From the March 1977 issue of Car and Driver.
Here is a car that’s going to make the purists grind their teeth. The thing says Ferrari all over it, prancing horses everywhere you look. You can see six of those noble little Ferrari trademarks right from the driver’s seat and that is without even craning your neck. Walk around the outside, and you’ll see more—front, back and both sides—proclaiming for all the world that this is the latest message to the faithful from El Commendatore.
But the purists, bless their over-informed hearts, know perfectly well that this little thigh-high sweetie officially called Ferrari 308 GTB is nothing but a social-climbing Dino. Look underneath if you don’t believe it. The engine is the same all-aluminum, sidewinder V-8 bolted to the same five-speed manual transmission that you’ll find in the Dino 308 GT4. The suspension pieces are identical too. And so are the wheels. What’s old Enzo trying to pull here anyway, sticking his rampant horses to a bogus Ferrari?
It must be hell being a purist—fogs the mind and blocks the vision. You can’t see the truth for the facts. Now, to be completely correct, this new Ferrari shares virtually all of its major mechanicals with the Dino 308 GT 4. And it has a V-8, not one of the glorious V-12s, with belts instead of chains driving the four camshafts. So there is none of the old clatter, nothing to cock an ear to two blocks away. As a final indictment, the body is made of—can it really be true?—fiberglass. Like a Corvette. Or a boat. If you’re the sort who weighs the merits of an automobile by the specifications printed on the back of brochures, you’re going to conclude that the EPA and the DOT and the old rocking chair have taken a firm grip of Mr. Ferrari, and he is easing himself into retirement on the strength of past accomplishments.
And that, in one short paragraph, is why it is so dangerous to judge a car by the ancestry of its parts. Because this latest Ferrari is a remarkable machine, a truly happy collection of ideas and components that really work well together. Visually, it’s a first-round knockout, just the right blend of old Pininfarina Curvaceous and Modern Wedge. The fenders swoop with undisguised joy while the nose droops in the best aerodynamic tradition. And there are enough slots, scoops, and vents to satisfy those who want the Functional Look. In red, the effect is stunning. Ferrari’s red seems to get more intense each year: The test car made fire trucks look pale. It also made fire trucks with all of their chrome fitments look frivolous. The Ferrari is trimmed entirely in black-bumpers, taillight surrounds, door handles, everything. Which makes the red even redder.
If you are going to spend big money for a car, $28,780 in this case, it’s just assumed that the car will have visual flare in proportion to its price. But with rare exceptions—the 250 GT Berlinetta Lusso and the GTO 64, to name two, and these are more than 10 years old—Ferraris generally have had frumpy styling. So even at first glance, this new GTB is a radical departure from the norm. But then this car goes against the Ferrari tradition in a number of ways. It would appear that its designers approached the problem of a mid-engine GT coupe with an open mind. And as a result, the GTB is one of the most logical, comfortable and easy-to-drive midengine cars ever built.
If you think back a bit, you will observe that although mid-engine cars have been the dominant theme in racing for about 15 years, the concept has not fared well on the road. Usually, designers got the proportions wrong. DeTomaso’s efforts, the Mangusta and the Pantera, are prime examples. He tried to have a V-8 engine between the wheels and at the same time maintain a wheelbase typical of front-engine cars (both the Pantera and the Corvette measured 98 inches). The result was a short cockpit with little legroom and vertical seats positioned very close to the floor. Calling this a torture chamber would be a rather severe description, but you get the idea. Another source of discomfort was the combined effect of the steeply raked windshield and the short roof. The top of the glass was right over your forehead, and all of the sun’s energy beamed right in full force on your lap. It was like sitting in a Radarange.
With the GTB, Ferrari has handled all of these dimensions very nicely. The wheelbase is even shorter than that of the Pantera—only 92 inches—but the transverse engine mounted just forward of the rear wheels is a very compact arrangement, and it does not intrude on cockpit space. So the GTB’s interior dimensions are much more generous than a Pantera’s. Your legs must angle slightly toward the center of the car to clear the arches for the front wheel, but this is less bothersome than in, say, a Porsche 911. And although the windshield angles back severely, it starts from a cowl that is well forward and finishes accordingly, leaving plenty of roof for shade. Overall, the GTB is a very compact car. It’s just over a foot shorter than a Corvette and strictly a two-seater. Baggage space provides about the same volume as in a Corvette, but the shapes of the compartments in the two cars are different enough to make you use different bags. All of the Ferrari’s luggage space is rearward of the engine, and it runs the full width of the car. You get to it by lifting the engine lid and then unzipping a vinyl tonneau cover. The space is modest, but at least one golf bag should fit, for those of you who accept or reject cars on that basis. But regardless of what you like to carry along on your travels, if it won’t fit in this trunk, chances are it won’t go anywhere. The front compartment is entirely filled with the spare tire and brake cylinders, and there is barely enough room behind the seats for this magazine. All that’s left is a pocket in each door and a locking compartment between the seats.
But if the GTB is obviously not a pack horse, it still has practical aspects that may have escaped your first notice. The fiberglass body should be easier to repair after a crunch than limited-production steel body panels. Chances are that some enterprising shop will make a mold from which replacement body sections could be lifted for the cost of dune-buggy bodies. Considering the brand name we’re dealing with here, the markup might be a bit higher, but the net should still be less than factory-fresh equivalents from across the sea. Fiberglass is really quite a logical body material for this sort of machine. Manufacturing costs for a short run of cars should be less than with steel, and the finished product won’t rust. It’s also fairly dent resistant as well. A light hit on fiberglass may scratch the paint, but the body is resilient enough to resume its former shape with no permanent damage.
To be sure, fiberglass brings its own problems. You don’t have to ride one block in the GTB to know its body materiaI. There is a sort of dull clunking sound, a sensation you feel as much as hear, whenever you hit bumps. This Ferrari, all Corvettes, and some Lotuses have it. There is nothing annoying about it. It’s just there. And in our minds, a fair trade for the rust resistance.
When you mention fiberglass, people usually conjure up visions of fenders rippling like mill ponds. This isn’t the case with the GTB. We inspected the body surfaces quite carefully and found them to be generally within the range of what you’d expect of steel cars. Interestingly, the Ferrari’s front deck lid is made of aluminum, and the surface finish of it is no smoother and no rougher than the glass nosepiece surrounding it.
Although the GTB’s entire body, with the exception of the front lid, is made of fiberglass, the construction of the car itself is not much different than metal-bodied Ferraris. All of them use a frame welded from simple brackets and steel tubing that’s usually rectangular. The tubes are always sprayed black, and you can always see rust around the welds, even on new cars. This is typical of all the Italian exotic cars, and if the sight of rust blemishing your handwrought frame makes you nervous, it might be best if you didn’t look so close.
Certainly the GTB offers other visual attractions. The interior is done up in the Michelin Man style now coming into vogue with the Italian coachbuilders. Most surfaces in the cockpit are covered with huge pillowy rolls of vinyl. Pininfarina gave the padded-cell look to the Lancia Beta Scorpion first, and now it has done a variation on the theme for Ferrari. The effect is altogether different than what the world has come to expect of cars, particularly sports cars. There is no wood, no engine-turned aluminum, no black crackle to act as background for dozens of gauges, levers, and knobs. Instead, the dash, doors, roof and seats all seem to run together in a padded cocoon of vinyl. There is but one interruption. Directly before the driver, right where he would hope it would be, is the instrument cluster. All the dials are round. The tachometer shows a 7700-rpm redline. The speedometer reads to 180 mph. The stylists have fancied up the markings a bit more than they should have for maximum legibility, but the message is by no means lost. Curiously, the cluster ended up too small for all the dials, so two—the clock and the oil temperature—are tucked away below the dash on the left, half buried by the voluptuous padding.
The controls you must reach for either sprout from the steering column or are located on the console. In Italian cars, reaching for the steering wheel tends to be an Olympic-level task. At first glance, the GTB looks as difficult as they come. The wheel angles forward at the top in that awkward way. But then when you slip into the seat, you find the steering is more manageable than you anticipated. The reach is reasonable, and the low steering effort, one of the delightful aspects of a mid-engine car, makes minimal demands. Parking requires some exertion, but you’ll never be discouraged from any maneuver on the road.
In fact, there is very little about the GTB that is discouraging. Sports cars and GT cars traditionally have been specialized machines, and frequently you were asked to make major sacrifices in comfort or convenience just to have the look of speed and, if you were lucky, the performance to match. But the GTB is wonderfully accommodating. It has plenty of room inside for two adults. Your head won’t rub the molded, one-piece headliner, and you won’t have to tuck your elbows in your belt loops. The seats are exceptionally good. They are finished in leather, very firm and deeply contoured. They give you the feeling that you’ll be well taken care of, come what may, even if that means 500 miles in one afternoon. And the combination lap-and-shoulder belts fit comfortably, something that couldn’t be said of their equivalent in the Dino 308 GT 4.
Oh, the Advantage of Owning a Ferrari Dealership
You might think that the Ferrari dealers of this nation would be stumbling over themselves to lend this magazine a test car. They are not. The only one to step up to its solemn duty was International Motorcars Corporation, which also happens to be the newest Ferrari dealership in the country. But don’t think that International Motorcars came through because it was too green to know any better. Instead, the reason had to do with geography-because the newest Ferrari store just happens to be located smack in the heart of Jackson, Mississippi, and business is done differently in that part of the country.
As you would expect, there is not a surfeit of Ferraris in Mississippi. Until just recently, the exact count was seven. And four of these were owned by two men from Jackson: Charlie Kemp, better known for his exploits in road racing, and Sam Scott, a lawyer of no modest skill. Together they started International Motorcars, not to populate the state with more Ferraris but as a way to get dealer tags for their own cars. In Mississippi, the license plates for a Ferrari run about $300 per car per year, but as a dealership, they can get all they want for the lump sum of $160. Scott drew up the papers, and they were in business.
The idea of actually becoming a Ferrari store came later. “To be honest, we just thought it would be a neat thing to do,” Scott says. “But we didn’t know if we could qualify. When we called the importer, they had heard of Kemp through racing and said they would consider us.”
After a few months of negotiations, the deal went through. International Motorcars bought $2000 worth of genuine Ferrari parts and a pair of new cars and hung its sign out in front of a remodeled Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in downtown Jackson, a location that is within an exhaust-shriek of the state capitol.
Having a Ferrari store and actually selling Ferraris are two different matters. Kemp and Scott had no way to know if they could move cars. But they soon discovered that the Ferrari business, although it may move in strange ways, definitely moves. Scott remembers the first car they sold. “A kid arrived out front in a taxi with an airplane ticket in his hand. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees. Turned out he was from New Orleans and had seen our ad in the Times-Picayune. We had a used 275 GTS on the floor. He walked around the car twice—didn’t even sit in it—and said he’d take it. The price was $14,500, and he gave us a check for $8000 to hold it.”
That was last July. Since then business has been well above expectations. They’ve sold 11 cars, six of them new ones. And poised on the showroom floor right now is one brilliant-red Ferrari 308 GTB certain to become a much sought after collector’s item. It is the Car and Driver test car. If you tell Charlie Kemp that you are a regular reader, he might even make you a deal. —Patrick Bedard
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