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Go, Stop, Cringe: A Ferrari in the City

How to Drive a Ferrari in New York? Carefully

 

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The author decided driving in New York must have been more fun when there was less traffic: Park Avenue in 1961, above, and the West Side Highway in 1973, below.

 

Partly it was the car my wife and I drove then, a tiny, underpowered Austin America whose hood had a habit of popping open at high speeds and whose leaky distributor cap was mounted in such a way that the car would stall after going through a puddle. But mostly it was cabs, the way they cut you off, and fire engines with sirens, and crazy pedestrians darting out between parked cars.

You needed nerve to drive in New York, and mine was so lacking that before my daughter was born I needed to make a practice run from our home in New Jersey to New York Hospital, her scheduled landing place, just to be sure I could do it without an anxiety attack. There are stretches of upper Broadway that still remind me of that journey. That was my route. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive was out of the question.

I still live in New Jersey, and at some point about 20 years ago I realized that I no longer minded driving in New York. I sort of enjoyed it. I don’t do it often enough to be an expert. I’m not in the same league as my friend Bruce McCall, the artist and writer, who grew up in Simcoe, Ontario, but now lives in New York and takes a small-town Canadian approach to getting around in the city: he drives everywhere.

I can get around, though. I know how to cut across Central Park, and that if you take a hard right coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel you catch a little underpass that lops blocks off the trip downtown. I know that the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel is worth every penny in tolls, and that there is no good time to attempt the Cross Bronx Expressway. If you’re a cabbie trying to creep into my lane — sorry, pal, honk all you want — I will give you no quarter.

Unless I’m driving someone else’s $200,000 Ferrari F430. This week, in honor of the New York International Auto Show, and of springtime in general, and to see if a pure pleasure drive in the city was even possible, I rented one from an outfit called Gotham Dream Cars, which specializes in what are known in the rental car trade as “ultra exotics.” It was not my first choice, actually. I wanted a Porsche, in memory of Ferdinand Porsche, the great car designer, who died last week, or a Lambo — a Lamborghini. But they were all taken. Apparently people rent from Gotham Dream Cars for weeks at a time, even months, despite a tab that can be over a thousand bucks a day.

My friend Bruce was underwhelmed by my choice. He wrote in an e-mail that the “Fazzaz,” as he called it, “used to be a snarling beast,” but is now “kind of an Italian T-bird with a/c and an engine that doesn’t overheat at 30 m.p.h. or under.” He might have been thinking of the great 1971 Elaine May comedy “A New Leaf,” in which Walter Matthau plays an impoverished playboy whose Ferrari keeps breaking down because of what he calls “carbon on the valves.” A mechanic tells him never to run it under 3,000 r.p.m.

I seldom got mine over 3,000 r.p.m., and not only because of wimpiness, though there was some of that. The guys who dropped off the car took photographs of every inch, warning me that I would be penalized for the slightest ding, and as a precaution put $7,500 on my credit card before I even left the driveway. (The actual 24-hour rental was $1,160.60.) Driving into New York and jockeying through the toll lanes at the George Washington Bridge I immediately felt some of the old terror.

There is a reason you don’t see many Ferraris in New York. They don’t make much sense as urban vehicles. They don’t overheat at low speeds anymore, but they don’t like to creep.

(Driving in New York must have been more fun when there was less traffic, and for all the congestion we probably have Robert Moses to blame. The trouble with building new roads into the city is that people use them.)

Like a lot of sports cars the Ferrari allows you to switch between automatic and manual shifting. The automatic gear changes at low speeds are a little mushy; the manual changes, accomplished by means of paddles mounted behind the wheel, are smoother but a pain in the neck in the city, where so much else claims your attention.

The Ferrari also has a very hard suspension, great for holding curves at high speeds but murder on potholed streets and bumpy even on the upper stretches of the West Side Highway, where there are metal pavement dividers at far too frequent intervals.

On the other hand the car sounds great: a mellow burbling that rises to a growl when you punch it up. And once you lower yourself into the all-leather cockpit — a bit of a feat if you’re tall and unlimber, like me — it’s like sitting in the pocket of a brand-new baseball glove. (The Ferrari comes with an ashtray and a cigarette lighter — for Italians, I guess — but Gotham forbids smoking in its cars, so the car still smelled leathery.)

You don’t have to break the speed limit to have fun. The car will do over 200 miles per hour, but even at 90 on a highway it’s so smooth it’s a little boring. The real thrill is how quickly it will go from zero to 60, say, and here’s a tip: Lafayette Street, north of Houston. Go for it.

If you hit the lights right on Lexington or Madison Avenue, you could probably do the same thing. I kept getting caught in traffic. At one point it was as if I had been adopted by a herd of taxis that insisted on keeping me in their midst.

The main joy of driving in New York is getting where you want to go quickly and efficiently and without incident. I had no particular place to go and so drove in a kind of elementary Etch A Sketch pattern, up and down the long avenues and traversing some cross streets. I don’t know that I learned anything, except that early in the day the theater district is a quick route across town; that these days the F.D.R. Drive is a mess north of 100th Street; and that a Ferrari, with a driver afraid of clipping or being clipped by a delivery truck, is a really bad idea in the narrow streets of Chinatown.

Down Fifth Avenue, past the museums and the park, and then around onto Central Park South — watch out for the horse carriages! — is a great drive in any kind of car. So is the West Side Highway, coming off the George Washington Bridge, with the river on your right, the Fairway sign zipping past on your left and the whole city seeming to open up before you.

Manhattan also looks great coming over from Brooklyn or from Queens across the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. It looms like Oz, a city worth getting to.

If you can find a place to park, that is. Parking here may be an even greater pleasure than driving — the joy of finding a spot without circling for blocks or, worse, ducking into a garage and allowing the attendant to hold your car for ransom. In Calvin Trillin’s “Tepper Isn’t Going Out,” surely the greatest parking novel ever, the protagonist finds such a good spot that he never leaves it — a metaphor for what happens to out-of-towners when they come to New York.

I was afraid to park the Fazzaz. I couldn’t see out the back window too well — it’s tinted and nearly flat — and the car is so low that I was afraid that if got close to the curb, I wouldn’t be able to open the door. And what if someone harmed it while I was gone?

There were those two women in Union Square, coming from the farmers’ market apparently, who stood in the middle of a crosswalk and stared at me with pure contempt, but there could have been others — bike riders, maybe — even more scornful. So even though I saw some very nice spots, I drove on by, at one with my machine, which didn’t want to stop either.

 


 


 

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