Boxing Clever. The Berlinetta Boxer is one of the great unsung Ferraris. We sample the first and last of the breed - and an ‘inbetweener’ with a few special tweaks. Words John Simister. Photography Malcolm Griffiths.
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The Berlinetta Boxer. Ferrari's first genuine, full-fat, range-topping supercar, if you take the purist view that a supercar requires an exotically mid-mounted engine with a lot of cylinders, a hefty capacity and monstrous power. It's strange, then, that the BB is something of a forgotten Ferrari, a side-road off a highway trafficked by V12s and V8s.
It shouldn't be. The Boxer is a charismatically mad machine. Bad, too, if its reputation is to be believed. Place the engine on top of the gearbox, the pundits reckoned, and the resulting high centre of gravity would surely make an already tail- heavy car into a tail-snapping monster. But that was why the Boxer has, obviously, a low-built 'boxer' engine. It's a flat-12, the first roadgoing example of the type and, as it turns out, the only example if you view its evolution into the Testarossa motor as fundamentally the same unit bar valve-count and camshaft drive details.
There are three phases of Berlinetta Boxer, progressively more house-trained but never any less captivating. We have one of each here, the BB story from start to finish, and their differences are significant. That's especially true of the middle car of the three, the bright red 512 BB, which has gained during its life an 'LM pack' for its engine and a set of wider wheels, dramatically so at the back, to sit beneath wide-arched front and rear clamshells by Koenig, a prolific Ferrari-modifier in the 1970s and 80s.
Each of these cars has its own story to tell, but first comes the bigger picture. Enzo Ferrari had long been sceptical about mounting a 12-cylinder engine in the middle of a road car, despite obvious critical acclaim for the designs of his Lamborghini rival and long experience of racing Ferraris with mid-mounted V12s. But with the 365 GTB/4 Daytona nearing the end of its production life, his engineers considered the idea a new.
Ferrari had committed itself to flat-12s for Formula 1 in 1970, having experimented with the design since creating a 1.5-litre example in 1964. So the idea of using a flat-12 in its new mid-engined supercar, the 365 GT4 BB, was hailed as highly glamorous on the new car's unveiling at the 1971 Turin show. Its capacity (365cc per cylinder), and indeed its pistons and connecting rods, were shared with the Daytona but the rest of the engine was new.
It sat in a body designed by Pininfarina, Ferrari's usual shaper of external forms, with a restrained crispness that has not only aged very well but emphasises how cluttered, contrived and oversized today's Ferraris (and most rivals) have become. Pop-up twin headlights and the world's largest indicator lenses occupied the low, flat nose. The body's black lower half gave a taste of a concept car. At the tail, the two groups of three round tail-lights were echoed by the triple tailpipes on each side, engine visible through the slats on the flat rear deck above, spoiler-like crossbar joining the tops of the buttresses beyond. The Boxer looked fantastic.
Two years later, the 365 BB went on sale. Its 4390cc promised anything between 344 and 380bhp, depending on who you believed, along with a 5.4sec 0-60mph time and top speed of 175mph, or even 180mph - these speeds making the assumption that the engine would pull peak- power revs in fifth gear, which might or might not have been possible.
Verifying such claims independently was always a problem with a Ferrari, the maker and the concessionaires famously unwilling to allow performance testing by magazines, but Motor did eventually manage to score a 365 BB for road test.
It recorded a more believable 6.5sec to 60mph, but not a top speed. It also recorded an overall fuel consumption of 11.1mpg. A lot of fuel was sucked through those four triple-choke Weber 40 IF3s.
After only 387 cars had been built, 85 of them in right- hand drive, the Boxer transmuted into the 512 BB in 1976. Had Ferrari continued with its model designation according to individual cylinder capacity it would have been the 412 BB, but instead the name referred simply to five litres (actually 4942cc) and 12 cylinders. Power was up, possibly - 360bhp is the consensus - while torque was up a bit more. So was weight, thanks partly to air-conditioning and wider rear wheels, which meant that performance stayed more or less as it was.
Also new, and significant, were a twin-plate clutch to give a lower effort at the pedal, and a dry-sump lubrication system to cure reported oil-surge problems - but not to lower the engine, because the gearbox was in the way. NACA ducts in the sills and a front bib spoiler were obvious visual changes, along with four rear light lenses and tailpipes instead of six of each.
Then the pressure of exhaust emissions began to bite, and it was goodbye to the slurping Webers after 929 512s (128 of them in right-hand drive) had left Maranello. In the Webers' place came, from 1981, Bosch K-Jetronic continuous fuel injection and a pair of plenum chambers leading to swirlingly curved inlet manifolds and a small drop in power to 345bhp. That was still plenty, especially as the same peak torque now arrived at slightly lower revs where it would be more useful. Michelin TRX tyres on metric rims were another innovation.
This final Boxer, the 512i, ran to 1984, upon which the new Testarossa took over. In the mood of 1980s optimism, the 1970s energy crisis forgotten, the 512i became the most numerous of Boxers with 1007 made, albeit only 48 in right-hand drive. That makes our metallic blue example a very rare machine.
Two of these cars have been on magazine covers before. Stephen and Daniel Gannon's 365 BB, smoulderingly understated in dark Bordeaux Red, featured on the front of Autocar 10 September 1977, driven at night by a mystery helmet-clad man, gazed at by an adoring woman. The 365 was a year out of production by then, and this one was three months away from its second birthday, but it signalled a feature inside whose star was unavailable for the cover shoot. In those days, a colour cover had to be printed well in advance of the monochrome pages inside.
Featured in that monochrome was a then-current 512 BB, registered OPC 86R. It was pale metallic blue, Maranello Concessionaires' demonstrator as displayed at the previous year's Earl's Court motor show, and the very first right-hand-drive 512 BB. It had its own Autocar cover-shot glory earlier in the year, 9 April 1977 for a 'sports-car special' at Prescott hillclimb, and it's the same 512 BB - somewhat modified, and in a new hue - that's with us today Ferrari specialist Bell Classics, which has the 512 for sale, is hoping to get the registration number reinstated; it went off the radar during the BB's 26-year stay in an Austrian collection.
The chance links of history continue with our 512i, lent to us by Ferrari specialist, and former main dealer, Rardley Motors. It's one of two BBis in its showroom, both right-hand drive and representing an impressive proportion of the total RHD 512i population. It was Rardley Motors that looked after the Gannons' 365 in its first years, including the time of its cover-shot glory
So, the scene is set. First, the 365 BB, freshly restored and taking to the road today for the first time since it was finished. Much of the work has been done by Ferrari expert Geoff Shilton at Shiltech, but father and son Stephen and Daniel - they run classic, high- end, fast-car dealership Car-Iconics - have also made use of other talents they have got to know, such as the man who coated the body in its deliciously smooth and shiny paint.
It seems to sit high on its wheels, the arches gappy That's how they were, although the lower-profile tyres worn by all three cars (the original sizes, as listed in our specification panels, being hard to find) emphasise the impression. Would making it sit lower make it feel less precarious" That's the reputational baggage niggling away again. Maybe it doesn't actually feel precarious in the first place. Certainly there was no mention of a Boxer's precariousness in those Autocar stories.
Actually, you wouldn't want it any lower. Once you're snug in the black leather seat with its oh-so- Italian transverse ribs, your head is no higher than the top of an SUV's tyre. Put that contemporary thought out of your head as you savour this 1970s cabin free of Fiat-sourced switchgear, Momo Prototipo steering wheel ahead, slatted silver speaker grilles to each side, red-figured instruments cowled in shallow tunnels, giant ashtrays in the sills. And, of course, a slender, gently cranked gearlever emerging from the expected open gate and topped by a shiny black sphere.
It's amazingly airy in here, what with the low scuttle, the thin windscreen pillars, the deep side windows and an unexpectedly clear view aft. This is a key ingredient of the way the BB feels smaller and handier than you might have anticipated; it seems barely bigger than its 308 contemporaries.
Maybe there are Italian genes buried within my DNA, despite my assumption of a broadly Celtic genetic dominance, because I fit the Boxer perfectly Taller people berate the offset pedals and steering wheel, the interference of knees with Momo, the lack of thigh support, the excessive stretch needed to reach the top of the raked wheel-rim. But it all works for me, the only snag being the effort required to bottom the clutch pedal.
This I must do, because a clean gearshift depends on it. And as long as I do what is needed, the changing of gears is a quick, metal-on-metal snick requiring only a wrist primed with a suitably heavy preload. I can't use many revs on this potentially very revvy engine because it has covered almost no miles and its brand-new pistons are still bedding into their brand-new liners. Not to worry; I can still feel how the Boxer moves along the road, how light and direct its steering is, with a clearer, crisper response around the centre than Ferrari's first mid-engined road car, the Dino.
It kicks back a bit, too, and the brakes have a long travel. Is that how it's supposed to be, or is there alignment to do, brake pads to bed-in? I'll reserve judgement on these BB characteristics while I savour the tenor blare of the 12 cylinders, the whine of the gears en route to the cambelts' drive, the busy fizz of valvegear, all those much-written-about Ferrari sounds that are no less enthralling for having heard them, and read about them, before.
I dive into a bend as fast as I dare, slowing from the 5000rpm Daniel is now permitting, a speed at which the engine is starting to sound really interested. Am I aware of a heavy weight behind my shoulders, in danger of triggering a top-heavy lurch like that of an overloaded truck? No. The Boxer just sits firmly on its outside rear wheel as I turn, pushes its nose slightly wide as I accelerate, counters that with a growing slip-angle at the back as I accelerate a little harder. All just as you would expect in a mid-engined car.
NOW, THE 512. Quite apart from the Koenig makeover on this particular example, there are changes from the 365 beyond those outlined earlier. The rear grille is formed from slats rather than slotted sheet metal, and the rear clamshell's shutline jinks forward towards the door a little so it can mimic the next shutline along. And in this case, under the extended arches are Pirelli P7s of very 1980s-supercar dimensions: 205/50 at the front, 345/35 at the back, still on 15in rims.
Also, the airboxes over the carburettors have been ousted in favour of air-scoops reaching to roof-level, with no air filters to protect the very visible intake trumpets. Here is the Boxer as 1980s-flavour hot rod, the engine converted with an 'LM Specification' kit by Ferrari agent Emblem Sports Cars for £8212.92 when the 512 was 14,810 miles old. The kit includes hotter camshafts, and in peak health the engine should produce a good, genuine 380bhp, maybe even 400. But not today
Certainly it takes off with a whipcrack ferocity, howling round the tachometer's scale with a hard, open-mouthed assault from the intake trumpets that a meagre glassfibre bulkhead can't really smother. Nor can it absorb the whistles and whines from the old- school electronic ignition pack. It's frantic in here, goading me to go ever faster if the engine, long dormant, would only give its all. But it does heighten the sensation felt earlier in the 365 of amazing deftness and agility It feels far smaller than a Testarossa.
Two key attributes amplify the deftness. First, the clutch is acceptably light, which massively helps the precision and speed of my gearshifts. Second, slightly ridiculous as those fat, squat wheels look, they fundamentally change how the Boxer handles while still allowing it to ride with surprising suppleness.
It turns-in like a modern Ferrari: instant bite, no springiness, no kickback, and it grips hard with no suggestion of a wavering, squidging tail. It just hunkers down and blasts onwards, always friendly, never threatening, insidiously addictive. It's amazing what optimum tyres can do, even when they look wrong. Pity about the long-travel brakes, though, again. They surely shouldn't be like this.
NOW I'M IN THE 512i and no, they shouldn't. It has terrific brakes, a firm pedal, lots of bite, just as you would hope for in a 12-cylinder supercar. It also has an engine that, unlike the other two, is clearly employing the full cylindrical dozen all the time with a wailingly crisp exhaust note to prove it. Maybe that's down to the injection, maybe a recent £12,000 overhaul.
Here is the Boxer honed and fettled as its creators intended, with the plumpest torque curve and a riotous encore from the exhausts each time the red line approaches. It's a brilliant thing, marred only by a savagely, toe-crunchingly heavy clutch, which the twin- plate design shouldn't be. Its tyres are new TRXs but, again, not in the original sizes: these have a lower, 55- per cent profile and are the same size front and rear, instead of presenting more rubber at the back.
That, and the abundance of power, make for another variation in the Boxer's dynamic signature, one which comes closest to the folklore. It's softer in its responses than our carburetted 512, rides even more smoothly, and you can feel it moving around on those rear tyres as the power comes and goes in a bend. If you unsettle it by lifting off after hurrying into a corner, you can indeed feel that weight wanting to head off in its own direction behind you and take the rest of the car with it, but - at least on the dry roads of our driving day - it settles as soon as you reinstate the power to the rear wheels.
With the masses marshalled, working with you when you need them, a Boxer is a beguiling drive. Clearly it's better with bigger tyres aft, as Ferrari itself found, and thus-equipped it's a car of rather more sophisticated attributes than I'd imagined. I got closest to the full Boxer experience in the lovely BBi, with working air-con and a fabulously '80s Pioneer stereo to help set the tone, aurally as well as ambiently. And it was joyous.
SHOULD YOU BUY a Boxer" Just finding a really good 365 is difficult, although Car-Iconics does have another which used to be owned by Sir Elton John. The 512s are slightly less uncommon, and ultimately they are all about as fast as each other in standard form. You might favour a 512i for its slightly less ruinous fuel economy and tidier engine management, a 365 for its first-of-the-breed purity, a 512 for its blend of both extremes.
All cost around ten times their prices when new for a good one. All will have had many thousands spent on them over the years, and that expenditure will continue even if you don't use your Boxer much. But you probably know all that. What I've discovered is that the Boxer is a machine of unexpected brilliance that has, perhaps, been unjustly overlooked. Handier than a Testarossa and less burdened by visual excess, it's a hidden gem. Maybe, if you have a quarter of a million to spare, it's time to rediscover the BB's charms.
Many thanks to: Bell Classi s for the 512 (above), Car-lconics for the 365, and Rardley Motors for the 512i.