Before it spent decades as a joke, it was one of the most lustworthy cars ever built. Long before its outrageous side-strakes, pop-up headlights, and wedge-shaped body became synonymous with shoulder-padded suits, big hair, and recreational hard drugs, it was synonymous with — well, it was always synonymous with those things, but they were just in fashion then. Ferrari has likely built more legendary cars than any other automaker on the planet, from the V12-powered 250s of the ’50s and ’60s, to the F40 of the late ’80s, and the La Ferrari of today. But none of them have captured the zeitgeist quite like the Testarossa did. For a few glorious years, it was the singular car on the planet to have, a shining beacon of excess and power at a time when having that meant getting featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Show one to your friends that don’t know anything about cars, and the first thing they’ll probably say is “Oh, the ’80s.” Just like that, the car embodies an entire decade. And today, it’s enjoying an improbable second act as one of the hottest collector cars on the planet.
The Testarossa was supposed to be something special, and from the outset, it didn’t disappoint. It replaced the Berlinetta Boxer, the company’s first mid-engined road car. The first BB, the 365 GT4, bowed in 1973 as a replacement for the already legendary front-engined Daytona. But despite his engineers urging, Enzo Ferrari was skeptical that a 12-cylinder mid-engined car would catch on with his customers, and was hesitant to invest in them. As the 365 became BB 512 and finally the 512i, Enzo felt the cost of putting the cars through American safety and emissions tests was too steep, a move that severely limited Ferrari’s presence in the U.S.
By 1982, the 512i BB was old and horribly flawed. Engineers had run cooling pipes beneath the floors, making the cabin uncomfortably hot, and there was virtually no luggage space. Ferrari made building a mid-engined 12-cylinder flagship a priority, and sought to make it available worldwide for maximum impact. Like it had for most of its landmark cars, the company contracted Pininfarina for the design, and the coachbuilder returned with a razor-sharp wedge that seemed perfectly suited for the new decade.
The Testarossa’s debut was a prime example of the era’s excess. Deindustrialization was savaging the lower classes in Europe and America, but a relaxed attitude toward business globally meant that the guys at the top had it pretty good. Gordon Gekko and Wall Street were still some five years off on October 2, 1984, but the “Greed is Good” mantra rang loud and clear. Ferrari had rented out the famous Lido Club on the Champs Elysses in Paris, where in front of a crowd of international journalists, it lowered a Testarossa from an elevator onto a giant darkened stage that looked like an aircraft carrier. The car was named after a relatively obscure Ferrari race car from the late ’50s, but almost overnight, the reborn Testarossa became an international sensation.
With the economic bubble of the mid ’80s leaving the fat cats with some serious money to spend, the Testarossa was the right car at the right time. Largely the realm of weirdos and nostalgists a decade before, the collector car market was experiencing a boom that had never been seen before — a phenomenon we’ve been experiencing all over again these past few years. Vintage iron that could be had for pennies on the pound a few years before was now trading hands for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even new special edition or limited-run cars were getting a bump, just as demand for Testarossas reached fever pitch.
In America, the Testarossa became a star on the TV show Miami Vice in 1986. This pushed demand up even more, with drivers, collectors, and the nouveau riche all clamoring for one. When it debuted in ’84, it carried a sticker price of $84,000. By the time it made it to Miami Vice, there were reports that they were changing hands for upwards of $400,000, or around $872K today.
And with the onslaught of the Testarossa on TV, in movies, and in tabloids as the preferred car of celebrities, it became a caricature of itself: a two-dimensional symbol of wealth. Along with the Porsche 959 and Lamborghini Countach, it graced the walls of boys’ bedrooms all over the world. Millions of toys and models were built. OutRun, one of the most popular arcade games of all time, prominently featured a Testarossa, and on top of it all, a booming kit car industry sprang up to build cheap, fiberglass copies for people who didn’t care whether or not they had the real thing — or at least wanted other people to think they did.
The Testarossa had a hype surrounding it that had never been seen in the supercar world before. Gearheads had lusted after plenty of unobtainable cars before, but the mania around the Ferrari was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. So putting all the hype aside, all the bluster, all the media, celebrity connections, everything else — getting that out of the way, what was the Testarossa like as a car?
It was pretty good, for a supercar.
Ferrari’s goal with the Testarossa was to categorically improve on the Berlinetta Boxer. It did that, but that isn’t exactly saying much. At 6.48 feet wide, it was (and still is) the widest Ferrari ever built. The company did this because it needed to give the car legitimate luggage space, and have a comfortable, luxurious cabin to appeal to this new generation of moneyed buyers. So the radiators (there were two) were moved to the sides of the car, which made its iconic “air strakes” along the sides a necessity.
Inside, there was more room than the BB, but Italian build quality of the era was far from ideal, and acres of cheap plastic surrounded iffy electronics, leather upholstery, and Ferrari’s iconic chrome-plated shift plate. But performance was what you’d expect from a Ferrari: Zero to 60 in 5.2 seconds, and a top speed of 180 miles per hour from its 4.9-liter 12 that was largely carried over from the BB. It cranked out 375 horsepower and 361 pound-feet of torque, but the five-speed gearbox was mounted high near the engine block, which made for an unusually high center of gravity, and made handling a Testarossa difficult if the rear end started to break loose.
By the end of the decade, the economic bubble and collector car bubble burst at the exact same time, sending Testarossa values into a tailspin. A new decade ushered in new designs and new tastes, and the car quickly became as fashionable as a second-hand Armani suit. By the end of the ’90s, the Testarossa became a joke car, like a Volkswagen Thing, or a Pontiac Trans Am with the “Screaming Chicken” decal on the hood. It was a car for has-beens, for once-powerful bros that had become shadows of their former selves. As relevant as a Betamax player, and about as popular. At the end of the century, you could buy a car that traded hands for nearly half-a-million dollars 15 years before for under $40K if you found an owner desperate enough to sell, and there were many.
Then a few years ago, the economy shot up from a recession again, the collector car skyrocketed again, and the people who found themselves with the money to buy collector cars had come of age in the 1980s. They had the poster on the wall, or the Hot Wheels car on their desk. Or they played OutRun at the mall, or watched Michael Jordan pull up to the 1992 NBA finals in his black-on-black Testarossa. Ironically enough, the Ferrari that benefited — and suffered — most at the hands of the collector car marked was a red-hot collectible again. In 2015 alone, the Testarossa saw a 98% increase in value, with sales for a well-preserved model jumping from around $75K to nearly $150K.
In many ways, the Testarossa was one of the first modern Ferraris. It was fast, temperamental, (arguably) beautiful, and incredibly exclusive — just over 7,100 cars were built before it was replaced by the more modern 512TR in 1992. But it was also built for comfort, luxury, and to be seen in. It took the mid-engined layout that was instrumental in the company’s racing success and repackaged it to make it as comfortable and palatable as possible — a charge that purists still level at the company over some new models today. For good or ill, the Testarossa ushered in a new era for Ferrari. Over 30 years later, we’re still feeling its effects, whether we like it or not.