Since it debuted in 2013, the unfortunately named but otherwise brilliant LaFerrari has been Ferrari’s superlative hypercar. With a 6.3-liter V12 aided by a Formula 1-style hybrid KERS system, the $1.3 million carbon fiber and kevlar car is the stuff that dreams are made of: 949 horsepower, 663 pound-feet of torque, zero-to-60 in 2.4 seconds, and a top speed (limited for safety, of course) of 217 miles per hour. It’s the most powerful and advanced car Ferrari has ever built, and with only 562 examples on the planet, it’s also one of the most desirable.
But it has one big problem, and it’s one that’s plagued the Enzo, F50, and every other Ferrari that’s ever dared to top the range since 1992: It isn’t an F40.
In many ways, Ferrari’s first hypercar set the course the brand has been on for the past three decades. And while it comfortably enjoys its legendary status today, the car was originally met with derision by the automotive press. Compared to the technological powerhouse that was the Porsche 959 — a car that the Ferrari will forever be paired with — the F40 was dismissed as being too unrefined, too crude. Cynical commentators claimed the car was a crass attempt to cash in on the then red-hot collector market (experiencing a boom that rivals today’s market), with Ferrari tightly controlling who could get their hands on one. And even if you could, there was a good chance you would be paying as much as three times the sticker price for it, and were likely to pack it away hoping it would appreciate in value rather than drive it.
But none of that is important now, because the F40’s brilliance is undeniable. Yes, it was spartan compared to the Porsche, but the Ferrari was deceptively simple. It used technology when it was necessary and refused it when it wasn’t, pioneering the use of carbon fiber and kevlar in a road car, while eschewing things like anti-lock brakes, traction control, power brakes, and power steering. It’s one of the last great visceral driving machines from an era when technology was already beginning to transform what we expect from our cars. It may be less than 30 years old, but the F40 is already a relic of a simpler, purer era.
By 1983, it was no secret that Porsche had been developing something special. Within a year, it began racing several 959 test mules and prepping the car for Group B rally racing. As a response, Ferrari began work on the 288 GTO, including five Evoluzione cars built with a special focus on road racing. But in 1986, the FIA had disbanded Group B, leaving Ferrari with a racer but no competition. But the project continued, nominally to celebrate the company’s 40th anniversary in 1987, but there was a more important and pressing issue to have the car finished as soon as possible.
Known as “Il Commendatore” (the commander), Enzo Ferrari was in his late 80s, and wasn’t likely to see the brand’s 50th anniversary. Ferrari was famously cynical about his company’s road car operation (it was only supposed to serve as a revenue generator for the racing team), but he still had a high level of input in his company’s cars, and engineers had worked to get the car right to please the old man one last time. Pleased with the car’s barely street-legal use of racing technology, he presented the car to the world in 1987, less than a year before his death.
Ferrari never officially raced F40s, but it easily could have. While it was mechanically based on the 288 GTO, its Pininfarina-designed body spent nearly a year in the wind tunnel, with designers and engineers refining its body to make it as aerodynamic as possible. Thanks to its groundbreaking carbon-kevlar construction, the F40 weighed nearly 500 pounds less than its German rival, and its mid-mounted 2.9-liter twin-turbo V8 (an updated version of the engine found in the GTO), cranked out a then-astronomical 471 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque. Zero to 60 came in 3.8 seconds, its limit was just over 207 miles per hour, and if you attempted it in rain, you’d better be well insured.
Inside, you were met by nothing more than a pair of hard seats with fireproof coating, a flannel-covered dashboard to stop road glare, and acres of raw carbon-kevlar weave. The only creature comfort was air conditioning, because the car became so hot so quickly, it would’ve been near impossible to drive for more than a few minutes. It could’ve been the first road car since the Shelby Cobra to be built for raw speed and, despite its jaw-dropping looks, seemed almost completely out of step with the times.
In 1987, the Porsche 959 was seen as the way of the future. It had a 200 mile per hour-plus top speed, all-wheel drive, active aerodynamics, electronic adjustable suspension, and still came with power leather seats, air conditioning, and a radio. In contrast, the F40 was a visceral brute, a street-legal race car marketed to people who seemed to want a status symbol more than a $400,000 ($830,000 today) track toy. Autocar declared:
By comparison with that technological tour de force, the four-wheel-drive computer-controlled Porsche 959, the F40 is a simple car. It is essentially a fairly light mid-engined two-seater packing a great deal of power, with little out of the ordinary in its layout or build apart from its composite materials construction.
Answering the growing claims that the F40 was a just marketing ploy, Ferrari PR representative Giovanni Perfetti shot back: “We wanted it to be very fast, sporting in the extreme and Spartan,” adding:
Customers had been saying our cars were becoming too plush and comfortable. The F40 is for the most enthusiastic of our owners who want nothing but sheer performance. It isn’t a laboratory for the future, as the 959 is. It is not Star Wars. And it wasn’t created because Porsche built the 959. It would have happened anyway.
Ultimately, Perfetti wasn’t wrong. Ferrari received over 3,000 orders for F40s, raising production from the planned 450 to 900 (it would eventually build 1,311). Ferraris had spent the better part of 20 years getting more luxurious, and the F40 was a lean, no-nonsense return to form that brand loyalists actually responded to.
By 1991, the collector car bubble had burst, and the F40’s performance began to speak for itself. Car and Driver’s Rich Ceppos thought that maybe it wasn’t that the F40 was too brutish; maybe performance cars had begun to get, well, soft.
In the last twenty years, the cars with the mile-high price tags and headache-inducing acceleration have gone through a remarkable metamorphosis: they’ve become thoroughly domesticated. They have power windows and respectable air conditioners and enough room for six-footers now. You can see out of them well enough to change lanes without saying Hail Mary first. You can hop into almost any of them and drive cross-country reasonably assured of emerging of sound mind and body.
Not so the F40. It harks back to a time—the late 1950s and before—when makes like Ferrari, Maserati, Jaguar, and Porsche built sports and GT cars for the road that could be raced with a minimum of modifications. Some started life as high-strung racers and were barely tamed for the street. We’re talking about cars like the original Testarossa, the Jag C- and D-types, the Porsche 550 Spyder. The Ford GT40 Mark III is the lone American car that follows this blueprint. None of them were comfortable, tractable, or reliable. What they offered was unvarnished excitement—the raw, elemental race-car experience for the street.
The F40 is like that. It looks like a race car that made a wrong turn at the end of pit lane.
Production ended the following year, though a few competition-spec cars trickled out of the factory for private racing teams until 1995. That year, the F40’s replacement, the F50, was announced. Claiming to incorporate Formula 1 technology, the car was heavier, more complex, and ultimately, a failure compared to its predecessor, disappearing in 1997 after just 350 had been built.
Nearly 30 years after the F40 debuted, it’s clear that we’re living in the Porsche 959’s world. We’ve broken the 1,000 horsepower mark, we have driver’s aids and computers that can shift, brake, and respond to road conditions faster than we humans can perceive them. Maybe it’s because a generation of gearheads that were born in the ’70s and ’80s and grew up with posters of the F40 on their walls are now able to get their hands on them, or maybe it’s because the car offers something that nothing in the last 30 years really does, but today, the F40 is recognized as nothing less than one of the greatest cars to ever wear the Prancing Horse badge.
It’s a not-too-distant reminder that brutally fast cars didn’t used to come with electronic nannies, ultra-luxury interiors, and weren’t that far off from the racers in the pit. In a lot of ways, the F40 was a kind of last mechanical gasp before technology took over. Brutal power, advanced composite construction, and a focus on speed may have carried on to the LaFerrari, and it will likely define Ferrari’s next-generation hypercars, but let’s be honest: They won’t be F40s.