Meet The Super Eight: A Mid-Engined, Ferrari 308-Based Hot Hatch From The Mind Of Franco Sbarro
Photography by Máté Boér
After the chance to inspect Niki Lauda’s first Formula 1 car up close before walking across the convention center to find first prototype of the iconic Lancia 037 at this year’s Interclassics Maastricht, my appetite for classics with interesting history was already sated by the time I found this piece of rare ’80s automotive hedonism.
At first glance, I thought it was a modified Daihatsu Charade GTti. From a 20 feet away, packed in amidst all the rest of the cars battling for attention, the Sbarro Super Eight’s contours reminded me of the sporting Japanese mini hatchback. I learned how wrong this idea was when I got closer and saw what was in front of the Sbarro’s rear arches.
It was actually the astonishingly rare pair of a Monteverdi 375L Highspeed 2+2 and an unusually pink Iso Rivolta Fidia that initially drew me to Speed 8 Classics’ display. Both of these cars are for a very specific kind of taste, the Fidia in its original Viola Borgogna paint especially. I had to see what else the Belgian company had on offer. This was the route that lead me to the Sbarro on the other side of the stand, and when I realized that the sharp but bulbous, massively widened machine was one of Franco Sbarro’s creations I knew I had to dig in and share it with you.
It’s hard to stand out from such a group of cars like the aforementioned Iso and Monteverdi (pictured above), but if anyone can draw a crowd around a car it is Franco Sbarro. The Italian-born mechanic/designer/all-around talented Sbarro moved to Switzerland at a young age, where he managed the famous Scuderia Filipinetti racing team, while also maintaining and developing the team’s cars. In 1968 he then founded his own company, Atelier de Construction Automobile (ACA), and gained early notoriety for building replicas of famous cars like the Ferrari P4, Lola T70, and most notably the BMW 328. And his first own creation under the ACA logo, the Dominique III, was an auspicious start. A very low-slung sports car powered by the same 4.7L V8 from the GT40 (a car which Sbarro, friend of Eric Broadley, had a long history with already), it was also with an air brake, just one of a number of unique aerodynamic and styling features that would appear on future Sbarro creations.
Though his creations are often polarizing (and some, I must admit, are downright ugly), it is impossible for Sbarro’s detractors to criticize him on the basis of creativity. His mind seems to know no limits, and to supplement the wild visuals of his vehicle Sbarro typically infuses them with his visionary engineering solutions. He came up with such ideas as the hub-less wheel (a wheel with an engine inside the outer rim), and is also well known for building extravagant machines for Arabian customers, like six-wheeled SUVs designed for falconing (give the Sbarro Windhawk a Google). If you are at all acquainted with his work, you know that the Super Eight is not just a bodykit slapped onto a hatchback.
What you can’t see under the custom bodywork is a Ferrari 308 GTB, which makes the Super Eight a 260hp extra-hot hatchback from the early eighties with a—relative to the car’s 800kg (~1765lbs) weight—ridiculously powerful mid-mounted engine. Does it sound like a familiar concept? The Group-B-homologated Renault 5 Turbo used the same recipe with much less luxury and a little less power, but it was still enough to conquer the rally stages in period. The MG Metro 6R4, Peugeot 206 T16, and the Lancia Delta S4 were the other mid-engined hatchback homologation heroes of the ’80s, but whereas these were competition-bred solutions to regulations, the Super Eight was a more opulent offering.
The name of course refers to the number of cylinders in the hatchback’s mid-mounted Ferrari V8, which was left in factory specification. Surprisingly enough though, the Super Eight is a tamed, more civilized version of another Sbarro hatchback, the Super Twelve. In that car, two six-cylinder 1300cc Kawasaki engines worked together in a transverse inline configuration. Each of the motorcycle motors powered one of the rear wheels through their own gearboxes (which were connected by an intricate linkage that allowed a single shifter to operate both). The setup is really interesting from an engineering point of view, but the Super Twelve wasn’t really marketable for everyday use, and thus Sbarro built the Super Eight (which you are also unlikely to see on the street!).
Inside the luxurious, soft leather-trimmed cockpit, all instruments are borrowed from Ferrari, as well as the Italian brand’s signature gated shifter. Just like in the 308 GTB, the 3.0L Quattrovalvole engine powers the rear wheels through a five-speed gearbox, and the 285/40 ZR15 tires do their best to keep traction. Speed 8 Classics founder, Koen Heuts, told me with a wide smile about the machine’s driving experience, though I doubt that any of the lucky few who grabbed this particular Momo Corba steering wheel bought this car solely for its on-road demeanor.
This surviving Super Eight is in perfect running condition, and has reportedly covered only 26,254km since its debut at the Geneva Motor Show way back in 1984. There were plans for a limited series production, but as is the story for many of Sbarro’s ideas, it never came to fruition. For me, most of Sbarro’s creations are hard to imagine living with, but I must say this is a perfect embodiment of 1980s tuning and modifying at the extremes, and it’s a piece of niche history that I’d be happy to stumble upon again in the future.