The “Brigitte Bardot” of Automobiles
Mid-engine Ferraris are a mainstay for the company these days, but it wasn’t always that way. The Berlinetta Boxer has long been a personal favorite, for it was Ferrari’s first mid-engine production supercar. Its flat-12 engine was a world first in a road car, and that stunning Pininfarina shape has aged beautifully.
Plus nothing else feels like a flat-12 (it’s so smooth that its like pouring water from one glass to another), and we will explore the Boxer’s on-road capabilities in a future entry. For how this landmark Ferrari came to be is a story unto itself.
It Was An Uphill Battle
When Lamborghini unknowingly fired the Top Speed War’s opening act at 1965’s Turin Auto Show by displaying an avant-garde chassis with a longitudinally mounted V12, Ferrari’s coachbuilder Sergio Pininfarina recognized trouble when he saw it. Then 39 years old, he had personally handled the Ferrari account since he father landed it in 1952, and for much of 1965 he had locked horns with a truculent Enzo Ferrari, trying to convince him to produce a street going mid-engine machine.
“He kept insisting it was too dangerous,” the effervescent coachbuilder told me. “While he felt it was fine for racing and professional drivers, he was against making mid-engine sports cars for customers. He was afraid of the safety, of building a car that was too dangerous. That’s why he was preparing the front engine with rear drive, the classic layout. The idea of having all the weight in the back was upsetting to him.”
The finished Miura debuted at Geneva in March 1966, and even the hoopla the uproar that followed could not persuade “The Old Man” to change his mind. “I insisted and insisted, and insisted,” the coachbuilder goes on, recalling his frustration. “All the salesmen were with me. We had dramatic meetings in Maranello in which the salesmen and myself were pushing for a mid-engine.”
Pininfarina’s non-stop barrage finally yielded some results: Ferrari green-lighted the experimental 6-cylinder Dino for production, the idea being six less cylinders had much less power and weight than a “12,” and would thus be safer. A one-off prototype broke cover at 1965’s Paris Auto Show, and a second, more refined prototype debuted the following year at Turin. The pre-production version appeared a year later, and the 206 Dino went on sale in 1968.
The Hurtle Is Cleared
Road tests saw the Dino hit 60 in 6.7-7.5 seconds and record a top speed of 140-143 mph, a figure Europe’s GT front-runners could blow through with ease. That, though, didn’t stop the press from raving about its road manners. “The Dino 206 GT is a wonderful car…an engineering masterpiece…,” America’s Sports Car Graphic concluded. “(T)he 206GT Dino stands out as one of the most advanced grand touring cars of our time,” England’s CAR seconded.
Couple such observations with the 206 and 246 Dino’s marketplace success, and the walls to Enzo’s mid-engine 12-cylinder resistance came crumbling down. Yet, there was a twist when he ultimately relented. “One day he told me, ‘Instead of the V12 I am trying to make a flat-12,” Pininfarina recounts. “This I consider the future of our cars.’”
Ferrari’s use a “boxer” rather than a vee configuration made sense, given the direction of its competition efforts. During Ferrari’s 1964 world championship-winning campaign in Formula 1, it used a 1489 cc flat-12 in the season’s last two contests. The configuration was also seen in 1969 in Ferrari’s Hillclimb special, the 212 E Montagna. That lightweight machine won every race it entered, and handily garnered the series’ championship. Two years later a flat-12 was the heart of the 312 PB, a car that handily won the endurance racing championship in 1972.
Sergio Pininfarina was thrilled with Enzo’s decision: “I very much liked the boxer engine because of its space architecture. For years and years—and especially with Ferrari—I had to fight with a high engine and a large radiator because the engine’s height automatically (dictated) the height of the radiator…But with the boxer engine being lower, it made everything easier.”
The flat-12 was the brainchild of Ferrari chief engineer Mauro Forghieri. He concentrated on the company’s competition efforts, so the two men who oversaw the Berlinetta Boxer’s mechanical design and development were seasoned engineers Angelo Bellei and Giuliano de Angelis.
“When we made the decision to make the Boxer, we had no qualms,” Bellei states in Mel Nichols excellent book, “Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer.” “Our experience with the Dino 246 GT and the Formula 1 boxer engine combined to give us complete confidence in the path we wished to follow….We knew our belief…would present us with certain problems in the development of a new car…but felt we could overcome them with proper care and attention.”
When the first road going 4.4-liter flat-12 was tested, “everything went according to plan,” de Angelis told Nichols. “We ran the first tests and found that we had nothing major to correct or update.”
The chassis was a semi-monocoque design around the cabin, with tubular subframes front and rear. Based on Ferrari’s experience with the 250 LM and street-going 206/246, Bellei echoed Enzo’s original concerns when he told Nichols “What we did have some doubts about was the considerable weight at the rear. (We) knew we would have to work very hard to make sure we kept it under control.”
What BB Really Means…
Sergio Pininfarina and his troops were also quite busy in Turin. The design’s starting point was Pininfarina’s P6, a non-running prototype that was first shown in 1968 at Turin. The Boxer refined the shape, and “was born red with all the lower parts in black or dark gray,” Pininfarina comments. “The idea was to ’cut’ the car in two to make it look slender.”
The design team thought so highly of the car’s stunning shape that “not many people understand that when we called the Berlinetta Boxer the ‘BB,’ the joke was the BB (also meant) Brigitte Bardot!” Pininfarina mused. “She was a splendid animal, a splendid woman….”
Like any beautiful star, the 365 GT4/BB arrived fashionably late for its coming out party at 1971’s Turin Auto Show. It appeared at 10:30 am on the press day and had design innovations such as hidden door handles, roller shades for the windshield, and windscreen washers that warmed the water. “We incorporated everything we know into the BB,” Pininfarina commented at the time.
At 1972’s Turin Show, Ferrari announced the Boxer had reached production stage. Deliveries began some ten months after that premature declaration, the coachwork being constructed by Modena’s master panel beater Sergio Scaglietti.
Unfortunately, the 365 Boxer entered the marketplace at a difficult time. The oil crisis, political strife, resulting crippling strikes and material shortages very likely affected the car’s build quality and production process. That made for uneven results in period road tests, but when a 365 Boxer was right, it was really right. Mel Nichols recorded 0-60 in 5.4 seconds and 0-100 in 11.3
in England’s CAR road test.
“The incredible thing…,” he observed, “was (these) times were achieved with none of the wheelspin and drama normally associated with such acceleration runs.” He saw 160 mph “with plenty more in hand, leading him to accept “Ferrari’s assertion it would run…around 290 kph (180 mph) in ideal conditions.”
In that uncertain political and economic climate, Ferrari did not sit still. The model was refined in 1976 with the BB512, and then the 512 BBi in 1981. When the last of the 2,323 Boxers (387 365s, 929 512 BBs, 1007 BBis) was produced in 1984, it represented a bit of a milestone in Ferrari history. “It was something special,” says coachbuilder Sergio Scaglietti, a man who constructed countless Ferraris since the early 1950s, including several world champion racers. “It was the last car where we made everything by hand.”