The world has changed a lot since the mid-1980s, more than those of us of a certain age would like to think. Roads are more clogged, speed limits are lower and more numerous, much of the population adopts a higher moral tone when fast and thirsty cars are involved. All of which alters the way we see cars such as the Lamborghini Countach and the Ferrari Testarossa, the twin peaks (limited-run hypercars excepted) of 1980s supercardom.
Then there’s the meeting-the-film-star element. Obviously we were awestruck back then if we saw and heard one or other of these red (and they usually were red) monsters. Objectivity would not apply; if we read in a road test that the windscreen misted up or the window winder interfered with the driver’s knee, we’d be irritated. So what, we would think. Just tell me how fast it goes, what it sounds like and how it makes you feel. And meanwhile, I’ll just carry on ogling the poster.
Was there an element of the emperor’s new clothes here? Was it that no-one dared to be hard-headed and truly objective? Would anyone have listened if a pundit had dared to go against the flow?
Twenty-five years on, it’s an extraordinary experience to get up close to these cars again. Suddenly we can see them for what they really are, the hype having long retreated to leave just the metal, glass, leather, plastic and rubber.
Even the numbers have lost their ability to shock. The arrival of the 200mph supercars – F40, XJ220 – saw to that, and nowadays a five-second 0-60mph time is regularly achieved by cars that look almost normal. But such pace was extraordinary back in the 1980s, as were top speeds that in both cases topped 180mph. On its launch, the quattrovalvole version of the Countach was the world’s fastest production car.
As supercars have become ever more aggressive and outrageous, what once seemed fascinatingly outlandish can soften almost to normality with the passage of time. This, as you can see, has absolutely not happened with the Lamborghini. Curiously, its shape – at least, as represented here – has turned out to be almost ageless. Lamborghini could launch it now with very few tweaks: bigger, non-retracting headlights perhaps, rounder front corners, even bigger wheels and lower-profile tyres. (And a completely new interior, but we’ll get to that.)
Some say the original, 1970s Countach is the purer archetype, with its smoother surfaces and the lack of wheelarch extensions and rear air scoops, but that car is visually a part of its era. With the brutal addenda, however, the Lamborghini became so obviously functional that the fashion element of styling practically vanishes from view – and with it, an obvious slot in history. But there were limits to how much brutalisation the shape could take and still retain its integrity.
The huge, arrowhead rear wing looked outrageous, but those venturing towards the gummed edge of the Countach’s speed envelope reported that it really did improve stability, even if the extra drag ultimately slowed it down. So we could let that one pass. Not the striated sill extensions of the final cars though, which just looked like a cheap, tacked-on imitation of the Lambo’s greatest adversary’s flanks. Far better to see the smooth, tucked-under curve of the sill itself.
That’s the way the car you see here is presented, and it also lacks the wing. So it’s the perfect visual blend of purity and muscularity, promising monstrous power and a battle of wills. Can a boxer-engined Ferrari compete with that?
Straightaway you can sense the different approach. The Countach battles with the air and the road, the Testarossa tries to co-operate with them. The whole look of the Ferrari suggests an effortless flow through the air, the join between bumper and nose leading to a swage that sweeps upwards to become a broad shoulder atop the rear wheels. Below is the TR’s most striking styling feature, the stack of five strakes, which grows out of the door to guard hefty air scoops between door and rear wheel. These feed the radiators, whose rear-side positioning is the reason why the Testarossa is so wide.
Or so we thought at the time, yet actually the Testarossa is just half an inch broader than today’s 599 and FF, and actually an inch narrower than the Countach thanks to the latter’s bulging rear arches. It just looks wider because the slab body sides are pulled right out beyond the wheels. There’s no rear spoiler here, and the glass area is wider and deeper all round. It’s a crucial difference.
I drive the Ferrari first, an ultra-low-mileage example (just 13,000 recorded) lent by obliging and trusting specialist Foskers, whose Brands Hatch emporium is filled with fine examples of redness through the ages (the Testarossa in these pictures, from Cheshire Classic Cars reads just 626 on the odometer – it even has its original fitted luggage in the passenger footwell). It’s red, of course. The Goodyear tyres are old and hard, possibly near-original, and I’m struck by what today seems the cushioning depth of their sidewalls: a 50 profile was racy back then but every sport-pack family car has them now.
It does look a big, unwieldy thing, the impression of width emphasised from the rear by the black strakes spreading right across the tail panel. More black air-extraction strakes surround the bulge in the engine cover set between the buttresses aft of the vertical rear window. Why a bulge? Isn’t the engine a low, compact flat-12? It is, of course, but it sits on top of the gearbox, which it drives via spur gears, a bit like an original Mini’s arrangement except that, here, the gearbox has its own oil supply – an excessive-sounding 9.5 litres of it. So despite the engine’s flatness, the complete powertrain is bulky and has a higher centre of gravity than you might have expected.
Now to get inside. The door opening is long and low, the door itself is unusually thick at its rear edge and shows those strakes in intriguing cross-section. Ingress is easy past the wide sill, the drop-down handbrake and the two chromed handles to release bonnet and engine cover, and once installed in the multi-adjustable driving seat you discover a panoramic view forward and surprising airiness behind. Angled junctions and close-quarters manoeuvring hold no fear in the Testarossa.
To your left, between the seats, is a plateau of plastic buttons that looked very high-tech in the 1980s but seems dirt-attractingly dated now. Ahead of it are the odometer and trip meter, far away from the rather Fiat-like main dials beyond the three-spoke Momo steering wheel, while further Fiatness manifests itself in the stalks on the steering column. I don’t think I’d have been impressed had I just paid the £62,666 the Testarossa cost new in 1985.
However, salvation is at hand. Left hand, to be specific, towards which is cranked a slim, chrome gearlever with a shiny black spherical knob. The lever sprouts from the open gate that was a standard Ferrari fearture before paddleshifts arrived to make everyone think he or she is a Formula 1 driver. Now, time to tame the bulky beast with its 390bhp awaiting the opening of the stable door. That was a stupendous amount of power for the time, beaten only by the saucy, meaty rival from Sant’Agata Bolognese.
I turn the ignition key; no gimmicky, cod-retro start button here. Twelve compressions flow into one resistance, free of starter pulsations, and… what? The engine erupts but no windows break and the earth doesn’t move. The bass burble is deep but smooth, the Bosch KE-jetronic fuel injection and Marelli Microplex ignition keep manners neat and temperament sweet. This was always intended to be the civilised supercar in a way that the 512BB predecessor did not quite manage, and so far the brief seems to have been kept.
Into gear. Some springy obstinacy here, but the gearbox oil is cold so things will improve because that’s how Ferraris always were. Weren’t they?
Off we move towards fast A-roads, the width surprisingly unnoticed (just remember those broad rear haunches, which cut off the lower parts of both double-stalked door mirrors’ fields of view), the steering surprisingly slow-witted. It’s a non-powered system, because back then only Honda thought a mid-engined supercar should save its driver’s shoulders, but it’s light enough on the move. I just need to re-programme my movements after driving to Foskers in a wrist-flicking Eunos Roadster (the same age as this Ferrari, incidentally).
Well, this all feels very benign if a touch over-specified for the ambling experienced so far. Second gear is truly obstructive, though, just as Ferrari legend says it should be. Why it needs to be so has never been clear. Was it a deliberate propagation of intrigue, easier to sustain than actually fixing the problem?
Now to explore the deeper reaches of the accelerator pedal’s travel. Below 3000rpm the engine is gentle, docile, torquey enough to be stroked along. From 3000 there’s more gusto, more bite and you sense an awakening of the beast. Beyond 4000rpm the note hardens, throats open and the vocals take on a touch of Bryn Terfel in full Jubilee-concert potency. The engine will spin beyond 7000rpm with ease, passing the power peak at 6300rpm en route, and though very smooth it always retains the slight rasp that betrays the racing-engine influence.
Now, keep the engine in its rumbustious vocal zone, point the Ferrari along some bendy, undulating lanes and suddenly it becomes a car I did not quite expect. The gearbox remains obstreperous but the helping foot of a double-declutch can sometimes soothe it, and more significant is that, with meaningful loads applied to the front wheels, the steering sharpens to become apparently quicker than it really is while telegraphing all you need to know about grip and loadings. There’s a decent ride quality here too, so long as you can avoid the worst examples of modern-day road neglect.
I’m having a great time here, the Ferrari proving agile and responsive as though 20% smaller than it is. I’ve warmed to this car, its easy usability and its accessible thrust, and despite the aged tyres I haven’t encountered any of the tail-loosing tripwires from which a really quickly driven Testarossa reportedly suffered.