Leave it to two disparate gentlemen residing nine time zones apart to turn my Ferrari world upside down. The first, whose name is recognizable to anyone reading this magazine, is Piero Ferrari, vice president of the company his father founded. The other is George Deabill, a friend of my mother’s and a complete Ferrari neophyte.
So what do these two men have in common? They served as the fulcrum points in an odyssey that had me questioning everything I know about Ferraris and what makes them tick.
The story starts in May 2009, as I was blasting through the hills surrounding Maranello, Italy in a new California. Riding shotgun was Simone Schedoni, Ferrari’s luggage supplier, filming the episode on his phone and grinning like a little kid. No question, this Ferrari had great speed and poise.
After returning the car to the factory, I stopped in to visit with Piero Ferrari. “Well, ” he asked, “what do you think of it?” When I hesitated in answering, Stefano Lai, head of Ferrari’s PR department, recalled a conversation we had earlier that morning and came to my rescue by saying, “It is not his favorite,” or something to that effect.
What caused me to pause? My discomfort with Ferrari’s linking of the new car to a legend. “While the Ferrari California is an extremely innovative car,” the company wrote in press materials when the California was launched in 2008, “its philosophy echoes the spirit and emotions of a great Ferrari of the past: the 250 California of 1957.”
Thanks to the 1950s Cal Spyder, of which just 104 were made, “California” is one of the truly iconic names in Maranello’s storied history, bandied about with immortal monikers such as GTO, Testa Rossa and Barchetta. Beyond a shared hood scoop, however, I didn’t think the new car fit the bill in terms of design, purpose (one is a minimalist V12-powered two-seater, the other a luxurious V8-powered GT) or exclusivity.
I finally said something along those lines to the good Mr. Ferrari, who took it with graceful reservation, but the conversation haunted me for months. It had been a long time since I had driven a Cal Spyder, so was my assessment really accurate? Or had I inserted my size-12 piede in my mouth to the man whose name appears above the factory gates?
To find out, I knew I had to drive a new California and a Cal Spyder back to back. But before we get to the driving, a bit of history is in order.
ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES
The flashpoint for the Cal Spyder was Johnny von Neumann, an accomplished driver and one of the founders of the California Sports Car Club. Von Neumann was an established force in America’s burgeoning sports-car scene, especially on the West Coast. He had successfully raced Porsches in the early 1950s, but in 1954 he piloted a 500 Mondial to a second-place finish at Palm Springs. That drive hooked him on Ferraris.
Soon, he was racing and selling the Italian cars, often hot-rodding them to great effect with parts supplied by Maranello. Continued sales and competition success gained him access to the right people inside Ferrari, including company sales manager Girolamo Gardini. Gardini had joined Ferrari in 1942, when he was only 19 years old, and was appointed sales manager in 1950. Over the following decade, he beautifully orchestrated the market by deciding who would get which car when, and who wouldn’t get one at all. As demand and sales grew, so did his stature inside the firm.
Gardini was well aware of von Neumann’s exploits, and paid careful attention to what the Southern Californian was saying, especially when he wanted an all-new car in ’57. “Von Neumann asked for a simple spyder,” Gardini recalled when I interviewed him in 1994. “The first cars were ordered by him.”
And so was born the 250 GT Spyder California—an appropriate nameplate given the model’s inception in the Los Angeles basin. In charge of development and testing was Giotto Bizzarrini, a talented engineer who, four years later, would create the iconic 250 GTO. Bizzarrini and company started with Ferrari’s proven Tipo 508 tubular steel chassis and Tipo 128C 240-horsepower 2,953cc SOHC V12 engine, both of which had already proven themselves in competition in the 14-louver 250 GT Tour de France.
Visually, the Cal Spyder is a masterful design of fluidity, restraint, athleticism and elegance. It also carries much of the styling language of the Series I 250 GT PF Cabriolet, leading me to wonder if there was a direct connection between the two models. When I asked Sergio Pininfarina about it, he replied, “No, the California was done by Sergio Scaglietti.” When I later posed the same question to Scaglietti, he answered, “Ask Pininfarina, he designed the car.” Such is the respect between the two men that each gives the other credit for one of the best-looking cars ever built.
Gardini was able to shed some light on who actually designed the Cal Spyder. “The California body was built by Scaglietti,” he said, “but… was designed by [Alberto] Massimino. The [shape] was [then] modified by [Francesco] Salomone, a stylist for Pininfarina. The spyder was as fast as the coupes, and I believe the reason is the windshield was designed by Massimino, who was a technician.”
The prototype Cal Spyder (s/n 0769GT) was built in December 1957. The first production car (s/n 0919) was built in June 1958, and production ramped up in earnest the following month with s/n 0923. Ferrari would make one to three a month over the next four-plus years, with updates and refinements throughout the model’s life.
Perhaps the biggest change occurred in May 1960, when s/n 1795 was the first Cal Spyder to receive the Tipo 539 chassis found on the 250 GT SWB. Like the earlier, long-wheelbase Cal Spyders, the short-wheelbase version was available with steel or aluminum coachwork, with open or covered headlights.
Cal Spyders were true dual-purpose machines, equally at home on the street and the track. The model’s notable competition results include a fifth-place overall finish at Le Mans in 1959, as well as top-ten finishes at Sebring in ’59 and ’60. Bob Grossman even won the SCCA’s C-Production title in s/n 1451 in 1959. Production ended in February 1963 after 50 long-wheelbase and 54 short-wheelbase Cal Spyders had been built. The last example produced was s/n 4137.
NEW KID IN TOWN
A very short second chapter in the California story began in 1966, with the debut of the 365 California (see sidebar), while the third and current chapter opened in 2008. This time, rather than building from an established model as it did with the Cal Spyder, Ferrari started anew.
While the new California featured an aluminum chassis and bodywork like its contemporaries, it also introduced a number of firsts to the company’s production-car ranks, among them a front-mounted V8 engine, direct fuel injection, a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and a folding metal roof. The car was even built in a brand-new production facility.
Unlike its Cal Spyder namesake, however, the new California debuted to a significant amount of skepticism. For starters, its Pininfarina-penned looks were not widely admired. “The Ferrari we’re about to sample is no beauty, with its fussy flanks, fat hips, and elongated trunk—more bustle bum than bikini bottom,” blasted Motor Trend magazine.
In addition, Ferrari’s stated mission to lure non-enthusiast drivers away from other marques was greeted with some horror. The press and tifosi alike openly wondered if the California would drive like a proper Ferrari.
The controversy was, in many ways, a revisiting of the launch of the Dino 206/246 and 308s in the late 1960s and most of the ’70s. Back then, the old guard firmly believed that “real” Ferraris only had V12 engines, regardless of the fact that the V6 and V8 models were engineered and built in the same factory by the same people who made their beloved cars. While the V8 engine has long since been accepted, the notion of a “soft” Ferrari clearly had not.
The doubters needn’t have worried; those who drove the new California loved it. The UK’s usually critical Car magazine succinctly summed it up for many by giving the model five out of five stars and writing, “We feared a disaster and found a triumph.” For its part, Ferrari has certainly enjoyed great success with the California, starting with a two-year waiting list at launch. Reportedly, 60 percent of those initial buyers were new to the marque.
DRIVING THE CALIFORNIA
Late last year, I brought the two generations of California together for a proverbial DNA test. The current era was represented by a 2010 model (s/n 169497) owned by retired housing builder Fred Gellert. Now in his 70s, Gellert previously owned two other Ferraris: a 360 Spider and a 575 Superamerica. As he did with those cars, Gellert uses his California daily; he’d put nearly 10,000 miles on it in just a few months.
“I admired Ferrari for quite some time,” he said, “but didn’t own them until recently because I am 6-foot-7, with more legs than torso. That made me somewhat Ferrariproof! Fitting under the roofline wasn’t a problem, but the legroom was. I first saw the new California when it was previewed at Pebble Beach, and was delighted to find out how comfortable it was, much better than my 575 SA.”
Gellert ordered the car in his preferred titanium exterior/light grey interior color combination, and this understated color scheme reaffirmed how the California design has grown on me since its introduction. But I still had aesthetic misgivings.
Compared to the Cal Spyder, the California looks awkward, a bit bloated and chunky with no natural flow, as if the design team was struggling with packaging constraints. The fussy front end lacks the original’s harmony, and the back is too high and large. Worse, the California’s side vents and hood scoop appear tacked-on, as if the designers were trying to “force” it to be a successor to the Cal Spyder, rather than having it happen more organically.
However, my criticism of the new car stopped instantly when I slid into the driver’s seat. This is one of my favorite places to sit in any car, and though the interior may not have the original’s simplicity, it does have a lot of its spirit. The architecture is fantastic—the aluminum piece between the seats which holds the supplemental controls is pure, functional art—and the steering wheel, with its F1-inspired flat bottom and controls, looks and feels entirely at home. The seats are firm and supportive.
Starter buttons are overdone these days, but the California’s feels right. When I give it a push, the engine chugs a few times, then a sudden sharp exhaust bark announces the 4.3-liter V8 is awake and ready for action. It quickly settles into a smooth idle, with the exhaust quietly burbling away.
On the road, the new California is a marvel of docility and civility, completely at ease commuting through stop-and-go traffic, running mundane daily chores or cruising down the highway. The dual-clutch transmission operates unobtrusively, and the accelerator is light. But when I get on it in anger, the car shoots deep into triple-digit speeds with ease.
The California is deceptively quick, so seamless is its acceleration. The V8 pulls with one long elastic whoosh of thrust to its 8,000-rpm redline; there is no hint of peakiness. The exhaust bellows loudly the whole way up, and pops and snarls nicely on the way down. The ride is firm, but never overly so. In Sport mode, the rear end hunkers down through turns, the tires biting into the pavement. Equally fun is getting a bit of movement out of the rear as it slides in corners while the front tucks in beautifully. There is little body roll, and the chassis feels impressively rigid.
My favorite aspect is probably the steering. The turning radius is tight and turn-in is superbly crisp, yet the Ferrari never feels nervous, regardless of speed.
Indeed, the California always feels completely unflappable. Whether I’m going fast or slow, everything remains placid and serene, with the world and its troubles held at arm’s length.
DRIVING THE CAL SPYDER
In contrast, Cal Spyders are all about becoming one with the machine. For this contest, I purposely sought out the starting point of the whole California legacy: the prototype 1957 250 GT Spyder California (s/n 0769).
Compared to the later production cars, s/n 0769 features unique sheet metal, with more voluptuous rear fenders and sharper crease lines. To my eyes, it is the best looking of the Cal Spyders, a marvel of design integrity that is so simple and perfectly proportioned, its lines so harmonious, that it seems the car was created by osmosis. S/n 0769 is about as close to design perfection as it gets, and all subsequent 250 Cal Spyders stayed true to this starting point.
Climbing inside, I find the cockpit light, airy and intimate, with a lower beltline than the new car. The surroundings are stark in comparison, a reflection of the different expectations of clients five decades ago. S/n 0769 is the only Cal Spyder with the instruments housed in a binnacle behind the steering wheel, and large portions of the tachometer and speedometer are hidden from view by the binnacle’s top edge. The seats are comfortable, but offer little in the way of lateral support. The steering wheel is too close to my chest, but its large diameter makes it easy to maneuver the car at low speeds and place accurately in corners.
The old Ferrari requires the key to be inserted into the dash, turned and then pushed inward. The reward is an experience unlike any other, the drama of it all like a cheetah awakening from a rest, standing and stretching prior to sprinting away. The starter motor whirs; the valves and chains slow start moving; then, instantly, everything plays in unison, a soothing, melodious symphony of mechanical sounds.
Within 100 feet of setting off, the biggest difference between old and new simply leaped out at me—the Cal Spyder feels alive. This Ferrari’s personality is so strong, instantaneously overwhelming and enthralling, that I found myself exclaiming, “I will take it!” It begins with the sound. In the new California, I only hear the exhaust. In the original, I’m serenaded first by the engine—the heart of the car—and then, in a supporting role, by the exhaust. With chains, cams and carbs all doing their thing in the orchestra pit under the hood, the 3-liter V12’s song is so multi-layered and complex that deciphering the individual elements is like trying to identify each ingredient in your favorite dish.
Then there’s the Cal Spyder’s tactility. From the first shift, I have a real physical connection with the car. I feel the gears engage, the shifter slipping through its gate, and when I rest my hand on the billet shift knob, I feel a minute “hum” from the engine. Those same subtle vibrations come up through the accelerator pedal to my foot, reinforcing that sense of connection.
Picking up the pace, things get even better. The amount of information my hands, back, butt and feet receive is remarkable; it is as if I am attached to the car and, by extension, the road. Nothing is dulled or muted. The sensation applies doubly in the corners, where the car very clearly tells me how fast we are traveling and how much grip is left in reserve. This type of communication, particularly when mashing the throttle and running the V12 up to its 7,000-rpm redline, and the way those feelings and sensations invade my pores and seep into every nerve ending is what makes the Spyder California a Spyder California, and so special.
The difference in driving experiences and, thus, personalities is obvious. In the new California, speed is sensed mostly with the eyes and ears, much like a video game with a killer sound system. There are g-forces, and lots of them, but not a lot else to engage me beyond the rapidly moving scenery and pleasantly loudening exhaust note.
The Cal Spyder is the exact opposite. It delivers an interactive, incredibly tactile connection between driver and machine. Sure, the older car is not in the same league in terms of performance as the new one, but that matters not. The difference is involvement.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
Prior to this test, if someone had asked me to define the Cal Spyder’s key characteristics, I would have said: competition heritage/dual-purpose nature; driver involvement; a sublime shape that defines the word ‘grace’; and rarity. After spending three days with the two Ferraris, I wouldn’t change a word.
As great and diverse in talents as the new California is, it has not one of those attributes. Rather, this is quite likely the best all-around car Ferrari has ever made, a perfect successor to the 330 GTC, 365 GTC/4, Mondial t and 456. It is truly brilliant in its own unique way, but it is completely different from the Cal Spyder.
This makes me wonder why Ferrari didn’t call the California something else—Imola, Portofino, 438, make up your own name. Had the factory done so, I would only be raving about the new car’s brilliance, not such comparative detractions. But since the Cal Spyder heritage has been invoked, I can’t ignore it, and feel the new California will now live in the shadow of something it is not.
Or will it?
No sooner had I reached that conclusion than I connected with George Deabill, the aforementioned friend of my mother. He has owned a number of BMWs and Lexuses, but had never been in a Ferrari, so I took him out for a drive in the new California. We whipped around freeway cloverleafs, blasted through a sweeping turn or two, ripped past 100 mph a few times and hammered the brakes more than once. I was only driving at perhaps five- or six-tenths, but Deabill was smiling the whole time, sometimes in elation, others in terror. For the next several weeks, he raved about the drive to anyone who would listen, talking excitedly like a kid after his or her first successful bicycle ride. He even sent me a nice gift to thank me.
I’ve been involved with Ferraris since the mid-1970s, driving everything from the earliest 166s up to Maranello’s newest, including numerous one-offs and competition 250s. From that experience, I thought I had a pretty good sense of what made a Ferrari a Ferrari, and not something else. And based on the DNA of the cars from Maranello’s first three decades, it starts with driver involvement. Nothing else talked to you like a Ferrari, and the Cal Spyder speaks more clearly than almost anything.
But that hadn’t mattered to Deabill, who was as blown away by his experience as I was when I drove my first Ferrari so many years ago. His giddy enthusiasm really got my mental wheels turning. Does that intimate driver involvement, such a hallmark back in Ferrari’s formative years, still matter? What about design, where Ferrari, more so than any other marque, displayed beauty, restraint and, above all else, grace?
A number of factors suggest that they don’t. Today’s Ferraris are built better than ever, go faster than ever and are selling better than ever, so it’s no surprise there are plenty of people in Deabill’s camp. Besides, so very few of them will ever even see a Cal Spyder, let alone get the chance to drive one.
My whole critique, which had started with that conversation with Piero Ferrari, was now causing me to question everything. Was a direct DNA transfer, where the new model reflects what the original truly was and represented, really necessary any more? Should I have accepted the new California at face value and let it go at that? Has the world, the advancement of technology and what the current customers desire changed so much that I am now the dinosaur, much like the V8 detractors were back in the 1970s?
I honestly did not know, so I asked the best person I could think of: the man who bought our test California. I called Gellert and explained my “purist” thesis and my misgivings about the use of the California name. Then I asked him what he thought, and if the California had met his expectations.
“It is definitely what I expected,” replied Gellert. “The transmission is incredible, as are the brakes. The 21st-century information panel on the dash is marvelous…and who needs to get to 60 in less than 4 seconds? I think the car is terrific and underrated.
“I do think your historic analysis is spot-on, although I never looked at it that way. I knew of the original 250 California, but Ferrari could have called the new car anything, as the California name had no influence on my purchase.
“The DNA, the authenticity you speak of, I don’t think it is needed any more,” he concluded. “The car just has to speak for itself, and this one does. My hat goes off to Ferrari with what they created. It is an incredible car.”
I still felt torn when the conversation ended. I completely agreed with everything Gellert had said, but still felt my “Jurassic” point of view had plenty of merit.
What do you think?
SIDEBAR: THE FORGOTTEN CALIFORNIA
In between the Cal Spyder and the modern California, there was another Ferrari that utilized the now-famous name. In March 1966, the all-new 365 California broke cover on the Pininfarina stand at the Geneva Auto Show.
This large and regal convertible was an entirely different machine in look, character and construction from the 250. The 365 was powered by a new Tipo 217B 4,390cc SOHC V12 derived from the engine found in the 365 P racers, while its Tipo 598 chassis and suspension were nearly identical to the model it replaced, the 500 Superfast.
Like that exclusive berlinetta, the open top 365 California was a luxurious four-place GT best suited for cruising along the Cote d’Azur or Sunset Boulevard, or blasting across the continent at high speed in utmost comfort.
Sound familiar? While the modern-day California doesn’t share the 365’s exclusivity (just 14 were built by the time production ended in July 1967) or range-topping position, it does replicate much of its driving experience. Both cars are comfortable and fast, with the new California feeling much like a modern, far-more sporty interpretation of the classic.