The Ferrari F50

As it is Enzo Ferrari’s birthday this week, I thought an article on the greatest Ferrari I have owned and driven was appropriate. Versus all the other supercars I have owned, the F50 stands out in its uniqueness and purity of concept. Given regulations today, there is no way anyone will ever build another one like it. In my opinion F50 is the last, and along with the McLaren F1, one of the two greatest purely analogue supercars.
With the F50, Ferrari set out to build a F1 car for the road and they certainly got closer to that goal than anyone else. The 4.7 liter V12 can trace its roots directly to the unit that powered the 1992 F1 car, and the gearbox is in a league of its own. The carbon fiber tub, steering, and inboard pushrod suspension, all are on par with the phenomenal engine. From an engineering standpoint, the F50 is a work of art. As a result, the huge levels of grip and performance are all achieved in the absence of any stability or traction control systems. Even the brakes are unservoed. When you look at a F50 side by side with an F40, you can see how much Ferrari learned from the earlier car and improved upon in the latter.
We acquired our F50 back in the summer of 2007 after a six month search for the right one. With only 349 officially produced, there are never more than a few for sale across Europe at any time. Our F50 was an original UK delivered car and we were the third owner. When we purchased the F50, it had just over 7000 km on the odometer and we doubled that during our ownership. By supercar standards, running the F50 was quite reasonable. Except for the fuel cells that needed replacing in 2012, it was lighter on the wallet than the F40, 365BB, and 360 Modena. The F50 is a simple car in terms of electronics and other than the dashboard, it has few high-tech items that tend to go wrong. The only issue I ever had on the road with the car was a failed temperature sensor and gasket. Both were a simple and inexpensive fix. The only major issue with F50s of which I’ve heard is of engines needing to be rebuilt around the 50,000 mile mark, especially if the car has seen extensive time on the track. Given its F1 roots and high redline, this is not a huge surprise.
Looking back over the history, during our ownership the yearly mileage was very consistent. I do believe this had a major impact on the car’s excellent running condition. F50s hate to sit, even more so than other Ferraris. In fact, looking over the service invoices, the 2nd largest bill was for £5k for a clutch replacement shortly after we purchased the car. The replacement was not due to clutch wear but caused by a seal that had failed due to lack of use. In fact while the grand total of the services invoices during our ownership was just under £30k, when you take out the £13k for the once every decade fuel cell replacement and £5k for the clutch, the annual servicing costs averaged a quite reasonable (for a limited edition Ferrari Supercar) £1.7k
In terms of what it is like to drive, open the fly weight door, drop down over the wide sill into the black leather driver’s seat, push the clutch in, turn the ignition key, wait for the OK light to illuminate on the dashboard, press the starter button, and the engine immediately explodes into life. Because the engine is bolted to the bulkhead, the whole car feels like it has now come alive. You sit quite forward in the chassis and visibility is excellent. This combination helps the car to shrink around you when on the move and place it exactly where you want it on the road. For the first several minutes, it revs to 2000 rpms until the cats heat up and then drops to just under a thousand. Wait for the water and oil temp gauges to light up by at least one bar, and then you can gently head towards the open road. Give it 10 miles to heat up properly and then the fun can start. Find a nice long empty patch of road, drop down to second gear, and start spinning that amazing engine up. The F50 will launch itself down the road with an aggression I have never experienced in any other car. Several times I have caught myself going quite a bit faster than expected. The F50 inspires more confidence at 120 mph than most cars do at 60 mph. The factory quoted 0-60 mph time of 3.9 seconds is easily believable. As the rpm gauge passes 5500, the exhaust note rises to a F1 type scream which simply intensifies as you close in on the 8500 rpm redline. The rigid carbon fiber tub, combined with the push rod suspension, provide outstanding road handling even when set up as a Barchetta. The mixed states of local road surfaces hardly bother the F50. The short throw 6 speed manual gear box is both quick and smooth, a real delight to use. Add in perfectly weighted steering which allows you to place the car exactly where you want it, and overall you have a truly great driver’s car.

One of my favorite drives in the F50 was an early morning dash from Madrid to Lisbon in the early fall. We were up early and able to clear the city well ahead of traffic. Once off the outer ring road, it is a nearly straight 400 mile shot. At that time of day, you have the road to yourself and the temptation to let the F50 run is very hard to resist. Swing down off the slip road, shift up into 3rd, open up the throttle, and let it run to 8000 rpms. Hold it there for a few moments and soak in the sound of pure power before quickly slotting into 4th. Allow the rev counter to swing towards north again and repeat. Once into 6th, it was time to pick a cruising speed to hold. With the roads to our self, the F50 dispatched the miles in short order. At the 200 mile mark we crested a small hill to find a pair of Guardia Civil cruisers parked on the side of the road with the officers standing around having their morning coffee. Resisting the primal instinct to brake, we just waved and kept on going. Fortunately, they just waved back, we even got a thumbs up from one. Shortly after we crossed the Portuguese border and bid the highway farewell. While the F50 is brilliant at crushing distances, it is the most fun when carving up a good country road. Power, brake, drop into 2nd, turn in, hold the power steady, wait for the corner to open up, and then add power again. Repeat a few hundred times over the next couple of hours. Do it all smoothly and the F50 stays absolutely cemented to the road. Far too quickly we closed the distance to the Tagus River so it was back on the highway to cross the bridge over into Lisbon. By now it was approaching late morning and the heat was beginning to build. With the Barchetta set up, you don’t notice this at all until you have to crawl in traffic for a bit. Once clear of the city, it was next up into Sintra for a quick spin around the mountain and then down the coastal cliff road before heading to Cascais for lunch. The cliff road from Sintra to Cascais is one of the better driver’s roads in Portugal. Get it right and it rewards, make a mistake and the next stop west is New York. Good brakes, confidence, and a chassis you trust are key to a good run. The views down the cliffs to the Atlantic make it worth the trip. With the V12 echoing off the hills, down the mountain we went and then all too suddenly it was over. We parked at the restaurant by the beach and let the F50 tick over and cool for a few minutes. Four hundred plus miles had come and gone and I was really not ready to stop.

While it might not be quite as fast as the latest super or hyper cars, the total “driver’s” experience, remains unmatched. So why did we sell it? The answer is simple but the situation complex. We moved to the US from the UK which lead to a massive garage massacre as the difference in EU and US safety and emission regulations make it nearly impossible to import EU spec cars into the US. The only real loophole is after 25 years. At that age a car becomes a “classic” and is exempt from US safety and emission regulations. As the Ferrari F50 was only “17”, keeping it was not a practical option.
As the F50 was originally purchased from Carrs Ferrari in Exeter and they have always done an outstanding job of taking care of it, I thought it was only fair that they also been given the opportunity to handle the sale. A short call to the dealership General Manager confirmed both their interest, and regret. By sundown the next day, the parameters of the deal were agreed. Shortly after the hard top & crate, manuals, photo build book, and luggage set were all collected, leaving a huge gaping hole in the soul of my garage.
Of all the cars I have sold over the years, I have never had a deal happen as quickly. I put this down to both start of what was to become a very hot market for rare limited edition Ferrari supercars and the fact that our F50 was a well-known car with a comprehensive history. Pedigree does matter as was so clearly demonstrated by the speed of the F50 deal compared to the painful drawn out experience I had when parting with the unknown Mosler MT900S.
There was not a single time that I drove the Ferrari F50 in my seven years of ownership that it didn’t make me feel special. Just sitting behind the steering wheel would put a huge smile on my face. Turn the key, press the start button and the result would engage and engulf all your senses in pistonhead euphoria. With that great V12 bolted directly to the tub, you felt that the car was alive and, on an outing, when it all flowed smoothly, car and driver became one. Getting the F50 motoring quickly down a country road was an experience that was hard to top. Put the F50 on a track and very little could stay with it, including one very surprised Ariel Atom driver if my memory serves me correctly.

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February 2020

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    Matthew Whinery
    20 Feb 2020

    Great write up! Curious how you would compare to a CGT?

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