Sports cars with a 12-cylinder engine in front of the driver have been Ferrari’s hallmark since the days of the 125 S. Today, in the pit lane of the Zolder circuit in Belgium, I’m going to sample three such machines: a 365 GTB/4, an F12tdf, and an 812 Superfast.
The three Ferraris are owned by two dedicated enthusiasts from the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. The F12tdf and 812 live in the garage of David Lhoir. “I like most the classic set-up, a large V12 in the front and a sitting position close to the rear axle,” he says. “I buy a new Ferrari every year and drive it every day, about 20,000 kilometers a year, and then I trade it in for a new Ferrari. Now I have the 812 Superfast as a daily driver, then there will be a Portofino. I do not dispose of special versions such as the TdF; I keep them just because they are so special.”
The 365 GTB/4 comes from the collection of classic-car dealer Louis van Bavel, who tinkered well into the night in order to get its ignition right. During a final check yesterday, the spark plugs in one of the two cylinder banks were not firing properly. “It cost me a lot of sleep, but now it’s going very well,” he says with a satisfied twinkle in his eyes when he hands over the keys.
The 365 GTB/4, dubbed “Daytona” by the media in honor of the marque’s one-two-three victory at the American circuit in 1967, is a beautiful car to behold. Compared to its predecessor, the 275 GTB, the Daytona took a radical step forward with sharply cut lines that are hardly, or not at all, interrupted by other elements. The headlights are integrated into the nose, as are the turn signals, the bumpers are kept as small as possible, there are no cooling slots in the front fenders, and no aerodynamic additions anywhere. As a result, the tight lines drawn by Leonardo Fioravanti reveal a certain tension, as if the Daytona is permanently on the alert to sprint ahead and sink its teeth into a Lamborghini Miura, its period rival.
Van Bavel’s car, with Blu Dino paintwork and a beige leather interior, is still completely original. It was built in September 1971 and delivered to Yonge Steeles Motors in Toronto, Canada, and came back to Europe in 1991. The Daytona rides on Borranis shod with the correct Michelin XWX rubber. The standard tire size was 215/70/15, but some Daytonas, including this one, were supplied with slightly wider rear wheels and 225/70/15s.
Under the vented hood lives a 352-hp Tipo 251 engine, the largest, most powerful version of the Gioacchino Colombo-designed V12 Ferrari had then built. The 4.4-liter mill’s displacement partially explains the model’s name, as each cylinder displaces 365 cubic centimeters; the “4” refers to the two sets of dual overhead camshafts.
Although the Daytona looks like a big car from the outside, its cockpit is strikingly cozy. The bucket seats with their typical—and beautiful—pattern are fairly small and have a low backrest, but feel fine. Behind the Momo steering wheel with the famous black steed in the middle sits a busy “clock shop” dominated by the speedometer and tachometer, both of which make big promises. The first indicates a maximum speed of 300 km/h (186 mph), the second kindly points out the redline of 7,700 rpm.
The engine responds directly to my right foot, although with a clear feeling that there is a complex mechanism of rods located between the pedal and the six double Weber carburetors. The smooth V12 gives the Daytona so much speed in the midrange that I almost forget I still have nearly 3,000 rpm to go. Van Bavel encourages me to explore the redline, noting there’s a lot to discover on the way there, so I floor the gas pedal and hold it firmly down.
The character of the V12 changes acutely as soon as the needle reaches the right half of the Veglia counter. The roar gets louder, busier, and more aggressive. The orchestra of four camshafts, 24 valves, 12 cylinders, and six Webers plunges into a grand crescendo and the pulling power increases sharply, as if the Ferrari’s camshafts suddenly have discovered a fiercer profile. The pace at which the nearly 50-year-old dark blue berlinetta sprints toward the end of the Zolder straight is surprisingly rapid. In period, leading German magazine Auto Motor und Sport clocked the Daytona from 0 to 200 km/h (124 mph) in 21.6 seconds, which at the time was more than enough to secure the title of “fastest car on the market.”
The sprinting capacity of the Ferrari is strongly influenced by its gearbox, however. The long lever, which is pleasantly close to the steering wheel, moves stiffly through the open gate, and I have to be patient before the five-speed transaxle has warmed up and shifts properly. After that, I can move the lever fairly quickly, and enjoy the usual clicking and clacking noises, but shift speeds are definitely somewhat slow; trying to force it doesn’t work, either. A gear change takes at least half a second, a difference of light years compared to the two other cars in this test.
Also light years away is the Daytona’s handling. Its four-wheel independent suspension was pure racing technology in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and makes the car stable and safe, with a slight roll in curves that helps define where the boundaries of the not-too-wide Michelins lie. The steering lacks power assist, the trade-off being excellent sensitivity and feedback.
Because of that heavy steering and a curb weight just above 3,500 pounds, van Bavel jokingly calls the Daytona “my Ferrari truck.” To be fair, the car’s mass doesn’t cause any problems while driving, except to emphasize the relatively small brakes situated inside the 15-inch wheels.
Although the 365 GTB/4 feeds its driver reasonably well with information from tires and chassis, it imposes a considerable learning curve before I know what can and cannot be done. The car can be a handful, and the question is not only where its limits lie, but also where my own do. How close can I approach it limits and still remain in control? How far can I cross them and still be able to recover? Given the heavy steering, will I be able to countersteer quickly enough if the rear end steps out?
Challenges are not lacking, and these laps at Zolder quickly make me realize the bravery of the men who raced these cars at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the early 1970s. On each lap they’d touch the rev limiter at 275 km/h on a Mulsanne straight free of chicanes, then rely on those small brakes to slow them enough for a 90-degree right-hander onto Indianapolis. (In 1972, the Daytonas lapped on average only 20 km/h slower than the winning Matra-Simca prototype.) They had to react at lightning speed to the unexpected actions of slower participants and of their own car. This wasn’t just about having balls of steel, but also the arm of Hercules and the reflexes of a mongoose.
ALTHOUGH FERRARI INITIALLY ELECTED to retain its traditional front-engine format in the face of cars like the Miura, the Daytona would be the last of its line. In the mid-1970s the company introduced the mid-engine Berlinetta Boxer, and in the mid-’80s the Testarossa. It wasn’t until 1996 that Ferrari returned to its roots with the 550 Maranello. In addition to its front-mounted V12, the 550 shared a clean, uncluttered appearance with Daytona, as well as the classic round taillights.
More variations on the theme followed: the 575M, the 599 GTB and GTO (the latter being one of the finest Ferraris I have driven), and, in 2012, the F12berlinetta. In 2015, Ferrari dug into its history again when it created the F12tdf, named for the 250 GT Tour de France of the 1950s.
The difference between van Bavel’s Daytona and Lhoir’s F12tdf is as massive as you’d expect given what’s happened in the automotive world over the last several decades. While the newer Ferrari is much larger, it’s also lighter and has the traction and grip to make good use of the 780 horses—more than double the output of the older car—pumped out by its 6.3-liter V12, which can be revved all the way up to 8,900 rpm. Not to mention its lightning-fast seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
Where the F12 had a very clean shape, its spoilers and vents beautifully integrated into the overall design, the F12tdf bristles with winglets, ducts, gills, and slots that significantly improve its aerodynamic efficiency and nearly double its downforce. “Driving the F12 to its peak, that is something that you only do once, that is really tough,” notes Lhoir. “The TdF is very much better, it is so stable at 340 km/h that you could sustain it for hours if there was room for it.”
It’s a tribute to Ferrari’s designers that, despite its busy appearance, the F12tdf is an extremely sexy car, one which radiates a hunger for speed and violence. That violence isn’t limited to the engine, but also the constant, close-fought battle between the V12 and the chassis in which it’s cradled. It’s absolutely amazing how well Ferrari’s engineers have managed to make the car’s power and aggression manageable for ordinary mortals.
The F12tdf sublimely responds to the driver’s commands, inconspicuously altering them via the many electronic driver-aid systems which perform their magic almost imperceptibly. Despite the ongoing duel between 780 horsepower and the massive rear Pirellis (315/35ZR-20s on 11.5-inch-wide wheels), everything feels harmonious and natural, with no dulling of the car’s combative nature. Floor the gas and the Ferrari smoothly deploys all its power to the pavement and runs away so ruthlessly that a ride on an Exocet missile could hardly be more spectacular.
At 3,351 pounds, the F12tdf weighs only a few hundred pounds less than the Daytona—but around Zolder it feels like it’s a half-ton lighter. The almost unprecedented eagerness with which it turns in is particularly surprising. This is not only due to the direct steering but also the downforce, wide rubber, and Ferrari’s first-ever rear-wheel steering.
Just as astonishing are the brakes. These carbon-ceramic discs (measuring a full 15.7 inches up front) and one-piece calipers lifted from the LaFerrari are simply magical, not only because of their usability and bite but also because of their stopping distance. The F12tdf slows down like it ran into the catch cables on an aircraft carrier. Every lap, I realize that, once again, I have braked too early for the corners. You really have to recalibrate your sense of braking distance if you want to extract the maximum from this Ferrari.
NOW IT’S TIME FOR the 812 Superfast. Despite looking much sleeker than the F12tdf, the Superfast utilizes much of its technology, including its rear-wheel steering. The 812’s electrically assisted steering (another first for Ferrari) is not only very sensitive and communicative, it also actively sends signals to your hands if it “senses” you might be close to being out of control. It even gives light hints on how to steer when the car starts to drift.
These are useful assists for the driver, especially since the completely renewed V12 has been enlarged to almost 6.5 liters and a phenomenal 800 hp—and that is brought to the street with just two F12tdf-sized rear wheels. Most manufacturers would have fled to four-wheel drive long ago, but not Ferrari, which somehow still gets away with it wonderfully.
The Superfast’s performance is on par with that of the F12tdf, and the experience is just as beautifully inspiring, with the same spectacularly eager driving behavior. Yet while the Superfast feels no less capable than the F12tdf, it certainly serves up its towering speed in a much more civilized way, somehow managing to function as an amiable Gran Turismo without compromising its adrenaline-spiking athleticism.
I once thought the “Superfast” name was a little pompous; now I think Ferrari was being modest. The car’s V12 overwhelms me with its almost never-ending thrust, and sounds fantastic when I whip it to the 9,000-rpm redline. However, it calms down when I surf on the immense wave of torque, and its soundtrack switches to absolutely socially acceptable.
In the company of modern-day exotics like the F12tdf and 812 Superfast, the Daytona is hopelessly outgunned, yet it is no wallflower, standing its ground as a stunning machine in its own right. If you like classic cars, there’s nothing not to like about this one. Work it hard and it will reward you fantastically, but be careful: The V12 has more than enough power to push you to the limits of the chassis, tires, and brakes very quickly, and there’s no safety net to save you. Just, as so many enthusiasts believe, the way things should be.
The F12tdf and the 812 Superfast, on the other hand, don’t ask nearly as much of their drivers. You don’t have to constantly manage the fight between their V12 and rear tires, thanks to Ferrari’s ingenious high-tech systems. Instead, you can simply enjoy their stratospheric levels of performance, whether or not you’re on the track. These super sports cars are special wherever you drive them.
To be honest, the same applies to the Daytona, albeit at a much slower pace. Despite its age, the 365 GTB/4 still feels like one of Ferrari’s greats.