Which was a shame. As you can imagine I’ve been to a fair few car factories around the world over the years, but regardless of what cars they might produce, none has ever had so magical a draw as the Ferrari facility on Via Abetone.
And when I go, however gimlet-eyed I may be about the reasonably serious job of assessing whatever product I am there to drive, the place itself always makes me feel like a small boy. It’s the same feeling you’d get if you met today the teacher who taught you all you knew 30 years ago: I’d still feel like I was wearing short trousers, and still want to call him ‘Sir’.
I know why too. It all dates back not quite 30, but 27 years to a day in May 1993 when someone far further up the Autocar food chain managed to arrange for me to go to Maranello for the very first time and, indeed, become the first journalist to drive the then newer than new 456 coupe. So I got a dawn flight to Malpensa, hired a Fiat Panda and drove it flat out down the Autostrada all the way to the factory. Where, of course, they had no record of my appointment.
Back then this was a fairly familiar run of play at Ferrari and I’d been warned by likes of Steve Cropley and Mel Nichols to expect it. Whether through a genuine lack of communication or because it was all part of some Machiavellian mind game I was never quite sure, but there was the PR man shrugging his shoulders at me.
But forewarned is forearmed and I had with me the piece of paper send from Ferrari to the office confirming my appointment. And though time was not exactly on my side, it soon turned that I was expected after all and that a 456 would shortly be available. Shortly? How short was that?
‘We have lunch first.’ At once my photographer was looking at his watch and shaking his head. We had to get the car to and from a location and shoot eight pages and a cover in between, before furiously pedalling the Panda back to Milan. But with no Ferrari there was little we could do.
Besides, I’d known of the Cavallino restaurant since I was a young boy and dreamt that one day I might dine there. I was star-struck all over again just to cross its threshold and see little prancing horses monogrammed on the crisp, white napkins. The lasagne was so good I spent the first paragraph of the resulting drive story talking about it.
But as I was eating and very dramatically, a dark blue 456 pulled up outside our window. I was almost sad to have to leave the lasagne until I saw Piero Ferrari himself emerge from the car and stride into the restaurant. Enzo’s son as delivery driver? Even Ferrari didn’t have that highly developed a sense of the theatrical. It wasn’t my car.
When I was finally acquainted with a silver blue example, we had just 90 minutes before we’d have to leave, which in normal magazine terms is barely enough to shoot a two page spread if you’re already on location, which we were not. But happily the photographer, unlike me, had been to Ferrari many times before and was very familiar with this part of the world. Up into the hills we went, did the shoot on one road and howled back the factory. Where I was asked if I’d like to do some laps of Fiorano.
Fiorano and miss the aircraft, or fly home and miss Fiorano? I did what you would do and spent a glorious half hour skidding around Ferrari’s fabled test track before making my excuses and jumping back into the Panda with a now spectacularly bad tempered photographer next to me. And in one of those strange, serendipitous quirks of fate, the plane was delayed and we got home after all. I didn’t drive the 456 far or for long, but still look back on that trip as one of the most memorable of my working life.