Where to take a thoroughbred Ferrari for a weekend? Ascot’s Coworth Park will stable your prancing horse.
I was in Paris the other week to attend the sale of France’s much talked-about barn find; the classic car collection of Roger Baillon, who made and lost a fortune building trucks. Discovered last year in appalling condition were some 100 of the rarest and most beautiful cars of the 20th century. For four-wheel aficionados, this trove trumped the moment that archeologist Howard Carter prized open the tomb of Tutankhamen. Here were Talbot-Lagos, Bugattis and Delahayes rusted to the point of dust yet their precarious silhouettes were unmistakable. Benefiting from being in one of the only outbuildings with walls on Baillon’s land, though, was a slightly better preserved gem. A rough diamond that, with years of loving restoration, could sparkle once again. Hidden under stacks of curling car magazines was a dark blue 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California, one of just 37 built. It’s not quite the rarest Ferrari, but it’s certainly one of the most desirable. Heck, as a childhood fan of Ferris Bueller it’s the convertible I’ve most lusted after. And this one, it turned out, had been owned by Alain Delon. Pictures surfaced of the playboy actor sat in the car with Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine. This glamour results in what auctioneers like to call “the Steve McQueen effect”, but even the most optimistic would have fallen short of predicting the hammer price at Paris’ Artcurial auction on February 6.
This dented, buckled, peeling Ferrari rust-bucket sold for 16.3 million Euros.
I therefore look upon brand new Ferraris now with a sense of expectation, not of how fast it’ll go or how glorious it will sound but about how its value might accrue and whether one day it will be excitedly discovered under inch-thick dust and grime.
The £200,000 458 Spider is, of the current Ferrari line up, the successor to Alain Delon’s old steed. It isn’t the more junior California, which shares the evocative name from the 1960s and the front-engined layout for, despite all that, the modern California is a bit – dare I say it – suburban. The 458’s feistier lines and futuristic detailing has more of the visceral ‘BAM!’, as Kanye might put it, that the Cali had when Delon and Fonda swept onto the MGM lot to film Les Félins in ’64.
Presented with a drop-top Ferrari for the weekend one is very temped to make a beeline for the Riviera, its natural heartland on the continent. However, perhaps with an eye on those future values, I have a mileage limit. In my hand are the keys to one of the most head-turning cars on the road, but I mustn’t stray too far from London. Where does one take a thoroughbred prancing horse for a weekend in the home counties? Ascot sounds apt.
My Spider is a custom shade of scarlet red which, in strong light, glistens with flecks of gold – real gold. The leather is cream and as the electric hardtop folds behind the engine compartment, the beam of sunlight crosses the dashboard and settles on the red wheel-mounted starter button. It’s like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones is shown the way to the treasure hoard. The exhaust crackles to life. Flick the Manettino dial to ‘Sport’ and those 570 horses start pulling at the reins.
Coworth Park near Ascot has two polo fields, where Princes Harry and Wills have been known to compete, and on the day the 458 and I burbled through the gates it was hosting a world championship event, with dozens of Guards Polo Club riders upon similarly expensive and powerful beasts. I parked in front of the 18th century main building between two other 458s, one white and one blue; the Italian Job indeed.
The hotel is unusual among the Dorchester Collection. Their properties include such grande dames as the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Principe di Savoia in Milan, Paris’ Plaza Athénée and Le Meurice, and of course The Dorchester. All immaculate, but slightly stuffy. And then, incongruously in this shortlist of the world’s ritziest playgrounds, is Sunningdale Berkshire. Looking at the car park, evidently this is where England’s Ferrari owners choose to weekend.
The renovations that turned it from millionaire’s mansion to luxury accommodation were completed in 2010 and owner Prince Azim of Brunei has overseen a stellar job. The guest rooms make the most of its splendid Georgian features; those huge rectangular windows and sturdy English cornices. The décor is a stylishly unpretentious take on grandeur, with an understated palette of white, cream and grey. The four-poster is coma-inducingly snug, the Bang & Olufsen TV arises from the end of the bed and will turn to follow you around the room, and the freestanding copper bathtub comes with a selection of vintage adventure novels laid out on its soap rack.
On the edge of Coworth Park’s 200 acres is John Lennon’s old home, Tittenhurst Park, where he and Yoko made the video for Imagine. Lounging in the suite at Coworth listening to the White Album it’s easy to dream of rock star country pile hedonism.
The 458 fits into this scene of contemporary country high life just as a 250 GT would have in the Sixties, a flash of red skirting past the hedgerows of Berkshire’s narrow country lanes. The tarmac cutting through the historic royal hunting ground of Windsor Great Park allows one the chance to stretch the Ferrari’s legs.
Open top motoring doesn’t come any more soulful, stirring or down-right frantic than at the wheel of this Spider. The flick of each gearshift is a shot of pure adrenalin, and through each corner you can feel the molecules between the rubber and the road fizzing but never yielding, aided by the car’s ingenious aerodynamics. The Bluetooth seems to have gone all Italian; it doesn’t like the iPhone 6, but who needs tunes when you have that philharmonic V8 a dozen inches from your ear drum.
I take dinner just beyond Coworth Park’s walls at The Belvedere Arms, a popular local with a lively terrace from which I and everyone else can ogle the car. It’s certainly more aggressive than the Pininfarina-designed cars of the Sixties, those elegant 250s. Its proportions make it look like it’s breaking the law at standstill, the headlights scowl like a feral jungle cat, the rears look like glowing cigar butts. You wouldn’t mess with it. It’s cruelly handsome. More so than the car that’s set to replace it later this year, the 488 – an ever-so-slightly face-lifted turbo version but with a pair of unsightly air intakes cutting into its hindquarters like some kind of high-performance wine rack.
Well rested and luxuriously breakfasted the next morning I don riding boots for the first time in years and go for a hack on one of Coworth’s stallions; fortunately a much slower and more forgiving animal than the Italian. After half an hour of prodding its ribs and jiggling around I’m relieved of the glass of champagne that arrives while I’m still on horseback.
It used to be the case that owning a Ferrari was hard work too; from Delon’s car through to the machines of the 90s they often needed more than a kick to get going. I’ve had several friends buy their dream cars only to have them spend half the time in the workshop. After they’d seen the bills they couldn’t get rid of their Ferraris fast enough. But Ferraris today are different. They come with seven years free servicing and, at extra cost, the warranty can be extended to 12 years. It’s the only car maker in the world which offers this.
The life of owning a Ferrari should, indeed, be all fun and headache-free. For the drive back to London I don a Hawaiian shirt, a nod to Magnum PI. At a set of traffic lights a Rastafarian smiles at the car, comes over and asks if I’m a pop artist. That is a resounding stamp of approval for a sports car; beyond an expensive trinket, this is something which inspires, is expressive and makes people feel good. It’s that same romanticism which makes the 458’s forbears such valuable commodities. One day this car’s scarlet paintwork may dull but those tiny flecks of real gold will reemerge with a bit of polish.