Goodfellas : Ferrari F12tdf & BMW Isetta 300 Driven [review]

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Isetta & F12tdf help us celebrate the diversity of a petrolhead’s passion

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SINGAPORE - Diversity should be celebrated and not censured. A passion for cars draws petrolheads together and unites them regardless of race, language or religion. If you’re looking at the two cars in this spread, and wondering why they’re even in the same frame, maybe you’re not as big a petrolhead as you thought you were.

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In case you’re wondering, this feature isn’t a showdown between the BMW Isetta 300 and Ferrari F12tdf, but rather we feel the two represent the varied spectrum of cars we can enjoy as petrolheads if only we’re prepared to open our minds.

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The simpler tl;dr version is that they’re both yellow and seat two (technically, the Isetta will accommodate as many occupants as you dare, but let’s not go there!); both are lightweight, have vents, a fire extinguisher, are Italian in origin and most importantly, grab eyeballs when they are out and about.

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Moreover, the Isetta has been on this author’s bucket list for the longest time; at any rate, as long as the F12tdf has been on it for the shortest, seeing as it’s one of the few modern cars on the list. Besides, never have two cars been more diametrically opposed, yet oddly similar: the Isetta is as basic and old-tech as the F12tdf is complex and high-tech, but both are possessed with the most engaging of motoring experiences.

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The Bucket List. Everyone should have one, and if you’re reading this magazine, odds are you already do. When you first start putting one together, you’ll notice it’s populated with the newest, the shiniest and the fastest performance cars, or maybe, just the most expensive. Then things change; or rather, you do. If you stick with cars long enough through the different automotive trends, you begin to adopt a more introspective approach to the list, where cars of import start creeping in, as opposed to merely the latest offerings.

You’d think it strange for car journalists to even bother with bucket lists, seeing as we have more access to sportscars than you have enough organs to peddle to pay for. Although I’ve had the good fortune of crossing quite a few cars from my list, I’ve always wanted a go in an Isetta, but I probably can’t tell you why it strikes such a chord with me – the quirkiness is just one element of the appeal.

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My penchant for stripped-out sportscars is only rivalled by a passion for low-cost lightweight city-cars (no, not the Renault Twizy…) from the post WW2-era, such as the Fiat 500, 2CV and the Isetta.

Every bucket list is personal, and this pair are on mine, if only to demonstrate that there’s no conflict in appreciating both the old and the new. I’ve found that the folks who can’t see beyond a price-tag normally can’t appreciate the best things in life, because as a pal says (and something I’ve found to be true), “The best things in life are often free!”

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We met the Isetta owner at a small gathering of classic cars over a weekend – one of those convivial hangout sessions that works because folks are talking cars, rather than how much they’ve spent. We manage to arm-twist the owner into lending us the tiny tyke for this feature and truth be told, we’d already had our eyes on the yellow’un since it landed on our shores. Although there have been Isettas registered in Singapore before, those are long-gone and when this one arrived, we were well chuffed.

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The big question for the little Isetta was the car we would pair it with, because whatever we picked had to be special too, and most definitely yellow! Now, there are Ferraris, and then there are FERRARIS, and with an ultra-limited F12tdf in Giallo Triplo Strato recently registered, we had to get our paws on it, because this lightened, V12 beast also made it to our bucket list. Limited edition V12 Ferraris are quite thin on the ground, with the last being the 599 GTO. However, some critics considered this ‘GTO’ as a misnomer of sorts considering it wasn’t created for racing homologation purposes.

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Limited to just 799 units worldwide, the F12tdf is the feather in the cap of the F12berlinetta. Instead of retaining the GTO moniker, Ferrari has opted for to use ‘tdf’ (for Tour de France), which doesn’t refer to the bike race that so many have assumed, but an endurance road race that Ferrari dominated from the 1950s and 60s.

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Apart from dropping 110kg from the regular F12’s kerbweight to weigh-in at 1520kg, the tdf gets more aggressive aero for huge downforce, uprated powertrain performance and a hike in engine output.

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There’s just enough muscle to give it some tone like a crossfit MMA type, but not so much as to look unwieldy like a bodybuilder on steroids.

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The vents and aero serve as the tdf’s armour, and the weapon of mass destruction? A fiery, naturally-aspirated V12 under the bonnet that will explode in fury to the tune of 769bhp and 705Nm!

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It’s hard to keep the Ferrari thoroughbred reined-in on the road, especially with the 100km/h sprint from standstill dispatched in under 3secs. The tdf is a Ferrari of fearsome proportions, because the feel and feedback you get from the car are otherworldly.

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It’s as though you’re plugged into an Evangelion mech-warrior, feeling what it feels even as it responds instantly to do the pilot’s every bidding.

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What’s more intriguing is the tdf isn’t fazed when you drive it in city traffic. It’ll trundle with the best of them at CBD-legal speeds, but the firm ride, butt-feel and steering feedback are accompanied by the splattering gravel against its underbody to remind you you’re in a track-ready performance machine.

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The steering that seems overly reactive on the F12 is organic and wonderfully nuanced in the tdf with more natural responses so you don’t get the same darty responses as on the F12.

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The rear-wheel steering system that is now on the 812 Superfast made its debut on the tdf, and works to enhance the tdf’s agility so it flows like liquid silver through any series of corners.

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Just when it already seems too much for your senses to cope with, put the hammer down and the V12 blazes to life – the 6.3-litre doesn’t clear its throat politely, it bellows loudly when prodded and you really need to keep your wits about you once it comes on-song.

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There’s an intensity to the tdf’s ferocity that makes you work your butt off to get the best from the car. Up- and downshifts via the tdf’s F1 dual-clutch gearbox are thunderous and you’ll feel the mighty rumble that punctuates each shift course through your body, which oddly enough is similar to hammering each gear of the Isetta’s positive manual shifter into place.

Like the Isetta, the tdf is not something you can just hop in and hope to drive fast on your first attempt, because your brain and body have to process the millions of details and sensations bombarding them to act and react accordingly – it may be more leisurely with the Isetta, but in the tdf, we’re talking split-second decisions.

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Also like the Isetta, all eyes on constantly on the tdf, either because it’s recognised for what it is, or the palpable aura of its passing evokes that sort of fancy. Yet the reactions are always positive and almost reverential, without the negative connotation associated with that other Italian supercar export. If anything, the Isetta attracts even more gawps, especially when onlookers realise it only has three wheels.

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If you’re lucky enough to spot the Isetta parked, hang around til the owner comes back and BMW’s bubblecar will demonstrate the other ace up its sleeve – the single door opens from the front so you can park right up to the kerb if desired – just like a fridge door, a legacy from Italian firm Iso (if you’re wondering, Isetta means little Iso), the creator of the Isetta, which started out manufacturing refrigerators.

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BMW effectively BMW’d Iso’s Isetta mechanicals, and this example is powered by a 298cc (hence, BMW Isetta 300) one-cylinder BMW motorcycle engine matched to a four-speed manual.

There’s an honest simplicity to the Isetta that is a tip-over away from white knuckle driving, especially given we were tackling the corners with gusto! It may only make 13bhp and 18Nm, but a 300+kg kerbweight means it delivers surprisingly spritely performance once you’re in motion and with the fun-top rolled back, it’s possible to enjoy wind-in-hair motoring.

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The quirky Isetta is probably as mechanical and basic as new cars have become electric, electronic and somewhat anaemic. The bubblecar engages you to manhandle it and it responds directly to inputs, and we reckon it’s less of a hazard than the infamous Reliant Robin, which had one wheel in front and two behind.

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The door opens to a cosy cabin with just a bench; as we mentioned earlier, it could accommodate the young family, with two adults and one or two small kids – ideally, we can see ourselves in the car squeezed alongside two lovely ladies, but erm, that’d be the wife and daughter...

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There’s charming detail on the inside of the egg-shaped car, from the hanging bladder that holds the water for the windscreen washer to the four-speed manual shifter mounted along the right side of the car.

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BMW’s technical expertise shines through as you work the car hard – there’s a positive, unadulterated feel to the controls that is more convincing than its contemporary, the Fiat Cinquecento.

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When the Isetta is buzzing on the move, you marvel that something shaped so with such tiddly wheels can cover ground like it does, almost like a bumblebee with its comically undersized wings in relation to its oversized body.

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Despite sitting at opposite ends of the petrolhead spectrum, it’s heartening to see that both the F12tdf and Isetta prove to be equally rewarding and engaging to drive in their own right, and we can’t think of a more fitting way to celebrate such diversity.

PHOTOS ZOTIQ VISUALS
LOCATION KF1 ARENA, 511 Upper Jurong Road S(638366)

FERRARI F12TDF
Engine: 6262cc, V12, nat-asp
Power/rpm: 769bhp/8500rpm
Torque/rpm: 705Nm/6250rpm

Transmission: 7spd F1 dual-clutch
0-100km/h: 2.9secs
Top speed: >340km/h
Kerbweight: 1520kg
Fuel Consumption: 15.4l/100km
CO2: 360g/km

BMW ISETTA 300 (1963)
Engine: 298cc, 1cyl, nat-asp
Power/rpm: 13bhp/5200rpm
Torque/rpm: 18Nm/4600rpm
Transmission: 4spd manual
0-48km/h: 11secs
Top speed: 85km/h
Kerbweight: 300+kg
Fuel Consumption: 3l/100km
CO2: n/a g/km

David Khoo
Author: David Khoo
David is a big petrolhead who has been dabbling in the car trade since 2001 and currently oversees Top Gear Singapore. His stories often take an eclectic slant from the predictable, and he's able to craft a compelling read that lets you see the cars (often old!) in a new light.

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