1997 Ferrari 456GT

1997 Ferrari 456GT

Chronic car-swapper Kev Ponsford is always looking for the next best thing. Will a day driving his dream Ferrari 456GT convince him it’s time to settle down?

The List Will lucky reader Kev Ponsford warm to Ferrari’s grandest tourer, the 456GT?

‘It’s nothing like the wafty barge I’d expected’

‘It’s not a wafty P72 cruiser’ – a reader’s Ferrari 456GT revelations



Will a day driving his dream Ferrari 456GT convince him it’s time to settle down?

The 1997 Ferrari 456GT is parked in a quiet corner but Classic Cars reader Kev Ponsford won’t be deterred. He cuts past the 360 Modena, weaves around the 308GTB and doesn’t even glance at the Dino 246GT as he strides towards his dream grand tourer. ‘Now this is a car that epitomises the classic Ferrari,’ he announces. ‘It’s an analogue car that arrived just before the digital age – a full-blooded V12 and one of the very last models with pop-up headlights. I just wish it wasn’t tucked away.’ He needn’t worry. The Nineties super-GT will be nosing out of the Rardley Motors car park in just a few minutes. And Kev will be in the driving seat.

1997 Ferrari 456GT

Today he’ll discover how his Maranello model of choice matches up to real world driving. The Ferrari’s cream hide upholstery makes a stunning first impression. ‘So often I’ll see a beautiful car and head over for a closer look only to discover that the cabin is a complete let down. An interior has to be somewhere that I want to spend time. The 456 passes that test with ease. Every surface in here is a work of art and so different from a modern Ferrari, with not a single steering wheel switch or over-complex gimmick to be seen.’

1997 Ferrari 456GT

Only the 456’s four-pronged steering wheel draws exasperation. ‘First-generation airbags look hideous wherever they’re fitted. It doesn’t matter whether I’m looking at a Bentley, a Porsche or this Ferrari – they all got stuck with these huge, shapeless devices that could have come out of a Vauxhall! Early 456s boast a beautiful, slim three spoke and the later 456M received a different airbag wheel. It’s just unfortunate that this example has the ugliest design of the lot.’ It doesn’t distract him for long. ‘I’d still say this is one of the most stylish interiors that Ferrari has ever produced. I wouldn’t buy one for the cabin alone but it certainly goes a long way.’

1997 Ferrari 456GT

‘The 456 was a businessman’s car in its day,’ Mike Wheeler explains. Head of sales at Rardley Motors, his four decades of Ferrari retail experience is evident. ‘At least one was chauffeur-driven and several were their owner’s main or only car. Many still cover substantial distances so this car stands out for its two owners and 38,000 miles.’ He’s offering the 1997 car for £64,990. ‘We sell more 456s than anyone else in Europe. They’re the thinking man’s Ferrari; many of our buyers have never owned anything else by the marque before. A lot of Bentley owners come to the 456 for its rarity and genuine family-car capability.’

Kev’s first impressions are less friendly, the Ferrari intimidating with its dimensions and recalcitrant controls. Trickling uphill towards the road, he falls silent as he concentrates at the task in hand. ‘I’m very conscious that the Ferrari is big, valuable and completely new to me. We can’t have travelled more than a dozen metres and the clutch already stands out. The pedal feels as heavy and as agricultural as that in a Lotus Carlton. It’s a hefty thing but then I suppose we should remember that it does have a 5.4-litre V12 to control.’

He swerves through a width restriction and dips the clutch again. The gear lever stalls in its open gate, completely uninterested in the next ratio. Kev grimaces; his fantasy could evaporate before he’s finished his first upshift. ‘What a pig. The brakes are blunt and the cabin rattles over every surface change, the steering wheel is off centre and all the switches I need are scattered across random surfaces. I’m not experiencing any Ferrari specialness and that’s before I even consider the transmission, which is so baulky and notchy that it just seems like hard work. It doesn’t like second gear at all.’

The 456’s third gear slots home more easily, the engine settling to a smooth hum as we cast off the outer reaches of Hindhead. Trees replace houses at the side of the road and Kev leans gently on the accelerator. ‘I won’t exploit the performance until the car is fully warmed through but I’m already enjoying the V12 for its noise. Just listen to the exhaust rasp as we pass 3000rpm. The Ferrari 348 I tried a few years back was louder, I’m sure of it, but the sounds the 456 makes are just glorious.

‘It’s taking me a few miles but I’m gradually getting used to the car,’ Kev says. ‘There are several quirks and idiosyncrasies and I still don’t feel quite on top of everything, so a lot of my initial complaints might just have been a lack of familiarity. I’m still absorbed in the learning process but the chassis feels planted at these speeds and the steering has a fair bit of weight to it. The ride quality is no problem, either. I thought it would be soft and floaty, like a Mercedes-Benz SL, but it’s no feather bed. I like that, even if it does rattle a bit.’

Confidence is starting to grow as Kev swings the Ferrari into a parking space for a brief pause. ‘I thought the 456 would be larger but it really isn’t huge in today’s terms. The car feels no bigger than my modern Alfa Romeo Giulia, which makes it quite easy to manoeuvre so long as I account for the C-pillars. They’re so long and thick that they create substantial blind spots.’

Another issue arises as Kev noses the Ferrari back towards the road. ‘The turning circle is like the Ark Royal! I’ll need to forward-plan my manouvres around any tight junctions.

‘I love everything else about the steering,’ Kev continues as the Ferrari strides along the A287. ‘There’s a wonderful weighted feel coming back through the pleasingly thin rim. Now we’re travelling at speed, I can really feel the road beneath us. I wouldn’t say the 456 has a particularly sharp initial response – it’s nothing like the 348 and I imagine the contemporary F355 is better still – but the steering really weights up as I get to the middle of each bend. It’s really inspiring confidence.

‘Familiarity is making all the difference. It’s reminding me of when I bought my first E30 BMW M3. Both cars are hard work for the first 30 minutes until everything really warms through. Then, suddenly, it all clicks. I’m finally starting to enjoy myself.’ His enthusiasm guides us onto a nadgery back road. ‘I’ve got the adjustable suspension set to its firmest mode. It’s hard riding and crashes through the bumps but I can sense the composure beneath. It’s a surprisingly good all-rounder – nothing like the wafty barge I was expecting.’

‘Before I got behind the wheel, I worried that the 456 might be prone to oversteer but there’s no threat of that. It feels completely planted and goes wherever I point it. The handling is remarkably good for a grand tourer, with no hint of understeer, either.’ Only the tightest bends upset his flow. ‘I can sense the body starting to roll, like the whole car wants to lean over. That’s got to be the squidgy, high-profile tyres.’

The middle pedal sounds another note of caution. ‘The brakes are quite spongy and need a push to slow the car, which turns into real shove when I’m slowing from higher speeds. They need work to give their best. The system feels under-servoed compared to the modern cars I drive day-to-day. It’s not a big problem – with so much grip and composure, I’m not hitting the pedal that often.’ Dropping back to a cruise as the road straightens, Kev casts another glance around the cabin. ‘The style is still remarkable and I adore the quintet of central gauges. They’re unique to the pre-facelift cars and my favourite part of the interior. I’m less taken with the temperamental electronics and the air-conditioning system, which only seems to offer hot or cold, on or off.’ Minor niggles aside, he couldn’t be more comfortable.

‘The driving position is nothing like the Italian sports car stereotype I feared. There’s plenty of scope for adjustment so I’ve been able to get the steering wheel down low and the chair right back, exactly where I like them. The seat design is clearly focused on luxury, which I don’t mind, but the narrow base does lack thigh support. Ideally I’d want the cushion to come out another two or three inches to make long drives really comfortable. It’s a car designed for that kind of use, after all. I can think of no better drive for the 456 than a blast down to lakes Garda and Como.’ Frensham Great Pond will have to do today. What it lacks in Italian glamour it makes up for with the long, well-surfaced straight that skims its shore. ‘The cable-operated throttle has such a crisp, mechanical response and the pedal weight prevents it from being too sensitive. Combined with the relative lack of low-down torque, compared to my old turbocharged BMW M2, it means that I really have to plant my foot before I get a glimpse of the engine’s potential.’ By way of demonstration Kev pushes the accelerator to the floor.

‘What a sensational noise, and it’s constantly changing for the better. I’m trying to find an unclichéd way to describe it but all the buzzwords are true. It’s a cacophony, it’s a crescendo. The engine is pushing me to keep revving, just like my muchmissedE92 BMW M3 and the sound only gets better when I do.

I expected something more muted but the exhaust is a deep baritone and the engine rasps like an E46 BMW M3 on steroids. The Ferrari makes total sense now. It’s the high-reaching power delivery, the noise, the feeling of driving something special.’ One control shines brighter than all the others, earning special praise as we power back to Rardley Motors. In a complete reversal of fortune, Kev has fallen head-over-heels for the gearbox. ‘It was a bind from cold but now there really is nothing like it. Get on top of the 456 and the whole experience makes sense. The feel of the lever moving through the open gate, the clicking noise it makes and the sight of that bare metal shifter all combine to create the ultimate manual transmission.’

Yet it isn’t enough to keep a spot in his top ten. ‘It’s still a beautiful car and I’ve discovered a driving experience, but today’s drive has given me all the 456 experience I need. I’m always looking to try something new – I change my own cars two or three times a year – so I’d swap its spot. Perhaps an F355 or 550 Maranello would take its place. It’d have to be another Nineties Ferrari. That really was the marque’s golden era.’

Will the 456 conquer Kev’s lust for new experiences and keep its place in his top ten?Will Kev grow to love the lauded open-gate gearbox on his drive?Gimmick-free cabin impressed Kev – bulky airbag wheel rather less so. 456’s cabin is a masterclass in elegant simplicity.

Colossal V12 is key to the 456’s soulful personality Kev and Emma examine the source of the 456’s ‘sensational noise’

TEHNICAL DATA 1997 Ferrari 456GT

  • Engine 5474cc V12, dohc per bank, Bosch
  • Motronic M5.2 engine management
  • Max Power 442bhp @ 6250rpm;
  • Max Torque 398lb ft @ 4500rpm
  • Steering Rack-and-pinion, electronic power assistance
  • Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
  • Suspension Front and rear: independent, double wishbones with coil springs, electronically adjustable dampers and antiroll
  • bar
  • Brakes Servo-assisted vented discs all round, ABS
  • Performance 0-60mph: 5.4sec.
  • Top speed: 186mph
  • Weight 1690kg (3726lb)
  • Fuel consumption 15mpg
  • Cost new £167,000
  • Classic Cars guide price £25,000-47,500

Will the 456 conq ‘I love the steering; I can really feel the road beneath us’uer Kev’s lust for new experiences and keep its place in his top ten

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