We’ve been thinking about taking this road trip through northern Italy for months. It’s where we wanted to go when we finally got somewhere to go. But now that we’re here, it’s not as expected.
The fog rolls in so thick it’s like driving through mushroom soup which wouldn’t have been a big deal in the cute Fiat 500 we rented for the trip, but this is the day I agreed to take a brutally fast 12 -cylinder Ferrari 812 GTS on its own property. The idea was to find out why Ferrari’s V12 cars have been at the top of the auto food chain for half a century, and whether they are still in the electric age. It would be nice in theory too.
Instead, I find myself concentrating deeply not to let this $469,318 Ferrari crash into the back of a barely visible van in front of us.
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We head south from Ferrari’s headquarters at Maranello in the Emilia-Romagna region, across the Apennines and into Tuscany via a route known as the SS12 Abetone Pass. It is supposedly a spectacular mountain road that is sometimes used by Ferrari test drivers to test new cars. However, on this day all the camouflaged Ferrari prototypes I see are going back to the factory. No one in their right mind would test a car on a day like this, except me apparently. My pregnant girlfriend, who is coming along, is understandably a little nervous in the passenger seat. We’ll keep driving as this is probably the last time we’ll be in Italy for the next 18 years, or together in a two-seater sports car, give or take.
This is the end (and the beginning) of an era for us, and also for Ferrari. The Italian brand’s famous naturally aspirated V12 engine – an engine that Ferrari has been perfecting for 75 years and which has helped define the brand – is probably nearing the end of the road. Although the European Union has recently exempt companies such as Ferrari and Lamborghini from stricter emissions targets until 2035, the shift to zero-emission vehicles is sure to kill the V12 as we know it. The only question is when.
Obviously, it’s out of the question to use the full power of Ferrari’s latest (and possibly last) naturally aspirated V12 on the day of my test drive. The rain is pouring down from the sky and puddles in large puddles that the hugely wide rear tires of the Ferrari occasionally skim over. The Pirelli rubber is designed to handle 789 horsepower, not an Old Testament flood.
To make matters worse, the GTS is a convertible and the clouds show no sign that we can lower the roof to hear all 12 cylinders sing. The views must be spectacular, but in all directions it’s just soup.
Why go to Emilia-Romagna? Aside from the mountainous scenery, it’s where many of the world’s favorite Italian things come from. It is the birthplace of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Pagani and Maserati, as well as Ducati motorcycles. It’s also where Parmigiano Reggiano cheese comes from, and Parma ham, Culatello salami, tagliatelle and tortellini pasta, Sangiovese and Lambrusco wines, and Modenese balsamic vinegar, which has nothing to do with the watery stuff we usually get at home in get Canada.
And Tuscany is, well, Tuscany.
People in this part of the world tend to enjoy food and cars very much, and the local winding roads seem designed to connect the two; all roads lead to a restaurant.
As we follow the SS12 higher into the mountains, the fog lifts, but the rain gets worse. In any case, the cabin of the Ferrari is beautiful. Just being here, nestled in rich camel-colored leather and bare carbon fiber, is an opportunity. The GTS feels very exotic, partly because of the unforgetable fact of its dazzling price, and partly because of the strange view out of the windshield. You sit low, almost on top of the rear wheels, looking out over a ridiculously long, carefully shaped hood.
The steering wheel has almost as many buttons and dials as Charles Leclerc’s F1 car. Even if the buttons didn’t do anything, you’d still be pushing them and fantasizing about being a hot young Monacan driver like Leclerc. That its cars can facilitate such fantasies is, I think, an integral part of Ferrari’s enduring appeal.
After about 80 kilometers, just after crossing the Abetone pass into Tuscany, we arrive at a Michelin-guided trattoria in the mountain town of Cutigliano, for a late lunch. The Ferrari puts on some spectacle as its foreign driver reverses one-way, making U-turns and maneuvering erratically to find a suitable parking space. It will be worth it, I assure my very patient partner.
The chef in the open kitchen of Trattoria da Fagiolino greets us as we enter. Two men at a nearby table are quietly enjoying a glass of wine and sharing a platter of grilled meat. An elderly couple’s golden retriever at another table waits patiently for leftovers. On the wall is a signed photo of ex-Ferrari F1 driver René Arnoux and many photos of beautiful, old Italian cars. From the kitchen comes pate on crostini with mushrooms, fried zucchini flowers, rigatoni with bell pepper and pancetta, a radish salad with homemade cheese and so on. We cut it off and I feel obligated to leave a huge tip for seeing us driving the Ferrari.
Finally the rain stops after lunch. We put down the hood and slowly sail back to Maranello. We are too full and too tired, driving on roads that are too wet and too narrow for the V12 engine to really stretch its legs. It doesn’t matter though.
As you drive slowly through Italy in a Ferrari, it’s clear that the brand’s real appeal – the reason it can command such prices and maintain double profit margins – doesn’t depend on its V12 engines or sheer speed. Fans will definitely miss the V12s, but they will come because this is Ferrari. (The company ditched manual transmissions 10 years ago, and look where it got them from: more sales.)
Ferrari remains at the top of the auto food chain because when you’re in a Ferrari, it’s impossible to forget you’re in a Ferrari. It’s everything: the sharp steering, jerky chassis, rich cabin, intricate controls, fantastic proportions, and the way bystanders turn their heads (some scornfully, some in awe). It is also not least because of the exclusivity and the carefully cultivated image of the brand, however superficial it may be.
If Ferrari can translate all this into its electrified cars and even its upcoming SUV – and I don’t see why it couldn’t – then it doesn’t matter what kind of engine is under the hood.
By the way, the weather was perfect for the rest of our Italian road trip.