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Pretty heady stuff, this: Although largely forgotten today, Ferrari’s 408 prototype from 1987 represented in many ways the highlights of the legendary marque’s abilities in the Eighties.

Enzo Ferrari himself was quite a conservative man, and as he at the time of course still had his say within the company, so too were many of his cars. At least technically. Ehrm – well, at least if you discard the engines from the equation. Enginewise, on the contrary, there was rarely anything wrong with old Ferraris – come to think of it, has Ferrari ever made a bad engine? In the olden days, however, the marque was rather cautious about joining the race for other advanced technologies such as disc brakes, independent suspension and not least aerodynamics.

However, by the time the Eighties dawned, most of that conservatism seemed blown away: The Testarossa from 1984 managed almost 300 km/h and the F40 from 1987 was even faster – not least because the brilliant Pininfarina had managed to sneak some sensible aerodynamics into their spectacular lines. But these were naturally the very top models from their (small) range, and the whole atmosphere surrounding the bread and butter models 308/328, seemed under more pressure.

In this segment, several competitors – both newcomers and longterm rivals – were putting up a strong challenge and something clearly had to be done. In an uncharacteristic bout of foresight, Ferrari opened a new branch of the company called the rather un-Italian name of Ferrari Engineering. It was reportedly inspired by Lotus Engineering, but this should be no shame at all. The purpose of it all was to explore new technology. Part of the new company’s work went into Formula One technology, where Ferrari certainly weren’t at the top of their game either after the loss of two top drivers in 1982 and 1983. Heading the new Ferrari Engineering was no other than the legendary Mauro Forghieri, and when he realised that four-wheel-drive was not the way forward in Formula One, he instead converted the technology for street cars – and voila, thereby the 408 emerged in 1987.

Two prototypes were built, and while the first had a relatively conventional steel chassis, the other (the yellow car) had a glued aluminum frame according to similar principles used for the Lotus Elise a few years later. The engine was an enlarged version of 308’s – as the name suggests enlarged to about 4-litres. And then there was that spectacular four-wheel-drive system.

It was, as you obviously know, pretty hot during the Eighties. After the Audi Quattro conquered the rally stages with this technology and indirectly started a rally revolution, the principle of four-wheel-drive started filtering down into road cars over the next few years – and suddenly several manufactorers had four-wheel-drive cars on the program.

But there weren’t many who had four-wheel-drive sports cars on the program. So imagine the headlines as the otherwise conservative Ferrari suddenly came up with just that – and at least according to Ferrari’s own press release at the time, it could be viewed as a preliminary study for the future Ferrari. Yet one must hope that this did not apply to the design language! On this occasion, the Italians got the looks all wrong, and at least to my eyes, neither before nor since have they presented a model that looks so spectacularly unfinished. But nonetheless, suddenly it was there, and the question presents itself: Why?

Well, maybe it could be because of the car below: A Nissan.

Behold a Nissan, that was more technologically advanced than any Ferrari: the Nissan MID 4.

Needless to say, this was not just any old Nissan though. The name really says it all, but just for readers who might not possess the strongest logical sense, we will point out that this Nissan featured both a mid mounted engine and four-wheel-drive. Admittedly it was only a prototype, but it was presented as if it was being considered for production later in the Eighties. And that it would thus compete against Porsche and Ferrari.

The engine was a 3-litre V6, the weight was set at less than 1,300 kilograms, and besides an obvious ability to go very fast it also featured a full array of creature comfort equipment. The automotive world had simply reached that point back then in the Eighties, where the Japanese were confident enough to show what they could actually do and challenge the very top of the establishment. Furthermore, they were clearly not to be easily dismissed either. The Nissan MID4 received plenty of publicity and toured extensively on car exhibitions. Later it was even updated on both engine, driveline and design, resulting in the slightly more polished and smooth MID4 from 1987.

The second iteration of the MID4 featured more sculpted lines.

But it all stranded with the prototypes – mainly because Nissan discovered that they would not actually be able to make any money on such a project. So it remained just an idea, the prototypes, the press releases, a certain amount of branding value – and perhaps the side effect that it might just have shook up things a little at Maranello – even if Ferrari would have obviously never admitted to it.

Yet it is undeniably thought-provoking just how much the Ferrari 408 resembles the Nissan MID4. And it’s every bit as interesting how it is the Japanese upstart which is, to my eyes at least, the most successfully and thoroughly executed design. Even, would you believe, in the otherwise traditionally Italian area of superiority, the interior – and that is perhaps the biggest sensation.

 

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