Too Cool For Cocaine Jokes: What It’s Like To Drive A White Ferrari BB 512i
Photography by Will Broadhead
There’s something about starting a fast car in an small space, similar to dropping a gear and gunning it through a tunnel, it’s juvenile, but it never fails to make you smile, visibly or just in your head. It’s especially joyful when the car in question has a 5.0L, 12-cylinder boxer engine mounted behind your head and bears the emblem of the Prancing Horse. Today’s auditorium is the automotive tuck shop that is the Classic Motor Hub’s hangar-deep headquarters in the Cotswolds, and the noise we’re making in here is glorious. This car was built for more than stationary revs though, and I am lucky enough to be taking it, a Ferrari BB 512i, for a morning of fun in late autumn.
The machine looks magnificent in the low, early light, the Pininfarina-penned lines are striking as ever and instantly recognizable, that sculpted clamshell engine cover designed to draw attention to the heart of the car, those distinctive circular rear lights that are possibly the most famous taillights in the history of this company, having appeared on this great supercar and so many others before it. Even the typical 1980s white paint scheme looks good on this shape—save your coke jokes, this car is better than that. It’s a romantic image indeed as the exhaust output condenses and swirls around the warming car, shrouding it and then blowing off, an appropriate bit of theater for a car that commands as much presence as the 512.
The “BBi” was the last in the Berlinetta Boxer series to be released, introduced in 1981 with the ‘i’ designating its Bosch electronic fuel injection. It still had the DNA from its older siblings though, the earlier 512s and the 365 GT4 BB before them, with this series of cars being the first road cars in Ferrari’s history (sorry Dino) to feature a mid-mounted engine, a format that Enzo Ferrari had famously always considered to be too close to a racing car, and therefore unsuitable for the general public. The change in stance was somewhat of a game changer for Ferrari as a manufacturer as well, and combining the two made for a half-GT half-supercar that offered excellent performance and handling for its day.
As much as I could drink in the details and the angles offered by this Ferrari as it sat still, I was certainly more interested in driving it, and soon enough it came time to ease into the typically tiny cockpit. There’s a definite knack to a graceful descent into this car’s interior, but it’s one I’ve yet to master without knocking a knee or two, and while it might initially feel tight as you cross the membrane between the outside world and the 512’s interior, there is actually far more space than you think once you’ve gotten situated in the seat. Don’t get me wrong, you’d struggle to find room for your vintage cassette collection to play on the factory-original tape deck, but the driving position is comfortable enough, and there is even room to stretch one’s legs a bit.
The boxer twelve’s output is 360 horsepower, modest by today’s standards of course, but delightfully useable and responsive in this package. However, it is a cold day for this drive, reminding us that winter is on the way despite the orange canopy that still envelops the tree-lined roads in this part of the world, and if you’re a little too aggressive with the accelerator the rear of the car snaps away easily on this chilled asphalt. The weighty rear end reminds you that being too judicious with the power will get you into trouble; there are no gizmos to save you like you’d get in this car’s modern day equivalent.
It demands your concentration to drive it quickly, but with that said, it never feels out of control even at paces less than legal, and once you’re used to the power band and the tremendously heavy clutch the 512 feels wonderfully balanced with a suspension setup to counteract just enough of the oversteer that’s inherently encouraged by the lump of weight behind the seats. Bury the pedal while pointing the wedge nose in a straight line and the surge of power delivers something even today’s fastest cannot; the feeling of speed, rather than the cold measurement of it. That’s not to say it isn’t registering some tall figures though when it comes to that. Those horizontally-opposed pistons provide ample torque and bags of low-end thrust that belie the cylinder count, and the tach’s needle sweeps smoothly to the responsible peak in the mid 6,000s.
Numbers have never really been my thing though, especially with cars like this. Engrossing yourself in a game of top trumps with stats and figures rather misses the point. Ferraris, any good Italian car really, ought to make you feel something more than a sense of pride when you Google the spec sheet; they should speak to you in more subjective tongues, they should provide a driving experience that borders on epiphanic when everything’s meshing properly, and in this sense the Boxer delivers in reams.
The roar of the motor as the revs climb is enough to make the driver downright euphoric. It’s not deafeningly loud, but it’s gruff, powerful, and there’s the simple matter that it sounds like little else on the road, back then and especially now. It is matched by the feeling of being pushed back into your seat as the rear squats with each gear change and the peripheries of your vision start to career by as the horizon seems to loom ever closer. There are quicker cars, but to reiterate, this one feels faster than those, it is more exciting, and each stab of the throttle elicits a liberal giggle and a broad grin.
And on top of that it’s compliant enough to handle Britain’s worst bumps without much of a complaint. The handling is light (at speed in any case—it’s awful in traffic) and precise, without ever feeling twitchy in the process of feeling sharp, and the gear change through that famous H-gate, while tight, is never difficult, inspiring confidence in one’s ability to shift at speed.
Sadly though, I cannot keep her for more than the day, and it is too soon time to return the 512 to her custodians at the Hub (big thanks to them for hosting me!) despite my reluctant grip on the wheel. It has been a wonderful experience, and while I have driven some dream cars that have disappointed, the 512 has delivered on every part of the rubric.