Italian Exotic Icons: Ferrari Testarossa

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The very symbol of the exotic Italian supercar for a decade.

It's not often that a single car becomes the automotive symbol for an entire decade. The Jaguar E-Type and Ford Mustang might have been iconic, but they didn't have the whole decade to themselves. The Testarossa is the car for the eighties, and its supremely well-timed entrance into the automotive market made it the best-selling Italian supercar of all time. The one drawback to all of this popularity and the selling of the image of the Testarossa, rather than the car itself, is that it is very easy to forget that it was also a great car.

The Testarossa rose from the ashes of the Berlinetta Boxer, a weird offshoot of the Daytona which was certainly an impressive car, but not something to which Ferrari ever devoted enough attention to make it really successful. This is because Ferrari was in such a hurry to produce a mid-engine car, and thus remain competitive, that a lot of the design thinking from the Daytona carried over, and this thinking was all wrong for a mid-engine car. The most classic of these blunders was the combination of a mid-mounted engine and a front-mounted radiator.

This setup meant that hot coolant line had to be routed around the small cabin, and any serious amount of time spent in the car would result in an unbearably hot interior. It was these kinds of mistakes that the Testarossa was meant to correct, and correct them it did. The Testarossa inherited its engine from the BB, although it would undergo a number of changes during the 13-year production run. The 12-cylinder engine, known as the Colombo, was actually an evolution of the one from the Daytona, but with one major change.

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The V was widened from 60 degrees to 180 degrees, and in this way it differs from other boxer engines, and is generally considered to be a flat V12 rather that a true boxer. Either way, the 4.9-liter unit produced 390 horsepower, climbing to 428hp by the end of production. The name Testarossa was used before, on a very small number of cars in Ferrari's 250 family of vehicles. Here it was spelled as two separate words "Testa Rossa", meaning "red head", and was given to the 250 TR because of its red valve covers. The 1984-96 Testarossa had red valve covers as well, but here the words were joined together.

This changed the meaning, as it does in English, from a head that is red to a red-haired woman. Ferrari would officially say that the name still referred to the valve covers, but this was said with an implied wink, and this implied wink was all part of the image being sold with the Testarossa. The design was the work of Pininfarina, and was perfect for 1984. The most distinguishing feature is the side strakes, one that has been mimicked on a number of other vehicles. These strakes have been criticized by some as look cheesy, but they did actually serve a function beyond looking like the most eighties thing imaginable.

Because the Testarossa used side-mounted radiators, rather than the problematic front-mounted setup from the BB, large openings on either side of the car were needed to allow for the passage of air. Several countries had laws against openings of this size, and the strakes provided a loophole of sorts which prevented Ferrari from having to deal with overheating problems. For the first two seasons of the popular TV show "Miami Vice", Detective Sonny Crockett (played by Don Johnson) drove a Ferrari Daytona Spyder 365 GTS/4. In much the same way that Johnson wasn't really a police detective, the car wasn't really a Daytona, and was merely playing on TV.

The car was actually a replica built out of a Corvette. The show's producers had asked for real cars, but had been turned down. By the third season, Ferrari was becoming increasingly annoyed by replica cars, and more importantly, recognized that Don Johnson appearing on TV in a Testarossa was probably the very best way possible to sell the image of the car. So for the third season, Ferrari agreed to give them two white Testarossas, provided they agreed to destroy the replica Daytonas. Helping it to become an icon, the Testarossa was also given the starring role in the popular video game "Out Run", burning the image of the car into the minds of every American male.

Good marketing alone probably would have made the Testarossa a success all by itself, but the car actually became a big hit with the automotive press as well. It was fast, it handled extremely well, and it really had fixed the problems which plagued the BB. Many in the press would poke fun at some of the sillier aspects of it, but they would ultimately have to concede that, in truth, it was a pretty good car. That didn't save it from ending up looking incredibly dated by 1996, and Ferrari decided it was best to move on to something a bit more modern.

The Testarossa was replaced by the 550 Maranello, and with this move, Ferrari would abandon the flat-12 engine, and largely move away from mid-mounted twelve-cylinder engines, the one exception being the Enzo. It was a shame to see the Testarossa go, but it did illustrate the point that when a certain car becomes so achingly fashionable in one decade, it's difficult to make it work in the next one.

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