If there was ever a car that epitomized the greed-is-good excesses of the Eighties, it was the Ferrari Testarossa. To purists, even its name represents a sell-out. The original 250 Testa Rossa road racer was not only shockingly beautiful, it performed beautifully on the racetrack as well, winning three World Sports Car Championships between 1958 and 1961.
The Testarossa of the Eighties, in contrast, had no racing pedigree whatsoever. It was, impure and not-so-simple, a car designed and built to cash in on an image. And since cashing in was what the Eighties were all about, it was the perfect vehicle for its time. The saving grace was, it was also a damn good automobile.
From the beginning the Testarossa was conceived to appeal to the well-heeled by curing the perceived ills of 512 BB. Among these ills were a cabin that suffered heat-gain from the indoor plumbing that ran between the front-mounted radiator and the midships-mounted engine and an absurd lack of luggage room.
The solution to both these problems was increased size. The cure to an uncomfortable amount of cabin heat was to mount twin radiators back with the engine instead of a single radiator up-front. (In fact, that fix also opened up some forward room for luggage.) But the price to be paid was added width to accommodate the air inlets placed behind the doors. At 77.8 inches, the Testarossa was almost half a foot wider than the Boxer.
To address the luggage space issue, the wheelbase was stretched about 2 1/2 inches to 100.4 inches. Most of the addition went into the cabin in the form of storage behind the seats, though some carpeted storage was available under the front forward-opening hood. A Testarossa driver was still hard-pressed to find room for one hard-sided Samsonite, but he could stuff in several soft-sided bags.
Wrapping this all together was a controversial Pininfarina body. Of course, the most widely debated feature were the "cheese grater" side strakes that shot across the doors into the rear fenders. Designed to provide the necessary cooling air while integrating the openings into the overall theme of the car, the look soon spawned knock-off treatments that were slapped onto far lesser cars like Pontiac Trans Ams and a wide variety of Japanese sporty cars, one of the most deplorable trends of the decade. Though some hated the Testarossa's strakes, overall they seemed to be a reasonable solution to the difficult problem of supplying air to the rear-mounted radiators. Aside from the strakes, the rest of the design was handsome if a bit overblown. The front egg crate non-grille (how could one call it a grille when it didn't cover an air intake?) was echoed by a similar horizontal treatment at the rear, which was adorned with the prancing horse. Gone were the six round taillights of the 512 BB, replaced by rectangular lenses.
One has to give Pininfarina credit for bucking a trend and making the Testarossa's roofline half an inch taller than the Boxer. This added much-needed headroom to the passenger cabin. Pininfarina also gave the Testarossa an immense front overhang. In fact, the majority of the "hood" is overhang, while the base of the windshield starts just aft of the front axle. The windshield itself is extremely "fast" (read, nearly horizontal), and the backlight is a tiny, stand-up type similar to the 512 BB. The familiar five-spoke alloy wheels were one bow to Ferraris past.
The revised flat-12 engine was a bow to Ferraris fast. Racing had passed the flat-12 by, but there was no doubt that the configuration could still produce prodigious amounts of horsepower. With virtually identical displacement and compression ratio to the 512 BB, the major changes in the Testarossa were the new four-valve cylinder heads that were, fittingly, finished in red. (Testa Rossa meaning, of course, "red head.") The new heads offered vastly better breathing than the previous two-valve-per-cylinder configuration.
That change, plus the addition of more modern engine controls, resulted in significantly more horsepower than the already stunning 512 BB. In Europe the Ferrari factory figures were 390 horsepower at 6800 rpm and 362 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm. The early American-spec version offered 380 peak horsepower and just a slight drop in peak torque.
As with the Boxer, double wishbone front and rear suspension systems were used, aided in the Testarossa's case by 255 rear tires on the 10-inch-wide alloy rear wheels, a rudimentary type of traction control. Most road testers (including yours truly) found the changes made the car easier to drive than the 512 BB and infinitely easier to drive well than the Lamborghini Countach or most versions of the Porsche 911. Where the latter two could jump up and bite the unsuspecting almost without warning, the Testarossa gave plenty of signals before its limit was passed.
Despite a luxury cockpit filled with handsewn leather and fine carpeting, the Testarossa was well more than simply a boulevardier. From the outside it seemed gargantuan for a sports car, but behind the wheel it exhibited the agility of a thoroughbred. Though long-legged, it also performed remarkably well on Ferrari's own Fiorano test track, a very tight circuit immediately adjacent to the Ferrari factory in Maranello.
It offered the twin virtues of speed and quickness. From a standing stop 60 miles per hour could arrive in as little as 5 seconds flat, while top speed for an American version was reliably reported as 178-180 mph.
So while the Testarossa did not offer the true racing pedigree of many of its predecessors, it was still a remarkable car in its own right, and it expressed in sheetmetal, steel tubing and aluminum exactly how Ferrari had evolved over the years. By the time the Testarossa was introduced in 1984, Ferrari had made the transition from a road racing machine with virtually no allowance for creature comforts to a civilized driving machine with stunning performance credentials. And it still captured the imaginations of auto enthusiasts the world over.