Sunday, 12 September 2010

How It All Began

5th June 1993. I remember it well. I hadn't long been twelve, it was a beautiful, sunny weekend and the summer holidays were looming on the horizon. My Mother hadn't yet got her driving license, so we took advantage of the glorious Essex sunshine for a nice walk into Frinton for shopping. My pocket money at the time was a meagre £1.20, enough for a pocket full of sweets, maybe an ice-cream.

I was rubbing the coins in my pocket together as we entered Graham Westcott's newsagent and rushed straight to the racks low-budget sweeties. I reared up to a halt some distance short of my target, though as if I had received instruction from on high. The voices were telling me to head towards the motoring magazines. There, shouting at me from eye level “We're first to drive the all new Ferrari V12”.

It was all the incentive I needed to beg mum for an extra 15p. I was already a big magazine reader - I would regularly buy Motorboat and Yachting and absorb every bafflingly nautical word as the new Sunseeker Camargue was put through its paces. I would salivate while learning that its "deep-vee hull with pronounced deadrise and a fine entry" made for "a surprisingly soft ride".

Up to then, the car magazines I had been given all seemed rather dry and did little to feed my somewhat fervid pre-pubescent imagination. That was all to change on this balmy Saturday evening, with Autocar on my lap, complete with a front cover bearing quite the most erotic image I had ever seen - and one far more appealing than those magazines I'd seen higher up in the rack.

When I cracked the magazine over I disregarded all the worthy editorial bits and raced directly to page 26, and there I learnt that the incredible Ferrari on the front cover was the 456GT, and that Andrew Frankel, an Autocar journalist, was to become my new best friend.

Not knowing what to expect when I turned the page, and whether the words within would be as exciting as the image on the cover, the first sentence of the review sent me beaming with a delirious, cartoon smile. 

“The lasagne in the Cavallino restaurant, Maranello, was a masterpiece.” He went on to describe a scene in which he dined with Ferraris' top brass, and how his gaze slunk sheepishly back to his food after issuing a faux-pas about the 456 being the New Daytona. “I found myself paying undue attention to my plate until even the lasagne looked stern...”

I was with him in that restaurant. I was there with the cognoscenti, joining in with the disapproving glances. "You silly, rash-speaking journalist; of course it's not the new Daytona, it has four seats" I thought. As a car-obsessed 12 year-old I knew a bit about the Ferrari back catalogue and was feeling pretty smug to have out-knowledged  a real-life journalist, until he suddenly rallied back with “...In fact, the 456GT's true parent is the gorgeous and still massively underrated 365GTC/4, that beautiful two-plus-two coupĂ© which lived so undeservedly and so briefly in the shadow of the Daytona.”

In terms of Ferrari savvy, Mr Franknel was demonstrably at least my equal, so I humbly continued to read, my pupils growing ever more dilated as the world that Autocar described began to appear around me.

"You hook your index finger under the door handle and behold the promised land”. I did. I was experiencing “total immersion in Connolly leather” while looking at “chromed bezels which are as good to look at as they are difficult to read”. I had established the sights and smells in my mind, I was really looking forward to the sound and the feel. And Andrew Frankel delivered in spades with the following paragraph.

...As I flopped into the surprisingly soft armchair seat a seedling of fear that the 456GT might mark a new age of softer, more sensible Ferraris broke through the topsoil. It sprouted into a small sapling when I saw how much space there was in the back, whence it soon became a mighty oak when Cimatti told me of the automatic 456GT, currently being developed for the US market. The ignition key was my chainsaw. A distant whoosh followed by a sound that worked on so many levels it made Beckett look shallow”.

Andrew FrankneI would probably wince to read this paragraph nineteen years on, but he had captured the imagination of a twelve-year old boy - one far better nourished on old Ford brochures than he was actual literature - in a way that Spielberg could have only dreamt of.

I didn't so much read this feature as gorge on it. I read every phrase with growing excitement, until the end came like a musical crescendo and left me wanting more.

“...What is extraordinary is that, at the same time (Frankel references how soundly it beats BMW's 850CSi in a number of specific regards) it sweats enough charm, character and style to make your heart burst every time you climb aboard. Whether you look at it, sit in it or drive it, it all adds up to one simple fact: the Ferrari 456GT is the greatest Grand Tourer the world has seen.”

The Ferrari itself had quite a profound effect on me... as an aspiring car designer at the time the 456GT inspired me to put pen to paper and whip myself into a frenzy of sketching. On that June day, the patio doors were open and the warm breeze was gusting into our living room, David Bowie's then new “Black Tie, White Noise” cassette album was winding round on our Hitachi music centre, and I was in my own little world. I would remain there for at least the next twelve years.

Today, I write about cars because I enjoy doing it more than virtually anything else in the entire world. I have revisited ancient articles and enjoyed many a white-knuckle reading experience as shared by the great automotive journalists of the past. I sincerely hope that the art of quality car-writing isn't lost in the future. 

A good story is one you live, as well as read, whether it be fictional or actual. A well-written car review or a great driving adventure skilfully retold will never fail to put me behind the wheel.