Ferrari F355: Who Says You Can’t Go Home Again?

By Mike Covello

Everyone has those special moments that leave such an indelible imprint; the memories are cherished and re-lived forever.

1997 Ferrari 355I had the good fortune to work as the parts department manager at Luigi Chinetti Motors in Greenwich, Connecticut in the mid-Seventies. This experience left me filled with many magical memories of time spent driving the magnificent stallions that bear the fabled prancing horse logo. I’ve spent nearly 30 years trying to recapture that magic, and not succeeding until my recent drive in a yellow F355 F1 Coupe.

Thanks to the generosity of Werner Pfister, Sales Manager at Miller Motorcars, Inc, (342 West Putnam Avenue, Greenwich, CT 06830, 203-629-3890) I had the opportunity to wring out the Ferrari that holds the distinction of being the best-selling car in Ferrari’s proud 51-year history.

While it was four-cylinder racers and V-12 street cars that earned Ferrari such a strong reputation in the fifties, it was the 1975 introduction of the 308 GTB that truly launched the immensely popular, mid-engine V-8 line. Dashing Tom Selleck’s Magnum PI was responsible for introducing many folks to the glamour of Ferrari. For all its popularity, the 308 was replaced by the similar, but improved 328 and 348.

The 355 was first shown to the world in the spring of 1994. Introduced as a Berlinetta closed coupe, it was supplemented by the lift-off-roof GTS model within a matter of months. In 1995, Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive saw the unveiling of the handsome F355 Spyder. Later that year the 355 Challenge cars were launched as replacements for the successful 348 Challenge cars. But, lovers of Ferraris who use them to commute got a greater boon in 1997, when the 355 F1 model was shown.

Unlike many “manu-matic” cars that merely allow you to manually shift an automatic transmission, the 355 F1 utilizes a six-speed manual box with hydraulic actuators that allow an average driver to equal the speed (0.2 seconds) of a Formula One driver’s shifts. While many Tifosi still prefer the gated shifter and purity of the manual, nearly 80% of the 1998-99 F355s came equipped with the F-1 transmission and its column mounted shift “paddles.”

My return to West Putnam Avenue stirred many memories of Luigi Chinetti and his legendary dealership. Once located down the road at 600 West Putnam, the final years of Chinetti’s business were spent in the same historic stone building that Miller Motorcars now occupies.

I was stunned by the beauty of the yellow 355 F1 Berlinetta that greeted me at Miller Motors. Pictures do not do justice to the form that the geniuses at Pininfarina have wrought. Seen in three dimensions, one is impressed by both the low height, and the generous width of the F355. No matter which angle the car is viewed from, it’s a knockout.

The outside door handles are hidden in the upper part of the side, fresh air intake. The door opens wide, and entry is surprisingly easy for this six-footer into such a low car. The seats offer a wide range of adjustments and hold you firmly in place without feeling too confining. A 200-mph speedometer and a 10,000-rpm tachometer dominate the instrument panel.

The fuel-injected, 3,496 cc aluminum V-8 fires instantly and immediately smoothes into a steady idle that belies its lofty 11:1 compression ratio. For the first time in a Ferrari, five-valve-per-cylinder heads promote such free breathing that 375 horsepower is reached at a heady 8,250 rpm. A torque figure of 268 lb-ft. @ 6,000 rpm means that this engine is much happier as the tach needle climbs towards its 8,500 rpm redline.

Since my car had been fitted with the F1 transmission, starting off was as simple as pulling the right hand paddle back to you, and stepping on the gas. Superb visibility in all directions makes driving the low-slung F355 less of a challenge than you might think. Sure there is a significant gawk factor, but in toney Greenwich most glances don’t evolve into encounters.

I was impressed with how comfortable this slinky sportscar is to drive. The front magnesium wheels are shod with 225/40 x 18-inch tires, and the rears wear 265/40 x 18-inch rubber. Despite the low profile of the tires, the electronically adjustable aluminum shocks do a great job of soaking up the pavement imperfections.

Moving up the entrance ramp to I-95, I wound the engine out to redline. As advertised, shifts come blindingly fast with just a tug of the F1 paddle. While we come nowhere near the 183 mph top speed, a quick blast down the highway provides a glimpse of the high-speed stability that is bred in to this product of racing heritage.

Departing the Interstate gave me the opportunity to test the four-wheel ventilated disc brakes. Under eye-popping deceleration, the yellow car merely yawns. Normal driving leaves so much capacity in reserve that the car barely seems to wake up. It as if it’s saying, “Can’t you do better than this?”

A secluded back road provided the opportunity to dip into the deep reservoir that is the F355’s handling surplus. There is no evidence of oversteer or understeer. The car just flat goes around the corner. I suggest you use a racetrack if you wish to seek the car’s ultimate level of adhesion, because the F355’s capabilities are so Olympian.

Even with 11,273 cars produced from 1994 to 1999, the F355 still qualifies as a rare car, if not a rare Ferrari. Thirty years ago the idea of using a Ferrari as an everyday driver may have seemed absurd, but the F355 offers comfort, refinement and a level of civility unavailable in even the finest luxury cars from three decades ago. Plus, you have the world’s greatest amusement park ride available whenever you choose to exercise your right ankle.

Thanks, Werner, the Ferrari magic is alive and well, and the F355 is a powerful way to bring home those peak experiences that made the supercars from Maranello legendary.