If Joe Biden becomes US president, he will no longer be able to drive himself around fast in his classic sports car, a Chevrolet Corvette Stingray convertible that his father gave him as a wedding present in 1967. “I shouldn’t say this, but I like speed,” Mr Biden once confessed to Jay Leno, the comedian and car nut.
He is not the only one, judging by Ferrari’s third-quarter results this week. Sales of the Italian company’s luxury sports cars, which start at about $250,000, have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. For the world’s richest drivers, nothing sates the desire for a Ferrari’s startling pace and throaty roar.
A sports car is not the most practical purchase — it holds little shopping and the capacity to hit 100 miles per hour in seconds is useless (or worse) on most roads. Instead, it “gives us more prestige, buys us respect with others, gives us a feeling of success”, Ernest Dichter, the psychologist, wrote in his 1960 book The Strategy of Desire.
But the days of the fossil-fuel Ferrari are numbered. If you want to experience true acceleration, go electric, as I once found when being driven across London in a Tesla by its founder, Elon Musk. A stretch of open road appeared, he eagerly put his foot down and the car felt as if it was taking off.
Electric engines are simpler and have high torque (the power to turn the wheels). In 2022, Mr Musk plans to bring out a new Tesla Roadster, its original sports car, that would accelerate from 0 to 60mph in under two seconds. “Driving a gasoline sports car is going to feel like driving a steam engine with a side of quiche,” he pledged in 2017.
The new breed of electric “hypercars” being developed by Lotus, Rimac Automobili and Pininfarina — which designed many classic Ferraris — will speed up explosively. “You will not even be able to blink, it’s going to knock your stomach out backwards. It’s going to be madness!” said Nico Rosberg, the former Formula One champion.
A rollercoaster ride may be cheaper than the $2m that the Rimac C2 will cost for a similar thrill, but you cannot flaunt the former. Ferrari wants to lure more women, but most luxury sports cars are bought by middle-aged men. As Dichter wrote, the car “has considerable significance as a phallic symbol”.
You get more than acceleration with a Ferrari, of course. There is the heritage of the marque founded by Enzo Ferrari, which has raced in Formula One since 1950, and the craft of vehicles built in its factory in Maranello, near Modena. There is also the Ferrari sound, which no electric car can match.
Not having hot, pollution-laden fumes streaming out of exhaust pipes is better for the environment, but it means electric cars are very quiet — quieter even than the boast in David Ogilvy’s famous 1958 ad: “At 60mph, the loudest sound you can hear in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”
For a driver craving the harsh rumble of a sports coupe accelerating, that is quite a drawback: the joy of speed is not accompanied by a suitable soundtrack. Silence can also be dangerous, especially in cities, and regulators want carmakers to add sounds to electric cars to alert unwary pedestrians.
Sports car makers devote an extraordinary amount of time and attention to getting noise correct. They tweak a model’s engine and punch holes in exhaust pipes to get exactly the right resonance. Mr Biden’s Corvette has what Chevrolet calls the model’s characteristic “pop, burble, crackle”.
That is one reason why Ferrari is taking its time — although 60 per cent of its vehicles are due to be hybrids by 2022, it only plans to launch a pure electric car after that. Louis Camilleri, chief executive, said this week that it had “already done a lot of work” on how an electric Ferrari would sound.
Mr Camilleri does not see a need to rush: “I really don’t see Ferrari ever being at 100 per cent [electric] and certainly not in my lifetime will it reach even 50 per cent.” That is not convincing, given that he is a fit 65-year-old. Apart from Tesla, Porsche already offers an all-electric Taycan sports car and Mercedes is working on its own.
Regulators will push Ferrari to accelerate: there is a long list of countries and cities now planning to prohibit combustion engine vehicles from 2030 onwards. The company eventually plans to go carbon neutral, although Mr Camilleri insists that a Ferrari that mostly sits in a garage and is only driven 3,000km a year is cleaner than a constantly used small car.
But the main problem for the petrol sports car is that it is being overtaken. A driver will never gain the same auditory pleasure from an electric coupe, but they go fast. Technology’s winged chariot is hurrying near to Ferrari.