It started with a one-word e-mail: “Gumball.”
Like the better-known The Cannonball Run, the 1976 flick The Gumball Rally was about a cross-country race from Manhattan to the Pacific Ocean. The competition is triggered by phone calls and telegrams relaying that one word. The e-mail was sent by my friend Dan Watkins, who recently acquired the (yes, the) Mantide, Stile Bertone’s styling exercise built for last spring’s Shanghai auto show. Based on the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 chassis and 638-hp V-8 powertrain, it has a custom-made carbon-fiber body and interior.
Dan was going to show the Mantide at Pebble Beach, and he wanted to take his McLaren F1 there, too, along with two Ferraris – a 612 Scaglietti and a brand-new Scuderia Spider 16M with a $23,000 pearlescent white paint job. And rather than ship them, he proposed that we drive them. “It will be just like the Gumball Rally,” he said, “only without the car wrecks and the police helicopters. Hopefully.”
The road trip of a lifetime – driving across the country in more than $5 million worth of exotic cars – was taking shape. To complete the team, we recruited friends Mark Nolan, who, like Dan, is a Brit, and Glenn Farrell, who lives in Maine. With just three weeks left before departure, planning shifted into high gear. We mapped routes and stockpiled supplies: UHF radios, Valentine One radar detectors, a digital trunking radio scanner, AAA memberships, plenty of cash for bail, and a roll of duct tape.
Two issues remained: If we blew a tire, it could take days to get a replacement. And the McLaren F1 had been imported under the DOT’s Show or Display exemption, which meant that it was restricted to 2500 miles annually. So Dan decided to bring along his Toterhome RV, which carries two cars, stacked. We loaded spare tires for all four cars and planned to truck the F1 for the long haul over Midwest interstates. The RV would leapfrog our route, to ensure that it was no more than a few hours away. Yes, it was over the top, but bringing along a rolling garage made the plan bulletproof. Or so we thought.
Our goals were simple: get all four cars from Manhattan to Monterey in eight days, take in some of America’s best national parks, enjoy some great roads, and avoid getting arrested. For my part, I had one more goal: to find out if the Bertone Mantide is the answer to The Corvette Question.
The Corvette. Either you’ve always wanted one or you never understood the appeal. Porsche, BMW, and Ferrari aficionados may respect the Corvette’s sterling performance and huge bang-for-the-buck ratio, but they seldom lust after one. Could the Mantide equal (or outshine) the best attributes of the other cars: the GT comfort of the 612 Scaglietti, the South Beach sex appeal of the Scuderia 16M, and the utterly dominating performance and presence of the McLaren F1?
I had similar questions about the other cars. Could the McLaren F1, for all of its performance reputation, serve as its designer, Gordon Murray, insisted it can – as a comfortable GT machine? Would the Scuderia 16M be worth its huge price leap from the standard F430 Spider? And could the relatively heavy 612 Scaglietti keep up on America’s best roads?
The first hitch in our plan cropped up before we had even gathered in New York for our planned Sunday morning exodus. Bertone was supposed to fly the car to New York and deliver it in time for our departure. Unfortunately, the airline lost the paperwork, so the car was stuck in Luxembourg. It wouldn’t arrive at JFK until Sunday and wouldn’t clear customs until Tuesday, at the earliest. We decided to press on.
During our kickoff dinner at Rockefeller Center, we parked the three cars we did have on 49th Street, which attracted the first of the many crowds we’d see during our trip. Lacking the Mantide, we surprised Dan with a custom-made cake in the shape of the custom Bertone for dessert.
Manhattan to Lexington, Virginia
We started our journey very early, taking advantage of the relative calm of Manhattan on a Sunday morning to photograph the cars in familiar Gumball Rally locations: in front of the Plaza Hotel, crossing Times Square, and exiting the Park Avenue tunnel near Grand Central Terminal.
We were in a surprisingly pastoral section of New Jersey when torrential downpours hit. Cars were pulled over on I-78, but the 612 Scaglietti was stable and confident, the 16M slightly less so. The McLaren was downright scary, though, and its ground-effects bodywork was literally vacuuming the water off the road and blocking the vision of anyone behind it. We called in the cavalry early, and the transporter scooped up the McLaren.
About four hours behind schedule, we picked our way through two-lane traffic down I-78 and I-81. We made up a lot of the deficit, arriving at Front Royal, Virginia, by late afternoon. The rain had stopped. Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park made for slow driving but spectacular scenery as vistas opened up on both sides of the road.
The panoramas got even more breathtaking as the sun set and a misty gloom settled over the valley. After exiting Skyline Drive, we continued south on the Blue Ridge Parkway and were able to pick up speed, as it was deserted. This drive was transcendent. With bixenon headlights cutting through the encroaching darkness, the breeze rushing in, the unmistakable sounds of Italian engines, and winding, rolling ribbons of pavement ahead, it was nirvana.
Lexington, Virginia, to Nashville via Tail of the Dragon
We boogied to Knoxville, Tennessee, for lunch at Scruggs’ Real Pit Bar-B-Que (best smoked-pork sandwiches we’ve ever had) before heading to the Tail of the Dragon, the road straddling the North Carolina/Tennessee border that’s popular with motorcyclists and famed for its 318 curves in eleven miles.
The Ferrari F430 Scuderia 16M revealed itself here. Give it some leash, and your reward is sheer and utter violence. With the manettino set in Race mode, you simply cannot get enough of the car’s shrieking V-8, the head-snapping stopping power of the carbon-ceramic brakes, and the speed of full-throttle upshifts. The exhaust sounds like ripping canvas and drowns out even the loudest motorcycles.
On the Tail’s North Carolina end, some motorcyclists convinced us to drive the Tail at “the Pace.” This is a motorcycling term describing the maximization of cornering momentum and accurate targeting of corner apexes while using virtually no brakes – and with absolutely no crossing of the double-yellow line. The 16M was brilliant in this exercise and enabled us to stick close to our new motorcycling friends, who were dragging their knees deep into the corners. The 612, for its part, comported itself with dignity and suffered only a few wisps of brake smoke. Not bad for a luggage carrier.
From the Tail, we headed for the Cherohala Skyway, a relatively new forty-three-mile road cutting through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests that offers Skyline Drive views and curves with almost no traffic. Darkness closing in, we put the hammer down, cruising up Route 68 and flying west on I-40 toward Nashville.
Nashville to Saint Louis via Bayonne, New Jersey
Remember the Mantide? We got a call from the customs broker on Monday advising us that the car had cleared customs, with delivery arranged for Tuesday morning. Dan called his friend Carlos, who has a private plane. Could we borrow it? Sure, no problem. Dan and I fly back to New Jersey to get the Mantide, while Glenn and Mark drive the Ferraris to Saint Louis, where the transporter is waiting.
At the warehouse in Bayonne, New Jersey, the uncrating process takes nearly three hours. Designer Jason Castriota is present to explain the operation of the controls and the Mantide’s various concept-car quirks.
Although striking in photographs, the Mantide’s overall design can be polarizing. When you see it in person, though, all the small design details and the overwhelming physical impact of the car make you truly appreciate its beauty. But the Mantide isn’t designed for large drivers. The carbon-fiber design element running across the dash threatens to chop off my knees in the event of an impact. The climate controls and head-up display are hidden from view for anyone taller than about 5’10”. However, the comfortable carbon-shelled racing seats are adjustable for reach and rake, and the scissor doors allow for fairly easy entry.
Dan is already planning some upgrades. The shift knob is a plain piece of brushed nickel, in marked contrast to the carbon fiber and leather everywhere else. A few Chevy bits poke up here and there. Some are perfect, like the ZR1’s carbon-ceramic brakes (ironically, the front rotors are from the Ferrari FXX and the rears are from the Enzo). Others are perfectly acceptable, like the keyless entry and starting system. Still others are out of place in a $2 million car, like the standard General Motors “check gages” light that illuminates when the gas tank runs low.
Tossing our bags into the much-bigger-than-expected cargo hold, we set off down the street to fill up. Dan remarks that rear visibility is compromised by the compound curves molded into the clear Lexan rear hatch. We look at each other, smile, and simultaneously quote Raul Julia’s character from The Gumball Rally: “And now, my friend, the firsta rule of Italian driving. Whatsa behind me, is not important!”
We’re in the thick of rush-hour traffic swarming out of New York, averaging about 40 mph. There are 900 miles of interstate, Red Bull, and Doritos in front of us.
Dan decides he wants me to drive just as we’re approaching Ohio, which has a reputation for speed-limit enforcement that will force us to keep the speed down. Curses. Stopping for gas at 3:30 a.m. in Indiana, we dine on sandwiches in triangular plastic containers.
The dash contains a Magneti Marelli race car graphic display, but it’s pretty useless at the moment. The Corvette HUD projects the speed, engine rpm, lateral g’s, and temperatures onto the windshield. The green graphics appear to be floating on the road in front, which makes for amusing optical illusions as the night presses on. We cross the Mississippi at 5:27 a.m. and arrive in Saint Louis in a groggy but conscious state. The hotel beds are calling, and Dan and I each grab about two hours of shut-eye.
Saint Louis to Denver
We head west on the interstate to Denver. The 612 is clearly the best car for today’s drive – comfortable, supportive seats, plenty of room, ice-cold air-conditioning (the equal of any American car and about five times better than any Ferrari of a decade ago), and easy cruising at 120 mph.
Still, there are some ergonomic niggles. The cruise-control switches are tactilely pleasurable but hard to use. And we spent eight days trying to figure out the Bose entertainment and navigation system, but it still left us scratching our heads.
With the top up and the air-conditioner on, the 16M isn’t nearly as bad for this sort of driving as we feared it might be. The fully integrated iPod Touch audio system is a great concept, but the tiny icons and words are illegible in the full sun that typically accompanies a top-down drive.
The top of the Mantide’s doors are made out of clear Lexan and glass. Resembling nothing so much as the cockpit of an F-16 Falcon, it’s the perfect car for seeing sights, but it’s basically a large greenhouse. After the sun sets, however, the Mantide transforms into an alien starship with its LED lighting front and back, particularly as it passes at high speed, shockingly silent as the engine is barely above idle. The 16M generates the most squeals of delight, since it’s the most recognizable. The 612 glides along, nearly unnoticed.
As we enter the flatlands of eastern Colorado, a major thunderstorm is brewing, giant purple thunderheads glowing with lightning strikes. The gusting winds are discomforting, but all three cars handle it mostly with aplomb and only a few white-knuckle moments.
Denver to Gateway, Colorado
Today will be the only day we don’t cross any state lines. A friend of Dan’s, Nathaniel Green, has joined us for two days and is giddy at the prospect of driving a Ferrari for the first time. The transporter is parked outside our hotel, and we roll out the McLaren to a gathering crowd. With all four cars together for the first time, we’re all a little giddy, actually, as we head north into Rocky Mountain National Park. Once we’re above the tree line, though, the McLaren runs rough and wants to stall. What it really needs, we figure, is an Italian tune-up – to be run flat-out – but that’s impossible on the park’s RV-packed roads. The views are magnificent, but it’s time to get out of here.
As it winds through canyons past Vail, I-70 is perhaps the most scenic stretch of interstate in the country. Our quandary: do we go fast – to make it to dinner at a reasonable time – or slow down and enjoy the scenery? Our stomachs dictate the former. Departing the freeway just east of Grand Junction, we take Route 141 toward Gateway, Colorado. With ninety miles of smooth two-lane and almost no crossroads, traffic, or buildings, it quickly becomes our favorite road of the trip. As we head south, it descends deeper into inspiring Unaweep Canyon vistas. We’re soon driving the Pace at average speeds above 80 mph, with periodic bursts up to 150 mph, as Dan and I swap the lead in the Bertone and the McLaren. The F1 likes this altitude much better, perhaps due to the Italian tune-up it received not long ago on I-70. Radio silence is broken only by repeated bursts of “Oh. My. God. Look at this! This is the best road in America! Where are all the tourists?!”
At Gateway Canyons Resort, the five of us down pitchers of margaritas to celebrate our fantastic Colorado day.
Gateway, Colorado, to Delta, Utah
After we tour the Gateway Colorado Auto Museum, I climb into the driver’s seat of the McLaren. I’ve driven many exotic cars, but nothing is more magical than this – not even a Ferrari Enzo. Admittedly, it’s more than a little intimidating. Although it doesn’t have the visceral openness of a superbike, its performance is certainly evocative of one. And the McLaren philosophy shines through: a highly tuned, normally aspirated engine; a perfectly balanced suspension; and no fussy electronic stability or braking aids, much less a paddleshifter. It’s just you, the steering wheel, the pedals, a stick shift, and four contact patches. What you do with them is up to you.
As we fly farther down Route 141 along the Dolores River, the scenery is even better than it was yesterday. It’s as if we’re in a quarter-scale Grand Canyon. Dan, in the Bertone, is playing tag with me. Whichever car is in the lead, the other is right behind, right up to 160 mph. We slow to 120 mph for the curves, then punch it when the road opens up to the horizon. The differences between the McLaren and the Bertone come into focus. The Mantide, much like the underlying Corvette ZR1, delivers staggering performance in an envelope that any reasonably talented and experienced driver can tap. The McLaren is not afraid to draw a line in the sand and tempt you to approach it, knowing that crossing it will mean serious regret. The Mantide delivers 95 percent of the performance of the McLaren with about 70 percent of the effort – which is good or bad, depending on what you’re looking to get out of the experience.
Delta, Utah, to Lake Tahoe
It’s easy to see why Route 50, which crosses the Utah and Nevada deserts, is known as the Loneliest Road in America. It has virtually no cross streets and extends as straight as a chalk line through miles and miles and miles of nothingness. When you’re on it, you typically have at least a one-minute warning of oncoming traffic. Naturally, we take this as yet another opportunity to exercise the Scuderia 16M and the Mantide.
The Ferrari’s exhaust opens up above 3000 rpm and turns into a rage-filled snarl past 5000 rpm. This sound is utterly irresistible. The best way to hear it, of course, is to be doing 120 mph in the Mantide when the Ferrari blows by at 150 mph. For one unforgettable twenty-mile stretch, I averaged 120 mph in the Ferrari. We weren’t the only fast movers on Route 50, though. We passed lots of SUVs and pickups, many with lift kits and monster tires, traveling at more than 90 mph. We even saw a Toyota Prius coming down out of the mountains at 100 mph.
After a dinner of burgers and onion rings in Eureka, Nevada, we had our only close encounter with law enforcement on the entire trip: a sheriff heading east on Route 50 shot us with radar. Luckily, we weren’t going much faster than 80 mph. The officer flashed his lights but didn’t even slow down – it was just a warning to play nice. Another sheriff waved at both cars as we passed through Cold Springs. We like Nevada!
By late afternoon, we arrive at the Village at Squaw Valley resort in Lake Tahoe. For once, we’re not rushing to dinner or bed. Mark, who had stopped at the Bonneville Salt Flats in the 612, catches up with us here. Glenn’s brother Bob has arrived in his Ferrari Challenge Stradale for the final leg. Feasting on sushi and sake, we’re delighted with the drive thus far but also glad to be almost done. Monterey, here we come.
Lake Tahoe to Monterey, via Napa and the Golden Gate
Today was a great way to finish our journey, as it captured the essence of the trip: scenic, twisty mountain roads; highway sprints; gourmet dining and take-out pizza; broiling in the sun; and hurrying to make up time. We cruised down the eastern (Nevada) side of Lake Tahoe before rejoining Route 50. In Sacramento, we cut off the freeway and tackled the mountain curves of Routes 128 and 121 to the Napa Valley. After lunch in Yountville, we headed toward the Pacific Coast. California’s Route 1 never fails to impress, whether slightly inland at Point Reyes National Seashore or right on the edge of the ocean at Mount Tamalpais. In stop-and-go traffic in the big tunnel just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, everyone around us wanted to hear the brutal sounds of the 16M.
From San Francisco, we hurried down the 101, keenly aware of the California Highway Patrol and the distance we’d already driven without a single police stop. Our last great drive was on Route 17 toward Santa Cruz before we ambled into Monterey, where the transporter was waiting with the McLaren. The guard at the entrance to 17 Mile Drive waved all four supercars through, and we loped into Pebble Beach, the end of our journey. Sitting around the kitchen of our rented house, eating pizza, drinking beer, and making toasts, we were exuberant, content, and exhausted. We’d driven more than 4600 miles with no accidents and zero tickets in four of the most exciting and exotic cars on the planet.
Epilogue: “So, what did you think of the cars?”
The McLaren F1 remains the ne plus ultra of modern supercars, even though it was designed back in the ’80s. Sure, the “high-profile” tires and the switchgear are dated. The stereo system, which sounds wonderful, uses those archaic silver round discs – although, unlike in the 612, it’s actually quite easy to select different CDs and songs. The F1 has a certain analog, handmade appeal, something that’s lacking in modern Ferraris and Lamborghinis. And don’t even mention the overpowered bus that is the Bugatti Veyron.
McLaren now offers xenon headlight upgrades, and rumor has it that an iPod interface is in the works. Despite that, the car is still fifteen years old, which underscores the sheer superiority of the McLaren that much more: it’s still an icon after all these years. You will never take the McLaren for granted, whether you’re approaching 200 mph, driving around with two of your friends, or lapping the Nürburgring. Our only regret was that we couldn’t drive it more.
The Ferrari Scuderia Spider 16M is, on paper, insane. The 430 Scuderia coupe on which it’s based is the ultimate Ferrari road car. Really. It’s practical, reliable, faster than an Enzo, has luggage space for a weekend, and sounds like the war chants of Norse gods in Valhalla. So what happens when you cut off the roof? Is it worth the nearly 33 percent price premium? Oh, yes. The deafening roar of the exhaust, the brutal kick in the butt of an 8000-rpm upshift, the exquisite lateral pull as you clip that imaginary apex. You don’t have to grab the 16M by the scruff of the neck and wring it violently to enjoy driving it, but that’s exactly why you pay the premium.
The Ferrari 612 Scaglietti is intended for an onion-skin-thin slice of the car-buying population. It’s massively expensive, depreciates faster than a condo in Phoenix, and, compared with its stablemates, lacks the dramatic beauty demanded of Italian supercars. But it can carry four real-world adults, and the relentless torque of the big V-12 means that there’s nothing you can’t pass. When the roads get twisty, it’s neat and fast, although not lithe. Even the much-impugned F1 transmission has improved to the point where die-hard manual fans could consider it. The 612 would have been the biggest surprise of the trip, but for the Mantide.
We took a handbuilt, unique, Pebble Beach show car out of the box (literally), filled it with gas, and drove it across the United States. Without any mechanical issues. Astounding. Credit is also due to GM for building the underlying Corvette so well that it can suffer a dismantling and reassembly before being flogged 2000-plus miles. So, to answer the big question of our trip: Yes, even to those who would not otherwise consider a king-of-the-hill Corvette, the Bertone Mantide is among the world’s most desirable supercars.
1997 McLaren F1
Price: $2.7 million
Engine: 6.1L V-12, 618 hp, 480 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual
2008 Ferrari 612 Scaglietti
Engine: 5.7L V-12, 532 hp, 434 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automated manual
Ferrari Scuderia Spider 16M
Engine: 4.3L V-8, 503 hp, 347 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automated manual
Price: $2 million (est.)
Engine: 6.2L supercharged V-8, 638 hp, 604 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual