We had been thinking about taking this road trip around northern Italy for months. It’s where we wanted to go when we could finally go somewhere again. But now that we’re here, it isn’t as imagined.
Fog rolls in so thick it’s like driving through cream-of-mushroom soup, which wouldn’t have been a major issue in the adorable Fiat 500 we’d rented for the trip, but this is the day I’d arranged to drive a brutally fast 12-cylinder Ferrari 812 GTS on its home turf. The idea was to figure out why Ferrari’s V12 cars have been at the top of the automotive food chain for half a century, and if they still are in the electric era. It would also, in theory, be fun.
Instead, I find myself concentrating deeply on not crashing this $469,318 Ferrari into the rear end of a barely visible delivery van in front of us.
We’re heading south from Ferrari’s Maranello headquarters in the region of Emilia-Romagna, over the Apennine mountains and into Tuscany via a route known as the SS12 Abetone Pass. It’s supposedly a spectacular mountain road sometimes used by Ferrari’s test drivers to put new cars through their paces. On this day, however, all the camouflaged Ferrari prototypes I see are heading back toward the factory. Nobody in their right mind would test drive a car on a day like this, except me apparently. My pregnant girlfriend, who is along for the ride, is understandably a little nervous in the passenger seat. We keep driving because this is probably the last time we’ll be in Italy, or in a two-seat sports car together, for the next 18 years, give or take.
This is the end (and the beginning) of an era for us, and for Ferrari too. The Italian brand’s famous naturally aspirated V12 engine – an engine that Ferrari has been perfecting for 75 years and that has helped to define the brand – is very likely nearing the end of the road. Although the European Union recently exempted companies such as Ferrari and Lamborghini from stricter emissions targets until 2035, the shift to zero-emissions vehicles will surely kill the V12 as we know it. The only questions is when.
Obviously, using the full force of Ferrari’s newest (and potentially last) naturally aspirated V12 on the day of my test drive is out of the question. Rain pours and pools into big puddles that the Ferrari’s enormously wide rear tires occasionally skim over. The Pirelli rubber is designed to cope with 789 horsepower, not an Old Testament flood.
To make matters worse, the GTS is a convertible and the clouds show no sign of letting us put the top down to hear all 12 cylinders sing. The views should be spectacular, but in every direction it’s just soup.
Why go to Emilia-Romagna? Aside from the mountainous landscape, it’s where many of the world’s favourite 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 bears no relation to the watery stuff we usually get back home in Canada.
And Tuscany is, well, Tuscany.
People in this part of the world tend to enjoy food and cars very much, and the local serpentine roads seem designed to connect both; all roads lead to a restaurant.
As we follow the SS12 higher into the mountains, the fog clears but the rain gets worse. At least the Ferrari’s cabin is lovely. Simply being in here, ensconced in rich camel-coloured leather and bare carbon fibre, is an occasion. The GTS feels deeply exotic, partly because of the impossible-to-forget fact of its eye-watering price, and partly because of the strange view out the front window. You sit low, almost atop the rear wheels, looking out over a ridiculously long, carefully sculpted hood.
The steering wheel has nearly as many buttons and dials as Charles Leclerc’s F1 car. Even if the buttons did nothing, you’d still press them and fantasize about being a hot young Monacan racing driver like Leclerc. That its cars can facilitate such fantasies is, I think, integral to Ferrari’s enduring appeal.
After 80 kilometres or so, just after the Abetone Pass crosses into Tuscany, we arrive at a Michelin Guide-rated trattoria in the mountain town of Cutigliano, for a late lunch. The Ferrari causes a bit of spectacle as its foreign driver reverses down one-ways, pulls U-turns and manoeuvres erratically to find a suitable parking space. It’ll be worth it, I assure my very-patient partner.
The chef in the open kitchen of Trattoria da Fagiolino greets us as we walk in. Two men at a nearby table are quietly enjoying some wine and sharing a platter of grilled meat. A golden retriever belonging to an older couple at another table waits patiently for scraps. On the wall is a signed photo of ex-Ferrari F1 driver René Arnoux and many pictures of pretty, old Italian cars. From the kitchen comes paté on crostini with mushrooms, fried zucchini flowers, rigatoni with sweet peppers and pancetta, a radish salad with homemade cheese, and on and on. We scarf it down and I feel obliged to leave a huge tip because they saw us drive up in the Ferrari.
Finally, the rain stops after lunch. We put the top down and cruise slowly back to Maranello. We’re too full and too tired, and driving on roads that are too wet and too narrow to really let the V12 engine stretch its legs. It doesn’t matter, though.
Driving slowly around Italy in a Ferrari, it’s clear that the brand’s true appeal – the reason it can command such prices and maintain double-digit profit margins – doesn’t depend on its V12 engines or raw speed. Fans will miss the V12s, sure, but they’ll come around because this is Ferrari. (The company ditched manual transmissions 10 years ago and look where it got them: More sales.)
Ferrari remains at the top of the automotive 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, twitchy chassis, rich cabin, complex controls, fantastic proportions, and the way bystanders turn their heads (some in contempt, some in awe). It’s also in no small part because of the brand’s exclusivity and carefully cultivated image, superficial though it is.
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 won’t matter what sort of engine is under the hood.
The weather, by the way, was perfect for the rest of our Italian road trip.