In your dreams, you celebrate Spring Break in Maranello, Italy. You check out two of the finest stallions from Ferrari's stable, race an Aston Martin DBS similar to the one James Bond rolled seven times in Casino Royale, dine at glam restaurants, relax at a palace adjoining Ferrari's backyard. Then a dramatic miscue jolts you from your reverie and dots your forehead with icy bullets of sweat.
The dream turns into a nightmare as the day's drive ends with two hot, tired V-12-powered GTs ready for a rubdown and a feed bag. The rosso corsa 599GTB Fiorano is welcomed through Ferrari's factory gate as if it had just run and won the Preakness Stakes. But, when your colleague attempts to wheel the silver-ingot Aston Martin DBS out of traffic and into the paddock, pandemonium erupts. Your formerly cordial Ferrari host waves frantically and shrieks as if 007, wearing Team McLaren Nomex and brandishing an assault rifle, is laying siege.
Your dream is our Italian job. Except for that one awkward moment, Automobile Magazine's test of the world's top two automotive status symbols could not have fared better. Road test editor Marc Noordeloos and I came, we drove, and we solved the riddle prompting this mission: which brand builds the better grand touring sports car?
To achieve the desired revelations, every journey must begin at an appropriate genesis. In 1931, Enzo Ferrari's scuderia (racing stable) was just beginning to thrive. His new live-in garage was humming, his team had won more than a third of the events campaigned the previous season, and the relationship with benefactor Alfa Romeo was prospering. Ferrari drove the new Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 to victory at a minor hill-climb. But the next event, the Circuito delle Tre Province - a seventy-nine-mile dash over Apennine mountain roads - marked the end of Enzo's driving career and the beginning of the Ferrari legend.
At the Sestola checkpoint, Ferrari's Alfa 8C enjoyed a forty-second advantage over teammate and archrival Tazio Nuvolari driving a less competitive 6C 1750. Although his car was damaged, Nuvolari mounted a furious comeback on the final twenty-two-mile leg of the race. By flinging his roadster into bends and revving its twin-cam six-cylinder engine well past any sane limit, Nuvolari beat team manager Ferrari to the finish line in Porretta by a few seconds.
It was both a bitter denouement and an auspicious beginning. Ferrari retired as a driver to focus his energy on expanding his racing empire and manufacturing a few sports cars for wealthy patrons.
Twenty years after Enzo passed on to that scuderia in the sky, we revisited Porretta, located twenty-five miles due south of Maranello. The tight switchbacks that climb and descend the Apennine foothills, straighter dashes along the Panaro River, and a few high-speed squirts on the autostrada were ideal venues for studying how six decades of nurturing has advanced the Ferrari pedigree. Nuvolari's role was played by the Aston Martin DBS, the most powerful and sophisticated front-engine two-seater ever to leave England.
Aston Martin sold its first car in 1922, when Enzo's driving career was just getting started. The brand was early to adopt overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, and dry-sump lubrication - technology that we still consider modern.
The turning point for both marques came in 1947. Ferrari launched its seminal 125S sports car powered by a 1.5-liter SOHC V-12 producing all of 72 hp (factory literature lists output figures ranging as high as 118 hp). At Aston Martin, industrialist Sir David Brown arrived as neither the first nor the last financial angel to rescue the enterprise, kicking off a long run of DB models. The DBS badge first appeared in 1967, and one enjoyed a cameo role in the sixth Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Prices are appropriately astronomical for these two top-shelf road racers - count on a base price of more than $300,000 and a long wait to own the Ferrari versus about $265,000 and more ready availability for the Aston. Stripped to their shorts, they share the classic front-mounted V-12 blueprint consecrated by Ferrari sixty-one years ago and employed by Aston Martin since 1999. Countering the Ferrari's larger, more powerful engine, Aston brought a slightly lighter curb weight to this contest. While Ferrari skins its aluminum structure with exquisitely shaped aluminum panels, Aston uses both composite and aluminum skin over extruded-aluminum bones. The DBS's hood, front fenders, deck lid, and rear diffuser are molded in carbon fiber and clad with an ultrathin layer of fiberglass to mask the weave within. Whether you prefer the Ferrari's sensual curves or the more aggressively scooped and slotted Aston, every glance at this rolling sculpture zings your heart like a teenage romance.