Big and Brash

As extravagant as the decade in which it was born, the Testarossa remains an exciting car to drive.

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September 2, 2021

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 its design was overblown, 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 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-era 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.

Then, in 1994, Ferrari unveiled the ultimate Testarossa: the limited-production F512 M. 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 a few more ponies.

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Today, thanks to their higher production numbers, the Testarossa and 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 F512 M can be very rewarding Ferraris to own and drive.


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 a supercar by the performance standards of the day.

Even better for Ferrari, the Testarossa debuted during an economic boom. Sales took off, and 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.

Early Testarossas feature a single, high-mounted exterior mirror on the driver’s side. These so-called monospecchio cars generally command a small premium over ’87-and-later models, which feature two mirrors set in the lower corner of each side window. An early car with two mirrors, whether low or high mounted, is not original.

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.

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In 1994, Ferrari introduced the F512 M, of which just 500 examples were built, with only 75 coming to the U.S. Thanks to this low-production exclusivity, the F512 M has appreciated substantially, with ultra-low-mileage models selling in the high $400,000 range, far higher than either 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 10 percent or more of an early car’s value. And with the oldest examples now 37 years old, all sorts of age-related problems may be lurking. Needless to say, a pre-purchase inspection by a very knowledgeable mechanic is highly recommended.

Testarossas have substantially increased in value over the last four or five years. As usual, the most desirable example 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

Testarossa (single mirror) $85,000 $150,000
Testarossa $85,000 $125,000
512 TR $125,000 $150,000
F512 M $275,000 $500,000

These prices are for cars in good-to-great condition as of August 2021.

The Garage

As with any 25- to 37-year-old exotic car, the Testarossa can be a challenge to maintain. In addition to concerns about buying an example with serious deferred maintenance issues (a common occurrence when buyers can afford the relatively low purchase price but not the relatively high cost of servicing), the Testarossa requires its engine to be removed when it’s time to change the cam belts.

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The Dreaded Major Service
To understand why the cam-belt service is so expensive, one need only look at the long list of tasks involved and factor in the very expensive hours of labor. After dropping the engine, transaxle, and accompanying subframe from the car, the mechanic must, among many other things, adjust 48 valves, degree all four cams, install new cam seals and O-rings, and fit the new cam belts and tensioner bearings.

After that, it’s time to install new air, oil, and fuel filters, oil return tubes, air-conditioning and water pump belts, a radiator expansion tank cap, and change the engine oil and coolant and transaxle lubricant. And let’s not forget flushing and refilling the brake fluid and air-conditioning system and replacing the cooling system’s thermostats.

The engine and transaxle must then be reinstalled, after which it’s time to fire it up and check the engine operating temperature, look for leaks, and perform numerous other inspections all around the car. The final step is a test drive, and fingers crossed that everything checks out okay then. While it only comes around once every five years, a major service can cost $10,000-12,000.

The Dreaded Major Service, Part II
Removing the engine from the car almost inevitably leads to another long list of while-you’re-at-it repairs. Many items, such as the water pump and front crank seal, can only be accessed with the engine out. In other cases, since you’re already paying for most of the labor, it just makes sense to do things like power washing the engine and engine bay, repainting the cam covers and plenums, and installing a new clutch and rear main seal. It’s also the perfect time to replace those weeping, three-decade-old head gaskets.

Since the car’s already laid up in the shop, it’s also time to consider new front and/or rear hood shocks, machining or replacing the hard-worked brake rotors and fitting new pads, aligning the suspension, and centering the steering wheel. Don’t forget to check the motorized seat belt track “mouse” (on ’87 and later cars) and the fuse box, both of which can be annoyingly problematic. Also annoying is that these additional issues can quickly add another $6,000 or more to the bill.

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Problem Areas
The Testarossa’s AP clutch doesn’t offer a good “feel,” which encourages some drivers to slip the clutch—not a good idea, as it seriously shortens clutch life. This is why the clutch assembly is often replaced proactively during an engine-out service.

The differential and its housing are both too weak for the Testarossa’s power, tall first gear, and wide rear rubber. Banzai starts can quickly lead to a transaxle rebuild, for which you can expect to pay a very painful $25,000 or more. Many owners update their cars with the later, and stronger, 512 TR differential and/or housing for some less-expensive peace of mind.

While the engine bay water and fuel hoses are normally replaced during a major service, the rest of the radiator and coolant hoses receive less attention. After many years, they will deteriorate from the inside, with the detritus plugging both the radiators and heater cores.

The 1985 and early ’86 Testarossas utilized center-lock wheels, and the accompanying metic Michelin TRX tires are becoming harder to locate. A center-lock 16-inch wheel arrived in mid-1986, which offers a wider choice of rubber.

The 512 TR introduced the infamous “sticky” switches to Ferrari’s 12-cylinder line. While they can be refinished, replacement pieces are difficult to find.

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Last but not least, the Testarossa’s low front spoiler doesn’t deal well with speed bumps or steep driveways. Ferrari resolved the problem with the spoilers found on the 512 TR and F512 M. —Michael Sheehan

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 model 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].
—“Magnificent Illusion or True Maranello Magic?” FORZA #16

Although it only produces 38 more ponies than the Testarossa, the 512 TR feels much more powerful; once the 4.9-liter flat-12 gets into the meat of its power band, it pulls with an authority denied the Testarossa. The grunt caught me by surprise at first, and quickly encouraged me to wring out the howling engine whenever possible.

I don’t know what percentage Ferrari stiffened the 512 TR’s suspension, but it’s much better planted than the Testarossa. The newer Ferrari is still a little tippy, although it quickly takes a set and grips well. (Its brakes are noticeably stronger, too, if still a little underwhelming.) The newfound handling prowess happily co-exists with a nicely pliant ride, and the big Ferrari is even quiet when cruising, with just a gentle murmur from the engine and a hint of wind noise from around the windshield.

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All of these particulars miss the real point, however: The 512 TR is a serious blast to drive fast. It’s old-school and analog, and requires both caution and decisiveness on the controls, yet it’s a rare thrill to plant my right foot to the floor coming out of a turn, feel the rear end scrabbling for grip, and delicately feed in a hint of countersteer as the speedometer starts to climb again.

Furthermore, it’s truly remarkable to realize the 512 TR is now 25 years old. If it’s still this fun (and fast) now, it must have been truly mind-blowing when new.
—“The Bucket-list Testarossa,” FORZA #164

Under the F512 M’s engine cover, now painted to match the rest of the body, the 4,943-cc flat-12 had been reworked with a higher compression ratio and lighter internals to produce 440 hp at 6,750 rpm (up from 428 in the 512 TR). Claimed top speed was an impressive 196 mph, which was not far off the F40.

The 5-liter engine is eager to rev, and does so in a linear and efficient way, typical of a large, naturally aspirated unit. There are no surprises, just an honest howl running through the rev range all the way past 7,000 rpm to the red line. High revs aren’t a requirement, though, as the torque lower down in the rev range allows enticing levels of acceleration—again, an ideal characteristic of a super-GT.

The seating position is good and comfortable, although I wish the steering wheel was closer. Despite being 6-foot-2, my hair only just brushes the roof lining, Ferrari having managed to allow a decent amount of space inside the low-slung car.

Turn-in is also good, keeping in mind the massive weight of the flat-12 behind my shoulders. As I get into a rhythm with the Ferrari, I start trusting those wide rear tires. Once the F512 M has settled into a corner, a measured flex of the throttle reveals just how much grip is actually on offer. The brakes feel strong, even by modern standards.
—“Fantastic Beasts,” FORZA #183

Also from Issue 193

  • F8 Spider
  • Ferrari F8 vs Lamborghini Huracan Evo
  • 195 Inter vs Cunningham C3
  • Pro racing vs Ferrari Challenge
  • Ferrari's 120-degree V6 F1 cars
  • F1: Crashes galore
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