THE CAIRNGORMS MUST SURELY BE ONE OF THE most beautiful places on the planet. Whether you’re standing in the shadow of Braemar Castle, dazzled by the sunlight dancing off the River Dee or, like today, on a surprisingly brisk autumnal morning, high up in the mountains with the impression of standing on top of the world, it’s utterly captivating. No wonder the Queen likes to spend time here. You would, too, and for one other significant reason that I suspect we’d have no trouble agreeing on: the Old Military Road, a spectacular ribbon of asphalt that runs up the spine of this National Park. It has everything you’ve ever dreamed of in a road. Today, however, the scenery has competition. It’s in the form of an unfashionably small, low, red projectile that’s disarmingly handsome. As far as the subjects of ‘Icon’ features go, few are more worthy than Ferrari’s glorious F355 – a pivotal machine in the history of the most famous car company of them all.
‘Want One’, screamed the cover of the July 1994 issue of Performance Car magazine (evo’s forefather) as it clanked through our letter box. From that day onwards, I have lusted after this relatively simple supercat; watched values plummet but still remain out of reach, and then seen those prices accelerate away once again. Despite these towering expectations, driving one has never been a disappointment. Today, on this road, I’m genuinely fearful the needle on the evometer might bend and break against the stop.
The roots of the F355 have become the stuff of motoring lore, recited by every bar-room expert. The 348, so the legend goes, was a stinker. Now, I’m not saying those early 348 TBs weren’t poor, but, like a lot of performance car history, perceived truths become distilled and streamlined into a simple narrative all too easy to repeat. A late 348 GTB is by no means a bad car, but the early 348 did look half-hearted, even complacent, next to Honda’s sparkling NSX, a car that redefined the concept of a useable supercar.
The 348 was neither quick enough nor useable enough, and simply not very nice to drive quickly. Ferrari needed a riposte, and damn quickly, the result being a very thorough evolution of the 348: the F355. Although closely related to those late-model 348s, the F355 was a massive step forward and also heralded the return of the beautiful Ferrari after the brash brutality of the 1980s machines.
I must have missed an entire GCSE Geography module swatting up on the new F129B V8 engine. Ferrari had looked to its contemporary VI2 FI programme, adopting five-valve-per-cylinder heads that helped raise the rev limit to a stunning 8500rpm. Titanium rods featured, too, while a 2mm increase in bore took the overall capacity from 3.4 to 3.5 litres. The result was 380hp, a substantial increase over the 348 GTB’s 316hp, giving the F355 the highest specific horse powerper litre of any naturally aspirated engine on sale, McLaren F1 included.
The steel monocoque body, tubular steel rear subframe and unequal-length wishbones were all Italian supercar staples left fundamentally alone, but Ferrari worked on everything else, rethinking the chassis again from the GTB, incorporating bigger alloy wheels, two-stage electronic dampers and power steering. The gearbox was now rod-operated, not a cable mechanism as on the 348, while more emphasis was placed on aerodynamics with a neat rear spoiler incorporated into the body, and crucially, a flat undertray.
What, then, of that body? The overall shape is surprisingly cab-forward in profile, while the frontal aspect does rather date the car with its long, flat snout hiding pop-up lights-technology from another, distant age. Things get sexier around the sides, with the crisp flying buttresses (the last V8 Ferrari to feature this styling device, and also the F355’s biggest corrosion weak-spot) and the loss of the 348’s side-strakes allowing clean, gaping intakes.
But for me the real beauty of the F355 is its bum, specifically the form of those rear wheel arches, their curvature and the perfect bone-line that runs through them, then the way it all flows effortlessly, coquettishly into that flipped-up spoiler. This F355’s Crema leather seats are probably what you’d visualise if I said ‘classic Ferrari interior’. The cabin architecture is disarmingly simple, almost slab by around the upper ring of the cockpit, and really quite subtle with no outlandish features. There is one element, though, that gets the blood pumping in anticipation: an open-gate manual gearbox.