I climbed into the 1980 Ferrari 308’s tight-slipper cockpit with no expectations. Ferrari or not, this car came out at the end of the Malaise Era. Automakers were trying to leave the ’70s behind, but some results were half-baked at best. But nearly 40 years later, the 308 has managed to hang on to some magic, even if you didn’t grow up watching Magnum P.I.
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that you’re probably already familiar with the Ferrari 308 in one form or another. Whether you recognize it from posters on a bedroom wall or as the chariot of Tom Selleck’s mustache, many people know this red wedge instantly. However, just because a car is well known doesn’t mean it’s well understood.
Your average non-automotive enthusiast human assumes that a prestige automaker only churns out spectacular performance vehicles, and that this principle is true of Ferrari in particular. People hear Ferrari and right away they think fast Italian sports car.
Well, the 308 GTSi is definitely Italian, and it qualifies as a sports car, but it sure as shit ain’t fast.
But that matters less than you might think.
(Full disclosure: The opportunity to drive a 1980 Ferrari 308 GTSi came was made possible by Dietz Motorcraft who continues to make my automotive dreams come true.)
The 308 was never meant to be as mighty as its 12-cylinder stablemates or the legendary 288 GTO that would come out toward the end of its production run. But this was no bottom rung bargain-basement Ferrari either, that honor was held by the Mondial, which we may discuss another time.
A 308 GTSi would have cost around $45,000 when it was introduced in 1980, which isn’t too far off what they go for today. And of course, $45,000 in 1980 translates to about $140,000 in 2017 money.
The GTSi was added to the model range five years after the introduction of the 308 GTB coupe. The “S” stands for “spider”, and in Italian car language, that means open-air motoring. This is made possible by a removable targa top that can be stowed in a cover behind the seats or left on your garage floor.
The “i” stands for injection, as in mechanical fuel injection, which was new for the 1980 308. As was the case with so many performance vehicles of the era, the Bosch K-Jetronic unit helped the car produce fewer emissions, but also hurt engine output.
For the U.S. market the transversely mid-mounted 2.9-liter aluminum V8 saw output drop from 237 horsepower down to 214 HP, in the name of improving emissions, and there it remained until 1982 when the 308 Quattrovalvole was introduced.
I haven’t had the chance to drive that car, but I know someone who has and I’m told the difference is immediately noticeable. By adding four valves per cylinder performance was restored and the same V8 produced 240 horsepower.
If it wasn’t for Magnum P.I., would the Ferrari 308 have achieved such notoriety? What if Porsche had dropped their policy of not doing any special modifications, given in to the producers of the show and modified a 928 to have a larger sunroof for aerial shots? Can you picture Selleck in a 928? I certainly can’t and I’ve only watched five, maybe six episodes of Magnum P.I. in my lifetime. The show made the Ferrari 308 an icon, but what I’ve always wanted to find out is if could it stand on its own vehicular merits.
After spending time behind the wheel of one, I’m still not sure if it does. There’s more to the Ferrari 308 than its pop culture cameos but the car simply embodies the era it came from, and that’s the strongest source of its charm.
The problem is that I can’t separate the icon from the machine. It’s impossible to drive this car and not think “I’m driving a goddamn Ferrari 308! Rad!” This is how Ferrari became the global brand we know it as today—emotional dominance and sensory overload. What better time to be selling cars that tap into our base instincts than the 1980s?
How much power does it make? Who cares, it looks fast. How well is it built? Doesn’t matter, I’ll get a new one in a few years. Cocaine is a hell of a drug and so is a red Ferrari. Put them together, add some Journey on the stereo and you don’t have to go looking for a good time, you’re already into one.
The centerpiece of the 308GTSi is its gated manual dogleg transmission—reverse is up and to the left, where first gear is on almost every other manual gearbox—that immediately makes you feel like a race car driver even if you’re moving the car around a parking lot. With first gear off to the side and a direct line between second and third, it’s easier to rifle between the go gears while ducking into and out of turns. The metal gates surrounding the shifter make the experience of rowing it even more magical with decisive, beautiful clinks.
Once you actually get out onto open roads and are running through the gears, that feeling is amplified by a factor of a thousand. Nothing makes you feel cool like shifting a gated manual, even an older one that you have to be patient with. When changing gears has a satisfying soundtrack, the whole driving experience is elevated.
The aforementioned 2.9-liter V8 stationed just behind your head isn’t all that interesting, nor is the exhaust note, but you’re acutely aware that it’s there and somehow that’s enough.
You can hear all the mechanical goings-on and the air rushing in through the vents. It’s a uniquely beautiful soundtrack, one that I’m now interested to compare to that of the turbo models in the ’80s Ferrari family.
If you can make this possible, please get in touch, especially if you have a line on a 288 GTO I can drive because, you know, two turbos are better than one.
I had to think long and hard about how to explain this and here’s what came up with: The 308 GTSi drives like it’s still 1980. What I mean by that is, I don’t imagine it drove any different in 1980 than it does today.
At 5'10", I fit in the cabin easily, but in order to comfortably reach the pedals I had to pull the seat forward a little which put the rearview mirror all up in my grill. Not the best ergonomics, but something tells me the folks in Maranello at the time didn’t give a shit.
Hidden door handles, oddly bolstered seats, laughable rear visibility, none of it matters when you’re looking out over that long sloping hood. Again, the appearance of the car, inside and out makes up for the mechanical shortcomings.
The all independent suspension is much softer than I imagined it would be, allowing the car to lean through corners and float over road imperfections. The clutch take up is high, like, really high, though I got used to it quickly. Once I had that down, navigating through traffic to get to the good roads was stress free.
It was on those roads that I discovered that the 308 GTSi isn’t quick and doesn’t offer a particularly special sensation of speed. Each time any kind of enjoyable pace was achieved I had to immediately start thinking about how to effectively bleed it away. The brakes on this car are, well they’re there, but that’s all I really felt.
What makes up some of that lost ground is the unassisted rack and pinion steering. Having spent the majority of my life driving cars with power steering, I’m always happy to get in a car with a legitimately direct and communicative tiller. I enjoy wrestling with the wheel a bit, especially when it’s a classic leather wrapped Nardi tri-spoke. You could daily this car and end up with some pretty buff forearms, just saying.
You know when you build something up in your mind to the point where, no matter how good the experience actually is, it ends up being a let down? You may have heard this sentiment referenced as “don’t meet your heroes.” Well, thankfully I managed to not do that with the 308 GTSi.
The 308 GTSi lasted two years and Ferrari built 1,749 of them before figuring out that the fuel injected Dino V8 needed 4 valves per-cylinder to produce power worthy of the badge.
Take the lack of zip out of the picture and the 308 GTSi is a perfectly attractive package. Regardless of performance, this car is an automotive icon. It turns heads everywhere it goes, and rightfully so, it’s a thing of beauty. While I do prefer the appearance of the more rounded 328 GTB/GTS, there is something uniquely charming about the 308 body style. It’s indicative of the era from which it stems, one foot in the past, one foot in the future.
It might not be the most mechanically impressive Ferraris, but it remains unquestionably one of the most beloved. And after getting a few miles in one, I think its place in hearts and history is well-earned.