Curbside Classic: Ferrari Testarossa – The Thrill Is Gone, For Now

(first posted 10/15/2011)   Growing up is hard to do. And it’s so non-linear. One minute you’re back in seventh grade fantasizing about that red-headed girl’s privates, or a red Ferrari. The next minute you’re stuffing kids into the back of a red minivan. Fortunately, certain aids come along from time to time to help make the leap. The Testarossa was one of them. It cured me of Ferarri-fantasizing; well, at least for a new one. And thanks to the Testarossa’s effect being so powerful, the cure lasted for quite a long while.

Describing one’s relationship with Ferraris is a rather intimate undertaking, as for the great majority of us it’s strictly in the realm of fantasy. Which of course is the true brilliance of the brand. It’s become the icon of the unattainable, along with a changing cast of certain women. That’s not exactly how it started out, but mostly irrelevant when it comes to the Testarossa. Because it, more than any other Ferarri, cemented the modern image of the brand.

I say “cemented” and “modern”, because undoubtedly once il Commendatore was convinced to start offering civilized coupe versions of his sports racing cars, like this 1953 212 Pinifarina coupe that was commissioned by Director Roberto Rossellini as a wedding present to Ingrid Bergman, the association with the glitterati was well underway. But then it was still largely royalty and seriously big stars.

But something changed in the nineteen-eighties. Everything that had seemed so lofty and unattainable now edged a bit closer. One just needed to start selling junk bonds, open a Savings and Loan Bank, or sell cocaine. The dream was within reach; it really was A New Morning in America.

It’s not like the Testarossa was only styled for Miami or Los Angeles. Italy was coming out of its “red years”, when it truly was at risk of becoming a neo-communist experiment. That was a very difficult period for carmakers like Ferrari and designer-builders like Pininfarina. And the pent-up exuberance when the dam broke is all-too evident in the Testarossa, the most controversial of Ferraris.

It had been thirteen years since its predecessor, the Berlinetta Boxer first appeared in 1971, as Ferrari’s response to the seminal Lamborghini Miura. Now this was a car worth fantasizing about!  Ferrari had finally (and reluctantly) made the switch to mid-engines, and what a beauty it was. And along with the Dino 206/246, it would set a pattern for Pininfarina mid-engine Ferraris that is essentially unbroken today: curvaceous, feminine, and damn sexy. Except for the Testarossa, which was more like a the lead performer at a drag-show.

There was a an unfortunate incident in my loverelationship to the BB. It’s not just because Ferrari never federalized it to sell in the US that actually seeing one on the streets was unlikely, especially in Iowa. So it really did have a mythical and unattainable role, never mind ever actually seeing one in the flesh. But that all changed, when a yellow BB suddenly turned up in Iowa City in the winter of 1975. And was driven daily all winter, with that grimy coating of gray that results from the joys of driving through salted and sanded streets and slush. Sacrilege!!

The driver appeared to be a Saudi, a student at the University, puttering a mile or so between his apartment and the campus. I truly detested him, not only for what he was doing to this car, but also my whole relationship to the brand. The recent run-up of gas prices in 1973-1974 had facilitated his choice of winter driver, and this was not a good PR gesture, for both his country and Ferrari.

Fast forward to 1984, and the Testarossa has finally arrived to take up the mantle as chief lust object. Only one problem: its looks are quite controversial. The famous Pininfarina curves are mostly gone, and the rather angular shape sports huge rear strakes for the radiator inlets, and the widest rear end ever seen on a car, at least in proportion to its height.  The front and side views were challenging enough, but standing directly behind it was just painful. It was a mistake that Pininfarina never made again, thankfully.

Ironically, the Testarossa spawned the biggest raft of imitation body kits ever known to man.Or maybe irony isn’t the right word.

Perhaps “just desserts”, or?

Or brilliance? The Testarossa tapped into an area of men’s consciousness that has still not been totally satiated. Or never will.

Is there something subliminal (or obvious) about side strakes? Exposed body orifices that had never been seen publicly before?

The Testarossa’s design is a milestone, in that for the first time the shapes defining racing cars at the time were now the defining theme, with their huge wide rear tires, side intakes, and aerodynamic considerations taking priority. It’s a trend that has largely only continued, but with more consideration to the overall aesthetics. Ferrari’s ever deepening association with their F1 activities was now becoming a key aspect to their design language, one they have played to ever greater commercial success so brilliantly.

I rarely think of Ferraris anymore, except vintage ones from the pre-Testarossa era. I certainly didn’t expect to come across one as a Curbside Classic; I’ve never seen any until this one, who’s owner obviously wanted to keep it a safe distance from the big trucks in the parking lot of this local watering hole.

A few years back, a guy showed up in town one summer offering rides in his less-than pristine old 308 or 328, for $35. He operated out of a small empty lot on a busy street, but after a few weeks, he was gone, having satiated the local demand. He might have picked a better town, or a different neighborhood, as the steady stream of bicyclists and old Hondas there didn’t result in many takers.

But then a year ago, we made our first trip to Paris. Walking down the Champs Elysées on a sunny afternoon, what is sitting at the curb in front of an outdoor cafe, parked highly illegally? A bright red 458 Italia. Like most new Ferraris in recent years (decades?), I never bothered to really look at it before. Suddenly, I allow myself to see it for what it really is, and I’m just standing there dumbstruck. It’s the sexiest thing on wheels ever, and I just don’t know how Pininfarina keeps managing to pull it off. I’m so utterly engrossed, I forget to take any pictures. Or am I afraid of what that would mean? Paris really is for lovers.