Horse(s) Before The Cart: Looking Back On The Front-Engine Ferrari 550 Maranello and 575M
Photography by Marco Annunziata
Story by Alexander Byles
“When talking and arguing about the position of the motor in a Ferrari, we cannot forget that Enzo himself once remarked that ‘The horse pulls the cart.’ We know he loved the front-engine configuration, and how could you not?” asks Simone Beneforti, who counts himself among the many fans of Ferraris like the iconic 250s and 275s with their front-mounted V12s. His tastes extend to the modern classics as well, like the 550 Maranello and 575M featured here.
“With the 550 Maranello, Ferrari wanted to go back to the past with a clear reference to iconic older front-engine models like the 275 GTB,” Simone explains. He is a Ferrari expert and CEO of Carrozzeria Primavera in Florence, Italy, which has been involved in Ferrari restorations since its inception many decades ago. In other words, Simone has had plenty of time to study the brand and its history.
The paradigm had begun to shift by the end of the 1970s, with Ferrari road models like the 308 making the mid-engine layout all but mass-produced. But for all the weight distribution and design opportunities afforded by putting the motor in the middle, Ferrari has, in one form or another, kept alive the tradition of putting a big V12 in the front of a beautiful grand tourer.
And although Enzo passed away nearly eight years before the public debut of the 550 Maranello, Ferrari’s then-Chairman Luca di Montezemolo signaled the bold shift away from the solely mid-engined layouts that dominated Ferrari’s road and racing car lineup with the aim of creating a superior GT car. Journalists and amateur enthusiasts in reviews from the late 1990s confirmed that the 550 handled like a much smaller and lighter machine that it was. And to corroborate those oft-repeated claims from automotive journalists, the 550 platform proved itself in competition—it was not originally intended for the track, but the car managed to score two wins in its FIA GT Championship and found minor success with privateer teams throughout the early to mid 2000s.
And it was plenty potent as a road car, straight from the factory in the town it was named after. The 550 Maranello could generate up to 485bhp, enough to achieve a factory-claimed 0-100kph/62mph sprint in 4.4 seconds before going on to a top speed of 199mph. The F133A engine, based on the F116 first featured in the 1992 Ferrari 456 GT, was a dual-overhead cam, naturally aspirated V12, with a displacement of 5474cc and four valves per cylinder.
The F133A V12 sat within a steel chassis, also based on that of the 456 GT, but shortened by 3.9”, and with suspension based on an updated double wishbone design. And while Ferrari had already introduced the F1-style paddle shift in the 355, the 550 Maranello’s six-speed gearbox retained manual operation, with the gear selector housed in a classic slotted gate design.
The silver 550 Maranello pictured, s/n ZFFZR49B000112887, from 1998, was originally owned by Ferrari itself and was reserved from new for photoshoots and other press duties. The car was then gifted to the Finn Mika Salo, who had replaced an injured Michael Schumacher in the 1999 F1 season and achieved two podium placings for Scuderia Ferrari. Today this car is kept by a private owner in Italy, and is a completely original example of the model.
Between the 1996 and 2001 model years, Ferrari produced 3,083 examples of the 550 Maranello (and 448 roofless ‘550 Barchetta’ variants), which was a substantial run rate for the manufacturer. But Ferrari still wasn’t quite ready to let the 550 go. The car that followed in 2002 was more like an update than a replacement. With more performance and very minor aesthetic modifications, the Ferrari 575M Maranello took over without upsetting the trajectory that was laid out nearly a decade earlier with the first sketches of the 550.
“The 550 Maranello had been a great success for the company, and the numbers in which it was produced and sold attest to it, but it needed updates to face the competition,” says Simone, who owns the silver 2004 model 575M shown here.
While the 575M is hardly a blank slate redesign, there are a few visual differences between it and its predecessor. The overall look is bolder and lacks some of the the 550’s curves. At the front end, the 550 has a longer and more rounded lower intake grille, complete with fog lights that are absent on the 575M. Meanwhile, the headlights of the 550 have a black trim, whereas the 575M keeps its body color. These are minor modifications though, and the real differences between the two cars go below the Pininfarina bodywork.
The most significant update formed the new namesake, with the V12’s displacement growing to 5748cc. This was achieved by increasing the cylinder bore by 1mm, and the piston stroke by 2mm. Intake volume increased, and valve timing also improved with the addition of the latest Bosch Motronic system.
Throttle control methods also changed, from a conventional cable on the 550 to an electronic system on the 575M, and this time the car got the F1-style paddle shift (the first production V12 Ferrari to feature it), though some 575M’s were produced with a classic manual transmission. The cumulative effect of these changes was a power increase from 485bhp in the 550, up to 515bhp in the 575M, plus an increase in torque, with a maximum of 434lb-ft. at 5250rpm, with stronger pull in the lower- and mid-range. In performance terms, this translated as a 0-62mph in 4.2 seconds flat and a top speed of 202mph.
Combined with the changes caused by the electronic throttle, acceleration of the 550 was more linear, compared to the more explosive delivery of the 575M. This meant that the newer model felt much faster in straight line acceleration, which was especially noticeable at the top end of the power range.
Changes were also made to the frame, and Simone explains the impact to the driving experience. “At the chassis level, one of the features with the greatest impact on road behavior was the new adaptive system, based on a control of the shock absorbers with the possibility of two choices: sport, improving the level of traction, and comfort, which is self explanatory I think. The braking system was also modified with the aim of adapting it to the greater performance of the car, in particular in terms of resistance to fading.”
Today, Simone particularly enjoys driving his 575M on the curving roads of the Futa and Raticosa Apennine mountain passes of central Italy. Still in original condition, Simone also participates with his 575M in Ferrari events and rallies. “I’ve owned the car for two years and I know it was in perfect condition, as it was a car we had looked after. A customer of Carrozzeria Primavera wanted to sell it as he didn’t have the time to properly use it, so I bought it, and it’s still in perfect condition today.”
As a bodywork expert, what does Simone have to say about its quality, both on his car and those he’s worked on? “In my view, the only defect that unites the two cars is the deterioration of the plastic which can become sticky to the touch. However, this intervention can be remedied by disassembling them and treating them with a suitable product. This is the treatment we give to many Ferrari models prior to the 550, and even on some later models that are also affected by this problem.”
And it’s got to be asked, especially to a bodyshop expert: what’s your view on Ferraris in colors other than Rosso Corsa 322? “It depends on the models. While I wouldn’t buy any of the classic sports cars except in Ferrari red, for the GT berlinettas like the 575M I prefer them in silver, gray, or blue.” Perhaps there is some bias at play in this regard…
So how do the two cars compare today in terms of investment potential? “Being a historic car, the 550 has already revalued itself by ticking off interesting prices. I believe the 575M will follow a similar path shortly, with the advantage of having been produced in smaller numbers.” Between 2002 and 2006, Ferrari produced 2,056 of the 575M.
Simone continues: “Let us also remember that both are fitted with the ‘noble’ engine of the Maranello house: the V12. For this reason alone, they both represent a safe investment. But anyway, every Ferrari should survive us, so I’m only its keeper for the next owner.” Following the 575M, Ferrari’s replacement was the 599GTB, but for Simone, this didn’t provide quite the same positive development.
“In my humble opinion, the 599 GTB, which has a fantastic engine, was physically too big. Consequently, I think it lost some of the charm and agility that distinguished both the 550 and the 575M.” For now at least, Simone has no plans to part with his 575M. “Every time I get in and hold the steering wheel in my hands, it’s as if time stops. It is joy mixed with adrenaline, a combination that I feel is at the heart of any true car enthusiast.”