Revolution

Ferrari reinvented itself with the Berlinetta Boxer, the company’s first mid-engine 12-cylinder road car.

Revolution 1
April 22, 2016

Enzo Ferrari stubbornly resisted the mid-engine revolution that swept through Formula 1 racing in the late 1950s, and well into the 1960s he remained content to place his road cars’ V12 engines ahead of their drivers. But Lamborghini’s introduction of the exotic mid-engine Miura in 1966 instantly changed the playing field. It was clear Maranello would have to respond to the challenge from its Sant’Agata Bolognese rival.

Ferrari’s belated riposte arrived in prototype form at the 1971 Turin Auto Show. Although built on Daytona-derived underpinnings, the 365 GT/4 Berlinetta Boxer bore little resemblance to its front-engine predecessor. Underneath its stunningly sleek Pininfarina skin, the BB, like Ferrari’s contemporary F1 cars, featured a flat-12 engine in place of the traditional 60° V12. The new 4.4-liter engine, which sat atop a five-speed transaxle to centralize masses, was said to deliver 380 horsepower, good for an astonishing 188-mph top speed. The BB was the instant star of the Turin Show.

By the time the production 365 GT/4 BB arrived in 1973, however, its star wasn’t shining quite so brightly. For one thing, the Miura had been replaced by the even more outrageous Countach. For another, the first worldwide oil crisis sent gasoline prices rocketing higher and exotic-car demand plummeting. Making matters worse, the BB overpromised and underdelivered; no magazine was able to come close to Ferrari’s claimed top speed, and the car suffered from front-end lift at triple-digit speeds. Perhaps the worst news of all was that the newest Prancing Horse did not meet the emissions requirements of Ferrari’s largest customer, the United States.

The Boxer’s fundamentals were sound, however, and the arrival of the 5-liter 512 BB in 1976 changed the model’s fortunes for the better. The enlarged engine featured dry-sump lubrication and offered more torque and much-improved driveability (assisted by a friendlier dual-disc clutch and a synchronized reverse gear, the latter a Ferrari first). Longer, wider bodywork and a revised nose increased high-speed stability, while the distinctive two-tone paint scheme (as seen on page 55) became optional. Where Road & Track had encountered several issues with a 365 it tested in 1975, in 1978 it described a Federalized 512 BB as “the best all-around Sports & GT car we have ever tested.”

Revolution 2

In 1981, with an eye on ever-tightening worldwide emissions regulations, Ferrari replaced the 512 BB’s carburetors with Bosch fuel injection. The resulting 512 BBi was cleaner (although still not exported to the U.S.) and produced more power lower in the rev range than its predecessors, making it the most user-friendly (if not the most exciting) Boxer to date, as well as the most popular. BBi production ended in 1984.

Although arguably Ferrari’s first supercar, thanks to its mid-mounted 12-cylinder engine, the Berlinetta Boxer has traditionally been overshadowed by both its predecessor, the Daytona, and its replacement, the U.S.-legal Testarossa. At the same time, there has always been a strong contingent that has lauded the BB’s historical significance, performance, and beauty. Today, with prices falling and all variants being old enough to be exempt from U.S. smog and safety requirements, the Boxer deserves a fresh look from enthusiasts who have been priced out of the recent market rise.

Marketplace

ANY MARKET OVERVIEW of the Berlinetta Boxer has to start with a history lesson in three parts. First, in 1968, the United States began to regulate automotive emissions at the national level. These rules were tightened every year, and by 1975 air-injection pumps, thermal reactors (an early form of catalytic converters), and unleaded fuel were requirements for any vehicle to meet U.S. smog standards.

Second, in 1971, what would become the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued the first regulations regarding passenger-car bumper, door beam, steering column, seat belt, and other safety standards. Then, in January 1974, the U.S. adopted a 55-mph national speed limit.

Revolution 3

Recognizing the futility of trying to meet these regulations, Ferrari decided not to import its sleek, exotic, cutting-edge 365 GT/4 Berlinetta Boxer to the U.S. Unfortunately, that decision didn’t keep the production Boxer from debuting the same month (October 1973) that OPEC cut off the world’s oil supply, sending gas prices soaring. Exotic-car sales imploded, and over the next three years Ferrari only managed to sell 387 BBs. Simply put, it was the right car at the worst possible time.

The worldwide economy had improved by October 1976, when Ferrari introduced the 512 BB; a total of 929 examples were produced by late 1981. The third iteration, the 512 BBi, was the best seller of all, with 1,007 cars sold by the time production ended in early 1984.

While no Boxers were officially imported to the U.S., hundreds of grey-market examples were brought in and “Federalized” to meet smog and safety requirements by private companies. Today, due to their age, any Boxer can be imported without modification, although registering one can still be tricky. In California, for example, only 1973 and ’74 365 GT/4 BBs and Federalized Boxers that received an elusive California BAR certification-approval sticker in period can be registered.

Boxer prices more than doubled during the recent collector-car boom. The 365 GT/4 BBs went from around $200,000 in 2012 to $500,000 or more in 2014, while 512 BBs rose from $125,000 to roughly $400,000 during the same period, and BBi’s reached the $300,000 mark. However, the Boxer market has cooled significantly over the past year, a few impressive auction results notwithstanding, with prices down 25 percent or more. —Michael Sheehan

Revolution 4
Model Low High
365 GT/4 BB $275,000 $375,000
512 BB $225,000 $300,000
512 BBi $200,000 $250,000

These prices are for fully serviced cars in good-to-great condition.

On the Road

The Berlinetta Boxer changed the face of Ferrari for more than two decades. Here’s some of what we’ve said about these cars over the years.

THE CAR CERTAINLY FEELS QUICK right out of the gate. The claimed 5.5-second sprint to 60 mph is entirely beliveable, as the BBi accelerates from as little as 2,000 rpm.

The engine revs enthusiastically up through the powerband. A deep, multi-cylinder howl spills out of the exhaust, intensifying in pitch as the tach needle swings to 6,000 rpm and beyond. The indicated redline is at 7,000, but the engine spins so effortlessly it feels as though another 1,000 rpm should be available.

I shift up into third, then fourth and fifth. The engine pulls hard well into the triple digits, singing happily all the while. Wringing out this Ferrari in a straight line is addictive.

Revolution 5

Cornering is a different story, however. When I dive through a series of high-speed sweepers, the car rolls on initial turn-in before taking a set on its tall, metric Michelin TRXs. The Boxer adopts a slightly tail-out stance, letting me know in no uncertain terms that I need to remain on my game. In addition, the softly sprung car is known to suffer from a high center of gravity—the engine is mounted above the transaxle—and this is very much in evidence at higher speeds, where the Boxer moves around gently and demands a light grip on the steering wheel.

In sharp corners, the Ferrari’s front end gently washes out. But when I dial in a little more throttle to balance things out, the rear end feels like it wants to come around in a big hurry. As long as I’m respectful of the weight transfer in quick transitions, the BBi is decently nimble, but it’s no canyon carver. Similarly, while the brakes are decent and offer progressive action, there is far more horsepower than stopping power on tap.

—Zachary Mayne
“Boxer Rebellion,” FORZA #91

WITH THE OWNERS CHATTING AWAY, I seized the opportunity to take a quick spin in [all three Boxers]. And I found that the three Ferraris feel very similar.

Revolution 6

Their steering is heavy at low speed, but transitions to near-perfect above 25 mph. The shift effort is a little heavy, as on all gated Ferrari shifters, but also smooth and direct. The 512 BBi is the smoothest, its evolutionary improvements easy to feel.

The 365 GT/4 BB has the heaviest clutch of the trio—it’s the one with a single-disc clutch—although it is not the stiffest Ferrari clutch I have encountered. The 365’s gas pedal is also the stiffest, although none of the owners mentioned it. I differed from the crowd in my take on the cars’ brakes, which were certainly confidence-inspiring enough for me to want to try a Boxer on track.

The Boxers’ pure 1970s-style cabins were warm, thanks to the sunlight pouring through the steeply raked windshield, and felt cramped when sitting still. However, once on the road, the tight cockpit transforms into a wonderful cocoon, with snug seats that are a model of comfort. Despite their aggressive appearance and layout, each of the three Boxers feels relaxed enough for a cross-country jaunt.

—Dom Miliano
“Battle Royale,” FORZA #109

Revolution 7

The Garage

ALTHOUGH FERRARI HAS DESCRIBED the Berlinetta Boxer’s flat (a.k.a. horizontally opposed) 12-cylinder engine as being a close relative of its Formula 1 engines, the truth is more mundane. In fact, the BB engine is most closely related to the then-new 308’s 3-liter V8—just cut in half, laid flat, with two cylinders added per bank. It shares many parts with the V8, including most of the belt cam-drive system, the connecting rods, and a variety of lesser items, particularly in the valve train (although it uses a gear-driven water pump instead of the V8’s belt-driven unit).

While sharing systems between models makes good economic sense on the production side, there isn’t enough space around the front of the flat-12 to service the timing belts. As a result, the BB’s engine was the first (but not the last) that had to be removed for routine servicing, and owners got to look forward to substantially larger maintenance bills regardless of usage, because the rubber timing belts, unlike the previous chains, wore out over time.

No version of the Boxer was officially imported to the U.S., which means any example brought here in period received safety and emissions-related modifications from companies such as Amerispec, Ferrari Compliance, and Mardikian, which welded in door beams and bumpers and bolted on air pumps and catalytic converters. Not surprisingly, the methods employed and the levels of workmanship were as varied as the people doing the conversions. Anyone considering a grey-market car will need to find a shop that can assess the quality of the original modifications, as well as the quality of any efforts made toward returning the car to its original configuration. In addition, it pays to investigate up front any potential challenges involved in registering
a Boxer where you live. —Brian Crall

MAJOR ISSUES

TRANSMISSIONS

The Achilles heel of the entire Boxer (and Testarossa) series is the transaxle. While the five-speed unit underwent regular updating and upgrading, it always seemed to be trailing one or two steps behind where it needed to be to keep up with the greater stresses bigger motors, wider tires, and heavier cars placed upon it. The list of possible failures is extensive: gears split in two or three pieces; the double-row ball bearings’ races split around their circumference, allowing the shafts and gears they support to shift back and forth; the ring nuts that hold those shafts all together come loose; the ring gears come loose from the carrier. Most infamous is the welded differential carrier, which, when it splits, breaks housings, destroys spider and side gears, and wrecks the ring and pinion. In addition, the propeller shaft that connects the transfer gears to the mainshaft is known to break. (Some owners have fitted the heavy-duty prop shaft from the 512 TR, but many choose not to, preferring the smaller shaft act as a sacrificial part, much like a fuse.)

Revolution 8

I believe most of this mayhem is caused ultimately by driving style; some mechanical sympatico goes a long way toward ensuring a long and happy life. When it’s time to rebuild a transaxle, careful assembly, using Loctite on the ring nuts, installing upgraded ring-gear bolts, and fitting one of Paul Newman’s differential carriers [no, not that Paul Newman—Ed.] will all increase longevity, though these transaxles will never be truly bulletproof.

WEAK CAM-DRIVE SYSTEM

The 308-based cam-drive system wasn’t quite sturdy enough for the additional load of the flat-12 engine, but having the engine out for timing-belt replacement proved the perfect time to inspect and possibly renew the cam-drive system’s bearings and seals (The BBi received an updated design but still requires regular inspection.) The water pump, which is buried under the left timing belt cover, also requires regular attention to maintain reliability.

TRICKY DOUBLE-DISC CLUTCH

Ferrari fitted the 512 BB and BBi with a dual-disc clutch for lighter pedal effort, but the new clutch lacked “feel.” This led to drivers unfamiliar with the cars often slipping the clutch excessively when moving off from a dead stop and/or shifting, with predictably rapid wear. Many owners have worn out a clutch learning the proper technique.

HOT DISTIBUTOR

The BB distributor was cleverly mounted above the exhaust system in a hot area of the engine bay. Rapid deterioration of the internal lubricant and the subsequent deterioration of the lubricated parts causes running issues in many the cars. I recommend preventatively removing and servicing the distributor every 7,500 miles.

MINOR ISSUES

None of the Boxers were fitted with an oil cooler, which led to a reputation for very high oil temperatures when driven hard, particularly on a racetrack. A BB-owning friend once told me the oil temp would hit max on the gauge long before maximum speed was reached.

The large windshield allows the interior to bake in the sun. As a result, sun-damaged leather dashboards are very common. I recommend using a good, fitted sunshade every time the car is parked outside, and leaving the windows cracked open for ventilation.

For Ferrari in the 1970s, air-conditioning was an afterthought. In addition to the sun streaming through the windshield, hot air flowing through the front-mounted radiators gets in the side windows, at least at low speeds, and a Boxer’s a/c is far from up to the task of keeping the cockpit cool.

Also from Issue 150

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  • Ferrari 1996-2016
  • 599 GTO
  • 550 Maranello
  • 400i race car
  • 500 Mondial
  • Peter Monteverdi
  • F1: 2016 season opener
  • FORZA Tifosi Challenge: F430s at Sebring
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