Featured: Coachbuilt Cabriolet: It's Time To Admire Pavesi's Drop-Top Ferrari 400i

Coachbuilt Cabriolet: It’s Time To Admire Pavesi’s Drop-Top Ferrari 400i

By Dennis van Loenhout
November 15, 2018

Photography by Dennis van Loenhout

It is somewhat unloved, yet lovely in its own right. Where the 400i breaks most noticeably with Ferrari tradition is the way in which you must look harder and squint differently to see what makes it a car worthy of the badge. In order to make this task easier, we recommend removing the roof and adding a little sunshine. The Ferrari 400i Pavesi doesn’t deserve to be in the shadows.

Even before the roof, the red color alone makes this example of the 400i rare. It is the only true Ferrari color, but surprisingly little 400is were ordered in the classic Rosso Corsa. Most of them were grey, black, silver, or brown, in keeping with the era. Subdued colors for a car that comes across as though it’s a bit uncomfortable with itself—perhaps not the most inspiring car to come from Pininfarina and Ferrari. This particular one though, a 1982 400i that was converted to a drop-top by Milan coachbuilder Pavesi, looks at peace with itself, and unlike its roofed relatives, the Pavesi oozes confidence. In this getup, suddenly the 400i makes more sense. Get a bunch of friends to jump in, and set out fort he nearest beach—this would have been a fitting car for the California name back in the 1980s.

The fact that the Ferrari 400i would turn out to be more or less shunned by the brand is predictable in hindsight. Yes, it was styled by the greats of Pininfarna, but arguably not on their greatest day in the office. After the aesthetic triumphs of the 1950s and ’60s, the squared-off 2+2 coupe looked, well, a bit boring. Sure, it was more modern than its predecessor, the 365 GTC/4, but some of the Italian flair had gone missing with its arrival. In light of the iconic Daytona, this coupe was bland at best. The 400i started its life at the 1972 Paris Motor Show, but it wasn’t called the 400 just yet. Back then it was called the 365 GT4 2+2. When it got christened “400” at the same motor show four years later, it was still pretty much the same car. The only difference you’d notice were that the 400 models had four round taillights as opposed to the six of the 365, and subtly different wheels. It remained front-engined, it remained square and boxy, and it remained abstract.

As time wore on, the 400i became increasingly self-conscious. At first it was reasonably successful, attracting buyers by making the Prancing Horse accessible at a relatively reasonable amount of lira, while also appealing to older gentleman that found this to be the sensible man’s Ferrari.

As the years progressed further though, the car couldn’t help but show how different it was from its brothers and sisters. It held its head up high until 1989, but as it faced in-house competition from legendary and eccentric cars like the 308, the BB 512, and the Testarossa, it became more and more destined to be the “also-ran” that was too unremarkable, too much a product of its time, to be passionately loved by the Ferrari tifosi.

There were some who saw its potential in another form though, and that came in the form of coach builders that rigorously cut into the 400i’s roof to let in the sunshine. Ferrari themselves never gave serious consideration toward making a convertible from the 400i, and why would they? From 1983 onwards it had a nice little convertible in the form of the Mondial, which had a much more suitable and elegant shape.

But the 400i had perks too: it had four seats, and four more cylinders. Demand for a 400i Cabriolet was therefore still present if not massive, and where Ferrari stood firm, many coachbuilders saw commercial opportunity. One of them was Pavesi, a small and respected operation working in Milan. The Pavesi family had gathered some fame in Italy by producing limited runs of highly exclusive customized versions of cars from Lancia, De Tomaso, Maserati, and of course, Ferrari. If your customized car carried the “P” of Pavesi you had a bit of a status symbol on your hands.

If you were ambitious enough to set your heart on Pavesi’s convertible version of the Ferrari 400i, you’d be wise to brace your bank account according: the original car would set you back around 185 million lira, a little short of 110,000 dollars today. The 400i Pavesi Cabriolet would cost you a stunning 350 million lira, almost double the price of the original. No wonder only 18 of these conversions were made. But, unlike the creations of other companies, this was the only 400i Cabriolet that Maranello was confident to be associated with. Allegedly only 18 cars were built, but rumor has it that 12 of those were sent out to their new owners directly from Maranello. This is as close to an “official” Ferrari 400i Cabriolet as you can get.

Unlike many of its colleagues in the branch, Pavesi did substantially more than just chop the roof off a 400i. It put in a great effort to reinforce the chassis in order to maintain appropriate torsional rigidity, even designing new structural parts in the process. Pavesi also built an electric roof on the their car that was well ahead of its time.

All this meant that without the roof on it, the 400i Cabriolet has a classic, elegant line that is barely disturbed by the canvas whenever the weather requires you to close it up. With the roof up, it doesn’t lose the elegance it had as a coupe like some less deft conversions. It’s gorgeous, and very Italian. No wonder even Ferrari took some pride in this car. Maranello’s Prancing Horse and Milan’s “P” of Pavesi complement each other beautifully. Unfortunately, the original Carrozzeria Pavesi company went under in the early 21st century, and while the name Pavesi Milano still exists, it is in use by a company that specializes in buying and selling cars rather than reimagining them.

The driving experience in the 400i Pavesi is dominated by a few things. One of those is of course the vast amounts of sky above your head. Even with a roof, the 400i is roomier than your average Ferrari, but once the metal above your head is removed from the equation you feel all the more free to stretch out. This car is more comfortable than its badge leads you to expect, and as long as you keep your right foot in check it will allow you to enjoy the elements around you in relative quiet and calm. But press down a little harder, and another defining element of the car comes in to play: the 4,823cc, Bosch K-Jetronic-injected V12 mounted at the front of this car.

Producing 315 horsepower, it sounds throaty, it sounds heavy, it sounds darkly vibrant, and when you allow it to really rev, it sounds omnipresent. It carries a good punch, but this car feels too heavy in both its operation and steering to ever get truly sporty. It’s not agile, it rolls around the turns, and in spite of all reinforcements it still lacks some rigidity. Soft and comfortable, the seats are not very supportive, and operating the weirdly-angled steering wheel requires some muscle. It doesn’t matter how much effort you put in: the turning radius is huge.

The three-speed automatic gearbox–General Motors’ THM 400—isn’t the luckiest choice for this car. Not only is it heavy, but because of the long gears you’re either pulling a lot of revs and wishing for a higher ratio, or dropping back in revs craving more low-end thrust from the V12. The gearbox never really hits the sweet spot, and that makes it difficult to fully enjoy the charisma this Ferrari seems to have the potential has to offer in spades with proper gearing. On a positive note though, when you’re on a straight motorway it knows how to munch the miles quite effectively. If you want it to, it’ll reach 245 km/h, which is highly respectable for its day.

Throw this car a long distance road trip and it’ll quickly carry it away like dog having the day of its life. And you will have the day of your life too most likely, because the experience of the wind through your hair, a V12 screaming in your ears, and a Prancing Horse on the steering wheel in your hands is hard to beat even with an especially slushy ‘box.

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Martin Philippo
Martin Philippo(@martin-philippo)
3 years ago

I must admit the 400i is the prettiest Ferrari in my eyes. Taking the top off doesn’t make it any prettier. Nice article though.

John Cozzi
John Cozzi(@jjcozzi)
3 years ago

This was a big wide 2+2 and never really suited to removing the hood. As a coupe it was really a very attractive car fro the time and and someone else stated here the automatic I think really cruelled its success more that the styling. I was very interested to learn how few were delivered in Red.

Peter J Smith
Peter J Smith(@fb_1043682525)
3 years ago

It’s certainly a handsome, understated car. I don’t think the looks are why so many people dislike it. It’s the automatic gearbox. Anything other than a proper manual in a Ferrari is a CRIME.

Jim Levitt
Jim Levitt(@jrl1194)
3 years ago

Here’s your top up shot

John Cozzi
John Cozzi(@jjcozzi)
3 years ago
Reply to  Jim Levitt

Therein is the problem! Top up and this thing looks like it was done by a backyard chop shop. Some cars were never meant to be convertibles and I think this is one of those.

9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Levitt

That is a nice picture of my Ferrari with the top up, but here’s a picture of it with the top down, at The Quail in 2019, and of the magnificent Columbo V-12 that has been modified with twin turbo chargers courtesy of Norwood.

Jim Levitt
Jim Levitt(@jrl1194)
3 years ago

Straman made several of these in So Cal in the mid to late 1970s. As far as I know they were made well, looked great, and had happy owners.
I saw a couple of these cruising Rodeo Dr. and got the looks a Ferrari deserves.
I drove an early 350 5 speed manual and it wasn’t bad.

Chad C.
Chad C.(@chad-c)
3 years ago

I was hoping to see it with the top up, maybe it’s not too late?

3 years ago

Near and dear.
This is the first Ferrari I ever drove. There was an ad for one of these in Ocean City, Maryland and I phoned the guy selling it on his father’s behalf and took it for a drive with my brother. He said that it was a one owner car, so it must have been his father who commissioned the convertible conversion. It had a big lacquered wooden steering wheel that I still can’t remember the brand of. I don’t THINK it was MOMO, but I digress. Guy said it came on the car. It wasn’t a blisteringly quick car by any means, but for a high school kid, it was a special experience. In red, with the crappy automatic, BUT I’d driven a rare Ferrari, so it was good enough for me.