No one fuels passion like the Italians

There is a saying that is particularly appropriate in the car world: don’t meet your heroes.  It’s based on the fact that reality often fails to live up to the imagination, and several in-the-know have applied it to the father of supercars, the Lamborghini Countach.

Before you Lambo people scoff and go on about the Miura, I would like to point out that most people reading this don’t know a damn thing about either, and that is my point.  Because despite not actually knowing anything about cars, they will recognize the shape of the Countach.  It has been the stuff of fantasy since 1981.

1981? The Countach went into production in 1974! 

Bah.   Cannonball Run didn’t come out until 1981.  And the movie is what injected the fantasy into the consciousness of every able-bodied male, car nut or not.  Just as Magnum PI, Miami Vice and Ferris Bueller did with Ferrari.  It is the fantasy—imaging what it must be like to command so incredible a machine—that fuels the obsession.

Obviously, this is not a fantasy world.  But if you are open to embracing the imagination, it sure can seem so.  Both Lamborghini and Ferrari are masters at including this emotion in the mix.  It is almost a defining characteristic of the people of Italy, a trait that they cherish and embody.  No one lives passion like the Italians, but it’s how they are able to infuse it into inanimate objects like cars that blows my mind.  But they do.  And they do it well.

My personal hero was Ferrari, with Lamborghini (specifically the Countach) a very close second.  When I say that, I am referring to the cars, not the people.  Honestly, as a teenager I knew little about Enzo Ferrari, or Ferruccio Lamborghini.  Or racing or engineering for that matter.  Which is a shame, because the stories of their origins are truly the stuff of legend, and I fear these legends may be covered by the sands of time. And Elon Musk.  So let me tell you these stories, perhaps not for complete historical accuracy, but at least to bring the fantasy to life.

Enzo Ferrari was a racer.  He started driving for Alfa-Romeo in the 1920s, before the first world war.  During World War I, an Italian fighter pilot (and just think on how insane it would have been to be a pilot of that era) named Francesco Baracca gave him a necklace with a prancing horse.  After the pilot—like the majority of his peers—was shot down and killed, Enzo adopted the prancing horse as his own insignia, which persists today.  Over time, Ferrari moved to building his own cars, eventually competing against the company where he had received his start.

Under Enzo’s rule—and it can only be described as such—Ferrari’s very existence was to race.  When he did build road cars, the only purpose was to make money for the racing program.  The passion was forged in competition, but make no mistake: winning was the absolute goal, and he was relentless in his pursuit of that goal.  He was known as one who could extract the most from his drivers, even to the point of pitting them against each other and pushing them to take massive risks in the quest for victory.  To say that racing was dangerous in these early days is more than an understatement, but that seriousness only added to the mystique and drama.

In those glory days, the road cars were racing cars.  Excepting formula cars and “prototypes”, racing cars started life in the same shops as road cars, with modifications—lighter weight, more power—only intended to make theme more competitive.  Anyone with the money could literally buy a 250 GTO intended to win at Le Mans and either line it up against others with the same intent, or drive it to pick up a gallon of milk.  So every time said owner turned the key and fired up the hallowed V12, the sensations were not facsimile, they were identical to those of the factory racers.  Test drivers in and around Maranello would put the prancing horse shields on the side on the car so the local police would know this was not just some playboy out terrorizing the populace, it was Enzo Ferrari sharpening his knife.

The same passion drove Ferruccio Lamborghini.  An industrialist, he made his name building tractors after World War II, but he didn’t squirrel his money away like some Ebenezer.  He modified cars and boats to his own specifications, not unlike an American hotrodder driven by Italian sensibilities.  Or lack thereof.

And so he came to own several road-going Ferraris, and was famously annoyed by some of their flaws.  (Keep in mind Enzo’s interests: racing cars need only cross the line in one piece. Reliable daily driving is not the point).  With his successful engineering background evidence of his skillset, he approached Enzo intent on teaching Il Commendatore a thing or two about how to build a functional clutch.  He was summarily dismissed, which does not go over well with any self-respecting and innovative business owner, but much less so an Italian.

And so Lamborghini decided he would show Ferrari how he thought it should be done.  And from that endeavor came the company that ultimately created the Countach.  Where Ferrari immortalized the prancing horse, Ferruccio drew inspiration from the Italian sport of bullfighting and his badge bears a raging bull.  The Miura is named for a renowned breeder, and many of the cars—Islero, Urraco, Diablo, Murcielago—celebrate particularly famous animals.  Countach is a notable exception: a slang exclamation best translated as “holy shit!”, it is rumored that this was the exclamation when it was first revealed.  See one on the road today—four decades later—and it will illicit the same response.

Impossibly wide, impossibly low, the wedge-shaped Countach looks like something from a graphic novel brought to life in all of its amped-up glory.  The famous scissor doors are actually a necessity, as the thing is so wide that standard doors don’t have clearance in a parking lot, but adapting for something as mundane as getting in and out of the car doesn’t detract from the drama.

Which is why anyone who has any complaints about the car should be dropped off on a deserted island. Or at least not be allowed to own one.  The seats are uncomfortable.  So is being water-boarded, which is what you will get if you don’t stop whining.  I can’t see out the back.  No one in a car like this cares about anything behind them.  It’s hot in here.  And you going through a change?  It’s smells very strongly of gas.  Do you want to live forever?

If you have issues here, you are not worthy.

Truth be told, I haven’t so much as sat in one, nor the car it replaced, the Diablo. If someone wants to remedy that, I promise that no complaints of any kind will escape my lips. I did get a chance to take a test drive in the subsequent model, the Murcielago.  I knew straight away: it wasn’t for me.  In short, I am not man enough to back up instantly becoming the center of attention for miles in every direction.

The thing about these later cars is that the Italian has been diluted: Audi took over Lamborghini in 1998.  To the untrained eye, nothing has changed: the cars are comically wide and unimaginably low, the V12 engine is ridiculously huge and loud, the doors still slice into the air. They literally stop traffic, every cell phone camera pushing photos and video to social media in real time.  But now the cars have things like comfortable seats, working air conditioning, even radios and <gasp> navigation.  And I am not sure they should.  It’s a bit like telling everyone you are completely badass before the official badge has arrived in the mail.  Though Lamborghinis have remained true to purpose in being the most outrageous street cars on the planet, the level of insanity has been dulled just a bit.  But then we don’t kill near as many people motor racing as we used to, so maybe the changes are reflective of society.  Still…

Similarly, after Enzo Ferrari passed on, many complained about the direction the company has taken since his death.  Increased production volumes, “softening” the vehicles to appeal to a broader audience, merchandizing, even the occasional threat of SUV production.  Somehow, throughout it all, the cars remain purely Italian, completely Ferrari.  I believe this is precisely why there is nothing like them.  They still embody the passion that their image evokes.  There are still quirks, service issues, imperfections.  These are compromises that were made in order to bring as much of the racing heritage into the cars as is possible, practicality be damned.  And if you don’t like it, move along.

And then there is price of admission.  Racing is expensive, so if you want to worship at the feet of Ferrari, be prepared to pony up.

All Ferraris are expensive.  There is no way around it.  And believe me, I tried.  If you have to wait for the purchase price of a car like this to depreciate to the point you can afford to buy it, the reality is that you probably can’t afford to do anything but that: own it.  If you want to do something crazy, like say, drive it, that’s an entirely different proposition.  Maintenance, parts, service, it’s all crazy expensive and extremely specialized, requiring tools and experience that are just not available to the shade-tree mechanic, despite the internet and the fact that they really are bolted together like any other car.

Which puts Ferraris into this strange place in the world where they rarely get used by anyone. Even those who can afford to spend crazy money on all manor or personalized options don’t actually use these cars as cars.  They are more often considered investments.  A well-checked list of personalized upgrades makes them more desirable to the next owner, and low miles is essential.  If you have $300,000 to spend on a car, you probably didn’t get there by being stupid with your money.  And the deeper you go into the world—the cult—of Ferrari, the more bizarre it becomes, where originality is a requirement to avoid excommunication.  The color of the nyloc insert on thread-locking bolts must match the factory original (no, I am not making that up).  Which is even more ironic if you have ever been racing.  Because no one gives a crap about anything like that when racing, the only thing that matters is winning, and that was the essence of Enzo’s philosophy.  Here are these incredible things that were intended to be experienced at the limits of impossibility, and instead they are kept in garages and wiped with diapers.  It’s one of life’s most annoying catch-22s.

And their really is nothing like them.  The sounds, the sensations, the experience.  I have not driven a Countach, but every Ferrari I have been in more than lived up to the expectation.  It’s as if a little bit of Enzo’s soul is trapped in the steering wheel.

And yet this seems destined to remain an elusive pleasure that is only experienced briefly.  There are a handful of people in the world who are truly immerse themselves on a regular basis, but the Italian supercar experience is hardly an elixir for the masses.  While dreams and aspirations fuel our motivation, and while the accomplishments of our heroes push our own goals to higher levels, finding magic in little things within the day-to-day routine that can transform a relentless grind into an enjoyable life.

This is a hero I met without disappointment, but he’s just not someone to hang out with every day.

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