How the Ferrari F355 Spider has become a brand in itself
The Ferrari F355 was such a good car that it became a brand in itself, writes owner and enthusiastKevin Yeung
Luxury homes perch over stunning beaches on a gorgeous rock-lined ribbon of tarmac that connects the south side of Hong Kong Island. Welcome to the Chinese Riviera. Residents include the world's most successful Ferrari dealership - more prancing horses are sold in this enclave than in Canada and Australia combined. Blessed with endless corners, it's the perfect road to drive my Ferrari F355 Spider.
Captivating from every angle, the F355's taut, athletic lines possess a timeless quality. Twenty years after it was first unveiled, it's still regarded as car designer Pininfarina's most successful work since the Dino.
My long-standing love affair with the 355 stretches back 16 years to my first 1997 "Nart blue" Spider. Leading a gruelling life, it served as my daily ride and was driven everywhere; to work, the shops, through Hong Kong's torrential rainstorms and typhoons. The roof leaked occasionally but my Spider never left me stranded.
After four years, I foolishly traded it for a new sports car. Ultimately, I would trifle through a series of cars before realising how much I missed my 355's magic.
When the opportunity arose to be reunited, I seized it without a test-drive. This was a huge mistake. Once I drove my old friend, I realised something was horribly wrong, and learned that it had been in a crash.
Worse still, it had been poorly repaired. The crash had been severe enough to torque both the chassis and engine frame, so I returned it to Ferrari for a proper repair. Despite their best efforts, my Spider's chassis never regained its rigidity. It was ruined, so I sold it.
Thankfully, I received a second chance with my current 1997 "Swaters blue" Spider. This time, I carefully test-drove and inspected it.
So what's the big deal about the F355? It was Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo's redemption car following the company's much-criticised 348, which was a big disappointment in terms of performance.
With the F355, he re-engineered and revitalised Maranello's fabled mid-engine V8. Starting with a chassis that was 30 per cent stiffer than its predecessor, the F355 was treated to engineer Paolo Martinelli's masterpiece - an all new 40-valve, 90-degree flat crank 3.5-litre V8.
Benefiting from Ferrari's Formula One racing experience, Martinelli's engine featured individual throttle butterflies, five valves per cylinder and titanium connecting rods.
The result was a then record output of 108.7 brake horsepower per litre (the mighty McLaren F1 could only manage 103 bhp per litre) with 380 bhp at 8,250 rpm, and 363 Newton metres of torque at 6,000 rpm. Pull a hidden door handle and you enter a driver-focused and airy interior, punctuated by a classic (now defunct) gated shift lever. Sumptuously upholstered in aromatic Connolly hides, it feels special and inviting. Seated low in a relaxed driving position - legs slightly spread with the steering wheel near your chest - find neutral then twist the tiny key and the V8 erupts into life.
Depress the light clutch, clack the shift lever to first gear and you're off. Smooth and docile around town, the F355 answered Montezemolo's mandate for the company's cars to be "everyday Ferraris".
"The F355 is one of Ferrari's most important road cars and one of my favourite Ferraris," Montezemolo told me last week when he was in town to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Ferrari's relationship with distributor Auto Italia. "My own 355 was also a Spider and it was blue with tan, just like yours. It was my go-kart," he said.
The power-assisted steering helps significantly when manoeuvring at low speeds. The low-slung driving position in a forward cabin elevates a sense of occasion. Once traffic clears, find a lower gear, then bury the throttle to unleash the power. Rev it to the stratosphere and the 1,350kg Ferrari lunges forward with authority.
You'll find yourself changing gears often; thankfully the six-speed manual gearbox is a delight to use - slick, precise and immensely rewarding. The F355's gear linkage is connected with a rod rather than cables used in the 348, making it immensely tougher and more precise. The transmission is linked to a robust power plant that just loves to rev.
With full power and maximum torque found near redline, it's the quintessential way to enjoy an F355. Drive one with some conviction and you'll be rewarded with a V8 roar that hardens to a frantic, spine-tingling F1 scream, finished off with a generous dose of crackling and popping on overrun. It's fantastic to hear the "fireworks" whenever the revs drop on trailing throttle.
For me, the F355 experience is most enjoyable in a Spider. While they are not as rigid as their Berlinetta brothers, driving one alfresco with the top down and the engine inches from your ear, you are treated to an amplified soundtrack - richer with much more intensity.
While the F1 engine note might dominate a passenger's experience, the F355's accomplished chassis shines for an enthusiastic driver. Few cars will ever match its sheer composure and adjustability - especially over challenging roads. Its handling becomes crisper the harder you commit.
The F355 howls from zero to 100km/h in 4.6 seconds and tops out at 295km/h. This level of performance is "adequate" by today's standards. But that's missing the point. The magic of the F355 is its unrivalled ability to deliver so much emotion and thrill on every drive. I used to love to power oversteer my first Spider back in the late 1990s, but with the significant advancements in tyre technology over the past 19 years since the F355 was launched in 1994 with its original Pirellis, it's become increasingly difficult to push the tail out at lower speeds. The fat 225 and 275 section 40-profile tyres mounted on its magnesium 18-inch wheels provide immense grip on modern tyres. But once a slide is induced, it can be caught easily with confidence.
So what are the running costs of this great car? During the past 16 years, a total of HK$317,000 has been spent by its previous owners and myself servicing my current Swaters blue Spider at the main Hong Kong Ferrari dealer.
As my Spider is now 16 years old (the oldest F355s are approaching 20), it will require slightly higher servicing costs in the future. But fear not: the F355s are extremely durable cars and easy to service.
With 11,273 units produced between 1994 and 1999, I doubt that they will be appreciating aggressively any time soon. However, I also believe that they will suffer negligible depreciation, as good examples are hard to find. The F355 is destined to become one of Ferrari's all time greats.
Montezemolo himself sums it up best: "The F355 was a big step forward. It became a brand itself."
Kevin Yeung is a businessman, philanthropist and motoring enthusiast. He is also a moderator of the Facebook page Gentlemen Drivers of Hong Kong