Exotic on a Budget

The 308 GTB/GTS delivers the full Ferrari experience for a bargain price.

May 31, 2013
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If ever there was a Ferrari that needed no introduction, it is the 308 GTB/GTS. Other models are arguably more significant, more revered or more beautiful, but it’s hard to think of another car that introduced the magic of Maranello to a wider audience. With its stunning looks, nimble handling, relative affordability and—yes!—“Magnum, P.I.” fame, the 308 may just be the best-known Ferrari ever.

Its story begins in the late 1960s, when Ferrari decided to expand its lineup with a series of less-expensive, V6 and then V8-powered mid-engine cars. Not wanting to dilute its brand, the company marketed these machines under the Dino nameplate. By ’75, however, Maranello was ready to slap the famous Prancing Horse badge on its “small” cars. The 308 GTB debuted at that year’s Geneva Auto Show.

Mechanically, the 308 broke little new ground. Its chassis, suspension, brakes, steering and five-speed transaxle were based on that of the (Dino) 308 GT4, as was its carbureted two-valve 3-liter V8 engine, which produced 230 hp in U.S. trim. However, the new car’s bodywork was innovative; it was made of lightweight fiberglass.

Ferrari’s first use of the composite material for body panels didn’t last long. By mid-1976, after 712 cars had been built, demand exceed the company’s production capabilities, forcing a switch to steel bodies that could be stamped out more quickly. In late 1977, Ferrari unveiled the targa-top GTS model, and sales ramped up even further: more than 2,185 (steel) GTBs were produced, along with 3,219 GTSs.

Late 1980 saw the introduction of the 308 GTBi and GTSi, which utilized fuel injection to help meet more stringent emissions requirements. As was the case with many cars of the era, however, horsepower fell precipitously, to just 205 ponies in the U.S. Sales volume also fell, to 494 GTBi’s and 1,749 GTSi’s

Ferrari introduced the much-improved 308 Quattrovalvole (better known as the QV) at the Paris Auto Show in October 1982. This ultimate iteration of the 308 featured four-valve cylinder heads and an improved engine-management system that boosted U.S. output to 230 hp. Sales climbed once again, with 1,344 GTB QVs and 6,068 GTS QVs built by the time production ended in 1985.

While the QVs are far more refined than the early carbureted models, all 308s are non-temperamental and user-friendly, and can comfortably be used as daily drivers. In addition, they are reliable and easy to service by Ferrari standards. Add in the aforementioned good looks, and it’s no wonder these cars are still so popular. They’re also available at bargain prices.

The final QVs sold for $55,000-60,000 when new, and climbed to well over six figures during the Ferrari boom of the late 1980s. Today, though, the 308 is one of the least-expensive cars in the Ferrari universe, with desireable models selling for as little as $25,000. In other words, you can now buy a thoroughbred exotic for less than the price of a new Toyota Camry.

 

Marketplace

 

The Pininfarina-designed 308 GTB/GTS was an immediate sales success. More than 12,000 examples were built, a new production record for Maranello. Better still, yesterday’s high build numbers translate into today’s low prices—with a few caveats.

While 308s are inexpensive to buy, they are not cheap to own. The dreaded cam-belt service, which comes around every three to five years, can potentially cost one-quarter to one-third of the car’s value. Relatedly, it’s difficult to justify major repairs, since rebuilding an engine and transmission can cost more than buying the car in the first place. All of this means that 308 ownership is a labor of love, not an investment.

While we’re on the topic of investment: Although their prices gently rise and fall with the market at large, 308s are not collectible cars. Part of the problem is the aforementioned high production numbers; note that the relatively rare, fiberglass-bodied cars command a significant premium over their more plentiful steel brethren. Another issue is that the later 328 and 348 don’t cost significantly more than the 308, meaning there’s no price “gap” for the earlier car to rise into.

Investment opportunities aside, 308s are wonderful cars to own and drive. In my experience, most buyers look for either a carbureted model (which offers the best engine sound) or a later QV (which is the fastest). The 1980-82 GTBi and GTSi are noticeably slower than their earlier and later counterparts, a fact reflected in their lower prices. European-spec cars are lighter and faster than their U.S. counterparts but don’t cost more, making them quite desireable to some enthusiasts. Prospective buyers don’t need to worry about EPA or DOT paperwork—those Federal requirements only go back 25 years—but state emission laws may still apply.

Whichever version you consider, there are usually plenty of 308s for sale at any given time, so you can afford to be picky. My advice is to buy the best 308 with the most-detailed service history you can afford. —Michael Sheehan

 

Model                                  Low               High            
308 GTB (fiberglass) $40,000 $70,000
308 GTB (steel) $20,000 $30,000
308 GTS $25,000 $35,000
308 GTBi $20,000 $25,000
308 GTSi $25,000 $35,000
308 QV GTB $30,000 $40,000
308 QV GTS $35,000 $45,000

 

These prices are for cars in good condition.

 

On the Road

 

In any guise, the 308 delivers a great driving experience. This is what we’ve said about these cars over the years.

 

While there is no question the QV engine is smoother and easier to use, its sound fails to reveal its competition breeding like the earlier [308’s] V8 does. That, though, is the only way the earlier Ferrari is superior. The instant you settle into the QV’s cockpit, the years spent perfecting the model are noticeable. The seats look better, are more comfortable and have superior bolstering. The supplemental instruments’ positioning is a vast improvement, as is the feel and placement of the newer (but still non-adjustable) steering wheel.

While the four-valve’s controls remain heavy at a dead stop, everything lightens up immediately once the car is under way. The transmission, with its shorter gear lever, remains notchy but is easier to use. Likewise, the accelerator, brake and clutch pedals are better traveling companions, particularly when pottering in town.

Not surprisingly, the open-top GTS lacks the chassis integrity of the GTB. When you hit bumps or tackle a corner, there is more flexing. Fortunately, it isn’t too severe, and this remains a car that can be driven with vigor. And thanks to that Bosch fuel injection, it doesn’t suffer from fuel starvation, a malady that afflicts all carbureted 308s when pushed hard. —Winston Goodfellow, “The Affordable Ferrari,” FORZA #25

 

At six-feet tall and a few pounds north of my ideal weight, older Ferraris are usually a bit tight. This 308 is no exception, but the seats are supportive and I’m able to find a comfortable driving position, although I would have liked the steering wheel tilted down a bit. Visibility forward is excellent; rearward, it’s a bit less so, but still quite acceptable.

The V8 fires up instantly, with that intoxicating mechanical whir and exhaust burble behind my head. The clutch pedal is very heavy—there are no hydraulics to help your left leg—but the gearshift is smoother than in any other Ferrari of the era I have driven.

Once underway, acceleration is satisfying, more than adequate for a car with sporting pretensions. The motor has no dead spots, no problems anywhere in the rev range, which is exceptional for a car with Weber carbs. And did I mention the sound? —Dom Miliano, "Back to Basics,” FORZA #62

 

Around corners, the 308 is quite confidence-inspiring, thanks no doubt to the freshly rebuilt suspension and modern 16-inch rubber. There’s noticeable body roll as the Ferrari turns into a corner, but once it takes a set, it carves through very neutrally and can easily be coaxed into a slight tail-out attitude. This Euro-spec car also feels lighter and more nimble on its feet than most U.S.-spec examples, likely because it simply weighs less. —Zachary Mayne, “Rocky Mountain High,” FORZA #106

 

The Garage

 

Like any Ferrari mechanic who worked in the later half of the 1970s, I spent a huge percentage of my time servicing 308s. The 308 GTB/GTS was a very popular car, and this translates into several significant benefits for today’s owners. For one thing, given the number of mechanics who have worked on these cars and the wealth of technical information available in the public domain, there are no mysteries to keeping a 308 on the road. In addition, parts are generally easy to source, and there is plenty of aftermarket support. The 308 series also lends itself to being owner-serviced much more readily than most earlier and later Ferraris. (The fuel-injected models are much friendlier in this regard than the carbureted ones.)

Now for the bad news: 308s have long suffered the curse of costing so little to purchase that it didn’t make economic sense to maintain them properly. The inevitable outcome is that a large percentage of these cars has received no, or very poor-quality, service and/or repairs over the years. Bringing such a car back to safe and serviceable condition is very costly, and even routine jobs can rapidly snowball out of control when it comes to repairing prior work. In addition, while 308s may cost Toyota money to buy, they are vintage Ferraris in terms of paying for maintenance and repairs. A major service will start at roughly $7,000 for a carbureted car, and around $5,000 for a fuel-injected model.

Given the potential costs involved, I always recommend spending the time, trouble and extra money up front to buy a car that’s been properly taken care of by its previous owners. The car will cost less in the long run, and you’ll enjoy it far more along the way. —Brian Crall

MAJOR ISSUES

FRAGILE EXHAUST VALVE STEMS
The two-valve motor used in all 308 variations up to the 1983 Quattrovalvole featured exhaust valves with hollow, sodium-filled stems. Age has taken its toll on the structural integrity of these stems, and reports of broken valves—and the resulting extensive engine damage—seem to be becoming more common. I recommend replacing original-style exhaust valves with modern, one-piece, stainless-steel items. In most cases, this will be an expensive undertaking (a DIYer who delivers the cylinder heads to a machine shop may pay as little as $2,500; I’d budget around $7,500 if a shop is doing all the work, and be pleasantly surprised if it costs less), but it’s a lot cheaper than repairing the engine if a valve breaks.

MEAGER RUST-PROOFING
Until late in the 308’s production run, Ferrari’s rust-proofing regimen was pretty spotty. As a result, rust has long been a problem, even on supposedly rust-free California cars. The most commonly affected areas are located right behind the front wheels and in the lower portion of the doors, but the tin worm can strike anywhere that water collects.

FUSE-BOX WOES
The 308’s electrical system is quite simple, but the factory’s low-quality fuse boxes are prone to electrical issues. Both OE and aftermarket replacements are available; I recommend the aftermarket version made by Birdman.

NON-FUNCTIONAL PARKING BRAKE
The 308’s parking brake can be a real problem. It’s an unusual design that’s incorporated into the rear brake calipers, and in many cases it simply doesn’t work. Repairs should be entrusted to a specialist; I recommend a company called PMB Performance.

MISSING SMOG EQUIPMENT
Many carbureted cars were de-smogged “back in the day” in order to improve performance. Unfortunately, that smog equipment was usually thrown away after it was removed, and few of those parts are still available. The result is a number of carbureted 308s that have trouble passing smog tests in their home states; this is a particular problem in California.

GREY-MARKET CARS
Grey-market 308s were usually imported because they were cheaper than U.S.-spec cars. In my experience, that cost cutting almost always extends to the required U.S. safety and emissions equipment, which is normally of very poor quality. There are always exceptions, of course, but I would steer clear of a grey-market car unless you have conclusive proof that its conversion work is top-notch. (Note that my concerns in this area apply only to 308s, not to the much more expensive grey-market 288 GTOs or Boxers.)

 

MINOR ISSUES

Most 308s built before 1983 came with 14-inch or metric-sized TRX wheels. High-quality tires are not really available for either wheel, and the Michelin TRX rubber is very expensive. My preferred cure is a set of 16-inch QV wheels; good aftermarket reproductions are available at reasonable prices.

Many of these cars’ cooling systems have suffered from some level of neglect over the years, and the QV’s setup never really worked that well in hot weather to begin with. Replacing all the coolant hoses and rebuilding or re-coring the radiators and heater cores is often required to make the car reliable. Many owners buy aftermarket aluminum radiators and upgraded electric cooling fans; Ron Davis is one excellent source for these components.

It’s tough to find ignition parts for carbureted cars fitted with the twin Magneti Marelli distributors. The special condensers are no longer available, and the points currently being sold are of very low quality. While it’s not a factory-correct solution, I recommend updating to an aftermarket electronic ignition, a topic I covered in last issue’s “Shoptalk.”

Although major components are easy to find, that’s not always the case with minor trim items. Defroster vents, for example, are a real challenge to locate.

 

Owners’ Take

 

Kevin Enderby

1984 308 QV GTS

Purchased in 1990 with 42,000 miles for $70,000; currently has 195,000 miles

What do you use your 308 for?
It’s mostly a daily driver, but I do use it for a lot of tours, charity shows, concours and, occasionally, a track day. Back when it was newer, it went to the track once a month, easily. It’s down to around 4,000-5,000 miles every year.

What do you like most about the car?
I like its vintage feel; it’s an old-school car that doesn’t feel like a modern car. It is of its era.

Any dislikes?
The brakes are not particularly good, so you have to be careful with them. The interior is a little small for my size, and the car is a little grating to drive on long trips; it’s not the most comfortable car in the world after a couple of hours.

How reliable has your 308 been?
It’s actually been very reliable. The original engine lasted until 130,000 miles; instead of rebuilding it, I had it replaced with a NOS engine that had been sitting around.

How about wear and tear?
It’s held up pretty well. It was repainted right before the motor went in, and the interior was redone then, too, but it hasn’t been redone since and it still looks good.

Would you recommend this car to a friend?

Oh, yeah. The only thing that’s problematic about it is that it can tend to overheat. I wouldn’t recommend it if you lived in Los Angeles and drove it every day in traffic with the a/c running, but for a vintage car that can be driven in most normal conditions, it’s great.

 

Roger Tregear

1977 308 GTB

Purchased in 1980 with 9,000 miles for $25,000; currently has 93,000 miles

What do you use your 308 for?

It’s always been a weekend car. Over the last few years, I’ve mostly done club events. My favorite thing to do with the car is the Virginia City Hillclimb; I’ve driven it maybe 22 times. I let each of my sons drive it there on their 30th birthdays, and they both beat my best time.

What do you like most about the car?

Really, I just loved it from the get-go. The car’s handling and balance are very neutral, it doesn’t scare me even when it starts to get a little sideways.

Any dislikes?

Not with the car itself. But recently, I haven’t been able to get good tires for the original 14-inch rims, and it doesn’t handle right on the wrong tires. So I got some 17-inch rims, and now I can get some decent tires on it. I’m not an “originalist,” I want the car to fit me.

How reliable has your 308 been?

The only trouble I ever had was when the capacitive-discharge ignition I put in the car failed—so that wasn’t even the car’s fault. I’ve since gone to a full Electromotive system and taken the distributors off, and I love it.

Right now, though, I’m having trouble getting it to pass smog. It’s running better than ever and it can easily meet the smog requirements from when it was new, but the current smog standards here in California are tougher than that. It’s a shame, and something for your readers that live in California to be aware of.

How about wear and tear?

It’s beautiful. It’s a California car, so there’s only been one little tiny rust spot on one of the vents that go to the oil cooler. But there have been a lot of chips in the paint on the front end.

Would you recommend this car?

Without a doubt!

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