I recently had the chance to drive a 1981 Ferrari 512BB, which stands for "Berlinetta Boxer," although car enthusiasts all know that this car really only has one name: the Boxer. The Ferrari Boxer is a mid-engine, 12-cylinder supercar, and it was a crucial vehicle for Ferrari, representing the pivot from the coach-built era of the 1960s into the larger-volume world of the 1980s. See the used Ferrari models for sale near you
It is, in a word, cool.
And that’s why I chose to drive it after perusing the entire inventory of Tomini Classics, an exotic car dealership in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with some amazing vehicles. I was in Dubai for the launch of the new Chevy Corvette ZR1, and I stopped by Tomini to review some of their truly incredible inventory — and you’ll see those reviews pop up over the next few months. Today, we begin with the Boxer.
But before I get started, a little history lesson for those of you who aren’t obsessively up on your Ferrari heritage. The Boxer came out in the 1970s, and it was the mid-engine, 12-cylinder Ferrari that preceded the Testarossa; Ferrari called it the "Boxer" because the engine is a flat V12, and the cylinders look like they’re "boxing" as they fire — though it’s worth noting the car doesn’t actually have a boxer engine, strictly speaking, like a Subaru or a Porsche. The Boxer was Ferrari’s first mid-engine V12 car, and it was their answer to the famous Lamborghini Miura, which had debuted a few years earlier. If you don’t know about the Boxer, one possible reason is that Ferrari never sold it in North America: Enzo famously didn’t want to deal with the regulatory hoops that would’ve required, so he simply skipped the U.S. market altogether. However, many have since been imported privately.
With that out of the way, I’m going to skip to the drive, and specifically one quick point: the cabin is tight. I don’t mean this in the sense that it’s a little difficult to sit in this car. I mean it was probably dangerous to have me drive, because my knee would’ve interfered with any sort of panic turn, and my thigh was practically sitting on the gear lever when it was in first. The car isn’t hard to get inside, and it isn’t difficult to fit when I’m in it, but actually driving it is a whole different story. I don’t know if I’ve ever driven another car with such poor packaging.
But that is (mostly) forgotten when you get out on the road, and you open it up and hear that amazing 12-cylinder Ferrari noise behind you. It isn’t as glorious as, uh, some of the other Tomini reviews I have coming, but it’s truly impressive — and it gives you that thrill, that feeling you’re driving a car that isn’t necessarily monstrously fast, but is certainly monstrously cool. Modern cars sound amazing. But modern cars do not sound like this.
The Boxer, however, is a bit unsettled by corners. Modern exotic cars are so predictable and stable, and they can basically be driven by idiots, but older ones required a lot more skill — they have skinny tires, unassisted steering and massive blind spots, and the Boxer suffers from all three. Going around a long, sweeping curve at high speed, I felt it get a little squirrely and I backed off immediately. This is a car you want to drive fast only after you’ve gotten used to it.
Or, I should say, it’s a car you want to drive fast in turns only after you’ve gotten used to it. On straightaways, it’s a total joy: It’s actually fast, even by modern standards, and beyond the sheer speed you have that immense noise right behind you. At one point, while I was driving the Boxer, a man in a 911 Turbo glanced over at me and stared longingly, which sort of summed up the whole experience: his car is objectively better in every way. But he still wants my car.
Although, to be honest, he probably wouldn’t want the Boxer if he knew about the driving position — or some of its other unusual quirks. Like, for instance, the fact that there’s virtually no cargo space. Or that the glovebox shares space with the fusebox, and neither will open if the car is off. Or the fact that opening the engine cover requires two latches and two people. Or how there’s only one exterior mirror, and one giant wiper arm that rests on the windshield itself. But hey: there are two ashtrays. And two cigarette lighters.
In the end, the Boxer certainly isn’t a modern car, and it’s not trying to be one — but it’s definitely a special car, and it’s very interesting to see what passed for "cool" in 1981. For example, we know that tall drivers were not allowed to be cool. Or maybe they just had to buy a Maserati. Find a used Ferrari for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.