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The Italian exotic-car establishment took its time in responding to the mid-engined gauntlet thrown down by the Miura.
As ever, engineering pride and tribal chauvinism reigned supreme in the valley of the Latin supercar, and neither Ferrari nor Maserati wanted to look as if it had been rattled by the impact of the P400 – an event of seismic proportions in this internecine world – with a product that was anything less than fully sorted.
But the caution in Maranello and on the Viale Ciro Menotti was understandable.
Where the newcomer from Sant’Agata could afford to take chances, Ferrari and Maserati, with hard-won reputations to protect, had to adopt a more measured approach to the multiple challenges of building a large-capacity mid-engined sports car for road use, which is why these two machines were the most thoroughly tested that either manufacturer had built up to that point.
Making beautiful clothes for such cars was the relatively easy part in a time when Italian stylists and coachbuilders were at the zenith of their creativity.
Much harder was the business of developing a 170mph projectile that catered to a wide range of driving capabilities and real-life situations: civilised road machines with decent boot space and general habitability that pleased new customers without alienating the old ones.
But the real precursors to the Boxer were the V12 Posteriore Berlinettas that the works team (and privateers) had been running in the prototype class of the World Sportscar Championship since 1963.
Pure-bred racers such as the 250P and LM were a clear indication of the direction in which thoughts were flowing at Maranello.
Meanwhile, Pininfarina had been drip-feeding a steady flow of ideas for what a large, mid-engined roadgoing Ferrari might look like, principally the centrally steered 365P built for Gianni Agnelli (shown at Paris in 1966) and the P6 proposal, an engineless 1968 Turin Salon mock-up that strongly hinted at the general proportions of a 12-cylinder mid-engined Ferrari production car.
That car would emerge, in 1971, as the 365GT4 Berlinetta Boxer. Yet the Paris show car was only a prototype: with the Daytona still selling in healthy numbers, it would be another two years before the 365GT4 BB became a fully catalogued model.
Built to the tune of 387 examples between 1973 and ’76, a 365 Boxer can be spotted for its matching sextet of tail-lights and tailpipes; the later, heavier, 5-litre 512BB and fuel-injected BBi had four rear lights and chin spoilers among many other changes.
Ferrari claimed a spurious 380bhp and 188mph for the 365, the latter figure seemingly extrapolated as an on-paper exercise on the basis of revs and gearing.
What is certain is that, while no Formula One engine, the Boxer’s 4.4-litre flat-12 emerged from recent lessons learned in Ferrari’s 1½- and 3-litre F1 cars.
Fiat influence showed in the toothed-belt drive for the four camshafts – which, infamously, is an expensive engine-out job to replace.
The impressive lump is set high on its five-speed transaxle as a way of liberating space for both people and luggage.
This put the flat-12’s turned-billet crankshaft higher above the ground than was ideal for optimal handling, but it was an arrangement that Ferrari carried through to the Testarossa, so it clearly was not an issue for road use.
This wet-linered, two-valves-per-cylinder, four-cam masterpiece of alloy casting was not so much a true ‘boxer’ engine (in that each set of opposed pistons shared a common crank pin), more of a 180º V12, but it helped to keep the centre of gravity down in a 1500kg two-seater where the weight was split 44:56 front to rear.
If there was something inevitable about the arrival of the Boxer, the launch of a mid-engined Maserati seemed a much less predictable event.
The Bora, Tipo AM117, emerged fully formed at the Geneva show in March 1971, a shocking but mostly welcome departure from the traditional front-engined, cart-sprung grand touring cars Maserati had been selling in quite large numbers throughout the 1960s.
Having turned its back on high-level competition involvement, there was no imperative for Maserati to go mid-engined.
In any case, there had been no funds to pursue the notion before Citroën took its controlling stake in 1967.
But now, spurred on by his new French bosses, chief engineer Giulio Alfieri conceived a car that, he hoped, would minimise the compromises inherent in mid-engined designs.
His car would be quiet, easy to get into and out of, and easy to see out of – and even use its parent firm’s high-pressure LHM (Liquide Hydraulique Minéral) technology for its brakes, retractable lights and foot-pedal adjustment.
Named after an Adriatic wind, the Bora was powered by the latest 4.7-litre, 310bhp version of the already quite venerable quad-camshaft V8 (4.9 litres would be standard in Europe from 1976, obligatory in North America throughout) that could claim a clear line of descent from the fearsome but unlucky 450S sports-racer.
In truth, it made a much better civilianised road-car engine than it ever did a competition one.
Fed by four 42DCNF Webers and running a modest 8.5:1compression, it was linked to a ZF transaxle and was geared for a claimed 170mph in fifth, although the most any independent tester ever extracted from a Bora was 160mph.
On its double-wishbone suspension all round the Bora was Maserati’s first fully independent road car; it was also the first with rack-and-pinion steering.
In fact, since all of the firm’s front-engined cars of the 1960s had been directly developed from the 3500GT, you could argue that the Bora was cash-strapped Maserati’s first truly new concept since 1958.
The Bora’s styling, with that distinctive stainless-steel roof, was one of the first projects undertaken by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s recently formed Italdesign.
Having already created the delectable Ghibli while at Ghia, seemingly when little more than a schoolboy, he was a safe pair of hands at the very least.
Under this new skin, Alfieri came to similar conclusions to Ferrari: a central monocoque tub in steel, from which square- or rectangular-section triangulated structures were hung to take coil/damper suspension units and subframes.
The Boxer’s shell, with its aluminium doors and rear deck combined with glassfibre lower panels (in black) and resin bumpers, was built alongside the Dino at Scaglietti.
Both are rare birds in right-hand drive, but it is in that form that we have managed to capture them here.
The plum-coloured Boxer (officially Rosso Cordoba) was the 1975 Earls Court Show car and one of just 58 examples of the 365GT4 BB imported new to the UK by Maranello Concessionaires.
That it is also the 15th-to-last built – and one of only 119 Boxers produced in 1975 – illustrates how rarefied 12-cylinder Ferraris still were in the 1970s.
Not that you saw Boras on every high street: ‘our’ 1973 car is one of 44 right-hookers brought in.
Having once been part of Maserati UK’s now disbanded historic fleet, VNP 703L is one of the better-known Boras of the 11 that are thought to remain on UK roads.
Shorter and narrower than the Ghibli (but almost equally hefty at nearly 1550kg), it is an arresting shape but lacks the lean and hungry elegance of the Ferrari: if it weren’t so compact, so tastefully crafted, the Boxer could almost pass for a modern supercar.
They sit on doughnut-like 215/70 Michelin XWX rubber, the tyre of choice on really quick cars in the ’70s.
The 365GT4 was the last of its ilk to have equal-width tyres all round (later Boxers were wider at the rear). Its five-spoke centre-lock alloys are, for me, much prettier than the Bora’s almost Mercedes-like four-bolts.
Both cars have massive, rear-hinged engine canopies but in the Bora you need to remove the carpeted cover to get to the works, a dour mass of crackle-black-finished castings compared to the gleaming intricacies of the Boxer’s flat-12, with its big Marelli distributor and those four triple-choke Webers with their beautifully engineered throttle linkages.
The little hinged doors in the Bora’s B-posts catch the eye: the right-hand one houses the expansion tank for the coolant, the left merely space for spare plugs, spanners or oily rags.
There’s no secret to getting into either car: yes, they are low-slung, but the door openings are wide.
The Maserati, with its boxy black flight deck of a dashboard, is gloomier than the Ferrari with scattered, unmarked controls, a pleasingly chunky steering wheel and those slightly offset pedals that adjust hydraulically by up to 3in.
The hammock-like seat looks like a therapist’s chair, perhaps appropriate in a machine that has the potential to generate invoices that must have made many Bora owners question their sanity.
The Boxer’s cabin is slightly more compact but has a cleaner, lighter and more airy feel, its highly stylised door furniture and carefully matched switchgear chiming in with the 1970s-futuristic feel of the car.
With its deep ’screen and clear views across the rear deck, the Ferrari has better all-round vision than many modern family cars, too.
The high tail and the sloping glass on the Bora’s rear canopy make rearward vision less than ideal, but it easily trumps the Boxer on luggage space in its deep, regularly shaped front compartment.
Although the alternating rumble from the Maserati’s tailpipes makes no secret of the fact that it is V8-powered, this engine has a silky timbre that is all about brawny refinement up to its modest 6000rpm limit, combined with accurate throttle response and a flat torque curve for effortless flexibility even with the Bora’s high gearing.
The metal lid and the double glazing behind your head do a good job of muting its voice as you accelerate through the well-planned ratios.
You thrust forward in a series of solid but not breathtaking lunges that give nearly 50mph in first, 80-plus in second and 120mph in third, a speed it will cruise at peacefully in its 28mph/1000rpm fifth if you can find a road to do it on.
The gearchange linkage has a lengthy action but feels pleasingly engineered once you have got the hang of where the slots are.
The clutch is weighty but progressive, the powered Citroën-style brakes reassuringly potent but also too sensitive a fulcrum for heel-and-toe gearshifts.
Somewhere behind your left ear is the annoying hiss and click of its associated accumulators.
Humming along in top, the Maserati feels so stable and so (relatively) quiet that you get the feeling its creators were trying to make a businessman’s express out of the Bora rather than just another Latin thrill machine.
On the other hand, with its light, responsive steering and neutral, nearly roll-free handling – up to limits you would never find on the road – the Bora feels composed, wieldy and highly forgiving, making a good case for the virtues of placing the engine forward of the rear wheels with its 42:58 weight distribution.
If it is less fun on poorly surfaced roads, when the hard ride never settles and the steering – a little woolly and low-geared at low speeds – feeds back the sort of distracting messages you perhaps don’t want to hear, that is probably a price worth paying.
But you have to wonder what a Bora with Citroën suspension might have been like.
There is a little more theatre to the Ferrari driving experience, which is just what you would expect.
You sit at a slight angle, dictated by the intrusion of the wheel well, gripping a small, thick-rimmed wheel, your knees splayed around it.
The whine of the starter seems to flow into the way the flat-12 pulses seamlessly into life.
It catches within a few seconds and, once warm, will pull smoothly from what feels like little more than a fast tickover in fourth and top as you feed in the power through its fairly hefty but progressive clutch.
You can meter the number of revs with a pinpoint accuracy that’s possibly unique to multi-carburetted 12-cylinder engines.
This makes the pleasure of deploying that brilliant low-speed flexibility and smoothness an underrated joy, and in turn feeds in to your appreciation of the gearbox.
It becomes second nature – having got past the clunky first-to-second change – to click that spindly shaft quickly and smoothly around its open gate, with a decisive but not brutal action that is partly timed by ear to the rapidly rising note of the engine.
There is no attempt to disguise this crescendo of spooling camshafts and slurping carburettors as the Boxer hastens up the road.
‘Our’ Boxer’s engine and transmission were only rebuilt 2000 miles ago, so letting rip to the full 7700rpm is not on the agenda, but even with a 5000rpm limit the pick-up feels fearsomely strong as the road rushes up through a deep ’screen that seems to end just above your knees.
It musters the sort of smoothly sustained thrust that has you arriving at corners more quickly than you anticipated.
But there is never any drama: turn the wheel and the Boxer goes where it is bidden, less affected by bad surfaces than the Bora on more supple springing, and tracking accurately through steering that returns just the right amount and only betrays its ponderous four turns from lock-to-lock at low speeds.
There is no roll or understeer to speak of, while grip and traction have margins way beyond what a sane motorist would go looking for in a 50-year-old supercar.
If the massive (for their day) brakes with ATE four-pot calipers feel a bit underwhelming compared to the Bora, then they get full marks for bringing the speed down undramatically and are easier to modulate.
Complex handbuilt Italian exotic cars were never about rationalism or (God forbid) mere transport.
So, in a sense, to go mid-engined made a perverse kind of logic by the early 1970s if you were a producer of boutique, multi-cylindered grand touring cars.
Practicality, if it had ever really mattered anyway, could now take an honest second place to the pure physics of idealised roadholding and uncompromising performance.
If the price-tag attached to this new fashion was heftier than ever, then all the better: it made the fantasy complete.
Images: Luc Lacey
- Sold/number built 1971-’78/571
- Construction steel platform chassis with separate rubber-insulated subframes and steel body
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 4719/4930cc V8, four downdraught Weber 42DCNF carburettors
- Max power 310bhp @ 6000rpm
- Max torque 325lb ft @ 4200rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual transaxle, RWD
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes powered discs all round
- Length 14ft 3in (4343mm)
- Width 5ft 10in (1784mm)
- Height 3ft 11in (1200mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2590mm)
- Weight 3416lb (1549kg)
- 0-60mph 6.4 secs
- Top speed 160mph
- Mpg 14
- Price new £11,473
- Price now £100-175,000*
Ferrari 365GT4 BB
- Sold/number built 1973-’76/387 (plus 1936 512s from 1976-’84)
- Construction tubular steel chassis with steel, aluminium and glassfibre body
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 4391cc flat-12, with four triple-choke Weber 40IF3C carburettors
- Max power 380bhp @ 7200rpm
- Max torque 302lb ft @ 3900rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual transaxle, RWD
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs (twin at rear), telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes ventilated discs, with servo
- Length 14ft 3½in (4356mm)
- Width 5ft 11in (1803mm)
- Height 3ft 8in (1118mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 2½in (2502mm)
- Weight 3420lb (1551kg)
- 0-60mph 6.5 secs
- Top speed 171mph
- Mpg 11
- Price new £14,255
- Price now £200-300,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication