The Ferrari 550 Barchetta Pininfarina Is A Modern Classic In The Truest Sense
Photography by Marco Annunziata
When Gianni Agnelli found himself in front of the then-new Ferrari 166MM in 1948, he couldn’t help noticing that it resembled a small motorboat. Thus goes the story of how the term barchetta (meaning “small boat” in Italian) evolved from sea to land.
Fifty years later, a new barchetta joined the ranks of roadsters and speedsters: the roofless, V12-powered Ferrari 550 Barchetta Pininfarina. It’s something of a modern classic now, but at the time of its unveiling it was a shining modern example of Pininfarina design, and it marked the occasion of the great coachbuilder’s 70th anniversary. The 550 Barchetta is not so spartan as the 166MM from the late ‘40s, but from our current 2020 perspective, it’s still a pretty simple formula, and all the better for it. It’s very easy to be swayed by this car’s equation: a big motor set at the front of a well-designed chassis and wrapped up in a clean grand touring shell, plus three pedals and six gears, minus one roof.
There is a factory-supplied soft top in case of meteorological emergencies, but there is no lump at the rear end to house a clunky automated folding mechanism. This is a true barchetta, and although the two bright red helmets in the trunk serve the purpose of show more so than go, it’s fun and harmless to lean into the styling that characterized this car’s distant predecessors.
And speaking of the “go” aspect, there are plenty of ponies in this prancing horse, with a 5474cc naturally aspirated V12 sending 485hp through a six speed gearbox to the rear wheels. Mechanically the car’s powertrain is the same as the coupe version—the 550 Maranello—but the lack of a roof limits the top speed of compared to its hardtop sibling (to 186mph, which is hardly achievable in the real world anyway). The acceleration time from 0-60mph was unchanged, taking just below 4.4 seconds. As for the visual differences between the two 550 models, besides the obvious there is also a more steeply raked windshield, Barchetta Pininfarina-specific wheels, fixed rollover hoops, and a slightly longer rear end.
Ferrari built just 448 examples of the 550 Barchetta Pininfarina, making them quite rare even among similar low-volume sports car manufacturers. You’re likely to see more 246 Dinos and 488 Italias at a Ferrari get together than one of these, and the owner of this sunny example, Stefano, has no doubts about the importance of the 550—in coupe or roadster form—in Ferrari’s history. “The 550 Maranello was certainly a car that marked an era. It was the first two-seater Ferrari V12 with a front engine after more than a quarter of a century without one. It was also a successful racing car, and the ancestor of the current Ferrari 12-cylinder Berlinettas. Certainly one of the Ferraris we will remember in the future, and for which I expect a strong economic revaluation in the coming years,” he tells me.
Like so many of us, Stefano’s passion for Ferraris started when he was just a child, when he lived a few kilometers away from Maranello. Racing was in his blood, as they say, seeing as his grandfather (named Enzo) was an official driver for Gilera, while his uncle Sergio raced in Osella BMWs.
On the day of the photoshoot, we meet at his garage, also just a few kilometers away from Maranello, where this 550 Barchetta was built in 2001. His car is number 290 out of the 448 total produced, as evidenced by the “290/448” engraved on a metal plate with Sergio Pininfarina’s signature at the base of the gearbox.
In the book dedicated to the 550 Barchetta that I found to do some research before meeting Stefano, there is a photo of Michael Schumacher with a satisfied expression on his face, driving what looks like this very car. I ask Stefano for some kind of confirmation, but it’s one of those stories that might be destined as hearsay. “The first the owner was somehow convinced that he had the proof that it was this car, but not being able to verify the chassis number, I never had the absolute certainty. Even if the color of the bodywork, the interior, and the equipment that can be seen in the photo are identical.” It’s a neat little mystery, but it has no bearing on why Stefano loves the car.
“I bought it from the first owner in 2008. He really wanted a Porsche 997, but the Porsche dealership was not interested in a trade-in. Knowing of my passion for more particular Ferrari cars, they contacted me and asked me if I was interested. The 550 Barchetta was produced in small numbers and had a very short commercial life, and as always happens for these limited edition numbered series, it was met with immediate enthusiasm. When I had the chance to own this one, I went to see it right away, eager to finally experience it. The car’s condition was perfect, so I didn’t let it go.”
Even though the current and apparent future state of high-performance is moving increasingly toward turbocharged engines with fewer cylinders and more hybrid support, there’s something irreproachable about an atmospheric V12. It’s a beautiful mix of intake and exhaust, the two distinct sounds mixing complexly with each other as they reverberate off of the buildings and down the alleys in between as we make our way out to the countryside. With more open space outside of the population’s center mass, deeper and deeper forays into the right side of the tach reward us with increasingly beautiful music.
At the first stop, I recalibrate my ears to the relative silence of humming insects and singing birds, while Stefano tells me more about his love for the car. “I think that what 1950s barchetta cars have in common with the 550 version is essentially twofold: the open air driving experience, and the 12-cylinder engine at the front. All barchettas, regardless of how many cylinders, transmit sensations—the noise, the smell of an internal combustion engine, and the changes in outside temperature—that are usually only experienced with boats or motorcycles,” he says, “but I think the true inspiration for the 550 Barchetta Pininfarina does not come from the barchette of the 1950s, but rather from the Daytona Spyder. Even though that car was not a true barchetta, in my opinion its shapes are similar to the 550’s which I believe is the link between the Daytona Spyder and the 1950s-inspired SP2.”
While I take the photos of the car details Stefano follows me closely, pointing to lines and angles and excitedly espousing what he loves about them. “The details of this car that I prefer are definitely the design and proportions of the body. The long bonnet and relatively short tail combined with a small cockpit that makes you feel at one with the car, something that is rare for one of this size. As for the interior, I am crazy about the gated shifter and the carbon knob. The only thing that I would have changed in this car in the design phase is the closing system of the soft top, because it is really complicated and only if you are helped by someone else can you close it in case of bad weather. But it’s not often that you need it, so it is only a small complaint.”
On the way back, a black Porsche 911 Speedster passes us on our lefthand side, and Stefano (who collects and knows quite a lot about Porsches as well) remarks calmly that, “Sure, there are many cars faster than this one now, but the 550 Barchetta was not made solely for speed, but to offer a different driving experience. It relies on its above-average power to be sure, but it offers a driving pleasure that isn’t explained numerically.
“I love driving this car on the winding roads, especially the mountainous ones with more scenery to enjoy. On those roads I can fully appreciate the unique characteristics of the 550 Barchetta. Surely it is better to drive it on a beautiful sunny day on a beautiful route than anywhere else, so I try to put it in its element,” he says.
The car is original except for the sports exhaust that Stefano installed, but as a collector he made sure to keep the original pieces, explaining “Even if they aren’t 100% as new, I want all of my cars to have the potential to be fully returned to their originally produced state. As for maintenance, I had the timing belt replaced by my trusted mechanic, and do the usual oil and filter changes, and it’s been good to me. The car has only covered 8000km, so I have yet to incur any of the high maintenance costs that make up the stereotypes we all hear.”
Stefano is smitten with this car, but he has more Ferraris in his collection to love as well, and he’s always on the lookout, researching and hunting down the next special car, whether it be a road going roadster like this, or something of a different, more intense persuasion. I ask him what the ultimate addition to his collection would be, and he’s quick with the answer. “The Ferrari that I like the most, and for which I would do just about anything to have in my collection, is the 312T4 that Gilles Villeneuve raced in Formula 1. As for the road models, and for a more practical option, a Ferrari that I have always admired but have never owned is the 356 GTB/4 Daytona.”
We go on trading a few more daydreams before packing up and heading back home after a day well spent, enjoying the 550’s soundtrack and the late afternoon sun pouring in around us.