Buying a Ferrari F40 & Driving It Across Europe

The following is the story of how I bonded with a phenomenal machine over a four day trip across a large part of Europe many years ago.  Our trip started at a Ferrari dealership north of Frankfurt and ended near Madrid.  The salesman’s parting words were “be careful” and he looked quite distraught as his baby slowly rumbled away.  Prior to this trip I had almost 10 miles of driving experience in a F40.  Looking back now, deciding to undertake a trip like this in a newly purchased F40 with so little experience commanding one, verges on the insane. I would do it again in a second.  Despite starting off as strangers, we have now completely bonded.  It is simply the most awe inspiring car I have ever driven on the road.

My brother and I collected the F40 late on a grey Friday afternoon. The process took much longer than expected as traffic coming up the Autobahn to the dealership was terrible.  By the time we finished with all the paperwork about an hour of sunshine was left and we had 200 miles to do to get back to our hotel south of Frankfurt.  Sitting in the driver’s seat for the first time as an owner is a combination of pure intimidation, excitement, and child like giddiness. It is impossible not to smile, and near impossible to stop. It is even better than being a kid at Christmas.  After about 5 minutes of just calmly absorbing the new environment, you start to realize that you have (in this case with the uprated turbos) almost 600 bhp behind your head in a car that weights 1300 kg and is completely devoid of ASR, ABS, etc. Stability control is provided solely by the mush mounted on the top of the driver’s neck. This is when the terror starts to set in.

Anyway it was time to finally get moving. To get the engine started you turn the key to the right, activate the active suspension, and then punch the start button. The engine fires up immediately. It is best to then sit and let it idle for several minutes while the cats and oil heat up. The clutch is heavy and precise and has a similar feel to the one in the 365 BB.  Slot into 1st and we are off, slowing weaving between cars to navigate our way out of the dealership. Half the staff has come out to see us off and the only thing going through my mind is not to stall the F40 and look like a total fool in front of everyone.  Fortunately all goes well and in 5 minutes we are back on the Autobahn.  During this entire period I have one eye constantly glancing at the tachometer to make sure we keep it under 3000 rpm and off the turbos.  At low rpms the F40 is surprising docile and easy to handle. For the first hour on the road, we cruise at 120-140 kph.  Even at these speeds the F40 has enormous presence and other cars instinctively move out of our way.  The first docile hour allows us to slowly start to get more comfortable with the F40 and used to how it handles. Traffic is lighter heading south and other than 2 construction zones, where the F40s girth makes for some interesting maneuvering; the first leg of the trip goes smoothly.

One area that took a bit of figuring out happened right at dusk. Over about a 20 minute period we were flashed by what I assumed were speed cameras about 5 times (the autobahn does have speed restricted areas with plenty of cameras). What was confusing was that we were actually obeying the speed limits in these zones. The last time it happened I finally caught onto what was happening. It was people in other cars with digital cameras taking pictures as we slowly cruised by. This clearly is one 14 year old car that catches the eye.  Tomorrow we planned to see how fast it really goes or more likely how fast the new owner and his brother dare push it before backing off.

On Saturday morning we had about 300 kilometers of Autobahn to cover before ducking into France for a few hundred more. We decided to get up early and hit the highway as the sun was coming up, hoping that this would give us a few chances of finding clear sections of asphalt to wind it up. Starting the F40 up in the underground parking garage at the hotel created a bit of a sonic bomb as the exhaust pipes were only about a foot off the rear wall.  It was a great sound for the 10 seconds before half the other car alarms proceed to go off.  Clearly time to make a quick exit.  The first 20 minutes on the road were not great as a slight drizzle was falling. The light rain was leaving just enough water on the road to keep us near US speed limit territory.  Despite stories of the F40 having very tricky handling on anything but a dry track, so far this one behaves in a very civilized manner.  All four wheels are well planted and you do not feel like the rear can go at any time. The steering is BB heavy in the parking lot but very precise and light as soon as you start moving at a reasonable speed. The small sports steering wheel is perfect, accurate and just the right size.  The angle of the wheel takes a bit of getting used to but overall the driving position is near perfect. The dials are easy to read at a glace and the switches are within easy reach.  The huge rear tires grip well but so far we have been conservative and progressive with the right foot.  Brakes are well, not great. Actually they are a bit frightening in a car with this sort of power. They feel more like 70’s/80’s discs vs those on the later 90’s Ferraris. Net net, no late braking with the F40 if you want to keep you underwear clean. Of the three mirrors, the drivers side door mirror works well, the rear view mirror provides a much distorted picture as it looks right through the plexiglass engine cover, and the passenger side mirror is useless.

After about 50 KM, the rain stopped and the road was drying quickly. There were still a few cars on the road and it was just 2 lanes in this area. We began to add more speed and were now cruising very comfortably in the 160 kph range. The F40 is hardly stressed at this speed and just purrs along. Blue skies beckoned ahead and in 10 minutes we crested a small hill, the autobahn opened up to 3 lanes with nothing but open road in front of us. I looked over at my brother; we both nodded, and down went the right foot. The 1st sensation is a very slight wiggle on the rears as the tires wrestle with the huge amount of power now being aimed at the tarmac. The noise level starts increasing rapidly and the spooling of the turbos clearly cutting through with a high pitched scream. The carbon fiber body transmits every imperfection in the road directly into the cabin. The revs quickly build to 6000 and the speedometer starts swinging rapidly past 200 kph.  Your head gets shoved back and your body sinks deeper into the sports seats.  On many US cars, there is a warning sticker on the side mirrors that objects are much closer than they appear. This should be stuck on the windshield of the F40 facing the driver. The acceleration when the turbos kick in is unreal.  Much faster than any other car I have ever driven. It feels that in 2 seconds we had gone from 160 to 250 kph. Memories of the scene in Dr Stranglove where Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong rides the missile down came immediately to mind.  Everything is flying by at this point but the F40 is completely stable. No twitching, no shuddering, no jumpiness, just happily planted on the autobahn doing exactly what it does best. The complete lack of any chassis drama leaves a permanent impression.  As we were on a public road, I decided this was as fast as I was comfortable going and did not try to push it any further.

After about 5 minutes other cars started to appear on the horizon so I began lightening the right foot. We glided back into traffic and began the process of maneuvering to the front of the pack, looking for another opportunity for a high speed sprint. Over the next hour, we were able to get in three more clear runs. Several times we hit 250 kph again but never exceeded it. It seems to take very little tarmac to get up to that speed but a lot more to come back down.  In the movie Spinal Tap, there is a great line where one of the band members is asked what is so great about a certain amp. Nigel Tufnel replies, “this one goes to eleven.”  The F40 is a car that goes to 11.

By now we had sadly run out of Germany and were crossing into France, we decide to take a more leisurely approach of cruising through the valleys.

Crossing the border into France you notice two things immediately, the road surface improves and everyone slows down by 20-30 kph. After a few hours of high speed cruising, all of a sudden going 140 kph seems like you are just crawling along. With the sun out and rolling through the hills, this leg quickly turned into a more relaxing jaunt.

About 45 minutes into France and with the fuel gauge pinned to the left, we needed to make our 1st gas stop of the day. Comfort and leg room for those members of the 6 foot plus crowd are not in excess, especially for those strapped into the passenger seat.  A stop every couple of hours to stretch the legs became a welcome tradition for the rest of the trip.  With the high sills, entry and exit into the cockpit can be less than elegant.  After a day or two you figure out a system to do it so which avoids impaling yourself on the seat belt buckle or whacking your head on the edge of the roof.  After filling up the twin 60 liter tanks, we headed inside for a cup of coffee.

After finishing a couple cups of java, and as we turned to pay, a troop of 6 motorcycle police pulled into the station and parked their bikes right along side the F40.  We decide to wait inside to see what would happen next. Two of the officers immediately headed inside to the bathroom while the other four circled the car, looking into the windows and pointing at the engine. They seemed more interested in admiring the car than anything else so we just hung inside the service station. Deciding that we did not want to be identified as prime candidates for an immediate ticket, we waited for them to roll on before heading back out on the road. Having heard several horror stories of driver’s licenses being confiscated and cars impounded, especially those with foreign plates, the next hour was taken very conservatively. It is at these moments that you really feel like you are driving along in a big red bull’s-eye for every radar trap.

The rest of the day’s drive was uneventful barring one short moment. While passing a minivan, I noticed a bunch of kids looking out the rear window and waving. Seeing this we decided to hit the brakes, pull in behind them, wave, and flash the lights. They seemed to quite enjoy this before we pulled back out and spooled up the turbos. It was great to see all the kids enjoying the F40.

After taking Sunday off to do some local sight seeing and vineyard hopping, we had solid 600 kilometers to cover on Monday.  The weather was perfect for driving, sunny and about 18C.  Our route was mostly highway with a brief cut through into the country along a few “B” roads running through the vineyards. Progress in the land of the Gendarmerie was much more restrained.  Coming out of one toll booth we were sandwiched between two on motorcycles for about a kilometer. The front officer then speed off into the distance while the one on my tail moved into and then sat in what he assumed was my blind spot. I think he was hoping that I had forgotten about him and would hit the accelerator. After about five minutes he finally gave up the cat and mouse game and also took off. Overall they definitely were not a welcoming, friendly bunch. Clearly the many stories about Italian police pulling along side and urging Ferrari drivers to exercise their cars does not apply in the land of Chriac and the 35 hour work week.  The drive through the vineyards was quite pretty but the F40 definitely does not like any road surface that is not near perfect.  Every bump and loose piece of gravel is transmitted through the carbon fiber body. It can be quite teeth rattling at times.  We stopped at a friend’s house near Avignon for a magnificent lunch and great conversation.  We did have to pull a major feat of F40 maneuvering to back the car up the driveway and around protruding gate posts.  These parking gymnastics would later be repeated at the hotel that night.  In this case we had to back up the driveway to clear the drainage lip cut into the bottom of the ramp leading up to the gate.  The merits of having your brother along to act as a F40 squire for delicate maneuvering can not be overlooked.  Overall it was a good uneventful relaxed day on the road.

The final day of the trip started very early on what looked to be another beautiful day for driving. Having just crossed into Spain the night before, we were anticipating a quick run down the highway on the edge of the Pyrenees. It was not to be, as soon as we hit the highway we got caught in a major traffic jam. It took 30 minutes of crawling along to finally reach the next exit, 5 kilometers down the road. At this point we decide to flee for empty tarmac in any direction that it could be found. Driving an F40 in stop and go traffic ranks is the motoring equivalent of hell.  Do it once and you will swear never to do it again. Despite the car behaving perfectly (engine and water temperature never rose above normal, same could not be said about the driver), having to control the active suspension, heavy clutch, and not too delicate steering at 1 mph, does not rate as a good time.

Once free of the horrific grip of traffic, we plotted a huge detour which took us down and around the clogged highway. As we actually had to be at a drop off point for the F40 today by 3:30 PM, the delay put time pressure on us for the first time in the trip. If you had to pick a car to make up time in on a long trip, the F40 is a near perfect choice. Heading into the sparsely populated hinterlands, we started eating up highway miles quickly. In places we were the only car on the road for miles in either direction. Within two heavy footed hours (fueled by a few cans of Red Bull) we were pretty much back on track and quite pleased with ourselves. This turned out to be a stroke of luck as we changed highways shortly after the final gas stop and the new road was less than smooth. In fact it had to be one of the more poorly finished highways in Europe. With the F40s ability to amplify every nuisance of the road bed directly up through your fanny, the next leg turned into a much slower skull rattling sprint.  During this leg there was intense discussion on the great merits of a true GT vs. the pure Sports car. On several occasions we came very close to bottoming out in areas where the road bed had sunk into the ground. The level of concentration to pilot the red missile took on a new intensity.

After roughly 2 hours things took a turn for the better as we ran onto fresh blacktop. With only 60 kilometers left to run, we spooled up the turbos for one last sprint. After two hours of mind rattling jarring delivered by each new slab of concrete pretending to be a road bed, experiencing the amazing forward oomph of the twin turbos quickly reminded us of what an amazing focused car Ferrari created in the F40.  In little more that four days we covered over 2100 kilometers, paid a small fortune in French road tolls, and did it in what has to be one of the greatest cars ever built.  The F40 was created with one thing in mind, speed, and lots of it.  A touring car it is not and while livable, refreshed and relaxed are not the two words that would come to mind after several hours behind the wheel.  In theory could have done the trip in 6 and ½ hours given the 200+ mph capabilities of this supercar.  Unfortunately the real world has traffic, rain, speed cameras, and potholes so it took quite a bit longer.  Not once during the trip did the F40 so much as even cough.  We both commented that it was running more cleanly by the end of the trip, and how lucky we were to have had the experience of driving one half ways across Europe. 

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February 2020

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