantly, probably the most exhilarating supercar ever built
Words: Gavin Green - Video: Ollie McIntyre

The 250 GTO may be more valuable, the Enzo more high-tech, and the latest SF90 Stradale is certainly faster, more sophisticated and way more capable. But, for sheer raw driving excitement, nothing beats the Ferrari F40.


It may well be the most exciting car ever built. There’s drama in its style and there’s high drama in the driving experience – so visceral, so demanding and yet so satisfying. As if all that wasn’t enough, the F40 was the first road car to do more than 200 mph (320 km/h) – and all without ABS brakes or any electronic controls. It didn’t even have power assisted steering or brakes. This car had a very singular mission: to thrill.

Watch a short history of the F40, the car that Enzo Ferrari left as his legacy to the automotive world and a true classic of design

Launched 35 years ago, it was the last Ferrari personally commissioned and approved by Enzo Ferrari, who died in 1988. It was designed to celebrate 40 years of Ferrari car production, thus the name. 

 

The clean dramatic bodywork, which still looks modern 35 years on, used lightweight carbon fibre doors, bonnet and bootlid. Its tubular steel spaceframe was reinforced by bonded Kevlar, to boost torsional rigidity. It previewed a new chapter in Ferrari’s use of lightweight materials, and weighed just 1100kg, one of the lightest-ever supercars. The aero shape was honed in the wind tunnel to help it exceed 200 mph (320 km/h). 

 

Power came from an advanced turbo V8, the most powerful Ferrari to date. It produced 478 CV (351 kW) from its 2.9 litres. There was an even a non-synchromesh racing gearbox for those who wanted to take the hardcore racer-for-the-road concept to the extreme. Most chose the five-speed all-synchro manual, engaged by a lovely long chromed lever in a six-fingered alloy gate: classic Ferrari.

The F40 was one of the first supercars to have a 'stripped out' interior in order to maximise weight savings and achieve ultimate performance

The story behind the F40 may impress. But, as with all great sports cars, what matters most is the feel, not the figures. Legendary test driver Dario Benuzzi says the F40 is the Ferrari he’s most proud of.

 

Drive one – and I’m fortunate to have driven four – and you’ll see why. The drama begins before you even sit behind the wheel. The car looks stunning, and the transparent vented rear engine cover gives a panoramic view of the turbo V8 that provides much of the excitement. You clamber over the big carbon sill and climb down into the deep racing seat complete with steep side bolsters. 

 

The gearshift is precise but stiff. The throttle, brake and clutch are all drilled metal and astonishingly heavy by modern standards. This car takes old school skill and muscle to master.

 

Nor did it have carpet, sound deadening, door trim or even an internal door handle – just a simple pull cord. No electric windows either, just a simple manual winder or sliding plastic windows on the early cars.

Instantly iconic upon its release in 1987, the F40 could go from 0-100 kmh in just four seconds thanks to its 2.9 litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine 

And what a car to drive! You sit absurdly low, backside only a few inches off the tarmac. It’s immersive and noisy, especially the throaty engine that barks and rasps and roars just a few inches behind your spine. 

 

Performance was sensational for its day: 0-62mph (100 km/h) in 4.1 sec, top speed 201mph (323 km/h). No car had such intensity of acceleration, finer steering precision, better road holding, handing or braking power. It still feels sensational today.

The F40 stands as a lasting tribute to the genius of Enzo Ferrari; his passing came just a year after the car was released to the public

Unlike so many noble Ferrari supercars, the extreme F40 cannot double as a comfortable grand tourer, perfect for that trans-Continental trip for two. There is nothing remotely luxurious about an F40.


It’s too noisy, too firm, too involving. Rather, it constantly stirs the senses. It’s an extreme and very fast car designed, quite singularly, for maximum driving exhilaration.