Ah, the '80s.
With Lotus lending their talents to consulting gigs, Ferrari followed suit and founded an internal division, Ferrari Engineering, in order to explore new construction methods and technologies that could be applied to future road and race cars. Heading the division was the legendary engineer Mauro …, who as technical director of Ferrari's Formula 1 team had helped to secure four World Driver's Championships and eight Constructor's Championships.
That was in the '70s. In the '80s, the great Italian team was struggling, and with an organization as integrated between road and race car divisions, engineering talent was shuffled constantly in order to improve on-track results. When it became clear that the FIA rulebook would never allow four-wheel-drive race cars, Forghieri's talents were applied to develop the next generation of Ferrari road cars.
What he ended up creating, the 408 4RM, was a feat that Modena has yet to replicate: a mid-engined sports car with four-wheel-drive. The company's modern-day FF grand tourer has its engine in the front, and so often gets left behind when us punters are talking about sports cars.
Many observers say that the 4RM looks like inspiration for the NSX, Honda's revolutionary aluminium-intensive supercar. If you subscribe to this narrative, the lightweight and well-built NSX is what shocked Ferrari into building better sports cars—as if it didn't already have the resources to do so.
I'd like to propose a crazier idea: the 4RM proves that Ferrari was worried about Nissan.
Let's not forget that four-wheel-drive and sports cars were novel through the '80s, and few automakers had the resources and competition commitments to make developing such a machine worthwhile. The list of sports cars with that layout in 1985 is short and sweet: the Ford RS200 and Lancia Delta S4.
So when Nissan unveiled the seemingly production-ready MID4 concept at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show, it's plausible that Ferrari realized it may soon have a true all-weather competitor to their 328, a sports car that left Maranello with just 270 horsepower. The first MID4 prototypes were making 245 horsepower from a normally-aspirated V6 engine, and featured four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steering, ABS brakes, fully-independent suspension, and build quality that signalled the company was serious about the project. Upgraded to 330 horsepower in 1987 and slightly restyled in time for the 1988 Tokyo Motor Show, the MID4 II was as far as Nissan would get before realizing the project would likely not make them any money…
What if Ferrari worked to cover off Nissan's potential competitor with these little-known 4RM prototypes?
The first 4RM had a steel chassis and a 328-derived 4.0-litre V8 engine that sat longitudinally (north/south) and offset from the car's centre line to accommodate the hydraulic four-wheel-drive system. The second car—the yellow one—had an all-aluminum chassis co-developed with Canada's Alcan, which was mostly bonded with adhesives. Yes, that's what Lotus would claim as their innovation upon the Elise's introduction in 1994. As mentioned in the #bcotd piece featuring the 1987 Treser TR1, the Elise program likely benefitted greatly from its little-known German relative.
In any event, the Carrozzeria Scaglietti-built 4RM would never reach production—the closest it got was as the Road & Track cover car in December 1988. Or was it?
As development on the 4RM drew to a close, Forghieri was poached by Lee Iacocca to lead Lamborghini's engineering efforts. In the record books, his work is said to have influenced the company's terrible Formula 1 effort in the late '80s, but maybe it's not a coincidence that the next major supercar development from that tractor-making firm was seen in 1993 when Lamborghini added all-wheel-drive to the Diablo, a tradition the company has since rolled out to (nearly) all of its models.
Was the 4RM, in some way, responsible for helping to prove the virtues of a mid-engined, four-wheel-drive sports car? I wouldn't doubt it…but maybe Nissan played a part as well.