In car-enthusiast circles, there’s lots of gloomy talk these days about the demise of stick shift. That’s not exactly the case in the Ferrari world, since the company stopped building new models so equipped after the arrival of the 458 Italia, but there’s still a story to be told about a few people out there who are doing something to rectify the loss.
First, though, a little history. In 1989, Scuderia Ferrari pioneered the use of the paddle-shifted manual transmission in Formula 1. Essentially, the system replaced the clutch pedal and manual shifter with a mix of electronics and hydraulics. This allowed for faster shifts, less distraction for the driver, and more packaging freedom and flexibility for the designers. Once the initial reliability issues were resolved, it was clear that Ferrari was onto a winner. Within a few years, the entire grid had switched over.
Ferrari introduced the F1 transmission to the street in 1997, with the F355. I’ve never owned a car with an automatic transmission, so it’s a little ironic that the first Ferrari I ever drove was a 355 F1. To be honest, after several laps in the car at Pocono Raceway, I came away disappointed. Maybe I was expecting too much given its F1 heritage, but the shifter was a bit of a kludge. Plus, I missed the human-automobile interaction I was used to: matching downshifts and essentially being one with the machine.
Although Ferrari decided to switch to dual-clutch gearboxes from traditional manuals, that didn’t stop Ferraristi from desiring them. As a result, demand for stick-shift examples of models also available with the F1 ’box, from the F355 to the 599 GTB Fiorano, has spiked—often with accompanying, and significant, price hikes. For those enthusiasts who want but can’t find a stick-shift car, or can’t afford the potentially hefty premium, there’s another option.
Enter serious car guy Mike Pucciarelli, who casually mentions that he’s owned 70 cars since he was 17. “This 575M is my eleventh Ferrari,” he says. Where his Challenge Stradale and his California make him feel like he’s sitting on the floor, he explains, “I wanted something more gentlemanly and relaxed.”
This desire led him to the 575M, rather than the earlier, less refined 550. Pucciarelli also admits he’s a fan of what he calls “off colors”—as in, almost anything but red—so he was excited to discover this car.
“I found this car in California, painted in Verde Zeltweg, the name of the Austrian town near the Osterreichring Grand Prix track,” he reports. “The color stops traffic.”
That circuit, now called the Red Bull Ring, is still on the F1 calendar. As for the Ferrari’s exterior color, imagine a deeper, darker, metallic British Racing Green that looks black in all but direct sunlight and you’re getting very close.
Pucciarelli also likes the car’s leather interior—the color is called Cuoio, a richer, baseball-glove shade that’s richer than what you usually see in a red-over-tan Ferrari—and the fact that it came with a lot of options he would have ordered had he been the first owner.
But while the car was a keeper, its F1 transmission was interfering with Pucciarelli’s driving pleasure. So he turned to Wil de Groot, the owner of Exoticars USA in Milford, New Jersey, to see if the paddleshifters could be replaced with a three-pedal setup.
DE GROOT has a long history with Ferraris and other exotics; his modified 308 was featured in issue #115’s “Mission Creep.” When Pucciarelli made his request, de Groot set out to investigate what would be needed.
He knew the project could be done—after all, Ferrari itself built stick-shift 575Ms (reportedly 246 examples in total) and both versions use the same transmission—but there would be a couple of challenges to overcome. The first, relatively minor one would be to figure out what was needed and what wasn’t. This was accomplished by digging into Ferrari’s parts diagrams of both versions.
“You put an actuator in there and a pump and some sensors and that’s how it shifts,” says de Groot. “Screws and bolts.”
It’s not quite that simple, but when de Groot showed me around the car while the conversion was underway, the changes did appear to be very straightforward. Aside from cutting a hole in the heat shielding underneath, where the shift linkage would climb up into the interior—the correct location is clearly marked; de Groot said all he would need to do is “punch it out”—most of the work required involves removing the complex hardware and plumbing that runs the F1 system. This, of course, would be saved in case the current owner, or a future one, ever wanted to revert back to paddleshifters.
This was music to Pucciarelli’s ears. “He said the transmission would not have to be replaced and that he would be adding to the existing system using Ferrari equipment,” he says. It was an important selling point, as Pucciarelli wanted a reliable conversion and, eventually, a re-sellable car. “Six-speed cars can command up to $100,000 over similar, paddle-shift cars,” he adds.
Exoticar’s second, much larger challenge would be sourcing and/or fabricating the required components. “Some parts are available as new, but many are only available used,” explains de Groot.
The same clutch assembly is used in both two- and three-pedal cars, and is readily available for purchase. “We don’t do anything to the actual clutch [assembly] unless the car’s owner has us replace it with an identical new clutch,” says de Groot, which is “a good idea, but not mandatory.” Also bought new was the appropriate two-piece steering-column shroud, which doesn’t have holes for the F1 paddleshifters.
Other parts can’t be bought off the shelf, due to the age of the car, limited production, or some other factor. For this project, de Groot sourced a used 550 clutch pedal and a used 550 shift linkage (which are identical to the 575M versions). Needless to say, used parts have to be carefully examined and possibly rebuilt.
“For the clutch-pedal assembly, we took it apart, cleaned it, put new bushings in, rebuilt it, basically put it all back together,” he says. He also had to install a new Ferrari clutch master cylinder, since the F1 system doesn’t use one.
While the mechanical side of the conversion was almost plug-and-play, the electronic side had the potential to get complicated in a hurry. The easiest route is to swap in the ECUs from a wrecked, stick-shift 575M, but those are rare treasures. Failing that, it’s time to call in the programmers.
“If you can’t get the two ECUs from a [stick-shift] 575M, you have to ‘hack’ the two [F1] 575M ECUs to turn off some modules looking for a signal from the shifter plumbing,” he explains of the coding handled by Trevor Mensah of AV Engineering in the UK.
The only surprise de Groot encountered came when he removed the dashboard to install the new steering-column shroud—and the odometer suddenly flipped from miles to kilometers. This is a known issue with many European cars, and they were quickly able to switch it back to the proper units.
Newer models like the 599 GTB Fiorano and 612 Scaglietti are more difficult, since they use a more complex CAN bus electronics network. When I last visited, de Groot was performing a similar stick-shift conversion on a 612, and was still working with programmers to modify Ferrari’s software in order to resolve some annoying instrument-panel warning messages.
“The mechanicals of the 612 are similar to the 575M, but we had to manufacture some parts since very few used parts exist,” he says. For example, he ended up modifying a Scaglietti brake pedal to function as a clutch pedal.
BACK TO THE 575M. Pucciarelli has been driving his stick-shift for a few years and has really enjoyed the thousands of miles he’s put on the car since the conversion. “It’s much, much, much better than with the paddles,” he says. “Finally, it’s fun to drive!”
While he loves the converted Ferrari, the Internet hasn’t been so kind—hard to imagine, isn’t it? Some purists think such a conversion is simply sacrilegious, others think it’s a hack job (despite the exclusive use of OEM parts), some think there’s no reason whatsoever to replace new technology with old, others presume it’s a scam to resell the car at a higher price (aside from the VIN, there’s no way to tell the Ferrari didn’t originally have a stick-shift) and/or not worth the conversion cost and/or that Pucciarelli should have bought a stick-shift car in the first place if that’s what he wanted.
And me? I think Pucciarelli got exactly what he wanted, that he’s happy with the result, and that’s what matters. Plus, it’s good to know that there are talented shops out there that can give enthusiasts with vision and means the Ferrari of their dreams. And that’s exactly what the experience is supposed to be all about.