The affordable and enjoyable sports cars of the late ’60s and early ’70s had become rather lacklustre by the end of the ’70s. Alfa had introduced the GTV, which only came good once the glorious V6 engine was fitted after 1980. BMW had killed its 2002 Turbo and American muscle cars were dead in the water, neutered by emission controls and safety concerns. Ferrari’s ungainly 308 Dino, introduced in 1973 and designed by Bertone, was an ugly duckling; and the benchmark sports car, the evergreen Porsche 911 first seen in 1964, had almost completely lost its way. Putting on weight and now wearing big bumpers, the US version of the 911 could only muster some 160bhp. Not good enough.
But in 1976 Ferrari launched its strikingly gorgeous, Pininfarina-designed 308GTB. With a three-litre V8 engine mounted amidships, this was a proper 250bhp sports car that reawakened the passion at Maranello. It’s interesting to note that this was the first V8 road car to wear the Ferrari badge from the off, unlike the preceding V6 and V8 Dinos.
The 308GTB was an instant hit. It just looked so damn fast and beautiful, every car enthusiast wanted one. Built by Scaglietti, the initial run of 712 examples were of fiberglass construction with, importantly, dry-sump lubrication and weighed a lot less then the previous Bertone 308. In fact the GTB weighed 1050kg, pretty much the same as the diminutive 246 Dino, so performance was always going to be crisp. The targa-topped GTS arrived in 1997.
As with most sports cars of this period, it is difficult to find a decent example that is indicative of the breed. Many European cars have been ‘driven hard and put away wet’, as our American cousins like to say. But this 1977 308GTB is about as good an example as you will find anywhere in the world. We went as far as Australia to drive it. Whilst visiting Rory Johnston’s impressive Classic Throttle Shop on the Pacific Highway in central Sydney we just could not ignore this immaculate GTB. Finished in white – a pleasant change from the usual ‘retail red’ – it looks perfect in the bright Australian sunshine.
Johnston has all the papers with the Ferrari and it was supplied new on May 23, 1977. Since then it has only covered 56,000km (33,500 miles) and has clearly been used sparingly and pampered as a car for high days and holidays.
In Australia, imported cars have always attracted high tax so they have usually been looked after by their well-heeled owners. And this GTB is no exception. The Bianco paintwork is perfect and it’s incredible to think that the smooth panels are fiberglass. The blue leather interior is original and unmarked, as are the carpets. A nice touch is factory-fitted air-conditioning and the only alteration from original spec is the slightly larger Ferrari alloys, which allow the fitment of more readily available Michelin tires.
As with most Ferraris, the driving is a sensual automotive experience. This 308GTB really is one of the most beautiful sports cars of its time, making the rival offering from Stuttgart look rather lumpen. The door is opened by a dinky little catch and the leather bucket seat is best approached with a quick slump. Once you’re ensconced behind the traditional Ferrari steering wheel with its proud prancing horse logo, driving the 308 is like wearing a sharply cut and tightly tailored suit. Your bum is located lower than your feet for that real racing car attitude but the slim windscreen pillars and visible wings afford a good view outwards.
Fire up the transversally mounted 90° V8 and the double overhead cams on each bank begin tap dancing with the 32 valves as the four twin-choke Weber carburettors pump in the juice. All this mechanical activity creates a very busy and noisy rhythm. Allow the engine to warm through and things settle down – but this is a sports car and it wants to shout about it!
The clutch depresses smoothly but it is not Toyota-light. The ever-so-Ferrari chromed gearshift in its exposed metal gate is initially sticky and reluctant to move much as the gearbox oil is cold. But tickle second gear and then select first and it co-operates with early morning, pre-cappuccino Italian reluctance.
Some revs are required to get the 308 off the line but even from cold it is co-operative and willing. As with most classic cars, this Ferrari really wants to be heated through before it gets into the mood. Engine, gearbox, brakes and suspension all start to loosen up and smooth out as the Ferrari slips through the warm streets of Sydney. With everything up to temperature, it is time to give it some revs on a previously reconnoitred stretch of motorway. The Australian traffic police have absolute zero tolerance towards speeding and will fine you if you are over the very slow limits by just one kilometre per hour. A tad boring.
Flick the Ferrari into the fast lane and pull the long gearshift lever down into third, then ease the throttle down to the floor. The V8, whilst never as mellifluous as a V12, takes a deep breath and starts to sing. The power delivery is smooth and linear and as the revs rise the noise moves to a bellow and then a shriek. This being a carburettored model, it has the added overlay of the hungrily sucking Webers, audible through the air inlets just aft of the door. Wrist the shifter into fourth and the wail continues as the taut little Ferrari spears down the road at ever-increasing velocity. The gearing is proper sports car in that it is short and sharp. This 308 will wind up to its top speed in fifth gear at a dizzy 7000rpm. No namby-pamby noise-reducing overdrive gear here.
Off the motorway and up into some twisting back roads off the beaten track, the 308 reveals its benign and balanced chassis. The steering sharpens as the speed increases, the brakes seem well up to the task and the dart-like Ferrari attacks corners with precision and commitment, all the while accompanied by the exuberant soundtrack of its rev-happy V8 engine.
As mentioned at the outset, most sports cars of the late ’70s are, well, lousy. But driving this Ferrari, admittedly an immaculate example, is an informative experience. Throughout the day in Australia’s hot premier city the 308 behaves with panache. All gauges remain resolutely where they should be and it does not cough, splutter or baulk. Even the air con offers a bit of chill.
What is really striking about this child of the ’70s is how pleasurable it is to drive and how effective it is. The car is small by today’s standards. It is narrow and feels light. The steering is pin-sharp and not numbed by power assistance. The gearshift is manual, which is becoming rarer in today’s sports cars, and it has short, effective gearing. The brakes are powerful – a rare concession to driver comfort is the fitment of a servo – and the handing is fun even at legal Australian speeds. The Ferrari rides on 55-section Michelins, so the ride is firm but not tooth-cracking at every transverse ridge or imperfection.
This Ferrari 308GTB is a revelation and shows just how enjoyable classic sports cars can be. The driving experience is so tactile and personal here. You feel and hear the engine at work just behind your ear. The thin-rimmed steering wheel communicates the road surfaces and it nibbles at the corners, whilst the car’s every movement and change of direction are clearly transmitted through the seat of your pants.
Obviously, modern sports cars are faster and more capable but they are heavy, slow-witted and numb in comparison. Driving a modern car is like scuba diving off the Australian coast in a full wet suit with booties, gloves, tight-fitting cap and aqualung. Driving the classic Ferrari 308GTB is like diving in a flimsy pair of trunks with a snorkel and flippers. The feeling of intimacy and excitement is just so much more visceral – and therefore more rewarding.