I’m betting that at some point in your life as a car fancier you’ve probably pinned, tacked or taped a poster depicting something sexy, red and Italian to your bedroom wall. Chances are that the subject of the poster would have featured a car with either a rearing stallion or an angry bull badge on its snout? I thought so!
I for one can clearly remember putting up a poster from the James Bond film Goldeneye on my wall; not because of the Aston Martin DB5, but because of its racy Italian counterpart in the film’s opening chase to Monte Carlo. Of course I’m referring to the Ferrari 355 driven by femme fatale Xenia Onatopp (played by Famke Janssen). Putting aside the ludicrous nature of such a chase (the Aston would never keep up) it is a Bond film after all, and the enduring memory I had as a ten-year old was of that Ferrari’s screaming V8 and stunning looks.
Ferraris and indeed supercars in general, tend to speak to our baser instincts, mainly because of their huge visual and visceral impact. It’s primitive and hard wired, just like the rush of adrenaline our ancient ancestors would have felt during a close encounter with a sabre-toothed cat. Ok so that’s a little more terrifying, but the essential elements are there. A super car looks aggressive, almost predatory and they certainly sound every bit as fierce! Perhaps I’m over analysing but the point I’m making is that these cars speak to us from an early age and their impact has a legacy.
In the exact same way I fawned over an Italian supercar in the mid-‘nineties, boys across the globe had a new pin-up to admire in the mid-‘seventies when the 308 was revealed. The Paris Motor Show in ’75 was the venue for Leonardo Fioravanti’s new design showcase. The 37-year old Pininfarina designer had been given the task of crafting a replacement for Ferrari’s most successful model to date, the 246 ‘Dino’. Not an easy undertaking, but one in which he revelled, coming up with a car that’s arguably even more beautiful.
The 308’s styling was clearly influenced by its mid-engined predecessor with touches such as the curved front screen, those stunning door scallops, the rear screen buttress and the twin circular tail lights. However, it stands apart and looks a whole lot more brutish than the elegant and feminine 246. And let’s not forget, it also had pop-up headlights making it instantly cool.
Mechanically the 308 was a large departure from the norm for Ferrari. The 246 had been the first Ferrari to use a V6 engine rather than the well-known and trusted V12. The 308 would make yet another departure and use a V8 making it only the second 8-cylinder engine from Ferrari since 1940 to be fitted to a road car (the 1955 Lancia D50 was a racer and was inherited not built by Ferrari). This V8 first saw service in a rare variant of the Dino called the 308 GT4 but this was a very low production model. This V8 used four belt-driven overhead camshafts (two per cylinder bank) to open the valves and with a 2.9-litre displacement, and being fed by a wallet empting set of four twin-choke Weber carburettors, this gave the new 308 252bhp at a screaming 7700rpm.
The chassis was constructed in a space-frame tube layout (separate body) and housed that mid-mounted transverse V8 with an under-slung transmission. Early cars were constructed with a GRP (glass-reinforced plastic) body allowing for a 1050kg kerb weight (changed to steel in June 1977 adding 150kg). Suspension was of the double wishbone variety incorporating coaxial coil springs and hydraulic dampers, plus a pair of anti-roll bars. The transaxle under and behind the engine (Formula One style) had five forward speeds (all synchronised) and a clutch-type limited-slip differential.
When it was launched the 308 quickly won acclaim, mainly for its styling, handling and power. Here was a Ferrari with a more sensible engine than its iconic ‘fifties and ‘sixties forebears but with performance to worry even the fastest machines of the age. The sprint to 60mph in an early 308 (pre-emissions strangled) could be done in under 6 seconds and the top speed was on the smug side of 160mph. That’s still fast today, in the mid-‘seventies it was almost unheard of. The 308 is every inch a supercar, and along with the Lamborghini Miura, is pretty much responsible for creating the genre in the first place.
ON THE ROAD
Finding a 308 for this photoshoot actually proved to be no easy task. The value of this significant Ferrari model has gone into orbit recently and finding an example that was in good order, but wasn’t cocooned in a private collection, took some searching. However, eventually we came across one that had just been repatriated from France and was being prepared for sale by supercar and performance specialist Slades Garage.
Arriving at the garage we were struck by its amazing period look and a brief chat with co-owner Lee Hickles confirmed that the look was in fact genuine. “There’s been a garage on site since 1922. It used to be an Austin and Morris franchise but that ended when Leyland took over as they wanted the owner to change the colour scheme, he refused and it became a private garage.” Lee tells us.
Although they don’t deal solely in classic cars, there’s enough here on a regular basis for the period feel of the place to be reinforced with some cool old stock. During our visit for example there was a Porsche 356, two Lamborghini Diablos, a pre-war Austin 7 based racer, an Austin-Healey 3000 and two Ferrari 308s. Not to mention the myriad of 355s, F430s, Mercedes-Benz G-Wagons and even an AMG SLS. Suffice it to say, a wander around Slades’ premises is much like Christmas morning when you were a kid.
As Mr Woods and I muse over some of the dream cars in the current Slades’ collection our chat and coffee sipping is loudly interrupted by a staccato roar coming from the valeting area to the rear of the main premises. We can’t help but peer around the corner to see what’s making that wonderfully sonorous racket, it turns out it’s our chariot for the afternoon. As we gaze on in awe, an icon of performance motoring resplendent in Rosso Corsa (trademark Ferrari red) pulls up. I’m near giddy with excitement as I’m handed the keys to what is only my second ever Ferrari driving experience.
The first challenge facing the driver of a 308 is how to gain access. A strange plastic flap just above the sculpted intake on the door seems a likely source of entry. Low and behold pulling it away from the door gives you access. It’s the first sign that this will be no ordinary driving experience. Shuffling into the nearside seat (it’s a French import remember) I realise instantly how little space there is for a taller driver. As with most Italian cars the pedal tunnel is very tight and I instantly regret wearing those wide skater trainers that I put on that morning. Still, after a bit of a wiggle I find a position that works and we set off.
Reaching to the right for the gear stick I’m immediately struck by the sheer sculpted beauty of this ordinarily utilitarian implement. Suddenly I begin to comprehend why these cars are commanding such values on the premium classic market. The gear pattern is arranged in that wonderful classic Ferrari closed polished metal gate. There’s a long shaft to the small perfect sphere of a gear stick that makes me aware of the gear locations. The painted pattern features a dogleg first gear position with reverse being found where first would normally be located. The rest of the forward speeds are arranged in an H pattern, which allows for rapid shifts under hard acceleration.
As I turn the key and am greeted once more by the wonderful quad-cam V8 bellowing just behind my right ear, I turn my attention back to the pedals as I begin to acclimatise myself with the 308. The pedals are offset to the right a little, which makes things even more complicated. The clutch pedal refuses to move unless significant pressure is applied. It’s not uncomfortable but there’s a long travel on the way back up to find the biting point, indicating that this 50,000-odd mile totally unrestored 308 is most likely sporting its factory supplied clutch.
Pulling out of Slades Garage onto a busy main road I’m suddenly well aware of all these factors conspiring against me on this test drive. The gears are in an odd layout, I’m on the ‘wrong’ side of the cabin, the pedal tunnel is small and offset to the right and as I go for second gear, nothing happens. Oh dear… That cold transmission isn’t keen on swapping cogs. This car has been largely unused in recent months and Slades mechanic hasn’t had a chance to go through it yet, so the odd niggle is to be expected. I’m trying to drop the clutch and rev in between changes, but that second gear remains elusive. So back to first it is for the time being.
Thankfully once we do about half a mile and I try for second again, this time with a bit more of a shove, the gear selects and after that, things improve dramatically. All the negatives start to disappear as I begin to get a feel for the 308. It’s a car that’s not instantly easy to jump in and thrash, it needs a degree of respect and sensitivity. You have to listen to what the car’s telling you and wait until it’s ready.
I use this gentle getting to know each other time to gaze around the cabin. The dials are spot on in front of the driver’s view in a dash-mounted pod with the speedo to the left (in KPH of course) and the tachometer to the right with a bright graduation of the dial as it approaches 7700rpm, graded from yellow to orange, then red at the shift point. There are a number of additional gauges (well it is Italian) telling you everything from oil pressure, coolant temperature and fuel, to battery voltage and oil temperature. There’s a lot to draw your eye and when you combine this with the bank of baffling switches on the centre console to control the heater, it’s easy to get lost. The air-con controls are worthy of mention as they look like old analogue volume dials from a Marshal amplifier.
There are three stalks on the column the two left sticks control the pop-up lights and the indicators and the right hand stalk sorts out the wipers. The standard Momo leather three-spoke steering wheel has a central horn push with a yellow Ferrari badge emblazed on it. The wheel is actually perfectly sized and allows a great view of the dials. It’s just as well it falls easily to hand because you’ll be using it a lot! The lack of power steering and the large tyres does make low speed motion a bit more of an effort than in most cars, even of this period. However, if you’re complaining about the parking attributes of a Ferrari I think it’s safe to say you’ve well and truly missed the point!
Happy that the transmission has now been tamed and with a sense of comfort and near ease growing, I chose to exploit some more of the power from that wonderful engine. Our test car is a late 308 GTS targa top variant but as some of you may have already spotted, it has a ‘QUATTROVALVOLE’ or quad valve badge on the rear. This 32-valve engine came in to redress the power balance after the emission laws strangled power and meant Bosch fuel-injection replaced those fabulous 4 Weber 40s. This means that power is up to 240bhp and despite still being down on the early car’s 252bhp (plus we weigh an additional 150kg) there’s still plenty of poke.
Sadly we’re in one of the busiest parts of Buckinghamshire and everywhere we go there’s a 30 or 40mph limit and oodles of traffic. There is however, occasion to unleash full power on a handful of memorable stretches. It’s a fabulous thing to behold as you mechanically clunk the gear stick down a cog, hear the revs raise and then plant the throttle as the car’s nose straightens. Your seat squats as the rear digs in and then a bellow of sheer joy emits from the back as you giggle up to the redline. Your spine tingles in time with the crackles from the tailpipes. Click the next ratio into place and the fun continues. It’s all utterly mesmerising and thoroughly addictive. But these aren’t the roads for a thoroughbred they’re more suited to a cart horse sadly.
Returning this timewarp 308 to Slades I’m more than a little sad that I’ve only grasped the very tip of the Ferrari experience. It’s an all too brief excursion into another world and it only reinforces my view that performance cars reached their zenith by the ‘eighties. The 308 makes do without ABS, traction control or even power steering and the experience of driving one is immeasurably improve for it. It’s a tired old cliché but there really is nothing like an old mechanical sports car for putting a massive grin on your face. I even take the time to park the 308 in the dealership instead of simply leaving it outside, just to savour a few more moments with this stunning machine. Would I buy one? Yes absolutely. Do I have the £55,000 to do so? Absolutely not… Oh well, I guess that’s why we call this feature a dream drive.
ENGINE: 2927cc quad-cam 32-valve 90 degree V8
POWER: 237bhp at 7000rpm
TOP SPEED: 156mph
0-60MPH: 6.7 seconds
GEARBOX: 5-speed manual