Back to the Future

Ah, the noughties! Grunge was on the radio, the Gallagher brothers were at war with each other, Bburago made great toy cars and many of our generation had their first car-love affairs. As a kid of the decade, it meant admiring the Ferrari F50 and the McLaren F1 when they were new, watching Ayrton Senna dicing with Alain Prost on TV and literally holding our breath when seeing any red car, hoping for it to be a Ferrari. These were the times when the first magazines and the memorable first-time-in-a-cool-car moments sparked our passion for anything on wheels.

We clearly miss those times, spent trying to emulate Michael Jordan and drinking Ice Tea as if it was water…so, we had a little of a throwback. These are cars that embody what we loved about cars in the first place: the ones that in a way, mean the most to us.

Surely, we couldn’t gather them all in one place, but we found the most significant ones, not for history, but for our memory. We escaped them in the hills of the Lugana, but in reality we were escaping in the hills of our memory, a time capsule that goes back to our car-loving roots.

The Ferrari 348, a Honda NSX and a lovely Alfa Romeo GTV 3.0 coupè, all together for a fun-day and a trip back in time. Apprehending the legend about Montezemolo being smoked by a VW Golf GTI at traffic lights was a bit of a shock: is this enough to qualify the 348 as the most unloved Prancing Horse? It sure is part of the myth of this car and it is great trying to debunk it: especially when you get to test the very first 348 ever built, Chassis 001. The 348 was a true game-changer for Ferrari, as it was built around an hybrid self-supporting and tubular steel frame, with the engine mounted longitudinally and with a unique transverse gearbox. Driving it it’s a true comeback: it sounds magnificent and it is a supercar in the truest sense: the sense of occasion in strong with this one, and surely you can’t drive it every day. Its ride is rock-hard and the low seating position forces you to perform skillful contortions to get in and out of the cockpit. It pulls strongly above 4000 rpm and it needs all the attention and care you would expect. It is still an object to be revered, something to be preserved for future generations: it is not a “trend” supercar, easy to use and fancy enough to be seen in. The handling is frisky and to arrive at the car limits requires skills and concentration, more than you would think. It is exhausting to drive fast but still it provides the adrenaline you need to come back with a smile. The Fioravanti design blends perfectly with the surroundings and the mini side-grilles and the distinctive rear design is a throwback to a completely different era. So is it true that the 348 is a bad car? It doesn’t seem so. Its behaviour and new architecture paved the way to the great new V8 berlinettas that we dream of every day.

The nineties saw a powerful comeback of the supercar: no more wimpy and cheesy cars, substance and real-world performance were the key and the NSX has been the most significant, aside of course from the mighty McLaren F1, of which it was the inspiration. As the legend goes, Gordon Murray, the chief engineer of McLaren at the peak of its success has been inspired by the refinement and by the everyday usability of the NSX to build what is perhaps the best supercar ever designed. If you put it up against the Ferrari, it feels a decade younger. It boasts incredible levels of refinement and as soon as you begin pushing it, it handles like a blade: precise, direct and intuitive. it becomes twitchy when driven over the limit but in normal driving conditions it is a wonderful grand tourer, reliable and a riot to drive. It could be considered as Japan’s first true supercar, the giant killer, the affordable ricer that could shame every other supercar on the lot. With its great visibility out front and engaging driving dynamics it sure was the best value for money that you could (and can, to this day) buy. Is a car that is competent in every area: it may lack the flamboyance of the Ferrari or the charm of the Alfa, but damn it is good. In particular, the one tested is chassis #200 and it is almost brand-spanking new.

The 3.0 GTV is the biggest surprise of the lot and perhaps is one of the best bargains on the market today. I can still remember the dramatic advertising on magazines when it came out: it had quite an impact, to be honest. To die-hard Alfa enthusiasts, it was quite shameful bit of kit, as it was a Fiat in almost every way, but still, that magical badge was able to convince you otherwise. Nevertheless, this car is better, much better than you would expect. It’s refined, agile and with the snarl coming out of the mighty Busso V6 is one of the most exciting cars you can buy. When you drive it, it feels like an Alfa, with long gearing and a torquey engine whose revs seems to be endless. It’s front wheel drive, yes, but its near-perfect driving dynamics will put a smile on your face…and did I tell you it has the same rear suspension multilink design of the 155 DTM? Alfa enthusiasts seem to be obsessed (including myself) in finding the last true Alfa Romeo, and in many ways, this one can be considered as such as it is the last model ever produced in the historic Arese factory. What else would you desire than a Pininfarina-designed Alfa Romeo coupè that after 150.000 km on the odometer still feels fresh and happy? Yes the chassis is based on the Fiat Tipo, but it’s damn good in the corners: although penalized by a soft suspension setting and a vague steering, the GTV could have had the right potential to go head to head with some of the best fwd cars of its era. Also, it stacks up against the other two brilliantly, and people stare at it too. The pleasure in driving it is unique, a kind of perfect in-between mix of the eagerness of the 348 and the refinement of the NSX, blended in an unique way. Speaking of affordable time machines, this one could definitely be it!

Escapes are normally for roads somewhere ideal to look for the ultimate drive. Pretty much like surfers, looking their entire life for the perfect wave, the one that will always come next, we petrolheads are stubborn in looking for the best place to get the most satisfaction out of the car we’re driving. This time, however, we weren’t looking for roads, yet instead for those lost memories and emotions that are in the back of our minds. Smells, sights and sounds that trigger forgotten frames of the past, that compose the puzzle of our subconscious that unbeknownst to us, fuel every day our passion for cars. Long live the noughties!

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