17 May 2009

The Birth of the Ferrari Boxer

Enzo Ferrari was a notorious curmudgeon when it came to change. Late to adopt disc brakes, late to move his racing engines from the front to the middle, he was forever insisting that his way was the only way, technological advancements and on-track defeats be damned. For many years he maintained that a Ferrari was a front-engined V12, and that was that.
Then came the Dino, and while not technically a Ferrari, its mid-engine V6 layout paved the way for the Berlinetta Boxers of the 1970s and beyond.

When Ferrari introduced the 365 GTB/4 Berlinetta Boxer in 1973 as a replacement for the all-conquering 365 GTB/4 Daytona, the mid-engined 4.4-liter flat-12 marked a significant departure in the way the Maranello carmaker had always done business: it was the first Ferrari not powered by some kind of "V" type engine. Based on Ferrari's semi-successful Formula 1 3-liter boxer, it was the world's first flat-12 put to use in a passenger car.

The Pininfarina body was of the wedge variety, with many cues taken from the carrozzeria's striking P6 show car of 1968. Built upon a semimonocoque with fore and aft subframes, the car's low profile and the longitudinally mounted, horizontally opposed engine suited one another quite well.
With 344 hp on tap, the 365 BB loved to rev and screamed all the way. And it was quick, too, with a claimed top end of 188 mph, though a 40/60 weight distribution could make handling tricky at high speeds.

Just 387 365 BBs were built before Ferrari unveiled the 512 BB for 1976. As the name implied, displacement was bumped up to five liters (4,942 cc). The car retained the 5-speed transaxle and most all other components of its predecessor, while outwardly it gained a front spoiler and NACA ducts just ahead of the rear wheels as well as larger body proportions and a wider rear track to aid handling. Perhaps most important in the handling department was the addition of a dry sump, which lowered the center of gravity.

Despite slightly less power, the 512 had a longer stroke and produced more torque, which allowed for better drivability and acceleration. Coupled with the added girth, the road manners of the 512 were a marked improvement.

The final iteration of the Berlinetta Boxer family arrived at the 1981 Frankfurt Auto Show with the 512 BBi, as in "i" for "injection." The Bosch fuel-injected 512 was the culmination of all Ferrari had learned from its boxer cars, and the cars were optimized for emissions—as optimized as early '80s Ferraris could be. When BB production ended in 1984, with it went the last links to the old-school Italian way of building Ferraris—entirely by hand.

For all their ferocity on the street, Ferrari Boxers never enjoyed much success on the race tracks of the world. Privateers had little luck with the 365, while factory-prepared 512 BB/LMs—elongated caricatures of the street cars—raced at Daytona, Le Mans, and elsewhere, to forgettable results.
In all, 2,313 Boxers were built over a ten-year run, none of which were officially imported to the U.S. Thanks to the miracles of creative modifications, they are here now. And they serve as reminders of a thrilling period in Ferrari history when Enzo loosened the reins just enough to produce something even more radical than a front-engined V12.

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