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Ferrari’s Two Decades of Excellence

December 7, 2011 by Matt

Ferrari Engine Motor

Don’t get me wrong—they’ve always been good. But a recent Motor Trend interview with Ferrari chairman Luca Montezemolo, whose tenure began in ’91, gives a little insight into the Italian performance firm’s particularly outstanding last 20 years.

The interviewer and Montezemolo compare the remarkable improvement in Ferrari’s output to the qualitative difference between two cars which bookend the 20-year span: The early ’90s, dorky Testarossa-junior 348 and the recently-released, voluptuous, world-beating 458 Italia:

If you want to understand how dramatically Luca Montezemolo has changed Ferrari in his 20 years at the helm of the company, the transformation from 348 to 458 is an apt metaphor. Enzo might have created the Ferrari legend, but it’s Luca, born into an aristocratic family the year the company was founded, who’s made the legend real.

The two cars occupy roughly the same niche in Ferrari’s lineup, that of their “entry-level” mid-engined sports car, so the comparison works—Ferrari has come a long way, and much of their present mastery of the exotic car formula is due to Montezemolo’s steady, visionary hand at the tiller.

I don’t have much to add to the excellent interview summary other than to point out an often-overlooked contributor to Ferrari’s consolidation of its position in the industry: The revolution in their car’s usability starting with the 348’s replacement, the F355.

Prior to the F355—the first car developed on Montezemolo’s watch and a direct response to the threat posed by the Honda/Acura NSX—Ferraris were quick, to be sure, but unpleasant, ergonomically disastrous and evil-handling cars. The driver was expected to endure the car’s vices, more or less, for the privilege of experiencing its virtues. Upon its release, the NSX showed the world that high performance, benign handling traits and everyday usability weren’t mutually exclusive qualities in an exotic car. Ferrari took the lesson to heart, and with the F355, delivered the first in an unbroken series of ever-quicker, but also ever-more-user-friendly sports cars, culminating with the 458. It’s that sea change, more than even their looks or speed, that’s been the driver behind Ferrari’s climb, and we have Montezemolo to thank for the automaker’s enduring emphasis on that aspect of their cars.

Filed under: Car Industry, Ferrari, News


  1. John D says:

    I’m glad you mentioned the 355. Of all the Ferraris we saw in France, and of all the Ferraris I’ve seen in person, the 355 is my favorite. Sleek and simple, it gets the job done and looks good doing it without having to resort to any flashy or overly “unique” visual cues (relatively speaking, of course). On the other hand, the 458 is a stunner and I must admit there is a bit of drool involved…but for me, personally, it’s a bit too ‘post modern’ looking and I just can’t see myself in it. (There may be a more fitting term than ‘post modern’ here, but heck if I know what it is. Feel free to correct me. ;)

    The F430 is pretty sweet as well. If I were in the market it would probably be a toss up between that and the 355. The rest are either too modern looking, heavy looking, or just not me. Then again, if I were going to buy a supercar in the first place I would have to first overlook the Audi R8 and pretty much every model of Aston Martin…and I really can’t see that ever happening. ;)

    • Matt says:

      The F355 is one of my favorites as well. The simplicity of its styling after the “side strake era” was such a breath of fresh air in the mid-’90s. Ferrari was coming back after having been a cartoon of itself for 15 years or so.

      I’m not totally sold on the 458’s fascia—it’s a bit too “grinny” for me, but nowhere near as bad as the FF’s. But the 458’s proportions and curves are fantastic; the rear 3/4 view is something else.

      I don’t like either of the “dual intake” Ferraris: The F430 or 360 Modena. They look too stumpy in profile, and they’re just not attractive at all. Awesome performers, though.

      Agree with you about supercar choices. It really is a good time for speed, all told!

  2. John D says:

    BTW, I saw a Ferrari Mondial Cabriolet in the parking lot at the local Lowes last month. Thought it was a kit car at first, but after taking a good look around inside it seemed to be the real thing. Looked pristine, too. Any idea what one of those may be going for these days?

  3. John D says:

    (Oh, and it was the 3.2L Cabriolet, which was, according to wikipedia, the most popular model here in the states…)

    • Matt says:

      Not sure what they go for. AFAIK, the Mondial was produced in larger numbers than any other pre-’90s Ferrari. To me, it’s the ultimate “rich girl Ferrari.” If you want four seats and a mid engine, the Mondial’s your car, although cramming so much in front of the rear wheels does mess up the proportions somewhat.

      I’d go for a 308 or 328 before a Mondial, personally.

  4. Joel says:

    I translate “dorky 348” to “dated but still beautiful”. Seriously, has there ever been an ugly Ferrari? I’m sure some design team was given too much leeway to go avante-garde somewhere in their history.

    Impressed with “sea change” being implemented into the context of this post! One of my favorite albums (Beck) all-time, and never realizing it was an actual figure of speech. In light of its being unique from everything he’s produced before or since, it all makes sense now :)

    • Matt says:

      :) Nobody’s a bigger fan of boxy ’80s styling than me, but even I’ll say that Pininfarina missed the mark with the 348, lazily jamming every Testarossa styling cue they could into the “entry-level” Ferrari. No, it’s not an ugly car, but the best I’ll say about it is that it was able to lend its overall shape and couple of details to the vasty-improved F355. The real improvement, though, was in the car’s manners. The awfulness of the 348 as a driver’s car was its real problem, much more than its looks.

      And yes, there have been ugly Ferraris. :) The 612 and F50 are two that spring immediately to mind.

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