It is human to err – and I erred quite early. That too, a monumental mistake in the way I looked at life. According to me, there were only two kinds of people. Those who have driven a Ferrari and those who haven’t.
Needless to say, I belonged to the earlier species all these days. In school, I dreamt of driving a Ferrari someday. In college, I decided to do something about it. And as a motoring journalist, I began my wait for that glorious day. You see, by then I knew my turn had to come.
I came pretty close some five years back when fate took me on an Italian tour which ended at Maranello where my appointment with the cavallino rampante was fixed – at least on paper. What better place to break the jinx with Ferraris, right? But fate also decreed that Michael Schumacher flew in for some last minute testing at Fiorano, the test track bang opposite the sanctum. I cursed Schumacher loudly as we left the plant after a miserable chauffeur-driven experience in a Ferrari 355 complete with paddle shifts. Not that all that testing helped Ferrari and Schumacher anyway – Jacques Villenueve won the championship and 78 points were knocked off Michael’s season tally after his rather sad attempt to push the Quebecois off the track. Talk about curses.
It might have taken 33 years, but today I managed a successful species-crossover. I spent a glorious morning driving a Ferrari. While it was worth the wait, let me tell you in advance that what follows is not a full-fledged first drive of an automobile. Instead it is a real life account of how reality can be better than any dream. You see, I had to be very careful with the car, which incidentally is one of a kind in our country, and a chance to drive it did not mean a chance to explore its limits.
Hence, pardon me if you were looking forward to the blood curdling tail-out action and spine-chilling acceleration numbers that are usual accompaniments to a Ferrari test drive.The 1989 vintage Ferrari 328 GTS you see in these pages has only 11,000 km on board and belongs to the Vijay Mallya collection. It’s been fourteen years since it rolled out of Maranello and is only now getting ready for a second service. It cannot hold a candle to the Hispano-Suiza and the Type K Mercedes that it shares garage space with, but it is as exotic, if not as rare, as the Maserati Merak from the Mallya collection that we featured some time back.
The 328 was one of the ‘volume’ produced exotics, and is actually the second highest selling Ferrari next to the 355. As far as looks go, it represents the undecided Eighties (look at those pop-up headlights), neither too angular nor too rounded. Yet, there is no doubting the bloodline – it is a pure Ferrari, seen from any angle. Take a good look and you would certainly come to know what made five-spoke alloys, scooped-out air intakes, louvers over the engine cover, low slung stance and rosso-corsa paint so very special to sports cars – these are the elements, along with scores of other finer details and fairy tales, that make up the legend of Ferrari. It is a clear case of function following divine form, and the end result is more art and sculpture than mere automobile. My favourite angle? Rear three quarters, with those flying C-pillar buttresses and twin-round tail-lamps. Phenomenal. Also, this was the time owners Fiat were busy injecting some much needed cash – so in the 328 you get to see some quality materials, excellent paint finish and even ABS towards the end of its production life. Also evident is a bit of some parts-bin raiding – but don’t worry, no Uno switchgear in this one.
We were to pick up the car early in the morning from the Mallya residence and had Naseer, who has been serving as the family driver for the last 24 years, doing the honour of firing up the fuel injected 32-valve V8. No fuss here, the Ferrari woke up the way a lazy, beautiful woman would after a satisfactory night. The engine note was busy as you would expect from a mid-engined sports car, and she needed a few strong blips to clear the cobwebs and emit a hint of a howl. I was strapped in the passenger seat, but only for five minutes. I knew my luck with Ferraris was the pits and didn’t want anything to come between me and the 328. Before I knew it, we had swapped sides. It is a bit of struggle getting into the car but once the seat is sufficiently slid back there was enough and more room to be cozy, if not comfortable. I am not complaining, really. The footwell seemed to go on for ever and my hands were somewhat stretched. Everything was set and an empty Marine Drive in Mumbai waited as if in anticipation.
After gingerly choosing first gear in the small, crafted five-speed shift gate, I looked straight ahead, took a couple of deep breaths and blipped the throttle just to warn my adrenaline glands. By now, the motor was sufficiently warmed up, and the rising revs and the accompanying music of the Led Zeppelin variety reverberated out of the old British structures that dotted the area. And then I let the clutch go. My life, dear reader, would never be the same again.
I went through the shift gate without much trouble and soon the 328 GTS was in fourth gear, 100 kph and still lazily burbling along. It may have only 270 bhp to play around with, but I guess it is how the car makes these ponies gallop that matters. There are goose pimples on the arms and utter commotion behind the ears as 32 valves open and close, and eight cylinders revel with one wave of controlled explosion after another. There is so much travel to the right pedal that I now know how the term ‘mashing the throttle’ came into being. Downshift to third from fourth and the tacho needle jumps as if it was tickled with a feather, and believe me, the resulting gush of speed is enough to turn a staunch communist into a born tifosi. The V8 motor has the genes of the 308 GTO and despite the K-Jetronic Bosch fuel injection system feeding it, does not feel molested like other computer chip-powered cars of today. It has a mechanical charm that is typical of racing cars from Europe, rather than, say, the laboratory finesse of a V6 from a Honda NSX. The car tends to send a lot of data through the seat of your pants, just that it can’t be called vibration.
Inside, the Ferrari is as minimalist as you see in the pics. Cream leather seats are just supportive enough and three-point inertia belts scream that she is politically correct. Seven round dials give vital information, but tap the dashboard and you will realise that Ferrari relied on good old wood wrapped in leather rather than Korean plastic to house them.
I drove the Ferrari inside the limits of the great city with the hard-top stowed neatly behind the seat. The sight of the car in red stopped Mumbaites on their tracks and young girls even yelled ‘Ferrari!’ – alas, I was busy courting the 328 GTS around traffic islands and relishing every minute of it. The steering was heavy at slower speeds but it felt as if it was connected to the speedo needle. Force it into a corner and the 328 surprises with nil body roll that simply defies laws of physics. Soon I was so confident with the car that I forgot the fact that a 328 GTS as good as the one I was driving now would command a good Rs 20 lakh. Those who have been to Mumbai lately would know that it is the flyover capital of the world. Now imagine exiting a main road and climbing into one of those newly paved, thoroughly modern structures in a Ferrari. The car carries three digit speeds with more dignity than small planes, and down-slotting the round gear knob always rewarded me with spontaneous performance accompanied by an aural feast. Before I knew it, I was modulating the throttle so that the sound echoing from the armco barriers sounded good.
And of course, I rolled to a red light and waited for it to turn green. It would have been an incredible sight, this low-slung red creature slithering into the gap left by two BEST buses that looked monstrous in comparison. No, I controlled my urge to spin those 16 inch alloys wearing Goodyear Eagle rubber, and launched the car in a very responsible manner. A flat-out drag run so that I could experience the fifth gear, a few sharp corners that pushed the handling envelope somewhat, and a couple of 100 kph passes for the camera followed.
And then I came to a halt, not knowing that I was to experience yet another incredible phenomenon. My hand reluctantly turned the key, the engine spluttered and then died – and the silence was so deafening, my ears popped. I sat there running my hands over the prancing horse-studded three-spoke steering wheel, and thanked the Gods of Modena for letting me go out with one of their very own creations. I had spent only a morning behind the wheel, but it felt as if I was born in one. It made me wonder how attached you would be to your car if you actually owned one. Then, as it is with all test cars that come to me, it was time for the 328 GTS to return home and to its caring owner. My fling with a car that bore Enzo’s name was over. Then, only then, I realised my blunder. There are only two kinds of people – those who own Ferraris, and those who can’t.
We had been featuring Vijay Mallya’s cars for some time, and we always knew he had a Ferrari tucked away at one of his numerous mansions. A request was made to his PR person, who in turn got us the go-ahead from the big man himself. And one fine April morning in 2002, we drove it, photographed it, drove it, photographed it, drove it, photographed it...
Two reasons why this story is here. One, it’s a F-E-R-R-A-R-I, and two, it’s a F-E-R-R-A-R-I.
WHAT WE THINK OF IT NOW
‘Now remember, it was our first Ferrari. We would have done the story had it been a modded Fiat 1100 with a prancing horse sticker stuck on it.’