Monday, April 18, 2011

Chapter 10 - A tourist in Ferristan

She asked Google “why men buy Ferraris”. It was Tuesday February 9 2009. I expect I was able to provide several different answers.

Tourist in Ferristan

In the nanosecond before I owned a Ferrari I was anticipating immortality. If not immortality at least better looks, a bigger brain, and a better tan. I was going to be a titan. I was sitting across from a smiling bald guy and had just lifted a pen from the last letter in my last name. I now owned a Ferrari. For an instant, just for an instant it was all there. Venezuelan expats who fix elections own Ferraris. Members of the Russian Duma crash Ferraris on the Promenade des Anglais with underwear models.

I was all of that.

For an instant. It did not last. No tan. No underwear models. Everything was the same.

There was a difference. I was now in debt and may have just acquired a beautiful rolling Italian liability. Guess what? No would know. It would be my secret. For almost everyone else I could have a suit case full of cash and be easing a member of the senate out of his seat.

It was Friday December 14th. I collected the car at 1:00. Picking up the car was not eventful. It was not anticlimactic. It was less than anticlimactic. I signed some papers and Joe handed me a set of keys. That was it. I walked over and sat in what was now my Ferrari. There was a splattering of oil on one of the rims from an old MG that had been parked perpendicular to it. As I turned the key I was nervous and excited but my overwhelming feeling was of disappointment. The search was over. This was my first Ferrari. This 355 was it. I was disappointed with the car. Disappointed I was not sitting in a 430 or Challenge Stradale. The 355 was a compromise. Nothing happened. The car did not start. I got out and asked one of the service guys. With the 355 and probably other Ferraris you have to use the remote to activate the starter. Two chirps and a turn of the key and the car came to life.

The disappointment did not last.

My first order of business had nothing to do with to do with fixing elections. I was going to pick Alex up from school. Alex climbed in, stuffed her giant parka in the passenger foot well and said, “Dad, this is a cool car.” Then, “Dad, that guy is taking our picture?”

I have only been to South Beach once and have never been to Monaco but I bet the experience of owning a Ferrari in Portland will be a substantially different from the experience had by owners in those hot beds of Ferraridom. I drove the car for about 45 minutes and stopped counting the number of times people took pictures. People honked, waved, and gave me thumbs up. I did not see another Ferrari on the drive home. I cannot remember the last time I saw a Ferrari driving around in Portland. If I were in South Beach I would see Ferraris every day. Portland, especially Portland in December is a fun place to drive Ferrari.

If the event of picking the car up lacked drama, the drive home made up for it. Less than five hours into Ferrari ownership I had my first maintenance scare. I had just left the freeway and was looking forward to my first drive on Humphrey when what appeared to be a warning light flickered briefly on the dash. It flashed on and off so quickly I was not sure it was a warning light at all, maybe it was the light from the car behind illuminating my dash. A few moments later and I was sure it was a warning light but it was so quick and infrequent I could not make out what it said.

My stomach sank. I was four and one half hours into Ferrari ownership and warning lights were flashing. When the light finally stayed on long enough for me to read it the words “SLOW DOWN” were illuminated in big letters. Slow down? I was going 35 miles per hour behind a minivan. Slow down? I can’t go much slower. What kind of a warning light says slow down? Was this some sort of joke?

Maybe the car was looking out for me. The temperature was hovering just above freezing and it was misting rain. Maybe the Ferrari had bonded with me and was worried I might get frisky on the wet pavement. All the other gauges look good – as far as I could tell I had only owned the thing for a few hours.

I followed the cars advice and slowed down. The “SLOW DOWN” light disappeared before I made it home. Perhaps I had gone slow enough to make it comfortable.

“SLOW DOWN” lights have nothing to do with bad weather or Ferraris’ care for their drivers. According to the owner’s manual the “SLOW DOWN” light illuminates when the exhaust temperature exceeds a certain threshold. If the light is blinking you drive slowly home and call a service center as soon as possible. If the light is solid you stop immediately and have the car towed to a service center. The warning is to keep you from ruining the engine by running it too hot.

That did not sound good.

I did not like that answer what so ever. Further research revealed the “SLOW DOWN” light can occur for a number of reasons, most caused by one of the many maintenance gremlins which haunt 355s. “SLOW DOWN” warnings are frequently caused by the connections between the sensor and the catalytic converter becoming corroded or if there is a bad connection at the ECU. Dampness may aggravate this problem. The car had performed flawlessly throughout the day and I doubt the drive from my office to my home warmed the engine beyond acceptable operating temperatures.

After considering all the possible causes I was no longer so worried. When I drove the car the following day the “SLOW DOWN” light did not reappear. Further I realized that the value of the experience was going too far exceed my estimated budget and if I do end up spending a bit on repairs fine. I had entered the honeymoon period. After every drive my appreciation for what a wonderful piece of machinery a Ferrari is grew. The chassis design, the engine, the aesthetics all wonderful, all with the exception of the climate control system. The climate control system was not wonderful. The Ferrari was fantastic but it was incredibly cold. Even with the heater turned all the way up I had to wear a jacket when driving it.

There was a reason. I discovered it while waiting in line at the DEQ to have the smog check done on the car. As I sat, idling in the Ferrari for a bit over one hour, during which time I used about 1/8th tank of gas and belched 84 pounds of green house gas into the atmosphere. There were a few hundred other cars doing the same. You can do the math. We were all waiting at the DEQ CLEAN AIR STATION. Waiting to have our vehicles emissions checked.

To keep Oregon’s air clean.

When it was finally my turn I pulled the car into the bay and climbed out. The DEQ guy plugged in the data cable. Nothing. No output. “Sorry” he said. “Take it back to the place you bought it. We can’t test it. Sorry about the wait.” Non parlo italiano. DEQ computers don’t speak Italian.

There was an upside. Sitting in line I learned how the heater works. Actually, (I strongly dislike starting sentences with “actually” but in this case feel it is the appropriate word) I learned how to turn the air conditioner off. To turn off the air conditioner in a Ferrari 355 simply push the button, located on the climate control panel in between the seats, labeled “STOP”. To turn the air conditioner back on push the “STOP” button again. I noticed the “STOP” button the first time I drove the car but had not worked up the courage to push it. Who knew what might happen? Sitting in line at the DEQ with the car in neutral and the parking brake on I pushed the “STOP” button. In about 5 seconds the windows fogged up. A freezing Ferrari became a sauna.

Learning to operate the climate control was not my only Ferrari ah ha for the day. When sitting perfectly still, with no forward motion what so ever, the Ferrari’s speedometer read 11MPH. I had pushed the “STOP” button during my first few minutes at the DEQ I now had almost one hour to ponder the optimistic speedometer reading.

My first guess was electrical malfunction. I did not remember the car reporting a speed which seemed high when moving,. 20 seemed like 20. 60 like 60. When I got home and parked the car I noticed that the tachometer did not drop to zero when the ignition was switched off. If you just had the gauges to go by you would assume that 500 RPM is the slowest the engine can ever turn and 11 MPH is the slowest the car can go.

I researched “Ferrari Speedometer Malfunction” on line. I posted questions on the Ferrari Club technical forum. Lots of people looked, no one answered. After two days with no responses I did the sensible thing. I used a shop light to illuminate my dash. You know the little pins on the speedometer and tachometer that keep the needle from going below zero? Well, below zero in a sensible car. On the Ferrari the pin stops the speedometer at 11 MPH and the tach at 500 RPM. Ferraris don’t just go to 11, they start at 11.

This episode taught me a valuable lesson in Ferrari ownership. If you want to enjoy owning a Ferrari don’t worry about the stuff which would be unacceptable in a Toyota. You have every right to expect a Toyota’s speedometer to start at zero and accurately record every increment of speed thereafter. In a Ferrari anything under 50 is irrelevant. The little things that make a Toyota great are lacking in a Ferrari. The big things that make a Ferrari great are lacking in a Toyota.


Brian Roepke said...

I love this line!

On the Ferrari the pin stops the speedometer at 11 MPH and the tach at 500 RPM. Ferraris don’t just go to 11, they start at 11.

And I remember every bit of my experience here too. The way people look at you, take pictures and just celebrate the car... It's amazing and something my future 911 Turbo could NEVER come close to...

Then the "11"... Perfectly stated David!

David said...


Nice to hear from you. Hope SF is treating you well. Your car is now in Texas with a good owner.



Anonymous said...

My '69 Alfa was the same only my eyes were younger.

Brian Roepke said...

Just saw your reply. Texas! That's where it came from when I bought it (as you probably know) - Full circle. Maybe it's all the oil money.