The Ferrari Testarossa: a 1980s supercar that still turns heads

Ferrari’s 1980s answer to the Countach still has enough panache to rock your world, writes Noel Ebdon.

A driving force in turning Ferrari from a petrolhead’s favourite into a household brand, the Testarossa’s styling was led by function but ensured that it became one of the most iconic 1980s supercar designs. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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You didn’t need a white suit, a luminous T-shirt and to shun socks to drive a Ferrari Testarossa, but in the 1980s, it certainly seemed to help. From self-made men to city traders, everyone who wanted a slice of the decade of indulgence bought themselves a Testarossa and dressed in accordance to the fashion rules.

The flashy, wedge-shaped supercar brought Ferrari into the common consciousness. Before the Testarossa, Ferrari was already famous, having won pretty much every motorsport trophy on offer, but that’s where it ended. Only car nuts and racing fans really knew their Berlinetta Boxers from their 365 GTCs.

The doorstop styling of Maranello’s most famous creation changed all that forever. Suddenly everyone’s mother knew what a Ferrari was and could point it out on the street. The brand had moved into the mainstream – and those flared rear arches and cheese-grater sides had a lot to do with it.

In an age of Ferrari teddy bears and Babygros, the commercialism that surrounds the brand in the 21st century can, in many ways, be traced back to the breakthrough Testarossa. It was the first poster car. You could even go so far as to say it was "the" poster car. It also helped that 1980s heartthrob Don Johnson famously drove a white one as his undercover car in Miami Vice. No one ever questioned how a white Testarossa was "undercover". Perhaps in the garish 80s, it was the perfect disguise.

The Testarossa was brought in to replace the ageing 512 BB, and took the 80s zeitgeist right by the throat. Designed by Pininfarina, it was the perfect car for the perfect time – and people loved it. The rear end matched people’s shoulder pads and the styling fitted in perfectly with brick phones, fax machines and big hair.

Powered by a flat-12, 4.9L “boxer” engine, the first-generation Testarossa was good for a 5.3 second sprint to 100 kph and a top-end past the 290kph mark. The later 512 TR would just break the sub-five second barrier, although the top speed jumped up by almost 15 kph.

But it wasn’t really the epic engine that grabbed people’s attention. It was the insane styling. The rear track was a whopping 1,975 millimetres wide, making tight squeezes particularly tricky. The wide rear wasn’t done for looks – it was a necessary solution to a problem that had plagued the previous BB. The earlier car had a radiator in the front, with the plumbing running past the passenger compartment to the engine in the back. This made the cabin extremely hot in all but the coldest climates, so something had to be changed for the new car.

The design team decided to split the front radiator into two separate units and place them on each side of the car, behind the passenger compartment. This removed the need for toasty pipework, but meant that the airflow somehow needed to be directed into the engine compartment. The only way to neatly do this was to add the side pods, which directed air onto the angled radiators, keeping the car (and its occupants) cool.

The famous side strakes came about because of US safety legislation regarding large openings on cars. Put simply, you weren’t allowed to have large open vents leading to hot parts of the car. By solving a problem and sticking to the rules, Ferrari inadvertently created a design icon that many would go on to copy.

But there’s much more to the design than just cooling. The Testarossa had a very good aerodynamic drag coefficient – far better than many of its competitors. It also had a decent amount of luggage space, using the front area liberated by moving the radiators to the back. However, you’re talking decent luggage space in the context of the supercar market, so pack lightly if you’re planning to go for a weekend away in a Testarossa.

But perhaps the cleverest part of the design was that the side air vents not only cooled the engine, but also added stability to the rear. After the air had passed down the side of the car and through the radiators, it passed upwards to exit out the top of the engine lid and tail. This pushed down on the rear of the car, avoiding the need for a large rear spoiler. This gave the Testarossa virtually no rear lift, making it very stable at high speeds. In an age when people really hadn’t quite grasped the idea of downforce on road cars, this was pretty trick stuff.

This particular car (pictured) is a 1991 model and could be described as a refugee of the financial crisis, as the current owner bought it from a guy leaving Dubai in a hurry. Hence, he got it for a good price, even if it was covered in an inch of dust and hadn’t run in ages. The car is actually an Italian model, imported at some point in its life to the Middle East.

After a check over, it was discovered that there were a fair few non-Ferrari parts holding everything together, so the current owner set about bringing the Testarossa back to its best. The car spent 18 months off the road, having every bush, bearing, seal, belt and hose replaced, as well as most of the metal parts powder-coated.

This car is a proper driver, being used by its owner to go to the office once a week, as well as farther afield at the weekends. It has more than 50,000 kilometres on the clock, so it’s no pampered trailer queen. The only non-factory addition to the car is the aftermarket exhaust, which makes the car sound fantastic and removes a fair bit of weight.

Today, the design is somewhat dated, yet classic at the same time. People still stop and stare. The doors open with that classic Ferrari click. They swing wide, giving easy access over the sill to comfortable leather seats. The seating position is, as with all Ferraris, offset towards the middle, so your legs point off to your right, while your top half stays pointing forward. It’s not uncomfortable, though, as the whole interior is surprisingly spacious.

The gauges could easily be removed and placed in a museum exhibition to show people design ideas from the 80s. Square boxes with deep-set faces all point towards the driver. It’s cubism gone mad and not attractive, but, hey, it was the 80s. Just remember what women were doing with their hair.

Spin the starter and the big flat-12 barks into life. It’s loud, but not intrusive. With the fluids all settled down, selecting first on the dogleg gearbox is across and down, with second straight up and third below. The clutch is lighter than expected and the bite less harsh than with most other highly strung exotica. Surprisingly, the air con is cold and powerful. It feels much like any new car that you could drive away from the countless showrooms across the UAE.

On the move, this Ferrari is surprisingly easy to drive. In traffic, it behaves itself, perfectly happy to bumble along with the flow. You can also see clearly out of all the windows, including over those muscular rear arches, which are ever present in your side mirrors.

Step on the accelerator and the rush of power isn’t instant. It takes a bit of time for torque to build on that huge crank and transmit it all to the wheels, but once it’s taken a deep breath, the torque comes at you in a rush. It builds slowly, rather than punching you all at once. But as the revs climb, the big car comes alive and shrinks around you. Like all good Ferraris, you need to rev them to get the best out of them – short shifting will just kill your progress and make the engine work far too hard if you need to up the pace urgently.

Roll-on power is excellent, and although it’s not as earth-shattering as a modern-day supercar, the Testarossa still clearly has enough power to worry some modern machinery. The “click, clack” as you move the famous gear shifter through the open metal gate sends shivers up your spine, as you dream of Count Wolfgang von Trips shifting down through the gears of his Ferrari 156 to take a corner at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1961.

Once the road starts to wind, the car remains surprisingly flat, despite having fairly compliant suspension. It’s actually easy to drive, which isn’t what you’d expect from a car with such outrageous dress sense. The brakes are surprisingly good as well, pulling up the car in a straight line without drama.

This test car isn’t in mint condition, but it’s very presentable. The owner hasn’t touched the interior and the exterior paint is original. He plans to maybe one day give it a new coat of rosso corsa, but, for now, this car remains a proper means of transport, albeit with a bit of in-your-face styling.

The Testarossa was a marker; a car that people still remember, even if they aren’t petrolheads. Just the name has managed to permeate modern society (it literally translates as “redhead” and relates to the colour of the paint used on its rocker covers). Modern technology means that no one needs to build a car that wide anymore, and flat-cylinder boxer engines are now few and far between.

But the Ferrari Testarossa was more than a car. It was a turning point, a quantum shift in the timeline of one of the world’s most famous car brands. It was also a fashion statement, a wealth indicator and a trophy car all rolled into one.

Few cars pass over generations to remain popular. What a 40-year-old looks back on nostalgically is usually totally different from a 20-year-old’s viewpoint, but all still stop and stare at the Testarossa. It’s one of a small rat pack of dynasty cars that defined current supercar thinking. For that alone, the world owes its most-famous redhead a place in the history books.

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