There’s no such thing as a cheap Ferrari, but the F355 is – whisper it – a bit of a bargain. It’s half the price of a new 488 GTB, for starters. And while it does, admittedly, offer little more than half the power (380hp versus 670hp), it certainly isn’t half the car. Not by, um... half.
Launched in 1994, the F355 was precisely the shot in the arm Ferrari needed. Its 348 predecessor was ungainly, dynamically deficient and, according to many road-testers, inferior to Honda’s much cheaper NSX. Maranello needed to up its game, and did so with svelte styling, F1-inspired aero and a red-blooded V8.
Let’s dwell on that engine for a moment. It develops 109hp per litre, the highest specific output of any car at the time. And because it’s naturally-aspirated, there’s no pause for a turbo to spool-up – just instant response and linear acceleration, all the way to a stratospheric 8,500rpm.
The car I drove is a 355 F1 Spider: ‘F1’ because it has Ferrari’s ground-breaking semi-automatic gearbox and ‘Spider’ because, well, it’s a drop-top. Shame the heavens above Blenheim Palace opened up.
Not that owner David Bagley is worried. One half of the team behind Salon Privé – an exclusive classic and supercar show held at Blenheim from 31 August to 2 September – David is no stranger to exotic metal. Nonetheless, the F355 has a special place in his heart: “It was on my bedroom wall as a kid – I’ve always wanted one,” he explains. “And it took me a long time to afford one, so this car’s a keeper.”
Driving David’s pride and joy on rain-soaked roads initially seemed a daunting task. Lest we forget, this is a 20-year-old car with no electronic safety aids. Yet the Ferrari feels so intuitive and immediate that I quickly built up confidence.
Its ride is surprisingly supple, its hydraulic power steering just sublime. And its compact size means you can blast along narrow country lanes where newer, wider supercars – 488 GTB included – fear to tread.
The F1 ‘flappy paddle’ transmission is more of an acquired taste. It’s clunky in traffic, but improves the faster you go – culminating in savage, foot-to-the-floor upshifts in Sport mode. Most buyers still prefer Ferrari’s iconic open-gate self-shifter: a fact reflected in five-figure price differences for manual cars. But don’t write-off the F1 ’box, especially if you regularly drive in London.
As the clouds cleared and the tarmac dried, we reached a quiet A-road: time to stretch this prancing horse’s legs. With a modest 268lb ft of torque, the Ferrari’s flat-plane-crank V8 doesn’t fully come alive until 5,000rpm. Then show pony turns to stallion, as hedgerows become a blur in an intoxicating, head-spinning rush for the redline.
And the noise! Drive it with brio and the 355 howls with the hard-edged intensity of a racer – a mechanical cacophony amplified still further in David’s car by a freer-flowing Capristo exhaust. It’s feral, ferocious and borderline anti-social, just as you’d hope.
Ironically, the car the Ferrari reminds me of is the original Honda NSX. The 355 is faster and ultimately more exciting, but both offer a focused and gloriously analogue experience that today’s turbocharged, tech-heavy supercars struggle to match.
Even after nigh-on 15 years in motoring journalism, the 355 F1 Spider ranks as one of my all-time great drives. I’d have one in a heartbeat. Prices start at £60,000, rising to around £140,000 for the best, low-mileage cars. But you’d better hurry; this classic Ferrari won’t be a bargain for long.
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Tim Pitt works for motoringresearch.com