When Franco Sbarro wanted to create this wild hatchback, he needed a suitable donor car. His choice? A Ferrari 308.

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June 3, 2021

The fact that Franco Sbarro discarded the beautiful Leonardo Fioravanti-designed steel body of a 308 GTB to create the Super Eight shown here is not surprising if you are familiar with Italian-born Swiss’ creations. Using an exclusive car, or parts of it, as a donor has never been an exception since Sbarro began building his unusual, and sometimes absurd, creations in the early 1970s.

To most people, the Super Eight must feel like the world turned upside down. Giving a hot hatch the appearance of something valuable and exotic is not uncommon, but an owner of an exotic who prefers the looks of a hot hatch is pretty unusual!

I first saw the Super Eight in the German car magazines I devoured as a kid, but never really thought much of it, except that it looked like a Group B rally car with a very fancy interior. I never expected it to show up at a local classic car show in the Netherlands, much less that its new owner would live close by and invite me to drive it. But before firing the engine, it’s time to talk with Herbert van Kuik about why he decided to buy this odd looking, one-of-a-kind hatchback.

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“The car was for sale at a Belgian company called Speed 8 Classics, owned by Koen Heuts,” begins van Kuik. “We had done some business in the past, and I was interested in the Sbarro because it is just a funny little car. We made a good deal that included getting it back in perfect running order, because there were a number of small issues with it. Under the skin everything is standard Ferrari 308, including the frame, drivetrain, and suspension, so any Ferrari specialist can work on it. Only the fiberglass body is custom made and unique, but luckily that was still in great shape, just like the interior.”

As we walk around the Super Eight, van Kuik claims to have a soft spot for unusual cars. He’s not kidding; the Sbarro shares garage space with a Noble M12, a De Tomaso Longchamp, and an early U.S.-specification Porsche 928.

As he hands me the keys, van Kuik points at my size 9.5 Timberlands with a concerned look. I assure him there is enough space in the foot well, as I learned the week before inside a 308 GTB Vetroresina. Those fresh memories come in very handy now, as they give me the opportunity to compare the Super Eight with its “donor” car. 

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GETTING BEHIND the wheel of the Super Eight is as easy as stepping into any other hatchback, thanks to a much higher roof than in the original Ferrari. The interior looks like a cocktail of 308 and third-generation Maserati Quattroporte, and most of it is upholstered in natural brown leather, the color appropriately called Cuoio (the Italian word for leather). The seats’ center sections, door panels, and headliner are covered in matching brown cloth, while the leather-piped carpets provide an attractive match.

The typically ’80s atmosphere is further highlighted by the period Ferrari switchgear, burlwood accents on the doors and dashboard, and the serious stack of Clarion hi-fi components lodged in the center console. Back in the day, this audio system was first-class and cost a fortune, making this analog button fest a true visual and haptic pleasure for those who remember the era.

The view in the rearview mirror is just as different as the cockpit. In a 308, you look back through a small vertical window and over the vents in the engine cover. In the Sbarro, I’m looking through a full-size window into a rear compartment covered in the same materials as the interior. A space-saver spare tire, its wheel painted the same red as the car’s exterior, sits atop a carpeted panel that covers the engine, in much the same way as in the mid-engine Renault 5 Turbo.

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Because the Ferrari V8 resides in its own little enclosure, its sound is amplified and engulfs the interior the moment I twist the key. I expect a moody 5-speed transmission with the typical unwillingness to shift into second gear when cold, but the drivetrain surprises me with a pleasant compliance, although it still prefers a solid blip of the throttle on downshifts.

Driving the Sbarro basically feels the same as driving a 308 in terms of controls and feedback, but my eyes keep feeding me with conflicting information. The Super Eight’s size, shape, and layout evoke associations with the aforementioned Renault as well as the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16, although its actual driving experience is superior than that of those Group B homologation models, with their lousy build quality and recalcitrant handling at anything less than full throttle.

The brakes are surprisingly effective at reining in the Super Eight, and the car’s handling is an endless source of excitement. The balance is fantastic, and it even feels more nimble than a 308, likely thanks to weighing about 165 pounds less. When van Kuik is leading in the camera car, a Mitsubishi Colt CZT with chip tuning, his driving style is more than a little enthusiastic, but I have no issues staying on his bumper despite the large gap in the cars’ ages.

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The 308 undercarriage communicates with a lovely transparency and without any electronic interferences, so it is important to stay alert and watch out for lift-off oversteer, a byproduct the mid-engine layout. Braking into a corner—or worse, braking halfway around a corner—is a recipe for spinning off into the scenery backwards.

Accelerating out of corners reveals the classic nature of the fuel-injected 32-valve V8, which needs to stay on cam to deliver its full potential of 240 horsepower at 7,000 rpm. The drivetrain feels like it is designed for going flat-out, and once the gearbox is warmed up and operated with a firm but not-too-hasty hand, the joy of analog driving emerges, and emphasizes how augmented and synthetic modern cars have become. 

With its addictive handling and the fact that this car is unique, it is easy to forgive the Sbarro its bizarre appearance—or, if you’re so inclined, to appreciate it as part of the attraction. When you take the mad and funky ’80s into consideration, all the pieces fall into place. Group B was wildly popular back then and the market for outrageous tuning was booming in Europe, making the Super Eight a fantastic blend of MG Metro 6R4 and Renault 5 Turbo on one side, and the creations of Koenig Specials, Zender, and Gemballa on the other.

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It’s interesting to note that the Super Eight was actually a toned-down take on a much wilder and more ambitious project called the Super Twelve, which was presented by Sbarro at the 1982 Geneva Motor Show. On the outside, the Super Twelve strongly resembles the later Super Eight, although it featured a much wider rear track and paint that faded from white to red. It utilizes a different chassis and two transversely placed Kawasaki 1,286 cc straight sixes joined into a straight-12—with two simultaneously operating 5-speed sequential gearboxes!

The Super Twelve project failed for all the obvious reasons, leading Franco Sbarro to build the Super Eight on the reliable F106 AB 100 platform of a 308 GTB. It’s not known if the original carbureted F106 AB V8 was replaced with the current fuel-injected F105 AB Quattrovalvole engine during the transformation at Sbarro in 1984 or later, but it makes the car no less enjoyable or desirable.

With cars from the 1980s and ’90s gaining popularity in the collector-car scene, it’s the perfect time to revisit the Super Eight. More than just a curiosity, this Italo-Swiss creation combines a classic, analog Ferrari driving experience with uniquely eye-catching, and assuredly not Ferrari, style.

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Sidebar: Franco Sbarro

On February 27, 1939, Franco Zefferio Sbarro was born in Presicce, down in the heel of the Italian boot. After finishing his classical studies he moved to Switzerland, where he started work as a mechanic in the late 1950s. He worked his way up to become manager of the famous Scuderia Filipinetti, and through his involvement with endurance racing Sbarro gathered crucial technical knowledge he used to start his Atelier de Construction Automobile (ACA) in 1969.

ACA focused on designing and building unique cars, along with replicas of the Ferrari 330 P4, BMW 328, Lola T70, and Bugatti Royale. Sbarro’s creations were often heavily criticised, but his business model was based on customers paying in advance for their projects, so he remained indifferent to whatever the media had to say.

In 1996 Sbarro started the Espera college and atelier in Pontarlier, France, teaching students how to design, develop, and build prototypes and concept cars. This academy closed in 2006, but a year later he opened the similar l’École Espera Sbarro in Montbéliard, France. The 82-year-old designer is still a regular guest at the Geneva Auto Show (he’s pictured here at the 2018 event), where he has presented at least one new car every year since he launched the SV1 and Tiger in 1973.

Sbarro’s numerous creations have included many based on Ferraris, of which the Super Eight was the first. You can read about them in issue #82’s “The World of Sbarro.”

Also from Issue 191

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  • 458 Italia
  • 250 MM
  • Flashback: Superamerica
  • Paolo Garella profile
  • Marelli mechanical distributors
  • F1: Best of the rest
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