Ferraris have a reputation for being fragile, unreliable and expensive to maintain. And on the face of it, it's hard to argue with those sentiments. These are expensive cars to own for sure, but treated properly, they're actually far from unreliable. The 308 GTS pictured here is an excellent illustration of how to make a vintage Ferrari suitable for frequent or even daily use. Owned by Denver, Colorado resident Mark Lavanish, the 308 is driven regularly, even frequently crossing state lines.
Now, the 308 wasn't always as dependable as it is now. Nor was it nearly as fast, which we'll get to in a bit. When Lavanish first acquired the dreamy Italian sportscar, issue after issue cropped up in a never-ending succession. From exploding coolant lines to broken belts, the Ferrari definitely tested it's owner's patience. “If I had known then what I know now about 308s, I would have punched myself and driven to a Toyota dealership,” says Lavanish.
Lavanish persevered though. And he's ended up with a pretty amazing Ferrari. Though it's black now, when Lavanish bought it, it was a Fly Yellow, 205-hp 308 GTSi, vintage 1981. Shortly after acquiring it, he was doing his best Magnum P.I. impression from behind the wheel of the 308. Okay, it wasn't quite that simple, since the car broke down on his first day of ownership.
“The car hadn’t been driven in several years,” says Lavanish. “The owner had passed away and the family had hired a local shop to get it running again and sell it for them.” The mechanic even tried to warn Lavanish away from the potentially expensive project the car could become. Lavanish couldn't resist the Ferrari's looks and overall charm of the car.
After spending more than half what he paid for the car on repairs and badly needed maintenance, Lavanish was on the road in his dream car, which would turn out to be a short time period. It came to an end when the Ferrari was involved in a fender bender that lightly damaged the car's delicate nose. With the car in the capable hands of Glen Watt of Colour Restoration in Denver, it was decided to change the color of the car from the original yellow paint to a more sleek looking shade of black.
While the Ferrari was taken apart, Lavanish did some work on it with his own hands, including replacing the fuel lines, upgrading the headlights and driving lights, to name a few of the jobs he did. Meanwhile the car's body was stripped to bare metal, the side markers removed and the holes filled in and lastly, a European front bumper, valance, grill and driving lights were installed.
Once it was reassembled, the Ferrari was back on the road. But it wasn't long before a snapped timing belt encouraged Lavanish to upgrade the car's somewhat lackluster performance. “I was very disappointed (in the power) and desperate to get the car to a more respectable level of performance,” he says. “You couldn’t get the car to do much below 4,500-rpm. Even them, you couldn’t do much.”
Lavanish discovered a company called Carobu Engineering when he was browsing Ferrarichat, the online Ferrari forum. Carobu offers an increasingly popular 3.5-liter upgrade to the 3.0 normally found in the 308. “I made a few calls asking about their operation and what I could expect from a 3.5-liter engine,” says Lavanish. A subsequent visit to the shop’s location in New Mexico convinced him that it was the right thing to do.
Shortly thereafter, the Ferrari was delivered to Carobu, owned by Tate Casey and Bert Wehr. “The seed for the idea of increasing the displacement of the 308 engine beyond 3.2-liters was planted at the time when we were rebuilding 360 GT Michelotto racing engines for one of our racing clients,” says Casey. “We noticed that the bore centers and the main bearing saddle spacing and size for the 360 engine and the 308 engine were the same. While the 360’s 85-mm steel, thin-walled Nikasil-coated liners wouldn’t drop into the 308, we visualized a redimensioned 360-style sleeve working fine, as Ferrari had already done the bulk of the engineering.”
The rebuild of the 3.0-liter centers around a 78-mm., billet crankshaft that replaces the original 71-mm Ferrari item. The crank enlarges the engine’s displacement and also sheds10-lbs from the engine’s internals, freeing up horsepower and improving the engine's throttle response in the process. 85-mm, ceramic coated cylinder liners are also installed in the 308's stock block.
The stock 308 connecting rods are retained and actuate 10.5:1 Razzo Rosso pistons. The larger pistons and longer throw crankshaft produce a displacement of 3,493-cc. The heads on the V8 are ported for better airflow and the original valves replaced with stronger stainless steel valves. Custom ground camshafts are installed, while further reducing the engine’s mass is a lightweight flywheel that drops 10-lbs from the motor and adds a little power.
The Bosch CIS fuel injection is retained but the original ignition system was replaced with an electronic ignition for a stronger spark. "I have also installed a lighter aluminum radiator that really keeps the engine's temperatures super stable while dropping 18-lbs," says Lavanish. Stock headers lead into a Magnaflow muffler. The 5-speed gearbox also remains as it left the factory, but the clutch has been upgraded to a more durable, 800-lb unit.
To improve the car's handling and road-holding, Lavanish installed adjustable coilovers from Nicks Forza Ferrari in Custer, Washington, which are adjustable for rebound and compression. A larger brake kit from Girodisc was installed on the Ferrari to reduce stopping distances. The front uses 310-mm diameter, two-piece rotors and the rear uses stock diameter but upgraded rotors, all of which are clamped by Wilwood calipers.
One of the most noticeable changes to the 308's exterior is the addition of the larger 3-piece Compomotive wheels that Lavanish installed. Similar in style to the wheels used on the incredible 1984 288 GTO, the wheels on Lavanish's car measure 17-inches in diameter and are wrapped in 235-width front and 275-width rear Bridgestone Potenza tires. A fender roller was utilized to allow the wheels to fit without rubbing.
“Why these cars weren’t built this way to begin with is beyond me,” he says of the finished package. “The throttle response is incredible and with the lightweight flywheel, the engine spins up much faster. The power climbs to 6,400-rpm where it has over 300-hp and stays level all the way past 7,000-rpm," says Lavanish. By 3500-rpm, the engine is producing over 250 lb/ft of torque and from 4400 to 5400-rpm is producing 270 lb/ft of torque.
Lavanish let us experience the Ferrari for ourselves on some decent driving roads. Once we've dropped into the 308's low-slung cockpit, we're greeted with reupholstered seats and re-dyed door panels and center console. Dynamat was installed under the carpet to give the car a quieter, more refined driving experience. A chrome shift knob was installed, which is a short drop from the steering wheel. Straight ahead is a simple, purposeful gauge cluster. The pedals are offset to the right, which takes a minute to get used to. Overall the interior is a pretty tight fit. I could see how in it's era, reviewers equated the 308's interior to that of a jet fighter.
The larger 3.5-liter motor's exhaust note is deeper than we’re used to from a stock 308, and the Magnaflow muffler raises the volume of the motor a further couple of decibels. Once underway, the added performance over a stock 2-valve 308 becomes quickly apparent, The additional horsepower is great but it’s the mid-range torque of this engine that impresses. Rather than having to mat the gas pedal for decent progress, a flex of my throttle foot sends the 308 rocketing down the road. The added torque also makes the 308 more manageable when driving in town or at a moderate pace, the added torque delivering more immediate acceleration.
The changes to the suspension take what is already a great handling car in stock form and transform it into something downright impressive. There is reduced dive during hard braking brake, less body roll when the Ferrari howls into and out of corners and overall a far more 'pointy' feel from the front end. The Girodisc brakes lack some pedal feedback but their bite is far more impressive, slowing the car confidently and quickly.
And the Ferrari positively rockets out of corner now, thanks to the new found horsepower and torque, the engine revving quickly and quickly, all the while producing a terrific, high-strung howl. Keep the pedal planted and the V8 will happily reach and even exceed the lofty 7,500-rpm redline. "The larger engine feels similar to later, larger displacement Ferraris like the 355 and 360 Modena, both of which are considered pretty quick cars in their own right. Like Lavanish said, the 308 was built and produced with quite a bit of untapped potential, potential that is unleashed here to great effect.