Flashback Ferrari

Forget the hair and music: The Testarossa was the real star of the 1980s.

Flashback Ferrari 1
September 6, 2013

Ferrari unveiled the Testarossa at the 1984 Paris Auto Show to mixed reviews. While many enthusiasts thought the company’s new flagship looked modern, edgy and aggressive, just as many thought it looked ridiculous, thanks to the prominent strakes (less charitably described as cheese graters) that filled its fender-mounted air intakes. There was no denying that the Testarossa was a proper exotic, however, and it quickly became the car to have—as well as Ferrari’s best-selling 12-cylinder model to date.

Controversial bodywork aside, there was little not to like about the Testarossa. For starters, with a claimed top speed of 180 mph it was the world’s fastest road car (ignoring the limited-production 288 GTO) and it could hit 60 mph in a little more than 5 seconds. This impressive pace came courtesy of a 4.9-liter flat-12 engine that produced 380 hp—40 ponies more than its predecessor, the Berlinetta Boxer, and enough to overcome the car’s hefty 3,600-plus-pound curb weight. The engine’s four-valve, red-painted cylinder heads also gave the Testarossa its name: “Redhead,” a moniker first used on the 1950s Testa Rossa sports racers. 

Compared to the Boxer, the longer and much wider Testarossa offered more interior and storage space, as well as a much more user-friendly driving experience. And there was more to come.

In 1992, Ferrari introduced an updated model, the 512 TR. Engine output rose to 428 hp and top speed climbed to 195 mph, while a stiffer frame, retuned suspension and larger, 17-inch wheels made the 512 TR more of a sports car than the GT-oriented Testarossa. Modest exterior updates rounded out the changes.

In 1994, Ferrari unveiled the ultimate Testarossa: the limited-production F512M. This time, there were extensive cosmetic changes—the most noticeable were fixed headlights in place of the earlier retractable units, a pair of NACA ducts on the front hood and round taillights—while the engine produced only a few more ponies.

Today, thanks to their higher production numbers, the Testarossa and the 512 TR cost less than the earlier Boxers, but they are significantly faster, better-handling and more reliable cars than their predecessors. If you like the look,
the Testarossa, 512 TR and F512M can be very rewarding Ferraris to own and drive.

Marketplace

The Testarossa was the first 12-cylinder Ferrari designed specifically with the U.S. market in mind. Its predecessor, the Berlinetta Boxer, had been available here only as a grey-market car, and sales suffered as a result. Ferrari was determined not to lose out on American dollars, so the Testarossa featured integrated bumpers (like the contemporary 328), U.S.-friendly headlights, a semi-modern engine-management system and catalytic converters that worked without popping, farting or belching flames. It was a modern car in all respects, and a seriously fast one at that; it was really a supercar by the performance standards of the day.

Even better for Ferrari, the Testarossa debuted during an economic boom. Sales took off; by 1989, U.S. cars were being sent to Japan at a 100-percent markup above sticker price. By 1991, 7,177 Testarossas had been produced—more than three times the number of Boxers built over a ten-year span.

Flashback Ferrari 2

The 512 TR appeared in 1992, and while it was a better car it didn’t enjoy such massive appreciation on the secondary market due to the economic collapse of early 1990. Nonetheless, 2,280 were produced over the next two years. In 1994, Ferrari introduced the F512M, of which just 500 examples were built; around 125 came to the U.S. Thanks to this exclusivity, the F512M has essentially held its value since new, which is more than you can say for the Testarossa or 512 TR.

High production numbers and dated styling are only part of the reason behind the Testarossa’s bargain prices; the big issue is the cost of maintenance. A major service can easily run $10,000, which can equal 20 percent or more of an early car’s value. And with the oldest examples about to turn 30, all sorts of age-related problems may be lurking. Needless to say, a pre-purchase inspection by a very knowledgeable mechanic is highly recommended.

As usual, the most desirable Testarossa is the one with the lowest mileage and the fewest owners, and such cars command higher prices. It’s very Freudian; everyone wants a virgin. To that, I say buyer beware: That rarely used, 10,000-mile TR may well come with a five-figure bill in deferred maintenance. —Michael Sheehan

Model Low High
Testarossa $35,000 $55,000
512 TR $60,000 $80,000
F512M $125,000 $150,000
 

These prices are for cars in good condition.

On the Road

It was the world’s fastest production car when new, but that was only part of the Testarossa driving experience. Here’s some of what we have said about the car over the years.

The Testarossa’s refined character starts with that fabulous flat-12 engine. Easy to start, warm or cold, the elastic powerplant is turbinelike in its smoothness, and pulls strongly regardless of rpm. Hammering the accelerator at low speeds in the first three gears thrusts you back vigorously in your seat, the lovely, lithe-muffled wail tickling your ears. At 4,500 rpm, the engine truly comes alive, the tarmac whipping under the car with alarming alacrity. Upshift at the 6,800-rpm redline, and the fun starts all over again!

What is truly awe-inspiring is how much better, even relaxed, a TR feels at serious speed than most other exotics. At triple-digit speeds, the steering is light, communicative and responsive. The steering wheel transmits road surfaces beautifully, while the Tipo F113 chassis serves up a magic carpet ride. The brakes bite with real authority, and the gearbox’s mechanical feel when warm
is a delight.

Although it is an effortless performer, the Testarossa unexpectedly falls short in fulfilling one of its design parameters: While it is taller than the Boxer, and has a longer wheelbase, I was never able to find a comfortable seating position [for my 6-foot-3 frame]. Other daily driving shortcomings are heavy steering below 20 mph and a gearbox that, when cold, is surprisingly notchy. Commuting revealed excessive tire noise on a number of different surfaces, and those 10-inch [wide] front wheels love to dance in any groove or pothole.

—Winston Goodfellow
“Magnificent Illusion or True Maranello Magic?” FORZA #16

Flashback Ferrari 3

The flat-12 revs quickly and smoothly, and a ripping-canvas shriek assaults my ears as the revs climb. The soundtracks of the Boxer and Testarossa are similar, but the power isn’t: Thanks to its four-valve cylinder heads, the TR makes an impressive 380 horsepower, 40 more than its predecessor.

Peak power comes earlier in the powerband than in the Boxer. This, coupled with the 344 lb-ft of torque on tap, gives the four-valve engine even stronger mid-range urge—it seems downright heroic at times. The car feels quicker than its stated 0-60 mph time of 5.2 seconds, and if the strength of the motor is any sign, the official 180-mph top speed is just a long straight away.

When I point the Testarossa’s wide, flat nose down the same tight, winding road that so unsettled the Boxer, I quickly discover that while it’s still a big, heavy car, it feels much more nimble. The TR turns in quickly, and understeers much less in the tighter turns. And this time, I’m able to get on the gas confidently, letting the rear tires slip as I arc past the apex and dialling in the appropriate amount of opposite lock. The quick-revving engine pushes me back in my seat as the TR howls out of the corners.

In addition, the slicker-shifting gearbox allows me to swap cogs quicker and with more confidence. But when I stand on the brakes to shed some speed, I discover that, like the Boxer, the TR delivers more go than whoa.

—Zachary Mayne
“Boxer Rebellion,” FORZA #91

The Garage

There’s nothing like a Testarossa to polarize opinion: People either love them or hate them. I happen to be one of the former. I’ve worked on them since late 1985, when they were introduced to the American market, and have seen all the issues the early cars had (and there were many) and learned what it takes to sort them out.

From a service perspective, the most common complaint I hear about the model is the cost of operation. There is definitely some truth to this concern—these cars are not inexpensive to maintain—but in my opinion the cost is not as bad as often stated. The big issue is that the Testarossa was among the first generation of Ferrari street cars that required removing the engine for routine servicing. In addition to the obvious increase in labor costs, this also causes a “snowball” effect during major services. Generally speaking, lots of items get added to the to-do list when new problems are spotted after the engine is pulled or simply because it is much easier, or just possible, to address certain issues while the engine is out.

That engine, a 4.9-liter flat-12, is a very tough, robust unit that has a well-deserved reputation for longevity. I know of one that has gone more than 220,000 miles with nothing but routine servicing.

Flashback Ferrari 4

Now, about those service costs. An annual fluid-change service in any of the TR variants can run $1,000, in large part because the cars hold so much fluid. Top-quality lubricants can account for a big percentage of that bill.

A major service is a big job that I recommend doing every three to five years. (I service my own Testarossa every five years.) Expect the cost of pulling the engine, replacing the timing belts and tensioner bearings, replacing the fluids, filters and spark plugs, adjusting the valves, replacing various fuel and coolant hoses and
oil seals, rebuilding the water pump, reinstalling and tuning the motor, and doing all the small-but-important inspections, checks and adjustments that go along with it, to run $7,000-10,000. —Brian Crall

MAJOR ISSUES

WEAK TRANSAXLE

The transaxle is without doubt the Testarossa’s weakest link. Throughout their production run, the flat-12 cars’ transaxles received constant upgrading, but in terms of strength compared to engine output they always lagged one or two generations behind where they needed to be. The best-known problem is
the differential, and all but the F512M’s unit are prone to failure. That upgraded factory part is no longer available, but Paul Newman in Toronto makes an outstanding-quality duplicate.
I have installed three of them with no issues whatsoever, and have one on the shelf waiting to go into my own car.

CENTER-LOCK WHEELS

The early Testarossa had single-bolt, or center-lock, wheels fitted with the much-maligned metric Michelin TRX tires. These were changed to a 16-inch center-lock wheel with Goodyear tires in early 1986. (A 5-bolt wheel was adopted in mid-1988.) While coveted by traditionalists, these center-lock wheels do have a deserved reputation for falling off if the procedure for secure installation isn’t followed exactly.

Unusually, the center-lock wheels feature a large bolt rather than the traditional knock-off nut, which was done to satisfy Federal requirements in effect at the time. Unfortunately, this attachment design means there are very few alternate wheels that can be fitted to the car, either for cosmetic reasons or to upgrade to more modern rubber.

SHORT-LIVED CLUTCH

England’s AP supplied the Testarossa’s unique dual-disc clutch, which is similar to but larger than the unit found in the 512 BB. While a TR clutch can last for a long time (the aforementioned 220,000-mile car has had only three clutches in its life), it often won’t because it does not offer a traditional “clutch feel”—as a result, many drivers slip the clutch far more than they realize, and thus shorten clutch life. Replacement costs around $5,000 due to the price of the parts; labor is a very small percentage of the job.

UNDERRATED FUSE PANEL

The Testarossa’s fuse/relay panel suffers from the same problems as the one in the 328, F40 and Mondial: It simply isn’t up to the task of reliably handling high-load circuits, such as the fuel pumps, radiator fans and air-conditioning system. There are several aftermarket sources today’s owner can turn to for help, including Scuderia Rampante Innovation.

MINOR ISSUES

The Testarossa’s brakes are too small for very hard use, and can quickly overheat and fade. Installing larger brakes requires also fitting larger wheels. Brake fade usually isn’t a problem for the later 512 TR and (especially) F512M.

Flashback Ferrari 5

Early TRs suffered from severe oil leakage issues. Ferrari redesigned various gaskets and seals, as well as the early “cam extension” or ignition rotor drive, and largely solved the leakage problems. Still, a TR probably isn’t a good choice if you are OCD about oil spots on the floor.

Also early in production, TRs had a high failure rate of ignition transistors, which are located on top of the coils. Magneti Marelli improved the parts, and failures are far less common today.

The Testarossa’s front spoiler hangs too low to clear many speed bumps, driveway entrances and the like, and is thus
susceptible to damage. This was fixed on the 512 TR, allowing drivers to enter and exit most driveways without dragging the spoiler on the ground.

While the 512 TR was an improvement in most areas, it introduced the infamous “sticky” interior parts to Ferrari’s
12-cylinder line. In addition to becoming gooey and messy as their rubbery coating breaks down, these plastic components are quite fragile. Replacement pieces are hard to find.

Owners’ Take

Judy Moritz
1985 Testarossa

Purchased in 1987 with 8,000 miles for $60,000; currently has 225,000 miles

What do you use your Testarossa for?
My late husband, Jules, used it as his daily driver. Basically, we enjoyed the car like it was a regular car. Together, we used it for Ferrari Club of America events, tours, ride and drives, even hillclimbs. One year, I was the fastest in the ladies class at the Virginia City Hillclimb, and he was the fastest in his group. We always drove it on our anniversary trips; it was a special part of our lives.

What do you like most about the car?
For me, it’s the visual, the sensuousness of the design. It’s just a beautiful car, very exotic-looking, a timeless design. I also like that it’s black, not the common red.

Any dislikes?
It doesn’t have power steering, and it’s large and very wide, so if you’re going to try to parallel-park I’d say forget it and park somewhere else. It’s easy to handle once it gets going; it’s more forgiving to drive than some of our other Ferraris were.

How reliable has your Testarossa been?
I’d say it was 70-80 percent reliable, and that sometimes rose to 100 percent, but after a number of years we started having trouble with the fuses. Sometimes after we drove the car and stopped, even if it was just to fill it with gas, the car wouldn’t start again for a while. Jules finally fixed it, but it was a real concern.

Flashback Ferrari 6

We also had problems getting it to pass the California emissions test. In fact, that’s why it’s off the road now; the emissions guy blew the clutch [by slipping it while trying to get the car onto the rolling dyno].

How about wear and tear?
We had it repainted twice and the interior redone once. I think it still looks good.

Would you recommend this car to a friend?
I would, because it’s so gorgeous. But you have to be capable, on the ball and have the contacts to keep a Testarossa running well, or be willing to spend the money to have someone do it for you.

Buddy Stubbs
1987 Testarossa

Purchased in 1993 with 7,466 miles for $89,000; currently has 96,000 miles

What do you use your Testarossa for?
I’ve been selling Harley-Davidsons for 47 years and have two dealerships. I go to both of them on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, a 70-mile round trip, and without fail I drive the Testarossa. Most of those miles are highway miles, and the reason there aren’t more of them is I have so many other cars and motorcycles to drive. When I go to the grocery store, I take my 550 Maranello because it has a trunk.

How reliable has your Testarossa been?
I’ve never had a breakdown. I don’t even remember it burning out a headlight or a taillight. The car has two fuel pumps, one for each engine bank, and when one of those started failing it only slowed me down, it didn’t strand me.

I have an old friend who used to work at Ferrari and has done all the training, so ever since I’ve had the Testarossa he’s done the work on it. He charges me $50 an hour and he knows what he’s doing.

What do you like most about the car?
It fits me, it suits me; I like to sit low in a car. I just enjoy driving it, the way it sits, the way it handles. It’s been the best of the dozens of cars I’ve owned over the years.

Right after I got it, I removed the smog equipment and the entire exhaust system and had a straight-through exhaust built for it. It’s not very loud until you really stand on it, then it sounds like a race car. It performs a lot better with the straight-through exhaust; I’ve gotten it up to 180 mph twice and it was still climbing.

Any dislikes?
No, I really can’t think of anything. It’s needed the normal maintenance things like any car, like tires, batteries, shocks, brakes, it’s had all the services. It’s gotten a few clutches, and a couple of years ago it needed an electric window motor on the driver’s side.

How about wear and tear?
I repainted it once and recovered the seats once, but the rest of it, the dash and all that, is really good. The reason I painted it is that I needed to replace the front spoiler and I had had an accident with the left-rear quarter panel; after everything was fixed there were a lot of chips on the front from all the miles, so I had the whole car repainted in the original color.

Would you recommend this car to a friend?
I sure would, especially now that they’re so cheap. But because they are all 20 years old or older, I wouldn’t buy one without seeing it and driving it first and learning its whole history.

Also from Issue 129

  • Pininfarina's Sergio concept car
  • Daily driver and long-haul FFs
  • Modified 308 GTB
  • Carbon-ceramic brake tech
  • Market Update: Collector cars on the rise
  • Goodwood Festival of Speed
  • F1: Ferrari falls behind
  • 24 Hours of Le Mans
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