The Alien That Landed In 1984: Ferrari Testarossa



Not having been born yet, I wasn’t around to experience the alien landing of 1984, the Ferrari Testarossa. So 25 years later, on its silver anniversary, I’m going to delve into the design phenomenon that is the 4942 cc, mid-engined, flat-12 Testarossa – and you are cordially invited to join me.


Let’s start with the alien interior and work out way out to the alien exterior. The first extraterrestrial design element you’ll notice is the gear change. Unsurprisingly, the Testarossa had a 5-speed manual in the classic Ferrari gated shifter, but the arrangement wasn’t what you’d expect – 1st was where 2nd should have been, 5th was where reverse should have been, and reverse was where 1st should have been. Those crazy Eye-talians. Haven’t they ever heard of “convention”?


But this was only the beginning of the ergonomic nightmare that early Testarossa owners were subjected to. Next was the handbrake located to the left of the driver’s seat in a LHD vehicle, so it was basically just wedged against the door. This means that after you parked the vehicle and applied the handbrake, you had to crawl over the giant handle to get out. This was more conducive to a Britney Spears-like incident than it was to an elegant and graceful exit. If those were the only ergonomic eccentricities, you might be ok, but it wasn’t.


Moving to the exterior, there was the single, A-pillar-mounted sideview mirror. There was only one and it was on the driver’s side, so not only were you prohibited from shoulder-checking by the engine placement, but there was no passenger-side sideview mirror to make daily driving a little easier. This effectively turned the whole right side of the car into a blind spot. At least the single sideview mirror wasn’t mounted to the slab of the door. A tiny window was left to help the driver see the curb, kind of like the ‘09 Honda Fit, then. Still, the one sideview mirror was a mistake, even if it was a bravely committed one, and the omission of a passenger’s sideview mirror was remedied in mid-1987.


Further still were the single-bolt wheels. Great for pitstops, but deemed too impractical in the end, these were changed to a five-bolt pattern in 1988. 


The last bizzaro-world feature of the Testarossa that we’ll cover today was the flat-12 cylinder engine. Presumably, the advantage of this cylinder arrangement was cooling, due to a greater surface area. The red-headed step child of the family was actually the last Fezza to use this cylinder arrangement.

In the 1984 model, the 4942 cc engine pumped out 390 hp and 360 torques, good enough for a 5.8 second run to 100 kph, which was properly quick by the standards of the day, but not quite up to par with the Lamborghini Countach with which it competed, which ran to 100 kph in only 4.8 seconds. Twenty-five years on, neither is particularly ferocious in terms of straight-line speed, as the diminutive BMW 135i could match even the quicker Countach.

Still, to compare the Testarossa (and the Countach) to a modern BMW coupe is to liken Madonna to Lindsay Lohan. The Testarossa was a completely foreign model in 1984, and even today, there is nothing like it on the streets. Car builders, in their pursuit of greater and greater audiences for their wares, have made cars so good, so easy to use, so easy to drive, that they all lack distinction.

No one can say that the Testarossa lacked distinction. George Orwell knew that 1984 would be special, and he was right.


P.S. Please note that my design dissection says  nothing of the pop-up headlights and the fork-in-clay side strakes. That’d be too obvious to discuss.

Photo credits: [Straightline Automotive]