Separated by a few years, these limited-production GTs have a lot in common, but each also offers a unique experience.
Autumn in Cape Town brings a pre-sunrise mist that makes the roads especially greasy. It’s not an ideal start to a morning drive with two special V12-powered Ferraris, a 550 Barchetta Pininfarina and a 575M Superamerica, each of which delivers in excess of 350 kW. Fortunately, we are heading some 80 km out of town to the Cape Winelands, a renowned wine region that’s home to some of the country’s most picturesque roads.
I decide to drive the older car first, which means no roof whatsoever, a four-point harness and a beautiful carbon fibre-topped gear lever. The 550 Barchetta’s sport seat holds me in place top to bottom, while the harness fortunately clips in place by means of a single buckle. I turn the key and, after a few turns of the starter, the 5.5-litre 357 kW V12 engine catches and settles into a deep-throated idle.
The clutch is relatively heavy and its spring action takes a while to get used to.
However, I soon forget about the clutch as my left hand starts to guide the shifter through the classic open gate. Second gear to third, fourth to fifth, or vice versa, the metallic click-clack sound is the highlight of changing gears.
Together with the available torque at low revs, it makes driving through the city more exciting than I anticipated. (Having said that, I would not want to be stuck in traffic with the Barchetta.)
Out on the highway, I sometimes switch down to fourth gear just to be able to go up through fifth to sixth once again. At an indicated 120kph in top gear, the rev counter sits at a very relaxed 2 750rpm.
As the sun starts to peek over the horizon, the mist has cleared and the roads are dry. The Barchetta’s low windshield and open rear deck allow more wind to blast through the cabin than in a modern convertible.
There is an upside, though: This is a proper roofless car, with a greater sense of open-air connection than the 575M Superamerica which sits in my rear-view mirror.
After a quick stop, the Superamerica takes over the lead. The driver pulls away with vigour, and I notice how the car’s rear momentarily squats. Up to now I haven’t really approached the engine’s redline, as using the first two thirds of the rev range rewards with more than ample progress.
But now I oblige the challenge, planting the Barchetta’s throttle in first gear. For a moment the engine power is cut as the ASR traction control warning lights up on the instrument cluster. When I shift up to second and put the throttle back on the floor, the light comes up again. Indeed, any time I put my foot down, the Ferrari’s long red nose lifts slightly and the tachometer needle starts chasing the red line.
This is an Italian muscle car if there ever was one. How I wish this road was long enough to slot through all six gears up to the Ferrari’s claimed 300kph top speed! The wind noise does soften the engine and exhaust sound, but the experience remains intense and immersive.
When I push the Barchetta through a few corners, I can feel the weight that indicates this is a very fast GT rather than an outright sports car. That’s not all bad, however, because the weight transition gives me more, and earlier, warning signals before I breach the car’s limits.
Once we arrive at the photo location, I have a chance to look at the two cars in detail. Although they likely share some parts – the 575M is, after all, based on the 550 – and could appear quite similar to the untrained eye, there are vast differences between them.
Ferrari’s chairman from that era, Luca di Montezemolo, commissioned the 550 Barchetta to celebrate design house Pininfarina’s 70th anniversary (hence the model’s full name).
The car, based on the 550 Maranello coupé, debuted at the 2000 Paris Auto Show. It was the first front-engined V12-powered open-top Ferrari since the Daytona Spyder. Barchetta was, and still is, an evocative name, harkening back to the famous Touring-bodied 166 MM roadsters. While the first Barchettas were mostly racing cars, invoking the moniker for the roofless 550 reveals Ferrari’s intentions: This is a true roadster for the ultimate open-top thrills, with only a fiddly canvas roof to use in emergencies.
Although more than 50 years separate the two Barchettas, they do have a few things in common. The most significant is the famous V12, although the 166’s displaces just 2.0 litres and produces, perhaps, 100 kW. Both Ferraris also utilize a manual gearbox, with the earlier version featuring a remarkable-for-the-era five forward speeds.
In the book Ferrari 550 Barchetta Pininfarina, by Automobilia, former Pininfarina design director Lorenzo Ramaciotti explained the timing of this project. “Ferrari asked us to supplement the range of the 550 Maranello with an open car, to be built in a limited number of units. The project required little time: No more than three to four months passed from concept to final model. The development time was longer, though.” Only 448 Barchettas were manufactured, against roughly 3 600 coupés, which explains much of the current price difference between the two 550s.
Today, Maranellos, in the USA for example, sell for between $80 000 and $150 000; buying a Barchetta could easily cost two to three times as much. Based on auction results, a 575M Superamerica might well cost even more, especially if it is one of the 43 manual-equipped cars.
Two years after the Barchetta was introduced, the 575M replaced the aging 550. Three years after that, in 2005, Ferrari unveiled the Superamerica at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
The car’s name comes from a small run of two very exclusive 12-cylinder models built between 1956 and ’64 (82 total examples of the 400 and 410 Superamericas to 559 of the 575M version). It also reflects Ferrari’s respect for its largest market, then and now, which made Los Angeles a fitting launch venue.
The concept for the Superamerica was different to that of the Barchetta, with the newer car speaking more to luxury. Where the open Barchetta makes do with fully exposed roll-over bars, the Superamerica feels more like a coupé, with its bodywork flowing upwards towards the electrochromic glass roof, called “revocromico” by Ferrari. This roof, framed with carbon fibre, was the first of its kind to be used on a car.
The glass offers five levels of driver-selectable tint. At its lightest setting, the glass will allow the same amount of light into the cabin as a standard glass roof; in its darkest setting, it allows only 1 per cent of the light through. This marvel of a roof has another trick up its sleeve: It flips backwards to lay flush with the rear deck. (To protect the glass, customers were supplied with a cover made of canvas and carbon fibre.)
With the roof out of the way, the sense is of a huge open area above my head; the tall windshield, rear roof supports and the frame of the revocromico roof remain. In the Barchetta, the only thing between cockpit and sky is the small windshield. The Superamerica’s cabin feels ever so slightly more modern than the Barchetta’s, although they are very similar overall. There are a few very noticeable differences, however. Where the 550 has Alcantara covering the top of the dashboard, further enchancing the racy feel, the 575 uses soft-touch materials. The Superamerica has also done away with the Barchetta’s hard plastic trim and controls, while its seats are slightly more comfortable but less supportive. And, in this car at least, the classic gear lever is gone, replaced by the F1 transmission’s tiny pull switch in the centre console and two paddles fixed behind the steering wheel.
As we head back to Cape Town, the easier nature of the Superamerica is immediately noticeable – or, more accurately, the easier nature of the F1 transmission. In standard mode the gearbox is rather lazy, but it makes effortless work, or no work at all, of shifting. Traffic would be no concern at all.
I expected Sport mode in the newer Superamerica to change the driving experience more than it did in the Barchetta, and I’m not disappointed. Pressing the Sport button found below the central air vents produces an immediate effect on the drivetrain. The six-speed transmission properly wakes up, its shift times dropping to around 180 milliseconds, which was quite impressive when the car was new. It’s not nearly as quick as a modern dual-clutch transmission, of course, but taking into account the car’s age, the F1 ’box does a superb job, with only a slight dip in power when the next gear is selected.
There’s more urgency to the Superamerica’s engine, which is 40kW stronger than the Barchetta’s and revs even higher, and it’s quite an event to watch the needle swing around to 7 500rpm on the red (yellow was an option) rev counter. The exhaust system intermittently backfires when I ease off the throttle, a wicked crackle which can be enjoyed by both passengers and selective passersby.
Unsurprisingly, the Superamerica feels quite similar to its older sibling in terms of braking (both Ferraris wear traditional steel discs) and handling. There is, however, a thin additional layer of sophistication, owing to the newer car’s extra few years of development.
In terms of ride quality, the Ferraris are on equal terms. Both absorb most road irregularities with aplomb, which is very impressive when you consider their outright performance and low-profile tires (30- and 40-series 18-inchers on the Barchetta, 30- and 35-series 19-inchers on the Superamerica).
While I didn’t set out with the intent of declaring a “winner” between these two cars – the unquestioned victor here is the lucky man who owns them both! – I did come away with a personal favourite. While these limited-production Ferraris generally see far fewer miles than their coupé siblings, the Superamerica is unquestionably the more versatile model. It’s a car for any situation and, especially, any weather, and it feels quicker and more refined than the Barchetta.
But I’d rather have more interaction, and have every drive be a memorable event, and that puts the Barchetta on top. The combination of a completely roofless cockpit and an open-gate manual gearbox connected to a V12 engine is something Ferrari doesn’t offer any more, and will most likely never offer again.
Pininfarina’s Ramaciotti best summed up the Barchetta. “This is not a grand touring car for long journeys, but a car that responds to a specific demand,” he said. “In this sense it can be viewed as product virtuosity, since it is constructed in a very limited numbers for a highly particular market niche.” I couldn’t agree more.
550 Barchetta Pininfarina
Structure: Steel chassis with steel and aluminium bodywork
Weight: 1 690 kg
Engine: 5.5-litre, V12
Power: 357kW at 7 000rpm
Torque: 570Nm at 5 000rpm
Top speed: 300kph
Gearbox: six-speed manual
Suspension: Unequal-length wishbones, coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers, anti-roll bar front and rear
Structure: Steel chassis with steel and aluminium bodywork
Weight: 1 790 kg
Engine: 5.7-litre, V12
Power: 397kW at 7 250rpm
Torque: 588Nm at 5 250rpm
Top speed: 320kph
Gearbox: six-speed automatic (also available in manual)
Suspension: Unequal-length wishbones, coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers with adaptive damping, anti-roll bar front and rear