The Dream Run

You can have it.Only,you have to want it bad enough,they said.And apparently,that's the way it is...

“Hold on to your dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly!” Don’t remember who wrote that. Probably a scribe living in penury, someone desperately clinging to last shreds of hope. Or a revolutionary perhaps, battling the tyranny of a despot. But while literature or freedom are noble causes to hold on to, dreams more pedestrian may also be worth living for, wouldn’t you agree? And so it has been, in this case. But more on that later...

Growing up in the northern city of Lucknow – a place of magnificent Mughal mausoleums of old urdu inflection in speech, awadhi tehzeeb, and earthen pots of biryani cooking over slow wood fires, I went to a school that was very old-world British. Indeed, St. Francis College was presided over by stentorian old schoolmasters who had been teaching for years (in some cases, decades), and had unbending ideas about how “young gentlemen” should grow up. And that involved the study of chemistry and biology, the knowledge of history and the social sciences, restraint in speech and manner, impeccably polished black shoes, and of course, the playing of cricket! Which was a problem for me, for I couldn’t care less for a bunch of men in white flannel, mucking around with a ball and a piece of wood. 

Then, as now, what was magical were cars, motorcycles and motorsport. When friends debated over Gavaskar and Dev, I would read the exploits of Agostini and Spencer. When they pored over Shakespeare, I would glean dog-eared third-hand copies of Car And Driver (bought in the seedier bylanes of Hazratganj, at the considerable expense of rupees eight each) and Cycle World. And while they got awards for superlative academics, I would be standing out in the fields, after having been thrown out of class for reading Car & Bike International’s report on the very bohemian BMW K1. Reading about BMWs in chemistry class was apparently not on. The erudite Ms. Khan, who taught us all about those wondrous liquids that fizzed and spouted when heated over a bunsen burner, probably did not like the bike’s yellow gear case. That, or she did not approve of shaft-drives, but I never could summon the courage to ask.
Over the years, over a series of misguided forays into our local racing scene (small and obscure clubs, severe paucity of funds) and through painfully broken bones and teeth, what endured was the love for cars, motorcycles and speed. All I ever wanted to do was drive fast cars. And ride even faster motorcycles. And write about it all. Which is how I came to Motoring a few short months ago. What has followed since then is a dream run. And suddenly, the tooth fairy doesn’t seem such a tall tale after all...

Calm before the storm
There are supercars. And then there are Ferraris. For those who love the colour red, the turbulent roar of twelve, or even just eight pistons churning up a symphony and the sheer spectacle of speed, Ferraris are religion. And the religion is about much more than just brute force, and power and torque figures. It’s the Pininfarina styling. It’s the carrozzeristi who wield magic on metal, and shape the cars’ bodywork. It’s the Formula One lineage. It’s the tifosi shouting themselves hoarse on GP tracks around the world. Proud of history and glorious of heritage, Ferraris are simply beyond compare. Driving one is like quaffing Beaujolais Nouveau Blanc from a Baccarat carafe. It’s like living the one split-second in which an enraged bull charges at a hapless Matador. It’s looking at a tiger in the eye. It’s the calm before the storm.

My first shot at piloting a Ferrari came a few weeks ago, when I offered to tag along to Khandala with Srini, Motoring’s classic car specialist. We were scheduled to “do a couple of classic car shoots” there, and Srini would drive an Alfa or two, and an old Fiat maybe. He vaguely mentioned that we might possibly come across a Ferrari as well, but I did not take the man too seriously. The day started innocuously enough, with an early-morning sprint to Khandala in an Indigo test car. And soon as we reached the bungalow where the cars awaited us, their owner invited us in for a cup of tea. Steaming cups of fragrant Darjeeling in hand, we strolled on to the back courtyard, and what awaited us there was, for me, simply unbelievable. It was like stumbling upon Godzilla in a coop of hens, for there, amongst sundry lesser cars and other beings, a... FERRARI held court! Sitting impossibly low and dressed in pristine rosso corsa, here was a 308 GTSi, the Ferrari which Srini had mentioned in the passing. So the bugger was not lying after all! And much to the barely-concealed amusement of everyone present, I was all over the car in an instant.

To my eyes, Ferraris are man’s most beautiful creation ever and the 308’s lines are quintessential old-world Italian supercar. I mean, it would be unmistakable anywhere in the world, wouldn’t it? And all the right cues are present; five-spoke alloys (the oddball 15.3-inch size makes tyres hard to come by, but this car was shod in the correct 220/55 Michelin TRX rubber, made in UK), Agip and designo di Pininfarina badges on the flanks, pop-up headlamps, traditional open-gated gearshift and a quartet of chromed exhaust pipes at the back. Oh yes, two decades ago, this would be the car you wanted to buy, but couldn’t afford. And the styling has stood the test of time. Though Ferrari seem to have lost the plot in recent years – modern-day Modenas, Maranellos and Enzos are not as achingly beautiful as 288 GTOs or F355s of old, the 308 looks good to this day. ‘Unashamed supercar,’ it shouts and we wouldn’t want it any other way.  

To get into a bit of history, the mid-engined V8-powered Pininfarina-styled 308 GTSi was an evolution of the early-1970s 308 GT4 which was styled by Bertone. The GTSi (removable hard-top, hence the ‘S’, which refers to ‘Spyder’, the established designation for Italian open cars), like the GTB (fixed-roof ‘Berlinetta’ version) that came before it, and unlike its GT4 forerunner, is a strict two-seater. This car was a year 1982 model, and given that the early-1980s were when stricter emissions laws were starting to come in, it was equipped with a Bosch K-Jetronic fuel-injection system. From what I’ve read about 308s, pre-1980 cars were fitted with four downdraft Weber carbs, so you can blame US emissions laws for the cars losing some of their supercar thunder. The injected GTSi was down not only on sound but also on performance, so Ferrari introduced four-valve heads in 1983 and the GTSi Quattrovalvole (commonly referred to as the QV) was born. The 308 series were in production through the 1985 model year, until replaced by the 328 GTB and GTS (remember ‘The scarlet pursuit’, BSM, May 2002?). In turn, those gave way to the 348, followed by the 355 and finally the current 360. There, that’s the history lesson done with, so let’s get on to how the 308 GTSi was to drive.

Purists tend to look down upon early-80s injected Ferraris, which were deemed to be just plain slow. Well, I suppose the later Qvs would have been slightly more powerful and faster, but I found the GTSi tremendously exciting to drive. According to some European magazines that tested the car back in the 1980s, the 308 will do a 0-100 kph in about 7 seconds, which is only 1.6 seconds quicker than a Corolla 1.8 (which we tested last month), but that’s not the point. The Ferrari’s image, its brio, and the glorious sounds it makes at speed are incomparable.

The car looked sparse inside – firm and snug cream leather seats, aircraft-style toggle switches, three-spoke steering wheel, a rev-counter marked to 10,000 rpm and a speedo that read all the way to 180 mph. It had an aircon, but no stereo and no radio. Who needs one anyway, when you have a 205-horsepower V8 to listen to? Not me. Revving that DOHC 2926 CC engine at rest produces sounds that are pure ecstasy. A loud, rasping exhaust note announces the engine’s brawn in no uncertain terms, and tells you that twenty odd years have not dulled its performance intent one bit. A firm shove of the clutch pedal, first engaged (lever to the left, and back) and off we go. I’ve driven other cars that make as much power as the 308 GTSi, but the Ferrari felt so very different from everything else. I found the throttle hard to modulate with its long travel – nothing until a certain point, and then blam! – a heady rush of thick, rich power that would send us hurtling down the road. The non-power-assisted steering felt very direct and the four-wheel disc-brakes were sharp and responsive. Driving up and down twisty stretches of smooth tarmac outside Khandala, I got nowhere near the engine’s 7600 rpm redline, but the Ferrari still worked its magic. The way it braked into corners, with its furious V8 snarling away behind me. The way it would stay absolutely planted in fast sweepers and then blast out of them so very hard. And the way it made bystanders gape and point and smile in wonder. There was a sense of occasion. This was not a drive – it was an event! Vive la Ferrari! 
All too soon, it was time to drive the Ferrari back to its (understandably anxious) owner. The car would have to go back, but the memories would always remain. Bijoy says there are two kinds of people on Earth; those who haven’t driven a Ferrari and those who have. I have driven one. And I’m already dreaming of having another go. Bright, sunny Sunday morning. A red rag-top F355. And a deserted Autostrada...

The mightiest warrior
About a decade and a half ago, Kawasaki let loose the ZX 11 Ninja upon an unsuspecting world. With a ram-air induced 123 horsepower and a top speed in the region of 275 kph (which made it the fastest production motorcycle in the world at that time), the bike’s credentials were menacing. Editors of an American magazine, the revered Cycle World  likened the big Ninja to “riding the blast wave of an endless explosion...!” And I had wanted to ride one ever since. A difficult proposition, you’ll agree, given that the word ‘motorcycle’ in our country equates to something with one cylinder, seven horsepower and very mild speeds. Over the years, I did manage to wangle rides on a CBR 1100 XX, a wild old 900 RR FireBlade, a beautiful little ZX 6R and just a few weeks ago, even a new ZX 9R Ninja which was actually more powerful than the ZX 11 of old. And yet, the full-on, ‘fastest bike in the world’ experience eluded me. The 1100 XX Super Blackbird did come close, but it felt more like a big supersonic locomotive express than a nuclear detonation waiting to happen. Someday, I still had to ride the biggest, baddest of all Ninjas...

And as always, the moment came in a most unexpected manner. One Friday night, and I was flipping through channels on TV when Shumi called up to say that I had to be in Thane for a shoot the next morning, at 6:30 sharp. And what shoot might this be? Oh well, a new Kawasaki ZX 12R Ninja. Holy cow!
Launched a scant three years ago, the ZX 12R was Kawasaki’s answer to the mighty (and ugly!) Suzuki GSX 1300R Hayabusa, and the smooth and slick Honda CBR 1100XX Super Blackbird. The bike was supposed to dethrone the ’Busa in top speed stakes, but when it didn’t quite do the 320 kph expected of it, the big Ninja caused some embarrassment for Big Green. Then, given the worldwide furore over the “potentially deadly” top speeds of these bikes, manufacturers mutually agreed upon a voluntary 300 kph limit, and that was the end of ever-escalating top speed wars. 

The 12R was initially designated a sport tourer but with the more touring-oriented ZZR 1200 having been launched last year, the Ninja was ready to move on to hardcore stuff. And move it did. The ZX 12R got a major makeover in May last year, and this ‘new’ Ninja – the ultimate in hard-hitting Kawasakis – was the bike that came hurtling down the Cadbury flyover in Thane at seven in the morning, even as Shumi, Param and I waited next to our trusty old M800. It seemed this black-and-gold blur would blow by us, but the rider stopped next to us with no apparent effort, and revved the engine. And it was as if Thor, the Norse god of thunder himself, was bellowing in fury. Standard ZX 12s are fairly silent, but this one was fitted with a ‘Trickstar’ aftermarket exhaust system, hence the magnificent sound. Also, the bike looked short and stubby – much more compact than it looks in pictures. 

We were soon joined by Bijoy, and decided to proceed to the Nashik highway for the photo-session, after which I would get to ride the bike.Lensman Param and Editor Bijoy were the lucky ones as they motored off first to shoot the bike. That done with, Bijoy came tearing down the road, clothes and helmet askew, demonic grin plastered on his face and handed the bike to me. 163 horsepower in a motorcycle that weighs 233 kilos – you’d also be grinning in anticipation, wouldn’t you? And the anticipation was well rewarded. Since I am not used to riding such machinery every day (and the fact that it was somebody else’s extremely expensive motorcycle), I exercised restraint while accelerating away from a standstill, but the build up of speed was intense. Nothing I’d ever ridden in the past,  including the Super Blackbird, had ever accelerated this hard, and the velocity was relentless. Charging up through the slick six-speed box, the Ninja never slackened for a split-second, and was raring to lift the front wheel and/or tear the bars from my hands at the slightest provocation. Awesome! And its ram-air induction honk, in concert with the roar from the four-into-one Trickstar was simply intoxicating.

Riding on its 17-inch wheels shod in ZR-rated Bridgestone Battlax rubber (120/70 at front, steamroller-worthy 190/50 at back...), the ZX 12R never seemed to lack grip. I only rode the bike for a few kilometers up and down the Nashik highway, but even on this relatively short run, the aluminum monocoque chassis, which is unique to the ZX 12R, seemed well up to the task of containing the 1200 CC engine’s massive power output. And the rest of the package was no less competent – 320 mm discs at front, fitted with six-piston Tokico calipers, make sure that the Ninja can be hauled down from triple digit speeds sans drama, USD front forks are suitably firm, and the seat is broad and comfortable enough for long hauls. 

You’d need to spend some hours in the saddle before you can really start giving it heaps (I only managed to do about half of the 280 kph marked on the speedo), but if I was let loose in the Mojave desert, maybe even I would find the courage to take the big Ninja to its 11500 rpm redline and live to tell the tale. As is stands now, the Kawasaki ZX 12R Ninja remains the most intensely exhilarating superbike I’ve ever ridden. And after all these years, I finally also know what the men at Cycle World meant.