This week’s subject may be the most obscure of all Ferrari road cars. In fact, a fair number of histories of the marque omit it entirely — which is odd, because it was one of the best-selling cars Ferrari S.p.A. ever built. On the other hand, for the first few years of its existence, it was not officially a Ferrari at all. We’re talking about the often-overlooked Dino 308GT4.
Enzo Ferrari was born in Modena, Italy, in February 1898. After an inglorious stint during the First World War as a mule-shoer for the Italian army, he sought work in the automobile industry. By the 1920s he had become a racing driver for Alfa Romeo, and in 1929, founded Scuderia Ferrari (roughly, “Team Ferrari”) as the factory-sponsored Alfa racing team. In the late thirties, Alfa reclaimed direct control over its racing efforts, reducing Ferrari’s leadership to a subordinate position. This naturally sat ill with the stubborn, mercurial Ferrari and he was finally fired from Alfa in November 1938.
A little less than a year later, Ferrari established his own manufacturing firm, Auto-Avio Costruzioni di Ferrari Enzo. Although his severance agreement with Alfa forbade him from manufacturing or racing cars under his own name for a period of four years, Ferrari’s company anonymously constructed a pair of racers for the 1940 Mille Miglia, Italy’s 1,000-mile (1,600-km) road race. Scarcely six weeks later, Italy was plunged into World War 2, bringing racing to a halt. Ferrari was put to work manufacturing war materiel and was later forced to move his works from Modena to Maranello in the vain hopes of evading Allied bombardment.
After the war, Ferrari was left discouraged and disillusioned. According to legend, it was only the persuasion of his old friend, racing champion Luigi “Iron Man” Chinetti, that convinced him to return to building cars. The first new car to wear Enzo’s name, the 12-cylinder Type 125S, made its public debut in May 1947, beginning a long line of Ferrari cars.
By most accounts, Il Commendatore, as Enzo was known (having been granted that title by the Italian government in 1928), was a difficult man to get along with. He had a towering ego, a ferocious temper, and a vast appetite for self-promoting melodrama. Like many domineering men of his stripe, Enzo’s primarily sentimental weakness was his almost mawkish adoration of his son, Alfredo. Alfredo Ferrari, born in 1932, was Enzo’s only legitimate son; his birth had ended Enzo’s career as a race driver. The elder Ferrari doted on the boy — known familiarly as Alfredino, or just Dino — whom Enzo saw as his anointed successor, the one who would carry on his legacy.
In 1955, Enzo went so far as to give his son credit for setting the direction for a new V6 engine, a configuration about which the young man had written an article for a leading Italian automobile magazine. It’s unclear exactly how much Dino actually contributed to the engine, which was mostly the work of veteran engine designers Vittorio Jano and Aurelio Lampredi, but Enzo always publicly insisted that it was Dino’s concept.
Dino didn’t live to see the finished product. He may have been as strong-willed as his father was, but the flesh was less robust. Dino suffered from muscular dystrophy (although according to author Brock Yates, some of Ferrari’s associates suspected it was really syphilis, possibly congenital), which left him weak and often bedridden. He finally died on June 30, 1956, apparently of kidney failure. He was only 24 years old. Enzo was heartbroken and his mourning continued for years. There was little doubt among Ferrari’s acquaintances about what Il Commendatore meant when he entitled his 1962 memoir See Le Mie Gioie Terribili (My Terrible Joys).
Inevitably, the six-cylinder engine was dubbed the “Dino V6.” An unusual 65° configuration (wider than the ideal 60° to allow a more efficient angle for the intake valves), the little V6 initially displaced only 1,489 cc (91 cu. in.). It got its first taste of competition at the Grand Prix di Napoli in April 1957, coming in third. Variations of the engine subsequently earned an impressive competition pedigree. Notably, a bigger, 2.4 L (150 cu. in.) version of the V6 powered Ferrari’s first mid-engine sports-racer, the 1961 246 SP.
The 1960s saw a substantial shift in sports-car design philosophy away from front-engine designs toward mid-engine layouts. A mid-engine car places the engine behind the driver, but ahead of the rear axle. (Technically “mid-engine” simply that the engine’s center of gravity is between the axles, so there are both front-mid-engine (FM) and rear-mid-engine (RM) designs; nevertheless, the term most commonly describes a “RM” layout.) Mid-engine configurations improve handling by moving the mass of the engine closer to the car’s center of gravity, reducing its polar moment of inertia; this makes the car easier to maneuver and gives sharper turn-in response. It can also allow the car’s body to be shorter and lighter, and the improved weight distribution helps both acceleration and braking.
Enzo Ferrari was resistant to the trend for a long time, but by 1960, it was clear that mid-engine design was the way of the future. By 1961, Ferrari had introduced its first mid-engine racing models. Nevertheless, Enzo remained exceedingly resistant to offering mid-engine street cars despite considerable pressure from his own engineers and colleagues like stylist Sergio Pininfarina. According to Pininfarina, Ferrari considered mid-engined cars too dangerous for his non-racing customers. His concerns about safety were not purely humanitarian; Ferrari had actually been charged with manslaughter after a Ferrari driven by Count Alfonso de Portago crashed during the 1957 Mille Miglia, killing Portago, his navigator, and 10 spectators, five of them children. The ensuing legal battle had dragged on for more than four years, earning Ferrari considerable bad publicity.
In any case, Ferrari built street cars only grudgingly. Racing was Enzo’s great passion, the object of an almost religious devotion. The only reason he deigned to make road cars in the first place was that he was persuaded (again, by Luigi Chinetti, who subsequently became Ferrari’s principal U.S. distributor) that selling street cars would help to underwrite the costs of racing. Furthermore, racing’s officiating bodies periodically set homologation requirements for various classes requiring that a certain number of copies of a car be offered for public sale before the racing version was permitted to compete. Enzo always felt that such requirements were, as the saying goes, more honored in the breach than the observance, but occasionally, he had no choice.
THE FIAT DINO
In the mid-1960s, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) set new homologation rules for the 1967 Formula 2 series. For a race car to qualify for Formula 2, at least 500 copies of the engine had to be sold prior to the start of the series. This requirement was a difficult proposition for Ferrari; the company’s street-car production was usually numbered in the dozens, not the hundreds.
Undaunted, in late 1964 Ferrari approached Italian automaker Fiat and made a deal with its new president, Gianni Agnelli, to mass-produce an updated version of the V6. The engine would be shared by both a new Fiat sports car and a new Ferrari model: Ferrari’s first mid-engine street car. Both would be called “Dino.”
By 1965, Enzo had finally, reluctantly relented to the demands for a mid-engine street car. The fact that Lamborghini was about to dazzle the world with the mid-engine Miura may have had something to do with it; Ferrari may not have cared much about street cars, but being one-upped by a rival was another matter. Ferrari decided, however, that the mid-engine car should be a Dino, not a Ferrari. It was a classic Enzo ploy, assuaging his ego by letting him reverse himself without seeming to reverse himself and allowing him to make a great show of honoring his late son’s name while protecting his own from any negative reactions to the new car.
Pininfarina showed Dino 206 show cars at the Paris show in late 1965 and at Turin in 1966, but these were essentially new bodies on the chassis of the earlier mid-engine sport-racer prototypes, nowhere near ready for production. A more definitive prototype appeared at the 1967 Turin show, but the first Ferrari-built Dino 206 GT didn’t go on sale until 1968. Fortunately for Ferrari’s Formula 2 plans, the Fiat Dino Spider (also styled by Pininfarina) went on sale in late 1966. It was followed in the spring of 1967 by the bigger, four-seat Fiat Dino Coupe, this one styled by Bertone. Both were popular enough to more than enough to meet the homologation requirements for the engine; Fiat sold 7,651 Fiat Dinos between 1967 and 1972.
The Ferrari Dino 206 GT used the same 1,987 cc (122 cu. in.) V6 as the Fiat cars, although it was rated at 180 horsepower (132 kW) rather than the 160 horsepower (117 kW) of the Fiat Dinos. Unlike the earlier prototypes, which had longitudinal (north-south) engines ahead of the rear axle, the production 206 GT’s engine was transversely (east-west) mounted, sitting on top of the transaxle and driving it through a series of spur gears. To keep the engine’s center of gravity as low as possible, the top of the transaxle case actually formed the engine’s sump. All of this made the powertrain far more compact than the earlier efforts, important for a small car with a wheelbase of only 89.7 inches (2,278 mm).
The 2.0-liter V6 proved to be less than reliable in civilian hands, with problems with low oil pressure, vapor lock, and plug fouling. In 1969, its displacement was expanded to 2,418 cc (148 cu. in.), and the aluminum block was recast in iron. The bigger engine had more torque than the 1,987 cc version, making the 2.4-liter car easier to drive on the street. It was also more durable and cheaper to build, although it was somewhat heavier. Power rose to 180 horsepower (132 kW) for the Fiat version, 195 hp (145 kW) for the Dino, which was renamed Dino 246 GT.
Although cheaper than any contemporary Ferrari, the Dino 246 GT was a very expensive car: over $14,000 in the U.S., around 50% more than the hottest contemporary 911. On the other hand, the new Ferrari flagship, the 365 GTB4 Daytona, cost 20 grand in the States, so the Dino was at least somewhat more attainable.
Of course, the Dino had virtues beyond its price. Not only was it fast — 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 7 seconds, a top speed of around 150 mph (240 km/h) — it was nimble in a way the bulky, front-engine Daytona couldn’t match. It was also beautiful, a virtual archetype of the modern sports car. Unsurprisingly, it sold very well by Ferrari standards, with some 3,700 built before production ended in 1974. A few purists sniffed that nothing with only six cylinders could be a ‘true’ Ferrari, but the Dino 246 is widely considered a classic.
THE BERTONE-STYLED DINO 308GT4
It was almost inevitable, then, that the 246′s replacement, the Dino 308GT4, would be seen as a retrograde step. Introduced in October 1973 at the Paris show, the 308 was less compelling in almost every way than the 246 GT it replaced.
There are a number of theories as to why the 308GT4 ended up the way it did, but many blame the influence of Fiat. The Dino project had been a kind of courtship between Enzo Ferrari and Gianni Agnelli; in 1969, they announced that Fiat had purchased a 40% interest in Ferrari. Enzo would retain 49% until his death, with an additional 1% given to Pininfarina. (Notably omitted from the press releases was the fact that the remaining 10% was granted to Piero Ferrari, Enzo’s illegitimate son with his mistress, Lina Lardi, whom Enzo did not acknowledge until after his wife’s death in 1978.) Ferrari had been shopping for a partner since the beginning of the decade. He had actually entered serious negotiations with Ford in 1963, although that deal had collapsed acrimoniously. The Fiat deal was more to Enzo’s liking, leaving him in control of the company’s racing efforts, but allowed him to step back even further from the road cars, which by most accounts he never really cared much about.
On the face of it, the blame-Fiat theory makes sense, because the new Dino 308GT4 had all the overtones of corporate decision-making. Where the 246 GT had been a pure two-seater (and a cramped one, at that), the 308GT4 was a 2+2, stretched more than 7 inches in wheelbase to make room for a pair of tiny “occasional” rear seats. The logic was presumably that a 2+2 would sell better than a two-seat coupe. It’s difficult to envision Enzo caring a whit for such considerations, so it may well have been a dictate from Fiat.
Still, both Piero Ferrari and Marcello Gandini, who styled the 308GT4, have claimed that Enzo took a great interest in the development of the new Dino. They also say that he was solely responsible for the second controversial decision: assigning the styling of the new car not to Pininfarina, but to Carrozzeria Bertone. Bertone had built Ferraris before, but not in nearly 20 years. Piero says that Enzo was pleased with the styling Bertone had produced for the Fiat Dino Coupe, and thought Bertone would also be an appropriate choice for the 2+2 308GT4. Even if that were true, it would still have been a curious decision, since Bertone was strongly associated with Lamborghini. Marcello Gandini had recently penned the spectacular Lamborghini Countach and some historians have even alleged that his design for the 308GT4 was a previously rejected Lamborghini concept.
Under the skin, the 308GT4 was essentially a stretched version of the earlier Dinos, retaining a transverse, mid-mounted engine. It had a tubular steel chassis welded to steel body panels; American models had heavier bracing front and rear to meet U.S. safety standards. Bigger than the 246 GT, the 308GT4 was inevitably heavier, weighing nearly 3,000 pounds (1,330 kg) in European trim. Cars bound for the U.S. weighed about 300 pounds (135 kg) more than that thanks to their bulky and not terribly attractive 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers. The extra bulk was hardly compensated by the rear seat, which was a torture chamber for anyone bigger than an 8-year-old. It was more helpful as a place to stash a briefcase or a picnic basket, although the new car also boasted a reasonably sized trunk behind the engine compartment.
The big news is that the Dino V6 was gone, replaced by a new 90-degree V8. Ferrari had used V8s in racing before, but this was its first production eight. The V8 displaced 2,926 cc (179 cu. in.), although Ferrari preferred to round up to a full 3.0 liters. Like the V6, the V8 had two overhead camshafts for each cylinder bank, although the cams were now driven by rubber timing belts rather than chains. With four dual-throat Webers, the European engine claimed 250 horsepower (184 kW) at a lofty 7,700 rpm; the smog-controlled U.S. version was rated at 240 horsepower (179 kW) SAE.
Despite the extra weight, the V8 made the Dino 308GT4 about as fast as its predecessor. In European trim, it was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 6.5 seconds and a top speed of over 150 mph (240 km/h). Its handling was appropriately adroit, although the suspension was tuned for understeer, sacrificing some of the 246 GT’s agility to make the 308 less prone to rotating its tail at the limit. Lifting the throttle in a tight turn on slippery surfaces could still make it spin, but it took considerable effort. As a further safeguard against oversteer, steering lock was very limited, which made maneuvering in tight spaces frustrating.
The U.S. version, heavier and less powerful, naturally was somewhat slower than the European cars. In the June 1975 issue of Car and Driver, editor Patrick Bedard achieved 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 7 seconds with a 1975 model like our photo car and estimated a top speed of perhaps 140 mph (225 km/h). That was decent for a smog-era car, but hardly invincible; Bedard cautioned buyers to avoid direct confrontations with meaner (and cheaper) Corvettes or Porsche 911s.
Unfortunately, Dino 308GT4 owners couldn’t be any more confident of winning a beauty contest than they could a drag race. Compared to the more graceful Pininfarina Ferraris, even the somewhat brutish Daytona, the 308GT4′s styling was severe. Trying to cram a 2+2 cabin into a mid-engine sports car rarely ever looks very good; the raison d’être of mid-engine layouts is to keep the front and rear overhangs as short as possible, which makes the bigger cabin of a 2+2 look stubby and chunky. Mostly, though, the fault was with stylist Marcello Gandini and his fascination with wedge shapes. The 308GT4′s sharply creased lines and slab sides also gave it none of the voluptuous surface detail of Pininfarina’s best efforts. The result was an awkwardly proportioned car, with little to draw the eye.
THE FORGOTTEN FERRARI
European response to the Dino 308GT4 was frosty. It fared somewhat better in the States simply because for a time it was the only new Ferrari model certified for sale in the U.S. The Daytona was gone by time it bowed and Ferrari never attempted to federalize the fearsome 365 GT/4BB and 512BB “Berlinetta Boxers” (the cars that finally put paid to Enzo’s hesitation about offering a 12-cylinder mid-engine road car). The painful spectacle of Ferrari dealers with no actual Ferraris to sell was probably the major reason that in July 1975 the factory started adding the Ferrari badge and cavallino emblem to the 308GT4.
The unloved 2+2 was thoroughly upstaged by the new two-seat car, the 308 GTB, which debuted at the 1975 Paris show. Styled by Pininfarina, the GTB was about the same size as Bertone’s 2+2, but had infinitely better proportions. It was as pretty and sensual as the 308GT4 was severe and its shape survived well into the eighties. (Its lift-roof GTS version also became the world’s most recognizable Ferrari model, thanks to its starring role on the popular TV series Magnum, P.I.) Tellingly, the production 308 GTB never wore the Dino badge, which was abandoned completely in May 1976.
In Europe, the 308GT4 was supplemented from 1975 by a 208GT4 model with a 1,991 cc (122 cu. in.) version of the V8 that put the car in a more favorable tax bracket. The 208GT4 had 180 horsepower and could run 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 8.5 seconds with a top speed of around 135 mph (217 km/h). About 800 were sold in total, most of them in Italy.
You might expect that the debut of the far more popular Ferrari 308GTB would have meant the end of the line for the 308GT4, but it lingered on for several more years. Apparently, someone (probably the Fiat management) thought Ferrari should have at least one “affordable” 2+2 — another indication, like the unceremonious cancellation of the Dino brand, that Enzo Ferrari was no longer paying much attention to passenger-car production (if indeed he ever had). In 1978, the engines were detuned for emissions purposes, dropping to 230 hp in Europe and 205 in the U.S. Otherwise, the cars otherwise continued almost unchanged until December 1980. Total production was 2,826, which was still enough to make it one of the best-selling models in Ferrari’s history. It was replaced by the Mondial 8.
The Dino 308GT4 was not a bad car at least by the questionable standards of mid-seventies sports cars, but it had the same weaknesses as any other Ferrari (spotty build quality, limited practicality, a choppy ride, horrible fuel economy, and exorbitant repair and maintenance costs), without their compensating virtues (blazing speed, badge snobbery, fabulous looks). The latter was the real killer; if it had been as gorgeous as the 246 GT, history would happily overlook everything else. The 308GT4 certainly looked exotic; it just didn’t look like a Ferrari. If you didn’t know better, you could mistake it for a Lamborghini Urraco or even the significantly cheaper De Tomaso Pantera — not a thought to warm the hearts of a Ferrariste laying out big money for Maranello’s latest. As a result, it is not particularly desirable to modern collectors.
Your author, ever one for the perverse, finds something oddly appealing about the 308GT4′s red-headed stepchild status; it’s the least-adored scion of perhaps the world’s most revered automotive family. On the other hand, it must be said that we would also be amused by the idea of making a hot rod out of a Checker Marathon, for very similar reasons. As a notable oddball, the 308GT4 scores highly, but in other respects, the last Dino remains a hard car to love.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “Ferrari 308GT4,” HowStuffWorks.com, 7 May 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ ferrari-308-gt4.htm, accessed 3 September 2008; Mike Covello, ed., Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); “Ferrari 208,” CarsFromItaly, 2008, www.carsfromitaly. net/ferrari/ f_208.html, accessed 3 September 2008, and “Ferrari 308″ (2008, CarsFromItaly, http://www.carsfromitaly.net/ferrari/f_308.html, accessed 3 September 2008; Pete Lyons and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Ferrari: The Man and His Machines (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1989); André Ritzinger, “Fiat Dino: a poor man’s Ferrari,” RitzSite, n.d., www.ritzsite. nl/ Fiat_Dino/01_Fiat_Dino.htm, accessed 3 September 2008; Mark Wan, “Ferrari 308GT4 (1973),” AutoZine.org, n.d., www.autozine. org/ Archive/Ferrari/classic/308GT4.html, accessed 1 September 2008; Brock Yates, Enzo Ferrari: The Man, The Cars, The Races, The Machine (New York: Doubleday, 1991); and the Ferrari GT4 Wikipedia® page (http://en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/Ferrari_GT4, accessed 3 September 2008).
Road tests consulted for this article included Patrick Bedard, “Fantasy Cars for Everyman,” Car and Driver June 1975, reprinted in Car and Driver on Ferrari, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books, Ltd., 1985), pp. 91-95; Paul Frère, “Dino 308GT4,” Road & Track September 1974; “Dinos: Is newer better?” Autocar 16 August 1975; “Ferrari Dino 308gt4,” Road Test March 1976; and “Autotest: Ferrari Dino 308GT4 2+2,” Autocar 13 March 1976, all of which are reprinted in Ferrari Dino 308 1974-1979, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books, 1982).