Living with a Ferrari BB 512

by | Mar 24, 2019 | Motoring

Reading time: 7 minutes

Owning a classic Italian sports car is a dream everybody at Impetus Novus shares. Well, three of us do anyway. But what would the reality actually be like? What does owning a 1970s Ferrari actually involve? The “Fossil Fool”, walks us through the realization of a dream four decades in the making.

It probably does not make me unique, but I have always loved 12-cylinder Italian supercars. Even while reading picture books as a child, the extreme nature of something that was, in essence, an evolution of a real racing car had enormous appeal. As a kid growing up in Canada in the ‘80s, I only saw the occasional static example at auto shows, and as an adolescent, years spent reading car magazines when I should have been studying did nothing to diminish the appeal. In the world before YouTube, I could only imagine what these amazing, 12-cylinder machines sound and feel like?

Fast forward 25 years, and I now find myself in the fortunate position to get into the strange world of ‘80s Italian exotics. I do not have – or, to be honest, want – any current supercars. I am simply not enough of a driver on-track, or an animal of it, to ever operate one at the level to which it was designed. My drug of choice then is the old stuff, the dangerous stuff that could kill you at half the speed. Ok, maybe not a Ferrari Daytona or a Lamborghini Miura (not that they would not be fun but I was not even born when they ruled the earth), but the ‘70s and ‘80s era supercar. Something with a five-speed manual transmission and a long chrome gearlever that moves through a chrome gate and is topped with a ball. Something with complex Weber carb setups, and emissions equipment consisting of a gas cap. Something with eggshell-thin, pre-crash standard bodywork and a wiiiide wedge shape derived not from extensive wind tunnel testing but from the artistic flair of designers with names like Leonardo and Marcello.

Of course, with that in mind, you might well be asking, what are supercars like this actually like to live with? Perhaps the most interesting thing about owning cars like this (sorry, don’t hate me, I do have a few) is that, like a famous work of art or a Stradivarius, my tenure of ownership is always going to be temporary. Either the developing world – and the emissions regulations that come with that – will no longer allow them to be driven in the years to come, or the sheer value of them will become such that doing so would be financial suicide. For now, then, I intend to enjoy them, and one in particular, as much as I can.

And ‘the one’ is a 1978 Ferrari 512 Berlinetta Boxer.

Debuting in 1973, the 512 Berlinetta Boxer had already gone through a series of iterations, starting as a high revving, raw 365 BB then morphing into a (slightly) lower revving, more torquey 512BB before, finally, completing its journey as the 512BBi. My BB 512, replete with four triple throat downdraft Webers, is 1978 Canadian models, and as Canada did not have appreciable emissions or crashworthiness standards in 1978, to my knowledge anyway, is a genuine, fully caffeinated Euro-spec BB. In red over semi-gloss black below that indented beltline, with black leather and red carpets, it looks just as Fiovaranti and Pininfarina envisioned it. It’s also the best example of the 512 BB I could find after more than a full year of searching.

BB512s are comparatively rare, and many have been butchered to meet U.S. regulations (the BB was never built for U.S. standards and, as a result, was never officially imported there). Its rarity means pedestrians or on-lookers often ask me whether it is the world’s widest 308 GTB, or a Pantera. As one of life’s little ironies, the owner had originally offered me the car back in 2004, though it was out of my reach at that time (don’t feel too bad, he wanted my ‘84 308 GTS QV as part trade). So when I heard that the 512 remained unsold by its now quite elderly owner in 2011, I finally agreed to buy it, sight unseen, over a long-distance phone call.

In hindsight, I probably I should have picked up on the fact that it had accumulated virtually no mileage in the intervening seven years. But lust, like love, is blind. I won’t dredge up the details of restoring my ‘perfect’ low mileage BB, but let’s just say that Ferraris, like any machine and most people, do not like to sit still for extended periods of time. Every single item of rubber in the drivetrain, brakes, and suspension was laboriously replaced at great expense. All original cadmium and zinc-plated parts were re-plated in their respective finishes. A tiny rattling sound behind my head indicating a failing cam belt drive bearing led to engine removal, which in turn meant a complete crank-up engine rebuild over two years. Nobody said that passion comes without pain, or as my restorer likes to say, ‘if you want to play, you have to pay’ (I understand Rocco’s children are enjoying their horseback riding lessons).

Suffice to say, this BB is currently in rude health, maybe even slightly better than new, with 1mm overbore, slightly elevated compression due to current technology pistons and far more care in assembly and tuning than was lavished during office hours in Maranello in 1978. Turn the key, let the fuel pumps tick over for a few seconds, listen to the Marelli ignition box behind you on the other side of the firewall begin its ultra high-pitched squeal (they all do that), prod the gas pedal three times, turn the key some more, and all twelve cylinders burst into a basso profundo song. Now that the orchestra has unpacked its instruments, go get a coffee – maybe a cappuccino if it is before noon – and wait for all those liquids to warm up.

When the needles begin to register, ease yourself, carefully, over that wide, wide sill into that low, low seat (there’s little thigh support in the BB), click that featherweight door shut, depress the solid but well-weighted clutch, and pull the lever left and back – yes, really – to clack into first gear. The BB can creep without adding any throttle if you are smooth when releasing the clutch and the idle circuits of the carbs are clean. The wide, incredibly thin steering wheel has no power steering and is almost horizontal. The pedals demand narrow loafers and the seat does not go back very far. But then, the Boxer was not designed to encourage successful 1970s Italian businessmen to commute. It feels vintage, but at least you can see out of it.

A word of note, watch that nose. After the 365, Ferraris tended to have low air dams in the front, which arrives sometime before the front wheels. Creeping daintily over curbs at an angle is bound to draw attention from any passers-by, but not as much as a miscalculation of your approach angle and the sound of fiberglass grinding against the asphalt. Not that I have any experience with that, mercifully. Much has been written about the difficulty in selecting second gear in any cold Ferrari gearbox of that vintage. Nonsense. Like any cold bit of machinery, careful deliberation in movement works well. The gearbox is actually one of the great joys of the car if you can remember there are a lot of tremendous, expensive things spinning quickly under enormous stress somewhere behind you. This is no manual box Honda Civic Type-R; savor each shift with your toes, fingers, and ears, and remember that the cost of replacing the transmission case and everything in it is about the same as a new, well-equipped BMW 5 series. Drive carefully!

The engine is, put simply, the definition of torque. With two valve heads, it does not scream at high rpm like a four-valve Testarossa, but the lunge off idle and mid-range is hard to describe: you can almost feel your innards clatter against your spine. A well-sorted carb BB has more bottom end lunge than the Testarossa or any two-valve Lamborghini Countach. It also has more cam overlap than the BBi which adds a little to the mid-range and top end (I have never sampled a BBi, but understand they are a tiny bit slower and maybe don’t sound as good). The Webers intake howl makes the carb BB sound far better, and now cost more, than the injected Boxer, and are worth living with, if you ask me.

Wide gear spacings through a shifter gate and long clutch and throttle travel do not make a BB a stoplight-to-stoplight drag racer. But in second gear or above, the throttle response and sheer analog quality of feedback from the throttle puts its younger sisters to shame. That baritone, tearing silk howl, coupled with the BBs lunge on any on-ramp or out of any moderately fast corner, like listening to good music on vinyl, is its best 1978 party trick.

By the way, the Fossil Fool also owns a Countach… Yes, a Countach!!!

Back to 2019. The handling is…sufficient, as long as you remember that you are riding on vintage ‘70 series Michelin XWXs, which feel like they have about a foot of rubbery sidewall height. Between new rubber bushings and tires, the BB is a cushy, if not comfy, long distance driver. Coupled with a huge rear-mid mounted engine bolted on top of its gearbox, the BB will educate the true meaning of ‘weight transfer’ if you allow it too. With its unassisted and slightly slow steering and 1978 single piston disc brakes, a 458, or even 348, this is not. Given the more than the respectable ability of the engine, even by modern day standards, you need to look far beyond those red front fenders and a long nose to enjoy speed without stress in the BB.

But to thrash it is to miss the point. The driving experience is ‘70s vintage, hand-built Ferrari, which means stopping to get out and look back at that long, elegant nose with eggshell grille and sculpted hips is a big part of the Boxer’s appeal. The BB’s driving experience is pure 1978, and 41 years later, remains almost unique, giving the driver a glimpse into what driving in northern Italy must have been like four decades ago. Sparse traffic on the Autostrada and secondary roads, Ferrari-friendly enforcement of speed limits. No mobile phones. Only you and that raw, carburetted flat 12. Just like a real racing car. I doubt very much that my young adolescent self, pawing over those car magazines, would have been disappointed.