Certain cars have an “it” factor that goes far beyond the sum of their parts. Slip behind the wheel and within the first minute you know they are “right,” something that delivers a truly special experience. Such models often have such a devout following that I call them “cult cars,” though a decade or two often passes before these machines are “discovered.” In that way they are like an old rundown neighborhood that suddenly becomes hip.
Probably the first time I realized I was testing something that had the makings of eventual cult car status was Ferrari’s 360 Challenge Stradale. I had already driven several 360 Modena coupes and spiders with both manual and F1 gearboxes but from the moment the “CS” fired up it you knew it existed on a different plane—on edge, alive and bursting at the seams (or should I say voluptuous fenders and roofline) with personality. Throttle response was more crisp, the steering sharper, the brakes more grabby.
And man, how that thing ran! Your head snapped back when you hammered the accelerator, and an incredible banshee-like exhaust howl filled the cabin. The steering wheel danced in your hands while your butt sensed every inch of tarmac, the Ferrari feeling so responsive that if you sneezed or blinked it would react. That type of Vulcan Mind Meld with you and your surroundings is something very few machines possess, and the CS looked great—nicely understated with only a few styling cues to differentiate it from a normal Modena.
Luckily for us mere mortals, CS prices are still depreciating. These days it is just a used Ferrari, now two generations old, albeit a very special one.
That same “used car” description also applied to a BMW 2002 tii I drove in Italy in the early 1980s. Its owner was a bud named Axel Gottschalk who was a gonzo auto enthusiast, and he clued me into something seriously cool—that the Monza racetrack was open to the public on weekends. We went a number of times to spectate and drive, and that 5-speed tii was an absolute sweetheart getting there, and even better blasting around the track.
What made the BMW so brilliant was its balance, a superb power-to-weight ratio that allowed you to have heaps of fun but not get into trouble. The chassis was sublime, dishing out memorable grip and a wonderful ride. The gutsy engine was a joy to run hard, mating beautifully with the optional close ratio 5-speed so the tii accelerated cleanly coming out of turns and never ran out of breath higher up. Plus that wonderful airy greenhouse made it easy to see the road (or track) ahead, beside and behind you.
Axel later had an Alpine A110 1600S in that lovely electric blue. That memorable mid-engine machine was basically France’s version of Ferrari’s Dino, and it fit my lanky frame like a glove and was just about as lightweight. It also had a superb power-to-weight ratio and felt like a roller skate because of its small footprinrt—and you might as well have been on one as the Alpine was that low to the ground. A late Fall drive at speed from Monza to Axel’s house in the countryside outside Milan cemented its then “cult car in the making” status, and I can still see the leafless trees whizzing by at an impressive clip as the Alpine gobbled up road like a starving, asphalt-eating carnivore. Those brilliant road manners helped Alpines win the first World Rally Championship, and seal the model’s eventual cult car status.
This past summer during the Pebble Beach week I drove another machine that is destined to become a cult classic. Within the first mile it was obvious Aston’s V12 Vantage was something special indeed. It didn’t matter if you were going fast or just pottering along, this car talked to you in a way very few machines do these days. The package seems to shrink around you as speed increases, and the conversation becomes more effusive as you are bombarded with sensory inputs that go way beyond simple eyes, ears and internal g-meters. Row that lovely 6-speed manual gearbox, feel the steering, chassis and suspension set up through turns, savor the engine’s torque and the way it builds a beautiful head of steam at higher rpm, all while it screams an utterly delicious V12 wail.
In these days where we needlessly obsess over 0-60 and quarter mile times, braking distances and ultimate g-forces, these cult cars become more special by the day. In the Aston’s case, there is no question a Ferrari 458 will generate better numbers but it is mute by comparison. When you look back at your time behind the wheel of today’s mid-engine cars, they are like a digital game played on your mobile phone or iPad while the Aston is a fine bottle of wine that stays with you for ages. One you use a few times then forget about it while the other you drink again and again to savor the experience.