Low-Buck Horsies

Like locusts, e-mails seeking advice about enny-level Ferraris descend daily. Each time SCM reports on a 400i or Mondial 8 selling for under $20,000, readers check their Visa card limits and start fantasizing about having a Prancing Horse in their driveway.

It is possible to own a Ferrari for less than $20,000. Of course, you must first forsake a few minor items such as reliability, working air conditioning and low maintenance. In exchange, you get all the cams, pistons and repair bills that go with a “real” Ferrari.

For those who like V8s and can live with off-beat styling, the 308 GT4 and the Mondial are hard to beat. Thousands were made so examples of both can easily be found for under $25k They are advertised and available virtually anywhere on the planet. Any good mechanic can check them out and give you a detailed mechanical inspection report and any decent body shop can give you a detailed body and “has-it-been-crashed/is it rusty” analysis.

The 1974–79 308 GT4, with 2,826 built, offers great handling, a splitting-wedge style recognizable to most as a Ferrari, adequate driver and passenger comfort, rear seats suitable for very small dogs, a great engine sound, decent luggage storage, perfunctory A/C and heating, and, in the world of Ferraris, low maintenance. They also handle very well and are among the fastest of the carbureted 308 series because of low gearing, bigger cams and limited smog equipment.

The smog issue is a serious one. If you live in an area where a GT4 would have to pass a smog test, only buy a car from your area, with its emissions-equipment intact, and that has recently passed its test. Most GT4s have had their air-injection pumps and thermal reactors removed; finding used equipment, repairing, installing and tuning it can easily be a $5,000 project. And even then you might not please the sniffer.

The 308 GT4 has four Weber carbs and two distributors. A major service is $4,000, a clutch will be $2,000, an engine overhaul in the $20,000 range and a transmission overhaul around $8,000.

The very best Series III 308 GT4s with improved A/C and (usually) a sunroof are below $25,000. Nasty cars will bring $15,000, so you do the math.

If you opt for the 1983–85 Mondial QV Coupe, you’ll pay another $5,000. You’ll also get improved performance, less chance of a smoky engine and longer engine life due to the improved German-made pistons and rings used on the four-valve engine. A total of 1,848 Mondial QV Coupes were built, making them relatively easy to find in the resale market.

If you prefer the sound, torque and power of a V12, and live in an area with emission testing, your best econo-Ferrari choice is the fuel-injected 1980–84 400i. Its predecessors, the carbureted 1976–80 400 GT 2+2 and the 1972–76 365 GT4 2+2 are much faster, but also much more difficult to tune and smog. These cars were designed at a time when kidnapping was rampant in Italy and ostentatious displays of wealth were out. Bland and discreet were in, although bland may be too exciting a word to use for the lines of the 400 series 2+2s.

The automatics are pigs; the three-speed GM transmission has a first gear that is much too tall for adequate acceleration and a final drive that’s too short for any kind of high-speed cruising. The five-speed manuals are much faster, as the low first gear offers the acceleration you expect in a Ferrari and fifth gear will provide effortless cruising that can only be used in Europe or Montana.

Maintenance on the 400i, aside from the $4,000 tune-ups, $10,000 valve jobs and $25,000 engine overhauls, is high. These models are afflicted with a never-ending list of minor problems, including oil coolers that crack and have to be replaced at $1,000 each, and mufflers that hang too low and get ripped off on speed bumps.

The 400i does offer much improved front seat comfort and leg and headroom over the 308 GT4 and Mondial, back seats that will accommodate those with legs almost 18 inches in length, luggage space adequate for any trip and effortless torque and pelformance.

My pick of the sub-$20,000 group is the five-speed 400i, unless you live in an emissions-exempt area, in which case I would go with a carbureted 365 or 400, also with a manual gearbox. Many years ago in the mid-1970s, I purchased one of the first 365 GT4 2+2s in the country and picked it up at Bob Wallace’s shop in Phoenix. As luck would have it, the California Highway Patrol had chosen, for the only time in its history, to go on strike and I chose that weekend to drive the Ferrari from Phoenix to Orange County.

I can remember cruising effortlessly at 125 mph, glorying in the sound of the 12-cylinder engine. The A/C was more than adeauate in the hot Arizona and California desert, visibility was terrific, and even a sustained four-hour blast above 100 mph wasn’t tiring. This all goes to show that there is no direct correlation between how much a car costs and how much fun it can be.

I assume that most readers of SCM feel life is too short to drive Hondas, at least on the weekends. A psychiatrist would probably find that we all share a hormonal imbalance that allows us to accept and even look forward to the inherent irrationality of owning a Ferrari. Worse, we know that owning one on a budget is even crazier, yet still we yearn.

Buying a cheap Ferrari is like walking through a minefield. If you are very very careful, and very very lucky, you will buy a great car for not much money, drive it for a few years, and sell it before any type of major service is due. These cars are cheap precisely because their repair and maintenance bills are so horrendous. Who wants to buy a 400i for $20,000 that needs a $25,000 engine overhaul?

If you’re clever, your neighbors will refer to you as “the guy up the street who must have won the lottery because he’s driving a Ferrari.” If you’re not, they’ll remember you as “the guy who used to live up the street but ended up selling his house because his Ferrari needed a new engine.”