Classic Review: 1981 Ferrari 308 GTS

Classic Review: 1981 Ferrari 308 GTS

What was your favourite TV show back in the ’80s? Air Wolf? MacGyver? The Cosby Show? In truth, there was so much fine stuff whizzing through the air waves that it’s hard to single out just one.

Having said that, I always had a thing for Magnum, P.I. As a child I remember tuning in and being amazed at the Hawaiian-shirted exploits of Tom Selleck. A tall namesake who rocked a luxuriant moustache. His character, Thomas Magnum, lived the ultimate existence. He had access to the lush Masters’ mansion, legions of bikini-clad women and, through his friend TC, a Hughes 500 helicopter. But the real clincher for me, of course, was the blood-red Ferrari 308 GTS in which he roared around the island. Catching a glimpse of it cruising down the coast or getting caught in a car chase made my Friday night.

It isn’t hard to see why. As exotics go, the 308 GTS was, and is, a seductive piece of automotive crumpet. One of the last cars to roll out of the gates of Maranello while Enzo Ferrari still conducted things from the management seat, it debuted in 1977 (two years after its sleek coupé sister, the GTB) to a furore of enthusiasm. Some of its predecessors may have been a bit flaky in the looks department but this cool newcomer with its removable targa roof and flip-up headlights was almost flawless. And we can thank an Italian gent named Leonardo Fioravanti for this.

Working under the famed Pininfarina banner, his 308 GTS hypnotised onlookers with its low waistline, slim nose, flat engine lid and elegant flying buttresses. Not to mention those air scoops that cut through the doors and into the rear quarter panel. If a bottle of Brut 33 was the essence of man, then this was the essence of sports car. Even design guru Giorgetto Giugiaro referred to it as the “most perfect car” he’d ever seen.

Normally such a juicy wedge of playboy bait would be attached to a price tag that only well-moneyed members of the Monaco jet set could attain. However, unlike some of its expensive forebears, the 308 GTS was comparatively affordable — for a Ferrari anyway. At the time, it would hit your bank account with about as much force as a fast Porsche 911. In fact, even today it remains one of the cheapest ways to put a prancing horse in your garage. Saying I haven’t contemplated selling a kidney for the privilege would be a lie.

“Before you do anything rash,” says local sports car collector Mike Salomon, “why don’t you take mine for a quick drive?”

308 GTS Shifter

Talk about sensory overload. The excitement of finally getting to live out my Thomas Magnum fantasies, mixed in with that unique fear of piloting another man’s hard-earned pride and joy, almost did my head in. But after I buckle myself into the leather seat and twist the V8 engine to life, this feeling is suddenly replaced by one of awe. And nostalgia.

Unlike the modern cars I drive daily, this 1981 308 GTS throws you straight back to an era in which smoking was cool and chauvinism a way of life. Infused with the sweet scents of oil and petrol, the old-school cabin is peppered with black-faced Veglia dials. A Honda CR-Z doesn’t even have a temperature gauge. But in here there’s a needle dedicated to monitoring just about anything you can think of. And all require a fair amount of your attention in order to prevent a costly mechanical breakdown. Except for the clock because, being Italian, it is notorious for losing time.

“This car harbours many idiosyncrasies,” says Salomon from the passenger seat, “especially the gearbox.” A far cry from the smooth automatic wonders that now adorn every other Chinese sh*tbox, this vintage five-speed manual has to warm up sufficiently before you can even think about using second gear. This means for the first part of your journey you have to perform an awkward first-to-third shuffle.

While my cerebellum wrestles with this twisted Continental logic, I turn my attention to the ventilation system — or lack thereof. Like the controls on a World War 2 bomber, clearing the steadily frosting windscreen requires the pulling and sliding of various levers located between the two seats. Romantic? Mr Darcy doesn’t come close. Effective? Not in the slightest. So to avoid driving into a lamppost, you are forced to crack one of the terminally slow electric windows and let the elements work their magic.

By now, most Lexus or BMW owners would have abandoned this 32-year-old status symbol on the nearest verge. Philistines. As the fluids get hotter and my size nines acclimatise to the offset seating position, I find the 308 GTS more intoxicating by the second. Salomon says it makes him feel like a Formula One driver from the Gilles Villeneuve era, which is a perfect description. Especially when you put your foot down and make it sing. Whereas other V8 engines woofle out an earth-shaking baritone, this one’s delivery is at the other end of the scale — a fiery soprano that could make even Licia Albanese a little envious.

So is it fast? Not by today’s standards. Especially considering that this happens to be an “i” model fitted with power-sucking Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection. A Renault Clio RS would leave it gasping.

But then this isn’t the point. You see, when you go driving in a Ferrari 308 GTS, speed will always take a back seat to the sense of occasion. That multi-cylinder pantomime playing out behind your head. The muscle-flexing intimacy of unassisted steering. Not to mention those flip-up headlights that never fail to stretch a Jack Nicholson-sized smile across your face.

“I get a kick out of flicking them at kids waving from the car in front of me,” Salomon admits. “Most kids have never seen them before — it drives them crazy.”

I can see why Magnum loved this number so much. It’s flash without being vulgar, fun but never intimidating and, for a Ferrari, surprisingly useable once you get used to some of the inherently dickey ancillaries.

And today it goes one step further by offering something that not even the most expensive, multimillion-rand supercar can: connection. You feel like you’re actually driving a real machine and not some carbon-fibre supercomputer stuck to the road by an armada of microprocessors.

They say you should never meet your heroes. But I’m glad I did. – Thomas Falkiner (Pics: Kevin Sutherland)