Red Alert
evo Singapore|Vol 74 - February 2017

Scottish mountain roads, alive with the sound of an F355’s flat-plane-crank V8… If you like your red cars compact, lithe and gorgeous, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Adam Towler

THE CAIRNGORMS MUST SURELY BE ONE OF THE most beautiful places on the planet. Whether you’re standing in the shadow of Braemar Castle, dazzled by the sunlight dancing off the River Dee or, like today, on a surprisingly brisk autumnal morning, high up in the mountains with the impression of standing on top of the world, it’s utterly captivating. No wonder the Queen likes to spend time here. You would, too, and for one other significant reason that I suspect we’d have no trouble agreeing on: the Old Military Road, a spectacular ribbon of asphalt that runs up the spine of this National Park. It has everything you’ve ever dreamed of in a road.

Today, however, the scenery has competition. It’s in the form of an unfashionably small, low, red projectile that’s disarmingly handsome. As far as the subjects of ‘Icon’ features go, few are more worthy than Ferrari’s glorious F355 – a pivotal machine in the history of the most famous car company of them all.

‘Want One’, screamed the cover of the July 1994 issue of Performance Car magazine (evo’s forefather) as it clanked through our letter box. I reached it before the dog, clocked the ‘Ferrari’s £84,000 bargain’ sub-heading with mouth agape, then read and re-read the feature aboard the bus bound for secondary school. From that day onwards, I have lusted after this relatively simple supercar, watched values plummet but still remain out of reach, and then seen those prices accelerate away once again. Despite these towering expectations, driving one has never been a disappointment. Today, on this road, I’m genuinely fearful the needle on the evometer might bend and break against the stop.

The roots of the F355 have become the stuff of motoring lore, recited by every bar-room expert. The 348, so the legend goes, was a stinker. Now, I’m not saying those early 348 TBs weren’t poor, but, like a lot of performance car history, perceived truths become distilled and streamlined into a simple narrative all too easy to repeat. A late 348 GTB is by no means a bad car, but the early 348 did look half-hearted, even complacent, next to Honda’s sparkling NSX, a car that redefined the concept of a useable supercar. The 348 was neither quick enough nor useable enough, and simply not very nice to drive quickly.

Ferrari needed a riposte, and damn quickly, the result being a very thorough evolution of the 348: the F355. Although closely related to those late-model 348s, the F355 was a massive step forward and also heralded the return of the beautiful Ferrari after the brash brutality of the 1980's machines.

I must have missed an entire GCSE Geography module swatting up on the new F129B V8 engine. Ferrari had looked to its contemporary V12 F1 programme, adopting five-valve-per-cylinder heads that helped raise the rev limit to a stunning 8500rpm. Titanium rods featured, too, while a 2mm increase in bore took the overall capacity from 3.4 to 3.5 litres. The result was 380hp, a substantial increase over the 348 GTB’s 316hp, giving the F355 the highest specific horsepower per litre of any naturally aspirated engine on sale, McLaren F1 included.

The steel monocoque body, tubular steel rear subframe and unequal-length wishbones were all Italian supercar staples left fundamentally alone, but Ferrari worked on everything else, rethinking the chassis again from the GTB, incorporating bigger alloy wheels, two-stage electronic dampers and power steering. The gearbox was now rod-operated, not a cable mechanism as on the 348, while more emphasis was placed on aerodynamics with a neat rear spoiler incorporated into the body, and crucially, a flat undertray.

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