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What it's like to drive a Ferrari
By Charles Ofria

Today more people than ever before can afford to own a Ferrari.  The question is: how many of these new millionaires, who are also being lured by the performance and luxury of BMW and Mercedes Benz, will succumb to the exotic appeal of this sultry vehicle?

 For the most part, a Ferrari is not a very practical transportation device.  Most  hold only two people and precious little else. They require attentive drivers, are noisy, have a hard ride, go through $400 apiece tires like most cars go through wiper blades-- and you wouldn't want to leave yours in a parking lot while you run into the mall.  So what is the Ferrari magic that turns heads and keeps their owners coming back for more?

Unlike most exotic cars, the name "Ferrari" is immediately recognized by the average person even if they have absolutely no interest in cars.  Ask them what a Ferrari is and, without hesitation they will tell you it's a fast, expensive, ultimate sports car. Only one other exotic car brand name is as well recognized by the general public for what it is. That brand is Rolls Royce. All this brand recognition can be summed up in one word, "prestige." Drive into the local country club and, even if your associates don't know the difference between a Ford and a BMW, they will know what a Ferrari is.  There are other cars that cost as much as a Ferrari, but unless you are a car enthusiast, you may not recognize those names for what they are. How many average citizens know the names Aston Martin, Maserati, Lamborghini, Vector, Bugatti, DeTomaso or McLaren?

Would test-driving a Ferrari make you want to plunk down as much as a quarter million for a new one, or maybe $50 to $100 grand for a ten to twenty year old model?  Are they really worth the price of some homes?  I decided  to find out.

I paid a visit to Autosport Designs in Mineola (Long Island) New York to get some answers.  Autosport specializes in Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin sports cars.  They sell, service and do performance modifications on these cars for their well heeled clientele.  One of the owners of Autosport, Tom Papadopoulos, even races Ferraris on tracks around the world.  So, I sat down with Tom and asked him "What's so special about a Ferrari?"  His answer was to hand me the keys and say "drive it, then come back and we'll talk".  It's a dirty job but someone's got to do it.

The car that I drove was a 1987 Ferrari Testarossa (Italian for "Red Head"),  the top-of-the-line model that, when introduced, was considered the fastest production car in the world.  The massive 12-cylinder power plant in this car is mounted between the passenger compartment and the rear axle and is connected to a 5-speed manual transmission.  This layout is called Mid-Engine and is preferred for race cars because it provides the perfect balance for ultimate performance and handling.  As with most Ferraris, the Testarossa is a thinly disguised race car wrapped in gorgeous sheet metal that was given the minimum number of modifications necessary to allow it to be legally driven on the street. These modifications include the addition of emission controls, correct lighting, quieter mufflers, standard height bumpers and other safety features required by law.  They also tossed in a few comfort and convenience features like air-conditioning, power windows and a sound system to make the car easier to live with.

Despite these few frills, the race car heritage of this Ferrari comes through loud and clear.  From the small steering wheel and lack of power  steering to the heavy clutch and the gated five speed shifter, driving this car around town and in rush hour traffic is hard work. But it's work that pays off handsomely if you like the idea of having all that ferocious performance on tap.  And that 12-cylinder engine behind your back produces a wonderful throaty snarl that makes that sound system beg for mercy.  I found myself constantly tipping into the throttle just to listen to the engine's song and quickly became annoyed by other cars on the road that kept getting in my way.  From acceleration to braking to cornering, this red rocket produces G-forces that are suitable for training astronauts for their next space mission.

Sitting behind the wheel, I found the driver's seat to be comfortable and supportive. The driving position, on the other hand, takes some getting used to.  The wide wheel wells intrude into the foot area and push the gas, brake and clutch pedals to the right of center forcing your legs to the side. The small Momo steering wheel has a nice grip and is positioned closer to the windshield for arms-out driving which is great for fast driving but is a disadvantage when you are looking for leverage in order to steer into a parking space or maneuver in heavy traffic.  The interior is swathed in rich Connolly Leather which covers the seats, dash cover and door panels. A nice detail is the prancing horse logo that is embroidered into each headrest.  Behind the seats is a built-in carpeted luggage shelf.  The radio hides behind a pop-up panel in the center of the dash and plays through large speakers that are mounted on the wide wheel wells up front.

While there is plenty of power on tap at any engine speed, this engine is happiest when it is pushed hard.  With the throttle floored at anything below 4000 RPM the acceleration is merely great, but over 4000, it's enough to distort your face into a permanent grin.  And oh that sound, nothing comes close to the sound of a 12 cylinder Ferrari at full throttle.  While there are cars produced today that may out-accelerate this 13 year old model, none can top the overall driving experience and few can hold their own against a new Ferrari.  Shifting from gear to gear is good exercise as long as you can find something equally strenuous for your left arm.  Each shift through the exposed gate needs to be deliberate and forceful in order to be successful, but then that is one of Ferrari's trademarks that persists to this day.

Driving a Ferrari for the first time can be likened to a date with your favorite movie star.  You're extremely nervous at first, but once you begin to relax, the fun begins.  Out on the road, this car certainly draws attention.  People are trying to see if they recognize the driver while other drivers and passengers try to make eye contact with you.  Cars seem to be always chasing you to try to get a longer look while not paying enough attention to their own driving (almost as bad as drivers talking on cell phones). 

The fact that Ferraris are meant to be driven fast doesn't make you very popular with the local highway patrol (or maybe it does).  At any rate, the red streak going by, even if it's just keeping up with traffic going 10 or 15 mph over the speed limit, is going to make for some great end-of-shift bragging on how they pulled over a 180 mph car after a short chase. Details will fly about the sound of the engine, the smell of the leather and the beautiful shine on the paint all the while holding up the ticket stub as proof of the conquest.

Owning a Ferrari is a commitment that cannot be taken lightly.  These cars require more than the average amount of maintenance and they need to be driven often to keep them in good shape.  The 30,000 mile service for this car will set you back $5,000.00 and requires engine removal in order to reach some of the components that require replacing.  Clutch replacement on this car runs $2,000.00 (and that doesn't include a new flywheel if it is needed).

So, does it sound like a Ferrari is your cup of tea?  Part of the magic to me is that, in my humble opinion, they produce some of the most beautiful, sexiest sports car shapes on the planet.  Couple this with the fact that the factory in Italy only produces 3,000 to 4,000 Ferraris per year for world wide consumption and that spells E-x-c-l-u-s-i-v-e. And, let's not forget that Ferrari engineers have a one-track-mind when it comes to all-out performance, and the fact that it helps to wear sunglasses if you want to look directly at the red paint on a bright sunny day. 

It's enough to make grown men jump up and down and point when they see one go by.  If you listen hard, you can almost hear them say "Mommy, can I have one of those...Pleeeeese"

 Will a Corvette do the same thing for you?  I doubt it.

Click here for other Ferrari Pictures

The 1987 Ferrari Testarossa that I drove for this article is in mint condition with 25,000 miles on it and is currently for sale by Autosport.  The asking price?  $69,500 which, I am told is a bargain as this model can bring upwards of $80,000 with some later models bringing over $125,000. Check out this car and other exotic cars that are for sale and also the tons of pictures of other exotics on Autosport's website at: www.autosportdesigns.com 

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Model year differences

Testarossas with this body style were produced from 1984 through 1996. Here are some of the differences between the model years:  

  • 1984 - 1991 called the Testarossa,  5648 cars were produced during this period including the one that I tested.
  • 1991 - 1995 name changed to 512 TR. Horsepower upped to 421 at 6750 RPM, reduced weight by more than 300 lbs., larger 18" wheels and tires, larger brakes, subtle styling changes to improve aerodynamics,  2295 of the 512 TR's were made.
  • 1995 - 1996 renamed again, this time to F512 M. Horsepower up slightly to 432 at 6750 RPM, over 130 lbs lighter,  more changes to improve aerodynamics, only 500 F512M's were built. These are the last 12 Cylinder mid-engine Ferraris made, making this one the rarest and most desirable of them all.

Power Train Layout

The powertrain layout on the Testarossa is somewhat unusual.  The Engineis a flat 12 Cylinder unit with the transmission bolted to the bottom of theblock taking the place of the oil pan. The clutch is at the rear of the engineand sends power to transfer gears which directs the power 180 degrees where itpasses through the final drive and into the transmission. The transmission thensends the power back to the final drive to power the rear wheels.  This arrangementis very compact allowing for a low center of gravity and good weightdistribution. 

Specifications 

Test Car 1987 Ferrari Testarossa
Engine Type Flat 12 Cylinder DOHC with 4 Valves per Cylinder
Horsepower 380 @ 5,750 RPM
Torque 354 @ 4,500 RPM
Fuel Recommended Premium 91 Octane Unleaded.
Transmission Five Speed Manual Transmission mounted beneath the engine
Tires 225/50ZR-16  Front
255/50ZR-16  Rear
Overall Length 176.6"
Wheelbase 100.4
Width 77.8"
Curb Weight 3,660
Acceleration 0 to 60
                    0 to 100
6.2 Seconds
12.7 Seconds
Top Speed 180 MPH
Base Sticker Price $150,000 when new, $65,000 to $80,000 today.

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