Hello car lover. Have you been toying with the idea of getting a Ferrari F355?
“I love that car but...no way! I heard that an Italian boogie-man lives in under the engine-cover and makes me pay $5,000 every time I put 100 miles on the odometer. Screw that!”
Ah yes. I understand. In fact, as an American of Italian descent, I can be proud of my culture’s achievements in the automotive world; but when it comes to my personal affection for Ferrari and other Italian road cars, I must admit some amount of shame.
These cars were larger than life when I was young, and the Ferrari brand is a strong one. One may assume that due to Ferrari’s price-point, their cars must be incredibly well engineered in every respect and only contain the highest quality components. In addition, people (ahem...ladies) often assume that a Ferrari is luxurious and comfortable; much like being seated inside a fine Italian handbag…but with a make-up mirror...and a transmission hump.
I lusted for the marriage of function and beauty that is Ferrari throughout my younger years. My desires fueled many years of 12-hour work days and many plots to quickly
bilk raise sufficient funds to own one. Finally after many years of wanting, I was in a position to HAVE ONE. To OWN ONE. To MAKE SWEET ITALIAN LOVE TO…uh never mind forget that part. Let’s move on shall we?
The day finally came when I could buy a used one. I had saved. I had waited. I was ready to acquire. By the way, what’s with the pretentious a-hole part of me that wants to use the word, acquire? When I was a teenager with no co-signer and no credit, I did not acquire my used Chrysler LeBaron. I bought that piece of s**t. Things that come at a high cost are no longer bought; they’re acquired so that we can feel better about paying too much. Those avocados I got at Whole Foods? The ones that said, “Inquire” on the price tag? I didn’t buy those...<insert smug exhale here>...I acquired them. Yep. Single owner, skin detailed regularly, and a multi-point inspection done prior to hitting the
produce section showroom floor. They’re doing the PPI now - I should be able to make guacamole in a couple of days.
But I digress.
So there I was. I had a big ol’ case of Ferrari blue-balls (...red-balls?) and I was ready to finally get one. It was time for real research in order to buy one properly. I hit the forums. I web-searched “Ferrari <insert model name here> Buyer’s Guide”. I read back issues of Forza Magazine. I talked to gray-haired proprietors of European Auto Repair centers. I then fell into a state of shock as I learned about some of the seemingly inexcusable issues that these cars had. Don’t get me wrong; I was aware that the phrase “Italian Engineering” deserved a chuckle when used in the context of automobiles, but after understanding the foibles of the cars I had coveted? I felt…ashamed of my heritage. Not Mussolini ashamed. Not Godfather III ashamed. More like a Venti sized amount of shame. No wait, a Tall. Ah crap, which one is small and which one is - ATTENTION STARBUCKS: Small. Medium. Large. GIVE IT A TRY!
Anyhoo, issues with component parts in cars of this era were discovered early in production and rather than write the parts off and commission updated versions, Ferrari continued to use them; pushing the cost burden on to the Customer. Now, that mentality is not exclusive to Ferrari; it can be found in any industry, but still I was disappointed to learn that in addition to maintenance costs, it’s quite common to have to “sort out” Ferraris (and other exotics). By the time I had learned all of this in detail, I had driven a 1990 Acura Integra to about 240k miles, with my only issues being a cracked radiator and a worn ignition contact at around 220k. So I didn’t take this knowledge about my poster cars very well.
I learned about the diff problems in the Testarossa and early 512TR. I learned about the much improved design and quality of the 360 (though it’s not without its issues and some think it does not drive quite as well as the F355 - myself included). Speaking of the F355 - I learned about the plethora of issues associated with that thing and yet, that’s the car I decided I wanted. Oh, the 355...a car instrumental in the success (if not survival) of Ferrari. A car motivated by the realization within Ferrari that they better get their act together or they’ll be in trouble. I wanted it to be the F355 for me; but what about all of these problems I discovered that plagued my dear object of desire?
Well, I could have been fallen prey to sensation and become irrational:
For example, the F355 had a feature that opened exhaust valves above a certain RPM (commonplace now but less so in 1995), thus increasing breathing (and sound level thank you very much, Ferrari), but that valve can fail to open. That (and other things) can cause issues with the ceramic cats which are of poor quality…which (among other things) can cause issues with heat causing the poor quality headers to melt in areas...which can cause issues with the engine which can END THE HUMAN RACE PEOPLE ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME!!!! And if that doesn’t screw your engine royally, there’s a good chance that some vendor supplied valve guides will go bad because they’re too soft for the application which will require a 4-digit bill to replace your guides and likely your valves!!!! And, like most Ferraris of that era, the engine has to COME OUT to change the belts, seals, gaskets, etc. It’s madness I tell you! AND if you have a paddle-shift model, the F1 pump costs $10k to replace!!!! Please run to the internet to tell the WORLD WHY THEY SHOULD NEVER BUY A FERRARI F355!!!! OH THE HUMANITY!! I think my panties have a yellow stain on them that will never wash out!
But I chose to be more objective:
I knew a Ferrari would cost more than most cars to maintain but I really wanted to get to the facts. The first bit of good news I learned is that you do not have to buy a brand new Ferrari 355. In fact you can’t...they stopped making them in 1999. So...many cars on the market will be fully or partially sorted out by now. So that’s good news. What else did I learn? Well, Ferrari branded parts will cost more when you have no choice; but a lot of Ferrari parts are in fact...German. There’s tons of Bosch in these cars and many parts can be had for cheaper if you just get the BMW or Mercedes equivalent. The OEM 355 headers are $4-5k per side and will fail again at some point. So don’t buy them if you don’t want to repeat history. They can be rebuilt for less than half that cost or you can replace them with aftermarket headers that won’t fail again. Same for cats. Valve guides will cost you - but that should be factored into the purchase price or you can just look for a car that had them done already - I see them frequently. The Spider top can fail but it would be a rare occurrence to have every hydraulic line and pump fail at the same time so I wouldn’t live in fear of a massive bill all at once. Using the improved aftermarket parts will protect against future failure. Seat position sensors can go bad (which breaks Spider top operation) but you’ll find the same part in a Jaguar for very little money and there’s a low cost long-term fix for the quirky design posted in the forums. The adjustable shock actuators are plastic and go bad. They are the same ones in Corvettes of the same era that are also plastic and also go bad. There is an aftermarket replacement part made of metal that costs $20 (“OH THE HUMANI-did you say $20?”) and will not go bad. The stock Bilsteins need rebuilding every 5-7 years it seems. Bilstein does it for a few hundred bucks or there is a guy that does an improved version that will last much longer at a higher cost. Regarding the F1 models; yes, the F1 hydraulic pump is expensive. It is $10k (“OH THE HUMANITY!!!”), but…it actually fails less often than internet legend would indicate; and often times what really fails is a $50 relay. If the pump fails, you can replace it with the pump from the Ferrari 360. If memory serves, the 360 F1 pump with the 355 fitment kit is around $1,100. Maybe a little more $ is needed as I think you have to update another part to handle the higher pressure of the 360 pump. In comparison, I think the pump for the SMG transmission on the E60 BMW M5 (a car that I researched because I think the S85 engine is so cool and me want. Me want bad. Me talk like cave-man when me horny for car) comes to around $3.5k. So go ahead and sit paralyzed from fear of a Ferrari F1 pump going bad if you want to. I’ll be driving through the mountains. Call me if you need anything.
If you want to get an F355 (or 355 F1) while it is on the low end of its depreciation curve, now would be a good time. I don’t think it will be worth tons of money later but I don’t think you’ll lose money. In addition, I have suggestions based on experience:
- Make sure you want this car. It has a prancing horse on it but that Subaru next to you at the stop light is probably faster. Choose this car for naturally aspirated high-RPM driving, excellent handling with no traction control/electronic assisted anything, and looks that could give a dog a bone.
- Research what it takes to sort out known major issues so that you know your boundaries on purchase price and price out regular maintenance + 15% for random break-fix items if you want issues to not be disruptive to your personal finances.
- Find a car; either with the big-ticket issues already addressed or at a price where you can buy it and get it sorted yourself. Getting a PPI (Pre Purchase Inspection) done by a tech that knows the model will allow you to verify condition and present facts for negotiation.
- Make sure you can afford the maintenance. If not - keep saving or bail on the idea and think about other cars. An NSX for example is an under-rated car and is incredibly well built if you want 90’s era mid-engined fun.
- Drive the thing and enjoy yourself. This car will prove to be more reliable than you thought it was going to be if you drive it often.
- Maintain the car. The super-scary engine-out job is no big deal to your qualified tech. The engine drops easily by removing a few bolts as it’s on a sub frame (some techs remove the gas tank and leave the engine in for belt changes which can save money). Be prepared for the usual cost ($4k - $6k at an independent shop) as well as a couple of surprises. Don’t skip those annual fluid and 4/5 year belt windows. This is not your sister’s Camry.
So how did things work out for me? Well, my F355 Spider had the big ticket items done by the previous owner <insert sympathetic frowny-face here>. It was well maintained by a reputable tech. It was one of 3 cars that were equally sorted and priced correctly. Eventually, when my Spider top stopped working, I was prepared for a pricey fix; but it ended up just requiring a trip to the Mercedes dealership for some $10 fluid that I topped-off all by myself, Mommy!!! This thing is a blast and cost me less than a basic German sedan with modest trim. There’s a mechanic’s shop next to my garage and I often come over and talk about the cars he’s working on and I’ve gotten to know some of the owners. I spend far less on the 355 than they do on their Bimmers and Mercs. Of course the 355 has fewer things on it that can break.
So, what am I supposed to hate about this experience again?
Now, don’t get me wrong. It is shameful that Ferrari had the kinds of issues they did with these cars (and I can write all day long about the issues in all models from the 90’s and 00’s), but not being the first owner is how you can enjoy these things with far less pain. Enzo Ferrari is associated to a quote that is both endearing and infuriating depending on how you look at it. The quote runs something like, “I sell engines. The rest of the car, I throw in for free because something has to hold the engine in place.” When you think of Enzo the racing legend and the man who only made road cars out of obligation; you can sort of think, “ah that’s Enzo. There’ll never be another one like him.” When you think of that quote while you’re waiting for a flatbed because your car won’t start, that’s when you think, “I wish he was still alive so that I could knee him in his Italian-Engineered nuts.”
Ferrari is a different company now. I give them credit for improving their product quality and bundling service with new car pricing so that owners don’t get (quite as) stuck with these design flaws that are famously expensive to repair. Ferrari was a race car company that made road cars because they had to. And it showed. They are now a company that is properly set-up to focus on both road cars and racing; but I’m a road car guy and to me, the F355 is a stand-out car that may never be this accessible again. So if you really want a Ferrari F355 - do some homework and get one soon.
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