MAY 07th 2015

Simply Elegant ‑ Chris Harris Drives The Ferrari 212 Barchetta

The small-capacity V12 is the apotheosis of engineering, before we all became bloated and smug with hindsight. A wonderful idea, but perfectly obsolete. I’m standing over the Ferrari 212’s 2562cc twelve as two suitably aged gentlemen coax it into life. We have a peek under the air filters to see just how small each pot actually is. What a wonderful piece of design – it looks like a scale model of a proper capacity V12!

The 212 Barchetta by Touring is a truly beautiful machine. We shot a film on it prior to its auction appearance later this month, and I simply had to tell you some more about the machine and the driving experience.

This car is from the era of coach-built bodies covering a standard chassis – in this case a pretty rudimentary pair of steel tubes housing the running gear. This example was built in 1952, and sent to Touring to have the simple body shape applied.

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That V12 has around 160hp, does its best between 3000 and 5000rpm and makes one of the purest, most attractive noises in the automotive world. A C-Type’s snarling straight-six is ambrosia for the ears, but there’s a complexity here that makes the 212 stand clear. The pops and bangs on the overrun would make The Grouch chuckle to himself.

The driving experience is physical, challenging and rewarding. The front axle has transverse leaf springs with a steering box that has, at some point, had a damper added. It’s a pure competition car really, designed to be stable and have steering response at 100mph on the broken asphalt of the Mille Miglia. Accordingly, the non-synchro box doesn’t like mooching around town, but once you get it singing on some fast roads, the car comes alive.

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The engine is tractable, the front axle grips well, but a trailing throttle through even middling radii will see the rear axle want to rotate and the lack of a locking differential means it isn’t always easy to hold the slide. The new owner should fit a slipper immediately.

Drum brakes take a huge shove to work, and by modern standards are completely useless, but then we’re all spoilt these days. The suspension is able to tolerate a certain level of bumpy terrain, but most of the movement is un-damped so you never take liberties. Like all cars from this period, you don’t grab it by the scruff, you find an economical rhythm and try to protect the machine from the attritional world around it.

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And what a shape. Twice I’ve referred to it as ‘simple’ when in fact it manages that rare visual trick of appearing quite ordinary, and yet when you scrutinise the details: the subtle creases, the Barchetta ‘line’, the subtle swells and dips and the beautifully judged sense of proportion all become apparent. I love the way the human torso sits proud of the car when it is driven.

The cabin is equally beautiful; with some of the most elegant clock faces I’ve seen in a passenger car. The seating position is ideal if, like me, you are a simian 5ft 7in male with small feet. The pedals allow heel and toe downshifts.

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And this particular car has never been badly crashed, despite twice completing the Targa Florio and entering the Mille Miglia. I’d list the events it would be eligible for if I had a few hours spare – really, can you think of a more eligible machine than this 212?

But it’s the engine I’ll remember the most. It seems Enzo began early with his manifesto to sell customers the engine and bung the rest in for free. It still feels potent today, so what it must have been like 60 years ago is beyond me.

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