The Berlinetta Boxer was the first Ferrari badged mid-engine car from Maranello, offering a novel twist on the prancing horse’s best qualities.
Mid-mounting an engine has been the default for high-end supercars for a good long while. Setting the engine behind the driver but in front of the rear axle provides an even weight distribution conducive to athletic handling, and though some, like the Corvette, have been slow to the party, supercar makers have been mid-mounting engines for decades now.
Indeed, for car enthusiasts of more recent vintage, it can be hard to recall a time when carmakers like Ferrari or Lamborghini did not offer a mid-engine car. But jump back fifty years and you will encounter Ferrari’s first* car with a mid-ship powerplant, the Berlinetta Boxer*.
Below, we will situate the Ferrari BB cars within the company’s history, explore what makes them unique, and explain why the above paragraph requires not one but two asterisks.
The Ferrari 365 GT4/BB was the successor to the Ferrari 365 GTB/4 and GTS/4 “Daytona.” While their names might be similar, these two cars were in fact wildly different. The Daytona was a front engine grand tourer featuring Ferrari’s signature Tipo 251 Columbo V12. The new BB shifted the engine behind the driver, splayed the V12 into a flat-12, and amped up the car’s styling.
Before we go any further, let us address those asterisks. First, the 365 GT4/BB was not, strictly speaking, the first mid-engine car built by Ferrari, that would instead be the V6 Dino. The 365GT4/BB was the first mid-engine Ferrari to carry a Ferrari badge as the Dino carried its own distinct branding.
Next, the name Berlinetta Boxer is a misnomer for a couple of reasons. One, the BB’s flat-12 did indeed have horizontal cylinders, but that alone does not make a boxer engine. A true boxer engine, like those found in Subarus and Porsches, have their opposing pistons firing toward each other and a 180-degree crank. The BB’s flat-12 has pistons that move in the same direction and a 120-degree crank.
Not only is the above pedantic, but it is also moot as the “BB” in 365 GT4/BB did not originally stand for Berlinetta Boxer. Reports differ from those at Ferrari at the time, but some say the BB stood for Berlinetta Bialbero, referencing the cars twin-cam set up. The car’s lead designer, Leonardo Fioravanti of Pininfarina, had yet another origin. He said in development the BB referenced French film actor Brigitte Bardot as both she and the new Ferrari were things of supreme beauty.
The first prototype of the Ferrari 365 GT4/BB debuted in 1971 at the Turin Auto Show. Though it was Ferrari’s first road car with a flat-12, Scuderia Ferrari had been working on such designs going back to 1964. The Ferrari 365 GT4/BB made its official debut in 1973. Thanks to US emissions regulations and a 55-mph federal speed limit, Ferrari never brought the 365 GT4/BB and its later iterations to American shores.
Like all proper supercars and especially Italian ones of the 1970s, the Ferrari 365 GT4/BB had many unique and unusual qualities. The foremost being its mid-mounted flat-12 beginning at 4390cc and making between 340 and 360 horsepower depending on your source (Ferrari says their prototype made 380 horsepower and hit 188 mph in testing). It was a first for Ferrari and set the stage for Ferrari cars for the next two decades and beyond.
Among the Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer many points of distinction was its interior, and specifically its narrow pedal box. And not only is the car’s pedal box laughably narrow, suitable for narrow Italian loafers only, but it is offset to the right and the clutch among the heaviest of any car of the era. The odd ergonomics continue with the BB’s door handles, small and vertical on the outside and hidden in the underside paneling of the door card. One nice touch, however, are the dual ashtrays for driver and passenger each with their own cigarette lighter.
The exterior has its own quirks as well. Both the frunk lid and the engine cover open clamshell style and in both cases seemingly include all their respective body panels. The car’s front turn signals are massive squares even larger than the BB’s set of pop-up headlights. Sidemirrors fold, not to the side like most modern cars, but upward. The offset single arm windshield wiper has two blades and rests oddly high, extending into the passenger’s frontward view.
Starting in 1976, Ferrari updated the BB with a new, larger 4.9L flat-12, now making 360 horsepower and 333 lb.-ft. of torque. The new 512 BB also had its rear end widened to accommodate larger tires and new NACA ducts cut into the lower panels for additional cooling. The 365 GT4/BB’s six taillights were replaced with a new quad taillight design and the triple exhaust tips trimmed down to two on each side. It is this iteration, with its throaty carbureted exhaust note (snaps and crackles included), that is the most characterful of the BB cars. For 1982 Ferrari gave the 512 BB another major update, a new Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system. New marker and fog lights were added respectively to the front and back of the car as well.
The 512 BBi was produced in 1982 and ’83 before being replaced by the new Ferrari Testarossa. Like the BB cars, the Testarossa featured a mid-mounted flat-12 but it made major leaps forward in terms of comfort. The interior was roomier and more comfortable, with improved ergonomics. The Testarossa was a proper GT-style cruiser in a way the raw BB cars had never been. The Testarossa became a symbol of ‘80s excess, thanks in no small part to appearing in the television show Miami Vice, evolving into the 1990s as the F512 M.
The Testarossa’s successor, the 550 Maranello shifted the engine, again a V12, back to the front of the car. At this point, Ferrari had long since moved ahead with mid-engine V8s, beginning with the 308 back in 1975 and continuing today with the SF90. The twenty-year experiment with mid-engine flat-12 road cars began with 365 GT4/BB and the ended with the Testarossa F512 M. Between the V12 Columbo engines of old and today’s screaming, hybridized V8s, the mid-mounted flat-12 Berlinetta Boxers remain a singularly Ferrari experience.