Ferrari's F40 was built to celebrate the firm's 40th anniversary, and in 1988 Autocar got behind the wheel to find out just how good it really was

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How easy it is! After all the anticipation, all the trepidation, all the wariness about driving the fastest Ferrari ever built for the road, it turns out to be such an effortlessly stirring experience.

Wariness? Well, the twin-turbo V8 just behind the F40's seats punches out 478bhp at 7000rpm. Its torque is a staggering 425lb ft at 4000rpm and all of this is in a two-seater weighing just a couple of hundred pounds more then a Golf GTI.

The F40 is just so raw, unforgiving, brutal, and brilliantly fast

From the passenger seat, I'd gained a clear idea of what that means in neck-snapping acceleration. It wasn't just the brute force of the propulsion.

Above the snarl of the engine I'd heard the intermittent chirping of the rear race-bred Pirellis as they were pushed, despite their 13-inch width, to the verge of wheelspin all the way through first and second and into third.

And, just before it was my turn to squeeze into the driving bucket and cinch up the racing harness, Ferrari test driver Doriano Borsari happened to mention that he'd recently clocked the F40 at a two-way average of 202.5mph.

This past winter, as the Ferrari has run through its final development stages, there have been a few changes to the car we first experienced last year. Named to commemorate 1987's 40th anniversary of Ferrari, the F40 began as an idea less than two years ago and took to the test track this time last year.

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In the past few months its test programme has included 15,000 miles run at a steady 150mph, with 48-hour periods at an average of 187 when Ferrari's test drivers have had the Nardo circuit to themselves. From that has come different spark plugs, better oil cooling and, from Pirelli, a few tweaks to the P-Zero radials. Production cars, due to begin leaving the factory this month, will also have a lip on their front spoiler that fine tunes the airflow and adds to the stability above 180mph.

The approach Ferrari has taken to the F40's creation – and, indeed, its very motives in making the car – are not without detractors. By comparison with that technological tour de force, the four-wheel-drive computer-controlled Porsche 959, the F40 is a simple car. It is essentially a fairly light mid-engined two-seater packing a great deal of power, with little out of the ordinary in its layout or build apart from its composite materials construction.

Some observers have condemned this approach and Ferrari's motives as a cynical money-making exercise hatched after Maranello's marketing men saw how much buyers were paying for the limited edition 288GTO secondhand – and how hot was demand for the 959 at £150,000.

An outraged Ferrari dismisses these suggestions as ludicrous. Giovanni Perfetti, from the marketing department, says the F40 harks back to Ferrari's roots. “We wanted it to be very fast, sporting in the extreme and Spartan,” he says. “Customers had been saying our cars were becoming too plush and comfortable.

"The F40 is for the most enthusiastic of our owners who want nothing but sheer performance. It isn't a laboratory for the future, as the 959 is. It is not Star Wars. And it wasn't created because Porsche built the 959. It would have happened anyway.”

Whichever way you decide to look at it, the performance potential and desirability of a late-'80s Ferrari packing almost 500bhp in a composite materials body deigned by Pininfarina to have particularly good aerodynamic characteristics, wasn't lost on a host of prospective buyers. Ferrari announced that it planned to make 400 F40s. Well over 3000 people, clutching fat deposits, promptly began haranguing dealers.

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Although Ferrari has now lifted the run to 950, to be completed before October next year, they're only going to faithful and long-standing Ferrari customers. “Despite our best efforts, some speculation will be inevitable,” says Dr Emilio Anchisi, head of Ferrari North America.

“A few owners might find the car too much for them and decide to sell, knowing that they can get twice what they paid for it.” In the UK, the delivery price is £163,000. Sixty of the 300 Britons eager to pay will be lucky.

What are they getting? A car whose dramatic looks began with a needle-like nose and flow on over a 328-like centre section peppered with NACA ducts to culminate in a vast rear wing; a car that finally steals the Countach's visual thunder. It's mean, but there's beauty in its balance, proportion and detailing.

Using materials and techniques adopted from Ferrari's Formula One cars, the F40 is built by cladding a particularly strong and rigid tubular steel platform chassis and cabin section – a kind of cage that enshrouds the occupants and provides the mounts for the suspension and the engine.

The panels, moulded from light but immensely tough Kevlar, are bonded to the frame with advanced adhesives. The materials and methodology meet Ferrari's objective of cutting weight by 20 per cent while increasing torsional rigidity threefold over an equivalent all-steel construction.

Just as the car's shape, if not its construction, is inspired by the 328 and the GTO Evoluzione that flowed from it, so the engine's roots rest there. The 90-degree all-alloy V8's bore has been enlarged, taking its capacity from the GTO's 2855cc to 2936cc, and its two water-cooled IHI turbochargers deliver boost to 1.1 rather than 0.8 bar.

Its new crankshaft is ducted for better lubrication; the con rod bushes are silver/cadmium; the pistons have a pronounced squish effect and are cooled by oil jets directed inside their crowns; the 32 valves have hollow stems and heads; and the inlet manifold's eight butterflies operate as one.

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The complex Weber-Marelli injection and ignition system has sequential injection, twin injectors per cylinder and many features used in F1 engines. Basing its calculations on butterfly angle and engine revs, it also measures the supercharging pressure before allocating the precise measure of fuel.

The system also governs the ignition for individual cylinders through a static high tension system with four coils that have dual outputs. Further, the boost pressure is controlled in coordination with the fuel supply and ignition regulation. The system's computers also keep an eye on anything irregular, but Ferrari says its main advantage is the way it minimises turbocharger lag.

This engine work lifts the V8's power by almost 20 percent over the GTO to give the F40 the aformentioned 478bhp at 7000rpm and 425.3lb ft of torque at 4000rpm. For owners who want to go racing – and some have indicated that they will – Ferrari is offering larger turbochargers and wilder cams that take the power up to 680bhp. The standard transmission, complete with oil cooler, is the five-speed derived from the GTO. The racing version is a dog clutch unit.

The F40's suspension follows the proven and rarely bettered path of wide-based and unequal length upper and lower wishbones. There are anti-roll bars at both ends and the suspension components are fabricated like works of art. At the rear, the coil spring and damper units rise upwards from the top of the alloy uprights; at the front, they sit between the upper and lower wishbones.

The steering is, of course, rack and pinion and the massive vented and drilled Group C disc brakes have alloy centres bolted to their cast iron braking surfaces to reduce unsprung weight. As a measure of its straightforward, track-like approach in today's automotive world, the F40 does not have an anti-lock system. It does not even have servo assistance.

Everywhere, the precision and beauty of the F40's engineering is breathtaking: the suspension; the plumbing and wonderful manifolding of the engine; the wheels; the front underpan when the bonnet is raised. Inside – in a cabin that is deliberately stark but lacking nothing that really matters – the race car impression is emphasised by the drilled alloy pedals.

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Nothing covers the raw honeycombe pattern of the carbon fibre on the inside of the doors, in the footwells and on the buttresses running down each side of the cockpit. The doors are opened by cords that you tug. If the outside styling hasn’t told you this car means business, the cabin certainly does.

Getting in there is not ease. You must crouch, swing your right leg in, edge your backside into the tightly moulded bucket (owners will be fitted for one of the three sizes available) and then settle down. It takes a few moments more to snip the straps of the five-point harness into the centre buckle.

When you’re ready to fire up, you discover that the F40 is blessed with an uncommonly un-Italian driving position. The pedals are offset only slightly to the centre, the distance to them is good and the wheel is neither raked too much towards the horizon nor too far away. You feel well-set-up to begin.

The key operates only the fuel and electrical systems. The starter responds to a small, squishy rubber button on the dash just to the right of the wheel. Press it once and the V8 snaps immediately into life and idles smoothly. When you feed the clutch out, you find that it takes up evenly and easily; you're not going to stall.

The shift, as you go up-through the gears for the first time, gingerly, feeling things out, re-acquainting yourself with the wicked curves of Ferrari's Fiorano test track, has the familiar notchiness of the 328 but it's not difficult. Nothing hard or nasty about the drivetrain. There's a pleasing naturalness about the steering. It's direct, smooth and not too heavy.

Turn it and the car responds, flatly and without a trace of lost motion. Everything feels right – perfect – there. In a surprisingly short time you feel ready to start pressing on.

And when you do that, slowing back to a trickle and re-engaging first ad then flooring that tall, drilled metal throttle, the F40 runs through a short period of tameness then, coming up to 3000rpm, it begins to take off. It builds and as the tachometer needle nudges 3800, there’s just a frantic rush as the car lunges forward, pinning you hard into the seat. It's smooth but, God, it's potent and you keep your eyes darting between the road and the tachometer, seeing that needle slash towards the 7750 redline.

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The take-up into the next gear is flawless and, with the turbos cranking hard, the blast of acceleration just goes on again and you seem to be in a blurr of time conquering distance, gearshifts and noise.

Not that the noise is overwhelming, but if you switch your attention to it for a moment you’re well aware of the level of the growl and then the turbochargers' whirr and the whole hollow wail. It has the tonal quality of an F1 engine, if not the sheer ferocity. From outside, if you stand and listen, you hear the frantic whoosh of the turbos start to drive oh-so-hard.

But, to be honest, when you're behind the wheel there's too much else to consider, at least when you’re on an open and challenging track. It takes only the first couple of bends to demonstrate the precision and response of the steering and the sheer grip that's lurking beneath you.

You start cornering into successive bends harder and find that the F40 edges into a nice, modest, deliberate feeling understeer. The feel is such – through the wheel, somehow through the whole car – that you know instantly what's happening. And you can choose whether you lift off or power on.

If you lift, the nose tightens instantly and obediently, but without a trace of viciousness. Even if you come off deliberately abruptly, having had a lot of power on, the tail moves but does not snap out. The car has poise, balance and manners, not to mention sheer roadholding, and all with such a satisfyingly meaty feeling.

If you choose to power on, the car pushes swiftly through its understeer and tightens progressively through to full power oversteer. The wonderful thing is that you can feel it, degree by degree, and balance the attitude as finely as you like. The communication come through the seat as beautifully as it does through the wheel and the precision of the throttle is as keen as that of the steering.

What matter, though, is how many revs you have. If you've stayed in an overly high gear for a tight bend and the revs drop much below 3000, the engine feels flat and you wait, in the understeer attitude, until it climbs back to around 3500 before you've the power you want. From anywhere upwards of 3800, the response is electric and you’re driving.

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Given that you're in the midst of the powerband and, given that fantastic communication of the chassis within the overall levels of grip, the F40 is then the most delightfully precise and easy car to drive, as well as being downright exciting.

As you open up the power and feel the rear edging round in complete obedience, you simply adjust minutely with the throttle or counter by winding off lock and sweeping right out to the edge of the road. It's magical and you delight in the fact that this stunningly potent car is so accessible. Within just a few laps, the wariness has long been despatched in favour of respect.

Opening right up out of the bends means the most ferocious blast down the straights – Ferrari states 0-100kph in 4.1sec and 0-200km/h (125mph) in 12secs – and you need to be watching and reading the distances accurately for the sheer speed means that it can be so very easy to just go too fast.

At first, the unassisted brakes seem hard and unyielding. You learn to push, to get your foot right into them and you discover then that they haul you down from speeds well beyond 150mph with tremendous security and without a trace of their power abating. In the dry, at least, it seems very hard to get them near to locking up.

And when it's braking hard, the Ferrari maintains faultless stability. You need only concentrate on the line you want into the bend, not keeping the car on course. This car gives; it does not fight. It's impeccably stable at speed too – at least up to the 160mph or so it's possible to do at Fiorano.

I do not yet know whether the F40 is untractable in traffic, fearsome in the wet, uncomfortably harsh on bumpy roads or too noisy on long journeys. It has no luggage space and getting in and out is awkward.

But I do know this: on a smooth road it is a scintillatingly fast car that is docile and charming in its nature; a car that is demanding but not difficult to drive, blessed as it is with massive grip and, even more importantly, superb balance and manners. You can use its performance, the closest any production car maker has yet come to race car levels, and revel in it.

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Rich boy's toy it may be but, given the right conditions, there's little doubt it is the very personification of the term sports car.

Mel Nichols, 18 May 1988.

Read Autocar's first drive of the F40's most recent successor, LaFerrari.