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Almost 30 years ago a British motoring magazine took a Ferrari F512 M to the Sahara, in one of the most extraordinary tests ever of a supercar
Words: Gavin Green / Images: CAR magazine
Undoubtedly one of the lesser-known cars to ever emerge from Maranello, the Ferrari F512 M still made something of a splash on its debut at the 1994 Paris Motor Show. The third and final car of the Testarossa triumvirate, and the last production Prancing Horse to house Ferrari’s flat-12 engine, the F512 M was ready to impress. The ‘M’ in its moniker stood for ‘Modificata’, and Ferrari had indeed introduced a series of specification upgrades for their latest model.

The Ferrari F512 M in the Sahara desert, somewhere in the middle of its epic 1995 road trip. The car completed its return journey from Maranello to Morocco without missing a beat

The F512 M was more aerodynamic than its predecessor, the 512 TR (which in turn succeeded the Testarossa), and more powerful. Its 4.9 litre flat-12 cylinder engine underwent a slew of performance upgrades which took its power output up to an impressive 440cv, resulting in a zero to 100km/h time of just 4.7 seconds and a top speed of 315km/h. Impressive numbers for 1994. So, the F512 M offered big performance, safer braking – thanks to a new ABS system – and great handling. All anyone would need to hustle this latest model around a track or along a snaking mountain road – the natural habitat of any mid-engined Ferrari. As opposed to the broken gravel roads and sandy pistes of the Sahara Desert, then. But that’s where the UK’s CAR magazine decided to send the F512 M, along with one of its writers, for a truly extraordinary supercar road test following the car’s Paris debut.

The Ferrari F512 M in Marrakesh – an unusual sight now, let alone thirty years ago. The car photographed with a cobra on its roof (left). Also an unusual sight

Tasked with this enviable assignment, the magazine’s writer flew to Italy to collect the keys to a blood red F512 M, before setting off from Maranello to Malaga, with a spare tyre in the passenger seat. There, he met a support car and its two-man crew, including a photographer. Then the journey began for real.

The F512 M’s comfort quickly impressed. It proved to be a great long-distance car, which was just as well as it had a long, long way to go. The route was challenging. The team drove from Tangier to Casablanca, partly at high speed on a newly opened péage, then inland to Marrakesh on a road under construction. “Our route proved an early test of the Ferrari’s off-roading abilities, which seem rather good,” the magazine reported. “It doesn’t ground out and it doesn’t get stuck. Instead, it emerges into a small village dragging a trawl of dust and the stares of amazed onlookers behind it.”

The F512 M photographed in Marrakesh's bustling Djemaa el-Fna main square as part of the magazine feature

In the ancient fortress city of Marrakesh, a big crowd gathered around the car in the main square, the Djemaa el-Fna. The photographer shot a cobra on the roof, probably a first for a Ferrari. Then it was up into the High Atlas Mountains, first on glorious winding roads, the driver’s window open to hear the music from the high-revving flat-12 ricocheting off the rock faces. Then the road got worse. At the edge of the Sahara Desert, the team went onto Erfoud and the famous sand dunes of Erg Chebbi.

The Ferrari drove on broken sealed roads, on gravel tracks and on sand. Its finest moment – before it turned back to Maranello, via Fez and Tangier – occurred at a very un-Ferrari 10 km/h. Where a bridge had been washed away, the Ferrari had no choice but to cross a rocky dry riverbed, to the amazement of a 4x4 Mercedes G-Wagen that followed.

The Ferrari F512 M was more powerful and more aerodynamically efficient than its predecessor, the 512 TR of 1991. It was also surprisingly capable in the most unlikely conditions

The F512 M arrived safely back in Maranello and, when cleaned, bore no evidence of its adventure, apart from a few stone chips. “It behaved impeccably despite being showered in dust, belted at high speed, and repeatedly driven over rough roads,” the feature stated.

Over the course of its 7,500km adventure, from Northern Italy to deepest Morocco and back, the F512 M had behaved faultlessly. Despite carrying a couple of spare tyres – the chances of finding a Pirelli 295/35ZR18 P Zero in Morocco were slim – there were no punctures. The car had also come with a small box of spare parts. After all, there were no Ferrari dealers in Morocco. (There is now one in Casablanca.) No parts were needed.

A team from CAR magazine completed a similar journey earlier this year, taking a Ferrari Purosangue deep into the Moroccan desert. As with the F512 M, the car performed faultlessly

Earlier this year, almost 30 years later, Ferrari loaned the same magazine a Purosangue. The team journeyed to Morocco on much the same route and, once again, the Ferrari proved that a 12-cylinder, pedigree high-performance car with elegant styling and an extravagantly powerful engine can be surprisingly capable in the most unlikely conditions.