360 SPIDER INTRODUCTION & OTHER ADVENTURES
Ferrari North America officially unveiled the 360 Spider last month in Arizona, but there was no opportunity to drive one or to play with the much-refined new convertible top. However, in conjunction with a Ferrari Challenge race held near Dallas recently, dealership staff was invited to a technical presentation and driving experience. Enroute to another engagement in Italy, I stopped in Texas to see what our new Spider was all about and came away very impressed.
Ferrari originally designed the 360 to be a cabriolet, so no reengineering of the car’s chassis was necessary to saw the roof off. Instead, they provided means to simplify the platform when the coupe version was put into production in 1999. Through the miracle of metallurgy, the aluminum construction of the car provides a unit 40% lighter and 30% stronger than a similar chassis made of steel. The alloy construction is also more torsionally rigid than steel would have been, further adding to the car’s overall solidity. In the center of the body, the door sills are always the weakest part of any convertible. Ferrari designed an ultra-rigid, 4mm thick aluminum frame member in a hollow box section to bridge this gap, and it is used this way in the Modena coupes. For the Spiders, a 3mm-thick sleeve of hardened aluminum that exactly matches the member’s cross-section is slipped inside of this girder to reinforce the car’s midsection even more.
The windshield pillars and the section across the top of the windshield were crafted so as to allow a tubular reinforcement bar to be built within the framework, creating an integral roll bar than extends all the way down through the door sills to the main framework.. Consequently, the windshield is strong enough to support the weight of the car should it overturn, and more protection is provided by the roll bar hoops behind each seat.
The operation of the top mechanism is truly a sight to behold. When activated by a single switch, the header across the windshield unlatches and the rear ‘wings’ of the top fold upward. The well cover slides back and opens up so the top can fold down inside and then closes back over the finished job. No more moving the seats forward and having to snap on a separate cover as on the 348 and 355 Spiders. Ferrari had the entire top unit designed and manufactured by the same German company that does the tops for Mercedes, Porsche and several other European convertibles. The workmanship and fit is exceptional and truly worthy of such a spectacular car. I was particularly interested in how snug the top is when driving extended distances with it up, since many convertibles admit an annoying amount of wind noise, dust and other distractions. I can attest that at 90 mph it is nearly as quiet as the coupe and very acceptable, although you do hear a bit more of that great engine noise! Wind screens are integrated into the rollbar hoops and help to provide a relatively draft-free ride when the top is down.
Some folks have been concerned that the top would occupy the useful storage space behind the 360’s seats when folded, but that isn’t the case at all, so golf clubs can still be stowed back there when needed. We have already received and delivered our first Spider and the client is very pleased with it. The second one should arrive in another couple of weeks, so be sure to drop in to take a look for yourself.
The next day I climbed aboard one of Lufthansa’s handy non-stop flights to Europe and began a Planes, Trains and Automobiles crusade across Italy to Ferrari’s Pilota High Performance Driving school held at the Mugello F-1 track near Florence. I had promised myself that I’d do this ‘someday’ and just decided to make it happen this year. The logistics were complex, but after two planes, a bus, a train and two taxi drivers who didn’t know where they were going, I arrived in the little village of Borgo San Lorenzo, close to the Mugello track. (we’ll save the cultural insights and highlights of this trip for another time)
Andrea de Adamich, an ex-Ferrari F-1 driver from the late ‘60s, runs this school with a staff of young professional drivers who all actively compete in European sedan racing, Formula 3 or Pro Rally. All speak reasonable English (although my favorite instructor always lapsed back into Italian along with energetic gestures and was great fun to be with) and the program is exceptionally well organized. There is a fleet of about sixteen completely stock Ferraris, equally divided between 360 coupes and 550 Maranellos, each fitted with the factory-optional roll bar. All the cars are red, but their interiors were either black, grey or tan. Most of the cars had some of the Scaglietti options currently available, such as sports seats, carbon fiber trim, red calipers, etc. Asking Andrea, I learned that the cars are replaced every two years, but not all at once. I drove ‘99 cars with as much as 18,000km—all accumulated on the track--and there were several that had just been delivered for their two-year stint. Surprisingly, he commented that in the nine years the school has been in service, only a few cars have been significantly damaged, but several have had ‘minor’ incidents. I also asked what was done with the cars after their stint was over, and Andrea just said that they were ‘remarketed’ in Italy.
The first morning started off in a steady drizzle, but that didn’t stop anything. Each student took a turn in a car with an instructor and was told to make two laps, during which there would be no feedback from your passenger as he evaluated what skills or terrors you brought with you. Four cars were on the 2.5-mile track at a time, so you had plenty of room to operate. After all 24 of us had been around, Andrea herded us into a classroom for some basic theory while the instructors compared their notes and separated the sheep from the goats. Four groups of six were composed and we embarked on two days of reducing 64 Pirelli P-Zeros to shreds. Tune in again next month for the details!
-- Bill Orth --