SPORTS CARS and men. It’s a compelling and repelling relationship. It comes from the same embarrassing box as strippergrams, leather biker jackets, mirrored Ray-Ban Aviators, Smoke on the Water, reciting lines from Get Carter in a mockney accent and having a pet name for your genitals.
All things that some — well, most — men secretly yearn for and snigger over but understand are aesthetically, socially, intellectually and tastefully indefensible. Oh, and wanting a reclining leather TV armchair with cupholders.
A sports car says nothing good about a man except that he is a man. In my case a sports car isn’t even a midlife crisis. It’s a geriatric catastrophe. There is only a single addition that makes a sports car a politically acceptable appendage for a bloke and that’s an eight-year-old boy.
And I just happened to have one of those about my person. Isaac — more commonly called Beetle — had a yearning need to go in a sports car. The joy of noise and ergonomic styling without any practical purpose is really permissible only when it’s not complicated by testosterone, a bank account, responsibility and experience. For Beetle a sports car holds the promise of being shrunk and inserted into one of his own toys, of being propelled by an invisible hand while a mythic mouth goes: “Brrrrrmmmm.”
And if you’re an eight-year-old, there is only one sports car. So when The Sunday Times called to say there was a man who would like to deliver a Ferrari for the weekend and did I want it, I was unequivocal. I had a boy who would have called ChildLine if I hadn’t said yes.
The PR delivery salesman, whom I will call Jason, arrived with the Ferrari California and said he needed to talk to me. He fixed me with a pitying eye and spoke in a slow gear with short sentences, and then I realised that a Ferrari is really a machine for going fast but fast backwards. It winds the calendar in reverse. Jason told me about the motor, its paddles, its shafts and power delivery, and I got younger and younger.
He used the tone of voice we reserve for children with learning difficulties and prefaced each sentence with “in layman’s terms” or “to put it simply” or “that doesn’t need to bother your curly little head”, and I felt myself regressing down through the decades, past the end of the century till I was once again a sneering, slouching teenager.
“What’s torque then?” I muttered. “It’s the curly magic power at the end of Gandalf’s revolving stick,” he said. “But you don’t need to worry about that.” Jason smiled at me the way Prince Charles smiles at sheep and handed me the keys and said deathlessly: “Nothing says as much about a man as a Ferrari.” Well, quite.
Beetle was beside himself with frenzied excitement and squirmed into the car like a questing ferret. It was a moment of disappointment. Well, more of readjustment. The California doesn’t look like a small boy’s drawing of a Ferrari. It is as elegant and ergonomic as a river-washed pebble but it doesn’t have the pneumatic, mad, low promise of nutty power that a man-child might look for. It’s more Nerf than Kalashnikov, which was a relief for me because I didn’t want to be compared to the sons of Abu Dhabi cement importers tooling around Harrods.
As Jason pointed out, the California is more of a touring, country hotel, sex weekend with the wife car, which I thought rather contradicted the USP of Ferraris. Few male conversations include the words Ferrari and wife in the same sentence. The interior is decidedly underwhelming. The various knobs, handles, vents and furniture seem parochial and familiar, as if bought as a job lot.
The dashboard is a motoring cruet set and cutlery that doesn’t whisper Italian panache, elan and excitement. The seat is comfortable enough for someone with a delicately neurotic lower back.
On the motorway, the California sounds like a troll pleasuring a bronchial badger
When I asked Beetle what he liked best about the Ferrari, without a moment’s thought he said the noise when you turn it on. And it was like going under a bridge and kicking a sleeping troll. The sudden, shocked guffaw of blind irritation is as gratifying when you’re on the inside as it is annoying when you’re on the outside. The noise that Ferraris make sounds quite different if it’s made by you rather than all over you. Few noises are as irrationally infuriating and pitifully embarrassing as someone else revving a sports car in traffic that’s travelling at 5mph.
If you’re sitting in the cockpit, you feel like the inflatable pilot from Airplane!, so Beetle and I strapped ourselves in, put Stairway to Heaven on the slightly tinny and rattly stereo and set off from London for Oxfordshire.
The thing is much easier to drive in urban streets than I’d imagined. The only real problem is the panoramic view — a bit like looking out of a prison window. It’s not what I’m used to in the Rolls-Royce. There is a brief but surprising blind spot and the rear-view mirror is merely a glimpse through a letterbox. The passenger-side mirror is slightly too far back to see out of comfortably without turning your head.
The other thing you have to get used to is the steering wheel, which has more paraphernalia than an Elvis impersonator’s neck and more buttons than a food mixer. Endless toggles, flippers and switches. You can change gear at the flick of a finger but there’s no real need. The car can drive far better than I can. The brakes are instant and feel as though a big hand has pushed down on the roof.
Getting onto the motorway, the California girds its loins and does its birthright thing, sounding like a troll pleasuring a bronchial badger. The histrionic range of ecstatic bottom burps it can run through constantly thrill Beetle. Off the motorway on the Oxfordshire lanes, it sticks to the road and the tight corners, begging you to go faster like a Glastonbury drug dealer.
Despite myself and my finer feelings of propriety and sagacity, I rather loved the Ferrari. What I loved about it most were the things that were least Ferrari-ish. It looked a bit like a car that wasn’t quite a Ferrari, it does touring in comfort and the suspension doesn’t induce sciatica. It is quite capable of burbling along slowly. The things Beetle liked best were the bits that were most like a Ferrari: the noise, the sense that you could feel the rush of speed when you got the chance.
The most amusing bit was the reaction of other drivers. Small saloon cars and those boxy hatchbacks that I can never tell apart all overtook whenever possible, with whines of excruciatingly revved engines. The Prancing Horse emblem turns everybody else into a boy racer, desperate to pass the Italian stallion.
But I don’t want one. There isn’t enough room in the boot for all the cultural and social baggage that a Ferrari brings with it. Tiresomely having to explain every time someone asks you what you drive that, no, I haven’t got a particularly small one, I haven’t just left my family, I’m not getting a hair transplant and I don’t think that 60 is the new 30.
You see, if they just called it something else, it would be grand. If they called it, for instance, the Lasagne, I’d buy one tomorrow.
“I say, I say,” I’d say, pulling on the string-backed driving gloves. “Fancy a spin in the old Lasagne?” And I’d wink with pantomime intent.
2015 Ferrari California T specifications
- PRICE: £153,345
- ENGINE: 3855cc, V8, turbocharged
- POWER: 552bhp @ 7500rpm
- TORQUE: 556lb ft @ 4750rpm
- TRANSMISSION: 7-speed dual-clutch
- ACCELERATION: 0-62mph: 3.6sec
- TOP SPEED: 196mph
- FUEL: 27mpg
- CO2: 250g/km
- ROAD TAX BAND: L (£870 for first year; £490 thereafter)
- RELEASE DATE: On sale now