The Mall, leading up to Buckingham Palace, is no stranger to pomp and circumstance. On a weekday in September, to celebrate the opening of the St James’s Concours of Elegance, 61 of the world’s rarest and most desirable motors made their way around the Victoria Memorial and into the grounds of royal residence Marlborough House.
The oldest car was a 1907 Darracq 18HP Double-Phaeton, a jet black French masterpiece. There was also the 1928 Bugatti Type 35B which won the first Monaco Grand Prix; the very Rolls-Royce Phantom III Barker Sedanca de Ville owned by Bond baddie Auric Goldfinger (sans gold body panels), and an ex-Clark Gable Mercedes 300SL. Contributing to the regal atmosphere, petrolhead Prince Michael of Kent led the convoy in a hefty 24-litre Napier-Railton.
All pulse-quickening stuff, and I wasn’t left out entirely for while it would have been lovely to arrive in something custom-made for a Count or previously written-off by a rock guitarist (for these kinds of things add to the mythology at concours), I had successfully negotiated the loan of a Ferrari FF.
Having been parked pride of place in front of The Dorchester the night before – the most accurate barometer of supercar status that I know – it was mobbed as I arrived in front of St James’s Palace. A group of foreign students wanted their photo taken with the car, but there were so many of them the FF was completely obscured.
Good to know, though, that current design can still hold its own against the classics, for I was parked next to a ’63 250 GTE. Both these four-seat Ferraris share discrete, gentlemanly lines that one doesn’t normally expect from the in-your-face prancing horse.
The FF is an unusual shape, with a profile rather like that of an estate car or, as family transport tends to be known when it crosses the six-figure threshold, a ‘shooting-brake’. Looking back at its ancestors, the FF bares a close resemblance to another uber-rare classic, the 250GT Drogo. Also known as the ‘Breadvan’, this was a one-off modified for enthusiast Count Giovanni Volpi without Enzo Ferrari’s permission. Its extended roofline held aerodynamic benefits, and we see a similar shape in the FF. The smiling front grille, L-shaped headlights and round rears all scream Ferrari, but viewed from the side it’s a real departure from what we expect from this Italian hallmark.
My FF had had the works thrown at it; options such as a panoramic glass roof, suspension lift for speed bumps, specially treated and very handsome blue leather throughout, and TVs in the rear headrests bringing the total car cost up to an impressive £292,000. Less ostentatious was the colour – metallic grey with black-painted 20in rims; a conservative but rather menacing choice.
The fragility of some of the older cars in the procession down the Mall, and the congregation of coppers standing in front of all these establishment fortresses meant one had to lay off the loud pedal and trundle along, which was frustrating because the 651 horsepower FF wanted to pounce on Fangio’s race winning Maserati up ahead and claim 21st century honors with its 3.7 seconds to 62mph acceleration. Its dizzying top speed of 208mph would outpace just about any car here, save the Ron Dennis-owned ex-Le Mans McLaren F1. The Ferrari’s state-of-the-art four-wheel-drive system would allow it to escape over Green Park and away from the valuable competition in perfect comfort.
This is an attribute as rare as anything in this multi-million pound motorcade, for it’s the first Ferrari ever to power all four wheels. The patented system is headache-inducingly clever, but the result is that the engine sits much lower than a normal 4WD, thus improving the handling and styling, by sending power to the rear wheels and having sensors that kick in on the front wheels and power them when extra grip is needed.
Not that I was going to sense this on the sunny Mall, and nor did I actually tear up Green Park, but I did stretch the FF’s legs on a blast through the Cotswolds; its sensational brakes and gearbox making short work of the dry stone walled lanes, and its smooth yet ferociously powerful engine keeping the road ahead clear. Unlike Ferraris of old, which negated the need for gym membership, the FF – like the leaner, meaner F12 – is blessed with light but communicative steering, which enables you to be surgically accurate through each corner just by driving with your fingertips.
The 4WD system would, I’m sure, prove a godsend should you take the FF to your alpine chalet this winter and, with its unique hatchback and fold-down rear seats, there’s plenty of room for your skis.
This is the most practical Ferrari ever, and with no compromise on performance, ride or handling. It provides heart-stopping excitement when you want it, is strangely docile when you don’t, and looks completely unique despite bearing the most famous badge of them all.
Despite the lack of mud-splatter, exposing us as city slickers, the FF felt at home in the Shires. After lunch at the Kingham Plough near Chipping Norton, which attracts a curious mix of farmers, Kate Moss and her rock n’ roll groupies, and David Cameron, I set off for another house with a royal connection, Althorp; seat of the Spencers and resting place of Princess Diana. The Ferrari swept through the iron gates, rumbled over a cattle grid and down the gravel drive. I parked it centre-stage in front of the Georgian house, a little self conscious that such a nouveau riche bauble would spark Charles Spencer’s distaste. I needn’t have worried. Not only did the grounds staff huddle around the FF approvingly, I discovered on a wander through Althorp’s picture gallery that among the centuries-old oils of men in big hats is a striking rendering by Mitch Griffiths of one of Ray Winstone’s daughters holding a CCTV camera and posing with a push chair strewn with police tape. Titled ‘Britannia’ it seems his lordship not only possesses a keen sense of humour, he is quite happy to mix modern with tradition and high tea with the subversive. Maybe I should have stuck a pink Capri outside instead.
There were plenty of classic Ferraris at the Concours: a 250LM, a brace of 166MMs, a gorgeous Ferris Bueller-style 250GT California, several others, but arguably the most eye-catching car was brand new: A striking bespoke model from Pininfarina, the Ferrari SP12 EC; a contemporary re-imagining of the 1970s wedge-shaped 512BB, based on a 458 Italia chassis.
It proves that Ferrari and their stylists are still able to recreate the thrill that their earliest cars first triggered when they rolled out of the Maranello gates. Tasteful customization is popular among supercar owners now just as it was then, and the Concours prove that with unique looks and some eccentric lineage these machines will keep drawing crowds for a century. The value of classic cars is on its steepest ascent since the late 1980s. Contrary to images of leaking radiators and pools of oil, they’re often more reliable than stocks and shares, not to mention more beautiful and fun.
The FF, with its unusual hatchback and under-the-skin technology is a milestone for Ferrari; attributes that may make it even more desirable decades down the line than it is now. As it proved at St James’s, it’s already a crowd pleaser.