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Rather than his own surname, ‘Bizarro’ would perhaps be more appropriate for the brand of design phenomenon Franco Sbarro.
The Italian-born Swiss stylist is a true wild child of the automotive scene – like the late Luigi Colani, another for whom our planet seems just a bit too small when you see his insect-like creations.
Curves and organic forms are less Franco’s style, as this Super eight confirms, but his portfolio reveals a wide variety of approaches.
This man of extreme designs has always been a fixture at the Geneva Salon, although the concept cars he has displayed in more recent years have worn his students’ signatures, and his stand has become more of a recruitment site for the Sbarro design academy than the shop window of a world-famous stylist.
Whether Franco ever met Tom Selleck is not recorded, but you could imagine it happening and in the process planting the seed of a wacky idea – sacrificing Magnum PI’s beloved Ferrari 308GTS quattrovalvole and packing the mechanical remains into a perfunctory hatchback body.
Perhaps Thomas Magnum liked the sound of his Ferrari’s engine, but was less keen on the low-slung driving position and the lack of headroom – or bemoaned the limited boot space for a week’s shopping.
Trying to find a rational explanation for the origins of the Super eight isn’t easy, but one thing we do know is that it was the successor to the Super Twelve.
This even crazier concoction featured two six-cylinder, 1300cc Kawasaki ’bike engines re-engineered into a transverse straight-12, powering the rear wheels via two linked five-speed gearboxes.
Attention-grabbing for sure, and phenomenally complex technically – and in that context a Ferrari 308 hatchback looks verging on the sensible.
The Super eight is one of the stars of the eclectic collection of Dutch enthusiast Herbert van Kuik.
Nestling in a series of outbuildings on a farm beneath the smoke of Amsterdam hides a selection of exotics, from lean Lotus Elise and Noble M12, via De Tomaso Pantera and Longchamp, to various American classics and much more besides.
Herbert is a man of many projects and broad tastes, so it’s no surprise that he fell for the Sbarro Super eight.
Francesco Zefferino Sbarro started out as a mechanic, but evolved into an automotive artist who knows no boundaries. His creations are commonly built for wealthy customers and the Super eight remains, like many of his cars, a one-off.
Who first came into possession of it remains unknown, but, as with most super-exotics, it has been used only sparingly and has covered little more than 17,000 miles since it drove off the Geneva show floor in 1984.
Unlike the many all-mouth-and-no-trousers show cars of the era, this muscular hyper-hatch turns out to be much more than simply an eccentric bodykit.
The Super eight has not only the complete powertrain from a Ferrari 308, but also the donor car’s chassis and drivetrain, including brakes, suspension and subframes.
Nothing remains from 308 designer Leonardo Fioravanti’s beautiful sculpture, but it appears that Franco was feeling the same inspiration as his Italian counterpart, who was signing off the Testarossa at around the same time as work was getting under way on the Super eight.
Fioravanti’s ’80s supercar stereotype features similarly distinctive flanks, with those huge slatted air intakes, and the Super eight continues that straked theme right across the width of its nose, even encompassing the headlights.
Connoisseurs of the era might recognise the tail-lights as those of the decidedly prosaic Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2.
Any prospective pursuers should take note of the two sets of upswept, double-barrelled exhausts sticking out menacingly from under the Super eight’s generous backside.
That this is no ordinary hatchback is also clear from just a glance at the wide rubber that wraps those light-alloy wheels, which are only just kept inboard of the bodywork by enormously flared wheelarches.
Ahead of the rear wheels are large air intakes for cooling the engine, and on the B-pillar the linear aesthetic continues with orange decals in a similar style.
Up front, the lower edges of the wheelarches blend into a chin spoiler large enough to double as a snowplough.
On paper this might sound like a questionable mixture, but the finish is of a high quality and the overall design works surprisingly well.
Another surprise awaits in the nose, where you’ll find a luggage compartment big enough to swallow all the bags you’ll need for a long weekend away.
Climb aboard and the interior reveals some fine upholstery skills, but the tan leather trim paired with a kind of velvet for the centres can’t conceal the fact that there is a Prancing Horse from Maranello lurking under the skin.
The instrument cluster has been taken wholesale from the Ferrari donor, as have the switches, the air vents and more.
And, standing proud like an automotive landmark, the classic wand-like gearlever extends out of its beautiful, chrome-plated open gate.
Fire up the 3-litre V8 and there’s no mistaking – or ignoring – the familiar noise that erupts from behind.
Its bark is projected back into the Super eight’s cabin and, because it’s actually inside the car with you, it makes itself heard far more clearly here than in the Ferrari from which it was sourced.
The clutch requires some muscle, but not so much that it becomes a problem. Its biting point is easy to modulate, and power can be fed in with some civility.
As you set off, following the narrow, bending waterside road that meanders away from Herbert’s home, the Sbarro immediately feels solid and rigid.
The steering and chassis communicate much more clearly than your prejudiced preconceptions of this eccentric creation might lead you to expect.
Even nearly 40 years on, the technology feels relatively fresh in this low-mileage one-off.
Early trepidation quickly gives way to trust, as the familiar hatchback environment and raucous supercar powerplant seamlessly combine. The drivetrain feels well integrated, even when accelerating hard or snapping the throttle shut.
As you might expect, driving the Super eight is a unique experience.
You sit in a bold interior that is full of charming details and impresses with its excellent finish, transporting you back to the 1980s with its white-on-black dials and period Clarion stereo, complete with de rigueur graphic equaliser.
Pop in your Dire Straits cassette to blast out Private Investigations and the timewarp is complete.
And looking back in this car is an entertaining game both literally and metaphorically, because a glance in the rear-view mirror reveals a Table Mountain of ventilated parcel shelf, under which lurks that sensational 32-valve, quad-cam V8.
On top of it sits the spare wheel, painted in body colour and secured with a pair of leather straps.
Unfortunately, Sbarro was not yet so visionary as to present the Super eight’s Ferrari heart in a more celebratory fashion under a glass cover, as later became the fashion for supercars, because this red-topped V8 sculpture is an engine that deserves such treatment.
Turn in, accelerate, brake, repeat: the Super eight takes these twisting routes in its stride.
And it does so in style, making even slow progress feel like footsteps along the red carpet at Cannes.
The tractable V8 picks up at any speed without hesitation, but feels at its best as the revs climb – which isn’t really surprising when you remember that its 237bhp peak arrives at 7000rpm.
The gearbox shifts more easily once it gets up to temperature, and after some gentle warming the brakes don’t need any excuses to be made for their age: stopping power is huge even by modern standards.
The pace increases, but paying respect to this remarkable machine’s unique heritage.
You are well aware of the limits thanks to clear communication from the mid-engined chassis, and you remain cautiously conscious of any possible waywardness.
But it all remains composed as long as your mantra is slow in, fast out.
The nose lightens as you accelerate and aim for the exit, but the shift in balance isn’t violent or abrupt, and the front wheels retain a firm grip on the road surface.
That V8 isn’t just there for show. Wring it out and it delivers mighty performance that is much more linear than the Super eight’s crazy looks lead you to expect.
All in all, it’s a delicious cocktail of mind-altering substances from an era when there was no such thing as too much.
Words: Jaco Bijlsma
Images: Jérôme Wassenaar
The Super family
The Sbarro Super eight was preceded by the even more extreme Super Twelve (above), in 1982.
The external differences were minimal, but the Twelve is easily recognisable by the remarkable colour gradient in its paintwork.
Mechanically, the Twelve’s name hints at its bespoke, 2.6-litre 12-cylinder engine, mounted transversely behind the front seats and made up of a pair of six-cylinder Kawasaki motorcycle engines.
Each block had its own gearbox driving its own rear wheel and, with around 260bhp to propel 800kg, performance was vivid.
In contrast, the Super Five was more style over substance.
Although it shared a (narrowed) visual similarity with its potent cousins, under the skin it was based on the technology of a more humble Renault 5.
Sbarro’s wildest designs
Born in 1939, Franco Sbarro began his career as a car mechanic, but soon embarked on a stellar rise to become team manager of Scuderia Filipinetti before subsequently striking out on his own as an independent car manufacturer.
They started out relatively civilised, with the likes of the Stash coupé, but gradually became more exuberant with one-offs such as the Windhawk, Super eight, Monster G and Challenge.
In addition to his gifts as a designer, Franco is also an inventor credited with creations such as hubless wheels.
He has opened his own travelling design academy, Espace Sbarro, and continues to be a regular exhibitor at the Geneva motor show with more recent successes including the pretty, Tipo 33 Stradale-inspired 2006 Alfa Romeo Diva.
Sbarro Super Eight
- Sold/number built 1984/1
- Construction steel tubular chassis, glassfibre body
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 2927cc V8, electronic fuel injection
- Max power 237bhp @ 7000rpm
- Max torque 192lb ft @ 5000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 10ft 4in (3150mm)
- Width 5ft 9in (1750mm)
- Height 4ft 3¼in (1300mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 2½in (2200mm)
- Weight 2712lb (1230kg)
- 0-60mph 5 secs (est)
- Top speed 137mph (est)
- Mpg 18 (est)
- Price new £n/a
- Price now £150,000 (est)*
*Price correct at date of original publication
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