What’s Up With Ferrari’s Forgotten All-Wheel-Drive Supercar?
It was the ’80s.
With Lotus already lending its talents to consulting gigs, Ferrari followed suit and founded an internal division, Ferrari Engineering, in order to explore new construction methods and technologies that could be applied to future vehicles. Heading the division was the legendary engineer Mauro Forghieri, who, as technical director of Ferrari’s Formula 1 team, had helped to secure four World Driver’s Championships and eight Constructor’s Championships.
That on-track success was in the ’70s. In the ’80s, the great Italian team was struggling in the big show, and with an organization as integrated between road and race car divisions, engineering talent was shuffled constantly in order to improve on-track results. When it became clear that the FIA rulebook would never allow four-wheel-drive race cars, Forghieri’s progressively-minded talents were applied to develop the next generation of Ferrari road cars.
Two often overlooked prototypes from that period—one red, one yellow—were built. They look pretty cool, right?
Interestingly, the 408 4RM was a feat that Modena has yet to replicate: a mid-engined sports car with four-wheel-drive. The company’s modern-day FF grand tourer has its engine in the front, of course, but this sports car is more like an Audi R8 that arrived on the scene 30 years earlier. But to say this car wasn’t significant to Ferrari is to forget that its current four-wheel-drive system is called…4RM, or 4 Ruote Motrici.
Many observers say that the 1987 4RM looks like inspiration for the NSX, Honda’s revolutionary aluminium-intensive supercar. If you subscribe to this narrative, the lightweight, well-built, (4RM inspired?) NSX is what shocked Ferrari into building better sports cars—as if it didn’t already have the resources to do so. A crazier idea: maybe the 4RM shows that Ferrari was actually taking a page from Nissan.
Let’s not forget that four-wheel-drive and sports cars were novel through the ’80s, and very few automakers had the resources and competition commitments to make developing such a machine worthwhile. The list of sports cars with that layout in 1985 is short and sweet: the Ford RS200 and Lancia Delta S4.
So when Nissan unveiled the seemingly production-ready MID4 concept at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show, it’s plausible that Ferrari realized it may soon have a true all-weather competitor to its 328, a sports car that left Maranello with just 270 horsepower. The first MID4 prototypes were making 245 horsepower from a normally-aspirated V6 engine, and featured four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steering, ABS brakes, fully-independent suspension, and build quality that signalled the company was serious about the project. Upgraded to 330 horsepower in 1987, and slightly restyled in time for the 1988 Tokyo Motor Show, the MID4 II was as far as Nissan would get before realizing the project would likely not make them any money…
What if Ferrari worked to cover off Nissan’s potential competitor at the lower end of the market with these little-known, tech-heavy 4RM prototypes?
The first 4RM had a steel chassis and a 328-derived 4.0-litre V8 engine that sat longitudinally (north/south) and offset from the car’s centre line to accommodate the hydraulic four-wheel-drive system.
The second car—the yellow one—had an all-aluminum chassis co-developed with Canada’s Alcan, which was mostly bonded with adhesives. Yes, that’s what Lotus would claim as its innovation upon the Elise’s introduction in 1994, although both Ferrari’s engineering department and the little-known Treser TR1 were using the technology in 1987.
In any event, the Carrozzeria Scaglietti-built 4RM would never reach production—the closest it got was as the Road & Track cover car in December 1988. Or was it?
As development on the 4RM drew to a close, Forghieri was poached by Lee Iacocca to lead Lamborghini’s engineering efforts. In the record books, his work is said to have influenced the company’s tough Formula 1 effort in the late ’80s, but maybe it’s not a coincidence that the next major supercar development from that tractor-making firm was seen in 1993 when Lamborghini added all-wheel-drive to the Diablo, a tradition the company has since rolled out to all of its models—you’ll now pay extra for just two-wheel drive.
Was the 4RM, in some way, responsible for helping to prove the virtues of a mid-engined, four-wheel-drive sports car? I wouldn’t doubt it…and I wouldn’t doubt that Nissan’s MID4 played a part as well. That said, whatever the chain of events that led to the 4RM, maybe it’s time Ferrari revisited the idea of an all-weather, mid-engined sports car.