Buy a Ferrari 400 with needs and you may as well start thinking about ways to improve on Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme

The mid 1970s were cruel to the entire auto industry, and the Italian exotics were particularly hard hit. Punitive taxes, fuel shortages, and a general reluctance to consume conspicuously put Maserati and Lamborghini on the ropes. Even Ferrari wasn't immune.

Worse still, class warfare turned into open warfare when home-grown, wacko communist terrorist groups like the Red Brigades in Italy and the Bader-Meinhoff Gang in Germany began targeting the wealthy and powerful of Western Europe. It seemed like the right time for something a bit more subtle.

Ferrari introduced the 365 GT4 2+2 in 1972 at the Paris Auto Show. Had it been any subtler, it wouldn't have existed at all. A fairly conventional notchback coupe with hidden headlights and a long hood and short rear deck, it still had enough Ferrari styling cues (including the trademark multiple round taillights) that even the ratty Microbus-driving Red Brigade twits were unlikely to mistake the car for a visually similar Fiat 130 coupe.

They thought Americans would like an automatic

The GT4 2+2 was initially sold with the same powertrain from the 365 GTC/4, a Daytona-derived 4.4-liter V12 with 320 hp and a 5-speed manual gearbox. The revised 1976 4.8-liter car, now called the 400, was the first Ferrari to be offered with an automatic transmission, a 3-speed GM-sourced THM unit that offered lazy but predictable upshifts and downshifts, along with easy serviceability. It was thought that Americans particularly would like this feature. Ironically, Ferrari never officially imported the car due to emission issues with the V12.

In keeping with Ferrari practice of the day, the 1979 400i (for inezione) added Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection. Drivability was greatly improved, but horsepower was down to a still-healthy 310 hp.

The Ferrari 412 replaced the Ferrari 400i in 1985. Unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show, it was at the time the only Ferrari sold into the U.S. by the factory, but dealers were responsible for doing the modifications necessary to achieve compliance with DOT and EPA. A displacement bump to 4.9 liters brought power back to its original level, and ABS was added for the remainder of the car's run through 1989. The body received minor detail changes, with bumpers now painted the same color as the car. For a car that is virtually ignored by collectors today, its 17-year run was extraordinary and unlikely to be equaled by any other Ferrari.

An interesting footnote to the 412 story is the factory-sanctioned convertible built in 1984, though not registered until 1986. It was an experimental car built with a passenger compartment of carbon fiber, fiberglass, and Kevlar, with carbon fiber body panels, and it represented Sergio Scaglietti's final design for Ferrari. The one-off four-seat convertible was dark red with a tan leather interior, and the advanced construction made it 881 pounds lighter than the coupe and significantly quicker.

The car sold at Gooding's Monterey auction in 2007 as part of the estate of Ferrari collector Greg Garrison. Despite being in #1 condition, having only 8,113 kilometers on the clock, and a 5-speed, it sold for a paltry $110,000-which was still double the pre-sale estimate.

The Sword of Damocles hangs over owners

Outwardly, there is little difference between the various versions of the 400 family. The 365s can be distinguished by their six round taillights (400/412 cars reverted to four). 400/412 interiors were much more luxurious in keeping with the character of the car. On the road, they're pure Italian thoroughbred, with a well-controlled ride and quiet, comfortable cabin-an ideal car for waking up in Deauville and going to sleep in Cannes.

Traditionally, four-seater Ferraris have never been particularly collectible. The end of the earth is probably around $120,000 for a great 250 GTE. For a 365/400/412, it's about one-fourth of that, leaving precious little room for maintenance and upgrades before you're permanently under water.

Because of the car's low values and the Ferrari parts and service Sword of Damocles that hangs over the head of any owner, most of the cars of this series that turn up at auction have significant needs. Buy one of these, and you may as well start thinking about ways to improve on Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme-you'll need that kind of capital to put things right. About the only thing that won't cost five figures to address is the aforementioned GM automatic, which is yet another reason why these cars will never be worth anything.

Add to that the fact that almost all of them are gray-market cars-some with dodgy or non-existent EPA/DOT paperwork-and you have all of the reasons in hand as to why these will forever be the bargain-basement front-engine V12 Ferraris. Even the attractive Straman-converted open 400s fail to generate much excitement at auction.

Still, that isn't to say that the cars are without merits. They do after all share 365 GTB/4 Daytona DNA and although low-key, they aren't bad lookers by any means. It's just that in the gentleman's express department, there are a lot of choices-from Aston Martin V8s, to Jensen Interceptors, to Iso Rivoltas. While few of these lack the potential to eviscerate you financially, all, alas, lack the cachet of a Ferrari. And there's the rub.

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