In 1966, Lamborghini shocked the automotive world with the launch of the mid-engine Miura, arguably the world’s first supercar. Yet in 1968, Enzo Ferrari, as he had done many years earlier in Formula 1 racing, rejected change in favor of orthodoxy and debuted the Daytona. While the traditional front-engine model was widely considered the better car, there was little doubt Maranello would eventually be forced to reply.
Ferrari’s belated riposte arrived, in prototype form, at the 1971 Turin Auto Show. Although built on Daytona-derived underpinnings, the 365 GT4 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 in place of the usual 60° V12. The new 4.4-liter engine, which sat atop a five-speed transaxle to centralize mass within the car’s wheelbase, was said to deliver 380 horsepower, good for an astonishing 188-mph top speed. The BB instantly became the star of Turin.
By the time the production 365 GT4 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 For one thing, the Miura had been replaced by the even more outrageous Countach.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. Last but far from least, the newest Prancing Horse did not meet the emissions and crash-safety standards of Ferrari’s largest customer, the United States.
All that said, the Boxer’s fundamentals were sound, 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 its distinctive two-tone paint scheme 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.”
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 clean enough to be exported to the U.S.) and produced more power lower in the rev range than its predecessors, making it the most user-friendly Boxer to date, as well as the most popular. BBi production ended in 1984.
Despite its revolutionary-for-Ferrari mid-engine 12-cylinder layout, the Berlinetta Boxer has long been overshadowed by both the preceding 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.
The Berlinetta Boxer, Ferrari’s first foray into the exciting new world of mid-engine super sports cars, arrived at what might have been the worst time possible. In October 1973, the world suffered through its first oil crisis, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, led by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, shut down oil production. Gasoline prices tripled, from about 33 cents per gallon to around $1, and pushed the western world into a recession, killing the market for exotics like the BB.
Meanwhile, in the United states, 1970’s Clean Air Act, administered by the then-new Environmental Protection Agency, began to regulate automotive emissions at a national level. The 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.
Meanwhile, in 1971, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued the first regulations regarding passenger-car bumper, door beam, steering column, seat belt, and other safety standards. Last but not least, in January 1974, the U.S. adopted a 55-mph national speed limit.
Enzo Ferrari had seen these American regulations coming, and in June 1969 had sold a 40-percent stake (later increased to 90 percent) in his company to Fiat. While Enzo remained in charge of the racing side, he hoped Fiat’s engineers would handle road car production and find solutions to the U.S. restrictions. However, faced with both ever-expanding regulations and a global recession, Maranello decided not to export its sleek, exotic, cutting-edge 365 GT4 Berlinetta Boxer to America, and production ended after only 387 examples had been built.
The global economy had improved by October 1976, when Ferrari introduced the 512 BB, and the company built 929 examples by the end of production in late 1981. The final evolution, the fuel-injected 512 BBi, was the best seller of all, with 1,007 cars built by the time production ended in early 1984.
While no Boxers were officially imported to the U.S., hundreds of so-called grey-market examples were brought in and “Federalized” to meet smog and safety requirements by private companies such as Amerispec in Connecticut and Mardikian in California. Today, with DOT regulations going back 25 years and EPA rulings just 21 years, any Boxer can be imported without modification, although registering
one can still be tricky. In California, for example,
only 1973 and ’74 365 GT4 BBs and Federalized Boxers that received an elusive California BAR certification-approval sticker in period can be registered.
Boxer prices peaked around 2014, with 365 GT4 BBs selling for about $500,000, 512 BBs hitting roughly $375,000, and BBi’s topping out near $300,000. Because of buyer demographics and no lack of newer, faster, and less expensive Ferrari flagships (such as the 550 and 575M Maranello and the 599 GTB Fiorano), the Boxer market has since cooled significantly, as shown in the accompanying table. —Michael Sheehan
|365 GT4 BB||$300,000||$400,000|
These prices are for cars in good to great condition as of May 2023.
There’s nothing new under the sun, as the old saying goes, and that’s true even of the Berlinetta Boxer. For starters, despite its then-radical mid-engine layout, most of the car’s mechanicals were plucked from the same parts bin used for Maranello’s other models. And while the company touted the 4.4-liter flat-12 engine’s close connection to Formula 1, vee angle notwithstanding it was actually more closely related to the 308’s V8; the two engines share many components.
Unfortunately, this thrifty economic decision led to an all-new requirement of Ferrari ownership. Because there wasn’t enough space in the engine bay to access the rubber timing belts and the gear-driven water pump, the flat-12 had to be removed for servicing—the first, and certainly not the last, of the Fiat-era cars with this onerous and costly requirement. Worse, because the rubber timing belts came with a built-in expiration date (they should be replaced every five years), and Ferrari at the time demanded a recent cam-belt service to warranty a used Boxer, owners now faced costly service bills a few times per decade.
All in all, the Boxer has proven to be a fairly reliable 1970s’ exotic, with one serious caveat: its five-speed transaxle, which is mounted underneath the engine. Although Ferrari regularly updated and strengthened the unit, any Boxer transaxle’s lifespan can be measured in driving style and mechanical sympathy—a muscle car-style burnout is a potentially extremely expensive roll of the dice. The list of possible failure points is extensive, ranging from the differential carrier splitting, gears breaking, ball bearings failing, ring nuts and ring gears loosening, even the internal propeller shaft breaking.
Adding to the challenge, the company fitted the 512 BB and BBi with a dual-disc clutch for lighter pedal effort. That was well and good, but the new clutch lacked “feel,” leading some owners to “slip” the clutch from a dead stop and/or while shifting, with predictably rapid wear.
Other concerns are more annoying than traumatic. Thanks to the Boxer’s large windshield and flat dashboard, damaged leather is common. If you have to park a Boxer in the sun, make sure to leave the windows open a bit to allow the hot air out; a sunshade can help as well.
Speaking of hot air, unless you’re driving at high speeds, the Boxer’s meager air-conditioning system is far from up to the task of cooling its cabin. In addition to heat generated from the aforementioned windshield, hot air from the front-mounted radiators can make its way in through the side windows, leaving the occupants with no good option for staying cool.
As is so often the case, California owners face their own unique challenges when it comes to emissions testing. While many once-Federalized Boxers will have lost their emissions equipment over the years, here in the Golden State any Boxer except the 365 GT4 BB will need a Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR) door sticker, at least two catalysts, an electric air pump, and check valves routing air directly to those catalyst to pass smog. Some people fit two air pumps in their attempts to smog carbureted 512 BBs, with varied results.
In addition to the expense and hassle, this early emissions equipment can cause other problems. The heat from the catalysts can cook both the rubber inner axle boots and the distributor. In the latter case, melting the internal lubricant can cause ignition advance issues.
One last note about Federalized Boxers. With many different companies performing such conversions—which involved, among other things, adding door-impact beams, front and rear bumpers, and emissions equipment—in many different ways, the results were understandably inconsistent. In the past, it was important to have the shop performing your pre-purchase inspection carefully look over the work done to Federalize the car, which could range from impeccable to unsafe. Today, however, thanks to their age and value, almost every Boxer has been returned to its original-delivery European specification. —Michael Sheehan
On The Road
High expectations surrounded Ferrari’s first mid-engine 12-cylinder model. Here’s some of what we’ve said over the years about the Berlinetta Boxer.
“Boxer Rebellion,” FORZA #91
The car certainly feels quick right out of the gate. The claimed 5.5-second sprint to 60 mph is entirely believable, 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.
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. Then, 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.
“Battle Royale,” FORZA #109
With the owners chatting away, I seized the opportunity to take quicks spin in all three Boxers. And I found that these Ferraris feel very similar.
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 GT4 BB has the heaviest clutch of the trio—it’s the one with a single-disc unit—if 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 also 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 transformed into a wonderful cocoon, with snug seats that were a model of comfort. Despite their aggressive appearance and layout, each of the three Boxers felt relaxed enough for a cross-country jaunt.