As a child I used to play with Matchbox cars. Probably my favourite would have been the Ferrari, which I now know was a 308 GTB. It was aggressive and confident; masculine yet feminine. It just stood out amongst all my other cars. So much so, in fact, that I've always identified myself as a Ferrari guy, as opposed to Lamborghini people, who grew up with Countach and Diablo posters adorning their bedroom walls.
Most Ferraris are so well designed, so proportionately perfect, that it's hard to get an idea of how big they are in the real world when you see them in print. Their latest Grand Tourers are monstrously huge, but their Enzo-era sports cars are surprisingly small. Pininfarina, and to a lesser extent, Bertone and Zagato, are masters at ensuring that overweight cars look like supermodels, and tiny cars have the desired amount of road presence. So, as I walked around the 308 I was about to drive, I couldn't help think how this Ferrari was the approximate size of my old NB MX-5. A concept I struggle with, even now.
With the car briefly warmed up, the dog-leg gearbox was fantastically stiff and notchy. It was a joy to use the chrome, gated shifter. The pedals are close together and off-centre and there is no dead pedal. This means that heel-toe downshifts come easily, but your left foot cannot relax is and is always at the ready. Another sign, then, that this is not a vehicle to pop down to K-Mart in.
But the engine told another story. In normal traffic, the car was positively placid. It was calm, easy to drive, comfortable. For the trip across town, I wondered whether drivers of the past were just pansies who got hard-ons for anything that looked a bit sexy. Except for the noticeable weight difference and quality interior finish, it didn't feel worlds apart from my 1979 Mitsubishi Lancer fastback.
That was, until, I got to the other side Melbourne and onto the starting grid of a set of traffic lights, revealing an open, five-lane highway. Not wanting to destroy a Ferrari clutch, my launch wasn't particularly aggressive, but it was still surprisingly quick. The car pulled away from the lights with purpose and with a crescendo of metallic, roaring noise. Above 4,000 rpm the V8 mounted behind my left ear really came alive and planted all 240hp (179kw) to the fat Michelin TRX tyres at the rear. Gear changes aren't fast, but I'm sure practice would improve this. Through second and third gears, the Ferrari is wonderfully quick. I can only imagine it being akin to flying an old Spitfire. It's all about feeling connected with the entire car. You sit within it and become a part of it. Sitting so close to the ground just enhances the feeling of speed. It's a beautiful experience for a driving enthusiast.
As the rain set in, there was only one exciting moment when the back-end started to out-pace me through a long corner. The vehicle is so well balanced that it was easy to drive through the drift and correct it smoothly. Considering that the engine is mounted towards the back of the car and I was running on 30 year-old TRX tyres, I was surprised that was the only butt-clenching incident. Happily surprised. The brakes seemed fine, but in that weather I wasn't going to put myself in a position to test their full potential. The (non-powered) steering, though well weighted at speed, is unpredictably heavy and requires a bit of strong-arming when crawling along.
With dark clouds and teeming rain, I was able to get acquainted with the quirky electronics of the Italian sports car. I turned around and headed to my final destination, enjoying the pop-up headlamps (that are now extinct on modern cars) and charismatic window wipers. Yes, even the wipers on older Ferraris have character.
And that's really what this experience has taught me. Emissions laws, safety regulations, and the need for cars to be able to do everything imaginable has meant the driver is so detached from the modern car. People may look at owners of older, unloved Ferraris such as Mondials and 308 GT4s and think that they're badge snobs, but I'll know better. These cars have more charisma and driver interaction than damn-near all sports cars sold in the past decade.
Time to get my Matchbox cars out and start dreaming again.