Collectible Classic: 1984-1991 Ferrari Testarossa

February 25, 2010
I was reprimanded within the first few seconds of driving this showroom-perfect 1990 Ferrari Testarossa. "I saw that. You shifted at six grand," said the man in the passenger seat. I gulped. I'm in trouble. "Next time don't let off before seven - let it go deep into the red. Oh, and keep the revs over 3000 at all times."
1003 01 Z+1990 Ferrari Testarossa+front Three Quarter View
Well, that's a first, being scolded for being too nice to a car. And the man in the passenger seat isn't even nuts - he's intelligent and articulate, and he knows Ferraris. Sal Garcia is his name, but he refers to himself as the Ferrari Doctor. Garcia owns Waterfront Automobili, a San Francisco Ferrari specialist, and this is his customer's car. My instincts tell me to baby this 30,000-mile collector piece, but my instincts are wrong. "The harder you drive these cars, the better they stay together," Garcia says. If you insist, Dottore.
The Testarossa (named, of course, for its red valve covers) was unveiled at the 1984 Paris auto show. Well, not at the show - that wouldn't be sufficiently glamorous - but at the Lido, a decadent Champs-Elysées nightclub throbbing with dancing models and, one presumes, sprinkled with cocaine and quaaludes. This was the '80s at their peak, and the Testarossa's Pininfarina design was unlike anything anyone had ever seen, a wedge profile with an impossibly low hoodline and side air intakes punctuated with five cheese-grater strakes that run nearly the entire length of the wheelbase.
An enormously wide rear end houses wheels set nearly six inches farther apart than the fronts, with the resulting body-side flares creating a bench wide enough to sit on. All of this is necessary to feed air to the side-mounted radiators, but rather than try to hide the visual width, Ferrari emphasized it further with a fender-to-fender louvered rear grille. Maranello's trademark round taillights are nowhere to be found, and as an exclamation point, there's a body-color box-shaped thingy the size of a washing-machine lid floating in the middle of the engine cover. Purpose? Who cares? It's what's underneath that matters.
That would be a mid-mounted flat-twelve. Ferrari incorrectly called it a boxer engine - technically speaking, it's a 180-degree V-12, since each pair of opposed pistons shares a crankpin. Either way, it displaces 4.9 liters, breathes through forty-eight valves, and produces 380 hp. Its 180-mph-or-so top speed was in a league with no others, save possibly the outrageous Lamborghini Countach, whose name pretty much means "holy crap" in Italian. Indeed.
There's quite a bit of mass to move, despite the Testarossa's partial aluminum construction, but a five-second sprint to 60 mph proves that this big GT is still very quick by modern standards. It's also surprisingly civilized. Amazingly civilized, in fact. There's certainly sound to be savored as you wring out the engine, shifting through the metal gates of the dogleg five-speed manual, but it's neither a grating intake honk nor a bellowing exhaust. You just hear the gentlemanly cacophony of pistons, valves, and shafts.
1003 06 Z+1990 Ferrari Testarossa+rear Three Quarter View
The shifter requires a lot of effort - as does the slow, manual steering - but the ride is compliant, the view out is vast, and the interior is beautifully stitched together. The Testarossa was the first supercar that was actually comfortable and easy to drive, something you'd never expect given how outrageous it looks. According to the Ferrari Doctor, it's very reliable, too - if (and this is an "if" as big as the Testarossa's rear end) you have the money to spend on preventive maintenance.
The engine needs to be removed every 30,000 miles (or five years) to change the timing belts and adjust the valves. While the twelve-cylinder is out, Garcia replaces all the seals, bearings, and wear parts. The procedure costs up to $8000. And then halfway between each major service is a minor one, which costs about half that much. That's hardly "minor."
Oh, and then Garcia recommends an annual physical - hey, you visit your doctor once a year whether you're sick or not; why should your garage-queen redhead be any different? - to change the fluids. Figure another grand for that visit to the shop.
If those costs sound steep, consider that snapping a timing belt could cost you as much as a small Midwestern house. A transmission rebuild is as expensive as a new Kia Optima. So factoring in the expense of regular, preventive maintenance is an absolute must when calculating your cash outlay for a Testarossa.
The payback for all that money is pretty clear - you get to drive one of the most visually stunning exotic cars ever created. And, let's be honest, redheads that look like this get whatever they want. Especially when they're asking you to step on it.
ENGINE: 4.9L DOHC flat-12, 380 hp, 354 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual
DRIVE: Rear-wheel
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Control arms, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Control arms, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs
Weight: 3700 lb (est.)
Years produced
Number produced
Original price
$102,500 (1986)
Value today
Why buy?
Even though the Testarossa's similar successor - the less common, more expensive 512TR - is generally regarded as a better car, the Testarossa captured the attention of the world. It's the distillate of the gran turismo concept - otherworldly power with impossible luxury - plus a whole lot of 1980s excess thrown in. But editor-in-chief Jean Jennings said it best twenty-one years ago when she called the Testarossa "the world's reddest car." 'Nuff said.


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