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Michael Sheehan's Ferraris-online.com Article

F is for Ferrari and also for Fun

Drive the 550 after the reverse gear has bounced around in the transaxle like a ball in a squash court, and the repair bill will climb to $7,500

As appeared in:

Sports Car Market—July 2006 issue

Sheehan Speaks

by Michael Sheehan

Boxer—user-cruel or driver’s delight?
Boxer—user-cruel or driver’s delight?

The majority of first-time, 12-cylinder Ferrari buyers have $50,000–$100,000 to spend, and while that won’t buy you much more than a keyfob for a collectible vintage Ferrari, it’s plenty for a modern flat-12 or V12.

Ferraris in this price range are bought for looks, performance, and pride of ownership, not as investments. Here’s a summary of later-model favorites, one of which might be just right for you.

THE BOXER STILL REMAINS

You’ve missed the bus for a 365 BB, but the 1976–81 512 BBs are still under $100,000. With only 921 cars produced, carbureted 512s are relatively rare compared to Ferrari’s current production numbers. While not as quick as a 365 through the first three gears, the extra 600 cc certainly makes a difference on the top end, making the carbureted 512 the fastest of the Boxers.

To counter tougher emissions, Ferrari added fuel injection to the 512 in 1981, creating the 512 BBi. Tuned for more low-end and mid-range performance, the injected Boxers are more tractable around town. Through 1984, a total of 1,007 512 BBis were produced.

Last month, SCM contributor Steve Serio mentioned that he found Boxers user-cruel. I beg to differ. With room for the tallest driver, adequate air conditioning, light steering, and excellent brakes, I find Boxers to be a driver’s delight. Just remember that while balance and handling are good, once the limits are reached the car will swap ends without warning. Bland styling and certification worries (Boxers were never sold new in the U.S.) have kept values below those of the more attractive but less refined Daytona. However, Daytonas now sell for more than $225,000, so a 512 BB or BBi at $85,000 to $95,000 is a bargain.

Bear in mind that Boxers are now 20 to 30 years old, so they can run up stratospheric repair bills. An engine-out service on these cars starts at about $6,000, with typical ancillary work such as a new multi-plate clutch, water pump, starter and alternator rebuilds, cooling system work, and a full hose replacement doubling that amount.

The good news is that Boxers are fully depreciated and gained about $10,000 to $20,000 in the last year. Further appreciation will cover future maintenance costs, at best. So buy a car with a recent service and it should be a joy for the next five years. When the 30,000-mile service is due, get out your checkbook or wave bye-bye.

BOSS TESTAROSSA

The 1986–89 Testarossa and 1992–94 512 TR, in my opinion, offer the biggest bang for the buck in the Ferrari world. Both big cars, they have heavy-feeling controls under 15 mph—but who drives a Ferrari under 15 mph? They have acres of torque, effortless performance, and a cruising speed that will put you in jail in all 50 states.

Dated “Miami Vice” styling, but supercar performance
Dated “Miami Vice” styling, but supercar performance

The bold but “Miami Vice” dated styling makes them instantly recognizable, always important to first-time Ferrari buyers, and they are user-friendly, with excellent air conditioning and heater. A 1986–87 TR with 25,000 miles and all services done can be bought at $50,000 or so, a late 1988–89 with about 10,000–20,000 miles will bring $75,000–$85,000, and a 1992–94 can be found for $100,000 or less. If you’re a big guy—over 6′3″—the Testarossa is for you.

The Testarossa flat-twelve is a Boxer engine with four valves, so the same deferred and future maintenance costs apply. With over 7,000 built, Testarossas were a great buy when new and—if maintained—can be a great buy today. They aren’t long-term investments, but with exotic performance and looks at a Lexus price, they get my value vote.

MARANELLOS: BACK TO THE DAYTONA

At the end of the TR series, Ferrari returned to front-engine technology and subdued styling with the 550 Maranello in 1996. The Maranello was the replacement for the 365 GTB/4. Like the Daytona, the 550 Maranello is aggressively styled with its cut-off tail and long-nosed good looks.

550 Maranello: Engine contents under pressure
550 Maranello: Engine contents under pressure

Fitted with a 5.5-liter, 48-valve V12 that pushes out 485 hp at 7,000 rpm, the 550 has a top speed of 199 mph and rips through a quarter-mile in 12.6 seconds. A total of 3,600 were built between 1996 and 2002. Today a U.S.-legal, European 1996 or 1997 Maranello is $85,000–$95,000, while mid-mileage 1997 or 1998 U.S. cars can be found for $95,000–$100,000.

As for pitfalls of ownership, early 550s run too much oil pressure and occasionally blow the oil filter apart, creating a major mess. Should the oil filter start to leak as an inattentive owner cruises down the freeway, chatting on the cell phone, and he spins the bearings and scores the crank, the next stop is the dealer and a new engine for $75,000. If he stops in time, a rebuild is only $25,000. Preventing the problem is simple: Remove a few spacers in the oil system (one hour’s labor), which drops the oil pressure.

The circlip holding reverse gear to the gear cluster sometimes fails on earlier 550s, resulting in major transaxle repair bills. If your 550 pops out of reverse, truck it to your local Ferrari service center and have the transaxle pulled and the circlip and reverse gear replaced at a cost of about $3,500. Drive the car with the transaxle making ominous sounds and, after the reverse gear has bounced around in the transaxle like a ball in a squash court, the repair bill will climb to about $7,500. Clutches, traditionally a weak spot with novice Ferrari drivers, don’t seem to be a problem.

In the engines, it’s not uncommon to do a compression leak-down check on a low-mileage 550 and find poor ring seating and leaky valve seats. If the compression on a car you are considering is weak, keep looking. Also, cam and front seals tend to start leaking after about 10,000 miles, so most owners skip the 15,000-mile service and simply go to straight to the 30,000-mile service. This includes cam seals, cam belts, tensioner bearings, and more for about $3,500. Check the records.

LIFE’S TOO SHORT TO DRIVE HONDAS

Don’t think about “Ferrari” and “investment” in this price range. There is no upside to any of these cars, other than to fulfill the dream of Ferrari ownership. But life is too short to drive Hondas—at least on weekends. If you take your family on a Caribbean or skiing vacation and spend $10,000, you don’t expect to sell those memories and make a profit, do you?

So enjoy your Ferrari for the pride of ownership, the thrill of seeing it when you open the garage door, and the chance to take your wife or buddy to Sunday brunch in Italian style, savoring the admiring looks you get from those accountant-types in their Camrys.

But remember: Buy the right car, commit to spending $5,000 a year in maintenance, and don’t look back. Buy the wrong car, and you’ll put your mechanic’s kids through college; pre-purchase inspection is a must.

MICHAEL SHEEHAN has been a Ferrari dealer for 30 years as well as a race car driver and exotic car broker.