IN 1968, THE NEWLY LAUNCHED FERRARI 365 GTB4 ‘Daytona’ was the fastest production car in the world. It had 347bhp and stormed on to 280kmph. Today, the 812 Superfast has almost 800bhp and does 340kmph but is far from being the fastest production car in the world. It’s a small illustration of how the automotive landscape has changed in the last 50 years, though there are a few constants, and one of them is Ferrari’s devotion to the V12 engine.
The V12 is an unbroken engineering thread woven right through the history of the Modenese company, starting with its first car, the 125 S of 1947. That was fitted with a 1.5-litre V12, the first of the legendary Colombo line, and there has been a V12 in the line-up ever since. Well, technically there has, and we’ll come to that, because it has a part to play in this feature comparing Ferrari’s best GTs of the last half century.
Remarkably, the 60-degree V12 designed by Gioacchino Colombo back in the ’40s is the same as that fitted to the Daytona… in principle. In fact, not a single component is shared, the gradual upsizing over the intervening 20 years resulting in a whole new iteration that boasted four camshafts and a swept volume of 4.4 litres, or a little over 365cc per cylinder to be precise. So the description of the car was there in the original 365 GTB4 name, the numbers describing the engine (the trailing 4 denotes the camshaft count) and the letters the type of car: GT for Gran Turismo, B for Berlinetta. But Daytona has a ring to it.
This unofficial name was coined after Ferrari beat Ford in its own backyard with a 1-2-3 finish at the 24 Hours of Daytona, sweet revenge the year after Ford beat it at Le Mans in ’66. It was also a reminder of Ferrari’s success in motorsport each time the 365 was compared with the Miura, created by that upstart company half an hour up the strada in Sant’Agata. Lamborghini had also stolen some of Ferrari’s thunder in ’66 when it put a V12 behind the seats of the beautiful and innovative Miura and created the world’s first supercar. Ferrari responded by enlarging the 275 GTB4’s V12, raising its power to just more than the Miura’s 345bhp and enabling it to push the Daytona on to a top speed that was just a little higher too.
I’ve always been in awe of the Daytona. Although I built my first aged 24, I hadn’t driven one until Matthew Lange generously agreed to bring his along to our photoshoot. For clarity, the one I built was a 1:24 scale Fujimi model, which I sprayed on newspaper laid out on the living room carpet. Car makers run a current through car bodies when they paint them because it attracts the paint. So does synthetic carpet, as my large, shaded square carpet ‘feature’ proved.
The Daytona is such a fabulous-looking car, a Fioravanti design for Pininfarina that’s great from any angle and looks like it’s doing 70 when it’s standing still. It’s hard to believe that the Miura and Daytona were created within a couple of years of each other, in the same country, each beautiful and each explicitly conveying their mechanical layouts.
I’ve always loved the Daytona’s interplay of curves and sharp edges. In fact, I’ve admired it from afar for so long, I’m not sure I want to drive it for fear that, well, you know. Climbing behind the wheel, the one thing that doesn’t surprise me is that there’s not a huge amount of room inside for such a decent-sized car. I’ve always thought the body looks like it comes up a bit short, showing too much sill, and it feels like that inside, the short-backed bucket just big enough, the large wheel almost in my lap.
PERFECT PITCH DOESN’T DATE AND THE 550 MARANELLO HAS IT
The instrument pod is pleasingly crammed with dials, just as it should be, there are multiple sliders for the heating and ventilation, and below is the open gate of the manual shift. It’s positioned on the left of the console, close to hand on left-hand-drive cars, and stays there for right-hand-drive cars. The gearbox itself is at the rear, in combination with the rear diff, which helps weight distribution but means it doesn’t benefit from the warming effect of the engine, so on a chilly day such as this it can take an age for second gear to become available.
The 4.4-litre V12 is a gem, catching quickly with just a small squeeze of the throttle, and it’s beautifully mannered too, picking up cleanly and with delicious character from tickover. This speaks well of the maintenance of the regiment of carburettors sitting upright between the cylinder heads. There are six of them, 12 throttles in all, and you can sense the multiple connections and joints and butterflies responding each time you press the throttle.
It’s a quick car but not fast by modern standards, yet as I get to know it, it’s all I wanted it to be. And, says its owner, it’s as fast as the brakes can cope with anyhow. Even when all the gears are freely available, shifting is a methodical process: you need to heel-and-toe on downshifts to match revs and then encourage the lever between the tines rather than forcing it. Usefully, early in its life, this example was fitted with power steering, so it’s manageable at all speeds and helps ease you into the process of driving a Daytona, which benefits from a deliberate approach.
You start to get a feel for what gets the best out of the world’s fastest car circa 1968 after a few corners, and it’s this: be positive into turns, get the nose to the apex early and let the car settle. Then pick up the throttle early to sit the Daytona onto its rear axle and pour on more power as the corner unwinds so that you’re getting the most from all four balloon-like XWX Michelins. You know when you’ve got it just right. Add in the effort required to finesse the gearshift and the respect for the limitations of the brakes and you’ve got a thoroughly absorbing and rewarding drive.
Remember the earlier allusion to the fact that the Ferrari V12 line was only technically unbroken from 1947 to the present day? Well, that’s because Ferrari replaced the 365 GTB4 with the mid-engined 365 GT4 BB, and that car and its successor, the Testraossa, had flat-12s rather than V12s. So from the end of 412 GT production in 1989 to when the 456 GT was launched in 1992, there was no V12 in the line-up. Except… the ‘boxer’ engine that powered the BBs and Testarossas wasn’t a genuine boxer with horizontally opposed pistons. Technically it was a 180-degree V12.
The true successor to the Daytona – a front-engined V12 GT with a rear-mounted gearbox – came along four years after Ferrari launched the 456 GT. The 550 Maranello borrowed heavily from the 456 both in terms of hardware and learning and was powered by a four-valve-per-cylinder version of its new 5.5-litre 65-degree V12 that was good for a tasty 478bhp. While not as beautifully sculpted as the Daytona, the 550 was simple and clean, and aerodynamically efficient, too, claiming a top speed of 320kmph.
I was a fan of the 456. I liked its ride quality and its calm yet agile demeanour, and that it was suffused with traditional Ferrari character; it sounded great and almost all were manual, the auto ‘GTA’ version coming along later. The Maranello took the best qualities of the 456 and packaged them in a smaller, lighter, two-seat GT with a keener sporting edge. To me that read like the recipe for a sure-fire success, and within a couple of miles of driving it for the first time, I knew Ferrari had absolutely nailed it.
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