As a child I used to play with Matchbox cars about as much as kids nowadays play with iPads. Probably more than is healthy. Each car would have its own garage between the black keys of our beautiful, ancient piano. Probably my favourite would have been the Ferrari, which I now know was a 308. It was aggressive and confident, masculine and feminine. It just stood out amongst all my other cars. So much so that I've always identified myself as a Ferrari guy, as opposed to Lamborghini people, who grew up with Countach and Diablo posters adorning their bedroom walls.
Before I really knew about cars, it was the looks that I fell in love with first. Most Ferraris are so well designed, so proportionately perfect, that it's hard to get an idea of how big they are in the real world. Their latest Grand Tourers are monstrously huge, but their Enzo-era sports cars are surprisingly compact. Pininfarina, and to a lesser extent, Bertone and Zagato, are masters at ensuring that Ferrari's overweight cars look like supermodels, and the smaller offerings have the correct amount of road presence. So, as I walked around the 308 I was about to drive, I couldn't help think how this Ferrari was the approximate size of my old NB MX-5, albeit with greater overhangs. A concept I struggle with, even now.
Older Ferraris are known to be hard to get in and out of, but the 308 wasn't all that difficult. It's not as challenging as a Lotus Exige to enter and exit, but it's difficult enough to make you aware that you're not just jumping into any old thing. You know you're about to drive a Ferrari.
After familiarising myself with the interior, the anticipation built inside the pit of my stomach. Unfortunately turning the key produced nothing except a click and some faded lights on the dash. After spending almost an hour waiting for the Marshall Batteries man to come out and looking over the car to try and find the battery (it's under the spare wheel), I was on my way.
With the car briefly warmed up, the dog-leg gearbox was stiff and notchy and mechanical and fantastic. It was a joy to use the round 8-ball knob and gated shifter. The pedals were close together and off-centre and there is no dead pedal. This means that heel-toe downshifts come easily, but your left foot can never really relax.
In normal traffic the car was positively placid. It was calm, easy to drive, comfortable. For the trip through the city, I wondered whether drivers of the past were just pansies who got hard-ons for anything that sounded a bit different. Except for the noticeable weight difference and quality interior finish, it didn't feel worlds apart from my old 1979 Mitsubishi Lancer fastback.
That was until I got to the other side of Melbourne and onto the starting grid of a set of traffic lights, revealing an open, five-lane highway. Not wanting to destroy a Ferrari clutch, my launch wasn't particularly aggressive, but rather letting the rear tyres find the edge of grip. The car pulled away from the lights with purpose and with it a crescendo of metallic, roaring noise. Above 4,000 rpm the V8 mounted behind my left ear really came alive and planted all 240hp (179kw) to the fat Michelin TRX tyres at the rear. The gear changes weren't fast, but I'm sure practice would improve this. Through second and third gears, the Ferrari is wonderfully quick. I can only imagine it being akin to flying a vintage radial-engined aeroplane. It's a cliche, but this car was all about the mechanics being connected with the driver. You sit within it and become part of it. Sitting so close to the ground just enhances the feeling of speed. It's a beautiful experience for a driving enthusiast.
As the rain set in, there was only one exciting moment when the back-end started to out pace me through a long corner. The vehicle is so well balanced that it was easy to drive through the drift and correct it without too much fanfare. Considering that the engine is mounted towards the back of the car and I was running on 30 year-old TRX tyres, I was surprised that that was the only butt-clenching incident. The brakes seemed fine, but in that weather I wasn't going to put myself in a position to test their full potential. The (non-powered) steering, though well weighted at speed, is unpredictably heavy and requires a bit of strong-arming when crawling along.
With dark clouds and teeming rain setting in I was able to get acquainted with the quirky electronics of the Italian sports car before I turned around and headed to my final destination. I particularly enjoyed the pop-up headlamps that are now extinct on modern cars, and its charismatic window wipers.
And that's really what this experience has taught me. Emissions laws, safety regulations, and the need for cars to be able to do everything imaginable has meant the driver is so detached from the modern car nowadays. These older sports cars have more charisma and driver interaction than almost anything on sale right now. And that's the point.
This particular Ferrari 308 GTSi is set to go under the auction hammer at Shannons on Monday the 5th of December 2016. Time to get my Matchbox cars out and start dreaming again.