CHALLENGE STRADALE, SPECIALE, Pista… the evocative names of some of Ferrari’s ‘special series’ V8s. They’re all built to the same simple yet compelling formula: take an already exciting production car, strip out unnecessary kit, shave off a chunk of weight, ginger up the power, sharpen the handling and, bingo!, you’ve got yourself a more driver-orientated, more visceral mid-engined Ferrari.
There’s one special series car that gets much less coverage than the rest though, and what’s even stranger is that it’s the original, the blueprint, and the rarest too. It’s the 348 GT Competizione. Some will see that it’s based on the 348 and think they understand why it’s the least known of this thrilling series… and they’d be wrong. As I was.
The standard 348 is not the most coveted of Ferrari’s V8 berlinettas. In a line-up for schoolyard football it would be the last to be picked. In short, it would be lucky to make a list of Maranello’s top 50 road cars. It has its fans though, many of whom hold it up as one of the last analogue Ferraris; no power steering, no traction control, fixed dampers… It’s a Fioravanti design too, from the pen that brought us the 308, Testarossa and F40, and it has aged rather well, hasn’t it?
Set against that, not long after its 1989 launch I drove a 348 TB and it didn’t handle as well as the 328 GTB we also had along. In fact, my colleague stuffed it into the verge doing the cornering shots. Someone else unimpressed was one Luca di Montezemolo, joining Ferrari as president in late ’91. Years later he (in)famously described the 348 as one of the worst Ferraris ever made. No surprise it got fixed, then, especially as Honda had just launched the NSX and re-set expectations of how driveable a junior supercar could be.
The 348 Spider came along in summer ’93 and handled as superbly as the 348 always should have, as did the tb-replacing GTB and targa-roofed GTS that followed a few months later. Trouble was, in May ’94, the brilliant F355 arrived and suddenly Ferrari wasn’t just back in the game, it was the game. And that’s how a very special 348 came to be overlooked.
The 348 GT Competizione had also been launched back in 1993 and just 50 were built, eight in righthand drive and they cost a little more than the much more potent and handsome F355. Yet Paul Hogarth’s immaculate 348 GTC looks fantastic. It has a much better stance than the stock 348 and that’s all down to its bigger, deep-dish alloys filling the arches so much better than the original flat-faced five-spokes.
Otherwise, externally it’s no different, but only so far as you can see. Weight was saved wherever possible, so the front and rear bumper aprons are fashioned from carbon-Kevlar, the bulkheads too, and so are the door skins, as you can feel when you swing open the driver’s door.
Inside is a pair of F40 carbon-Kevlar buckets trimmed in red, fire-retardant cloth. Ferrari claimed a dry weight of 1180kg, around 200kg lighter than the standard car. That may have been true of the bare racing version, but this car has most of the trim of the standard 348 GTB. Seats apart, the most obvious difference is the numbered plaque in the centre of the steering wheel, inscribed here with ‘38/50’.
There’s a free-flowing exhaust but no other engine changes are claimed – power is quoted at the same 316bhp as the GTB – and initially the GTC feels and sounds pretty standard, the 3.4-litre V8 spinning with that familiar, smooth, flat-plane-crank yowl. The ride is surprisingly supple, only sharp reports over cats eyes and ridges betraying the fact that the suspension has race car-style uniball joints rather than flexible bushes.
For those of us lucky enough to have got lazy with modern Ferraris and their slick dual-clutch gearboxes and power steering, the GTC comes as an increasingly pleasant surprise. The F355, probably prompted by the NSX, gave us a gearbox in which you could select all gears from cold, but the GTC is old school and initially the lever can’t be persuaded between the tines for second. Meanwhile, the steering demands muscle at low speed.
By the time we’re free of the drizzly suburbs and heading across glorious, sunlit, Welsh landscape, all that is forgotten. The GTC is utterly absorbing, the gearshift as slick as you can make it – and it is reliant on you finessing it, and that is a good thing – while the engine is engaging and eager (helped by a lower final drive) and feels feistier than standard. Best of all, the dynamics are exceptional.
At speed the steering is a little woolly about the straight ahead, but at all other times it’s precise, nicely weighted and full of feedback. And one of the things it tells you is that this chassis is beautifully sorted. There’s no slack in its responses; you turn, the nose tucks for the apex and the back end is right there, not free of inertia but that inertia is controlled, contained… and exploitable. There’s one lovely sequence where the road pops over a crest and dives left, then right. It’s a challenge for any car, but the GTC tacks through it like a Scalextric car, grip strong, rear mass in check, damping sublime. It’s a defining moment.
ANOTHER REASON THE GT COMPETIZIONE is often overlooked is because Ferrari didn’t build a special series F355, so there’s a ten-year gap to the 360 Challenge Stradale, a car that embodies an enormous leap in engineering.
After the F355, Ferrari was very much on the front foot and the 360 Modena, launched in 1999, was a huge departure for the company, its body shaped as much by the wind tunnel as the designer’s pen, that body and the chassis fashioned from aluminium, a first for the company. This was a new kind of V8 Berlinetta – wider, longer and with a 3.6-litre, 32-valve evolution of the F355’s 40-valve 3.5, with a tidy output of 394bhp.
Ferrari took its time getting around to making the special series version. The Challenge Stradale arrived four years into 360 production, by which time there were race versions competing successfully in GT classes around the world. At a glance, the Challenge Stradale looked as if it had been put together using their parts, but while it had a similar low-slung stance and gorgeous-looking multi-spoke alloys, it was in fact totally bespoke.
From optional sliding-slot Lexan side windows to harness belts and an extinguisher, the Challenge Stradale could be as racer-like as you wanted, though also on the lengthy options list were leather trimmed, carbon-backed bucket seats in small, medium or large.
I remember how good our launch car looked in silver with the optional tri-colour stripe (₹3 lakh). The ₹30 lakh premium over the stock 360 got you carbon brakes and the F1 automated manual (both pricey 360 Modena options) and that exquisitely executed, race-inspired interior. Oh, and an uplift from 394 to 420bhp, heralded by one of the loudest road car exhausts… from the inside.
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