Open the engine lid on John Asselta’s 1978 Ferrari 308 GTS and the everything looks close to stock, at least at a glance. There’s the trademark wrinkle-painted air intake cover above what appear to be downdraught Weber carburetors. Look a little closer though and some differences become apparent. Rather than carbs, there are eight individual throttle bodies feeding air to the V8 engine. Another tip off that all is not stock in the Ferrari are the relocated plug wires and a fuel injection computer that has a cooling duct leading to it. Though it looks close to stock, this 308 has been upgraded in key mechanical area, resulting in a faster, sharper version of Ferrari’s mid-engine classic.
For Asselta, the driving experience that his personalized 308 offers doesn’t get any better. “This is my first Ferrari and I will probably have it forever,” he says. “Every time I get in the car it feels like the first time driving it, I’m grinning from ear to ear.” Asselta’s history as a car enthusiast began when he was 14 years old and his dad showed up at the house with an Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite. The British classic may have been in boxes, but the restoration he and his dad did on the car led to an ongoing involvement with cool old cars. “Most of my teenage years were spent flipping cars for profit, doing mostly rust repair on old Honda Civics and 240Zs,” he says.
Over the years, Asselta was able to experience a wide range of cars. But one car that he had always wanted was a 308. In the mid-90s thought he made the dream a reality when he bought a ’78 308 GTS in Los Angeles. “For post-1970 Ferraris, the early 308 has the most appeal to me,” he says, citing the lack of power steering, traction control or anti-lock brakes as some of the primary appeals. “Its just power to the ground, plain and simple.”
The 308 was used as an occasional commuter and fun driver but eventually became a more involved project car, benefiting from a cosmetic refurbishment and a raft of performance upgrades in the process. The first change was the addition of a deeper aftermarket front spoiler from Berlinetta Motorcars. A few years later the Ferrari received a bare-metal respray in its original shade of black. “In the process, we covered up the rear side marker lights and retrofitted the round Euro turn signals on the front fenders,” says Asselta. The 308’s exterior was further cleaned up with a European-spec front bumper, clear front signal lenses and a custom rear bumper. “Since I liked the bumper on the 288 GTO, I designed and built a split rear bumper out of aluminum and fiberglass.” Other changes include modified rear side window covers and additional vents in the front hood for cooling.
There came a point in his ownership when Asselta became tired of rebuilding his carbs in a fruitless attempt to get the 3.0-liter V8 engine to run properly at the high altitude where he lives in Colorado. “The modifications to the induction system were mainly due to the fact that I live at about 7,500 feet above see level and traveling to Denver was about a 2,000 foot drop in altitude,” notes Asselta. “And that altitude difference made it very difficult to tune the car.”
The solution was the installation of computerized throttle body fuel injection. Asselta used throttle bodies from TWM, a noted specialist in the world of EFI. The eight individual throttle bodies, one for each cylinder, are tucked under the stock air box just like the carbs were. An Electromotive ECU controls the fuel injection and has an electric fan mounted to it to keep the computer cool. “The TEC GT ECU was easy to implement and the software is very user friendly,” says Asselta. The conversion required some specially fabricated linkage, but overall went smoothly.
A high pressure fuel pump was installed to work with the EFI. The air intake on the driver’s side quarter panel has been modified so that it routes fresh air to the airbox. Normally, only the passenger’s side air intake channels air to the engine’s intake. “Bringing outside air from the driver’s side intake to the air box sure helped the car breathe, and I get to hear what the passenger hears from the side air scoop,” he says. The ignition on the Ferrari has been upgraded to an Electromotive direct fire ‘distributorless’ ignition and larger Magnecor spark plug wires. “I also designed and had fabricated a true dual exhaust system so the front and rear bank of cylinders can breathe independently,” says Asselta. Each bank of 4-cylinders on the V8 uses a separate stainless steel Magnaflow muffler.
The changes to the Ferrari’s engine have had a noticeable impact on the car’s performance. “I have more power and a broader torque curve. But most importantly, driveability is much better. The car responds very well to temperature and altitude changes. It starts and runs all day. The power band is smooth and the air/fuel ratio across the RPM range is stable and spot-on for power and driveability.” The system is also extremely easy to tune, which was one of the original goals.
Asselta also focused his attention on the Ferrari’s chassis. The Koni shocks and stock springs have been retained but the suspension was rebuilt with polyurethane bushings throughout. A new steering rack has also been installed. The original and relatively small 14-inch alloys were swapped for replica 16-inch 308 Quattrovalve alloys from Superformance. Tires are Hancook Ventus RS-2 tires that measure 225/50ZR16 at the front and 245/45ZR16 at the rear.
When we drop into the Ferrari’s low-slung interior, things are close to stock. There is a larger aluminum shift knob and pedal set as well as a steering wheel spacer that brings the wheel a little closer to the driver. An air/fuel gauge and pyrometer have been added to the interior as well. At idle the engine burbles and thrums happily. The throttle bodies produce a nice throaty intake sound not dissimilar to Webers. The intake sound is backed up by a deep exhaust note from the dual Magnaflows.
On the mountain roads just outside of Denver, the 308 isn’t necessarily fast in the sense of a modern Ferrari, but the engine pulls eagerly as I run it up through the gears. In fact, the woken-up engine feels like it benefits from a little added displacement and not just a reconfigured fuel system. Power tapers off as the tach nears 7,000-rpm, and though the engine gladly pulls beyond, there’s really no need to take it to the 7,800-rpm redline even when driving quickly. Throttle response is superior to that of a carbureted car, with instant power the moment the linkage opens those eight individual throttle bodies.
The electronic fuel injection eliminates the occasional flat-spot or stumble that is an inherent aspect of a carbureted engine. Instead, there’s just smooth, useable power from as low as 2,500-rpm. The engine feels far snappier and more responsive than just about any 308-series car with the stock Bosch injection that I’ve driven. And it sounds absolutely terrific with a deep, thrumming intake snort and melodious V8 exhaust note that turns into a smooth howl at higher RPMs.
Around corners, the Ferrari is nimble and confidence inspiring thanks to the rebuilt suspension, modern tires and larger wheels. There is a tilt of body roll as the Ferrari turns in to corners, but once it takes a set it carves around very neutrally. As we accelerate out of turns, the car can easily be coaxed into a slightly tail out set. Overall, Asselta’s work on the car has resulted in a far better driving experience from this old 308.