The Ferrari Testarossa Spider Lives! The Joyful Insanity of the ‘Ratarossa’
A Ferrari, despite what the legend may have you believe, is just a car. But the Ratarossa is so much more than just a Ferrari.
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Sometimes, the most ambitious, difficult projects just fall into your lap. Whether that’s the arrival of a found stray animal that you decide to give a forever home, a surprise pregnancy, or—for me—a text message from my friend Rob Ferretti with a link to CraigsList, and an editorial on the 897,000-mile Lexus LS400 advertised for sale: “89.7 percent of the way there, who wants to take this baby to a million?” (That’s right, I jumped from pregnancy to beater CraigsList cars in one sentence.)
I understand the appeal of an ambitious project with no real end value. Since that text message and with the help of my friends and fans, I've put over 90,000 miles on my 1996 Lexus LS400, and in the process spent nearly $20,000 in maintenance on a $1,200 car. Why? Because if I didn’t save this car and shepherd it to a million miles, no one else would have. It would have gone to a junkyard to rot, having served its term as bland conveyance to many, many people’s satisfaction.
An absurd project needs not only a spark of inspiration, but also a slightly crazy, mildly stupid, and very committed shepherd. You also have to appreciate that it’s less about the car at that point than it is about the happiness a project like this brings to other people, like all the folks who’ve gone on road trips in my stupid Lexus.
Or anyone who lays eyes on the Ratarossa.
Scott Chivers likes collecting, driving, and tinkering with scruffy Ferraris. A Ferrari, despite what the legend may have you believe, is just a car. Some of the parts for a Ferrari may be a bit more expensive and harder to come by than for other cars, but if you’re a competent wrench, working on a Ferrari is really no different from working on anything else. A mild amount of skill and an overabundance of confidence can, in this chap’s case, lead to something truly great.
It all started with a red, 1987 Ferrari Testarossa that needed a part. It’s one of five late-model Fezzas scattered about Scott’s home, including a daily-driven 360 Challenge Stradale with over 70,000 miles and toasted paint, and two F355 Spider F1’s, possibly the neediest Ferraris of the modern era. The man is clearly is a glutton for punishment.
Scott says ’87 is his favorite year for the Testarossa, because, in his words, “You get mirrors on both sides, which you want, despite what collectors say. You also get the 5-lug version of the pentagram-style wheels.” His ’87 was in reasonably good condition, and in the course of digging through forums for a specific engine part, came across a three-year-old listing for a “disassembled but mostly complete Testarossa 'Spider' body shell, engine, transmission, and a few boxes of parts.” The listing was still up, but had no replies, zero interested parties. The shell itself began life as a stock, US-spec ’87 Testarossa, but at some point, presumably at least 20 years ago, “an attempt was made” to turn the coupe into the mythical Testarossa Spider, of which only one was ever built at the factory.
The lone factory car—either a gift for, or a commission by Fiat honcho Gianni Agnelli—was a one-of-one, fitted with the “Valeo” clutchless gearbox and a unique lower door stripe. Concerns about chassis rigidity and driving dynamics ensured no Testarossa Spider ever went into production, but that didn’t stop several professional coachbuilders from giving it their best shots—not to mention a few amateur builders as well.
This was not a good attempt. Using what I can only presume was a Sawzall, the “coachbuilder” removed the roof and turned the engine cover into a reverse clamshell configuration, using what appears to be hinges from a household door. They then added steel 2x4 ladder bars along the doorsills for some added structure. Frankly, neither Scott nor I have any clue whether the Testarossa ever ran or drove as a convertible, or if it was simply a half-finished-and-abandoned project. We do know that until very recently, it had not run during this millennium. Nevertheless, after three years in FerrariChat limbo, the hunk of parts found a home in Scott Chivers, and less than $20,000 later, the parts arrived on pallets in front of Scott’s modest UK home which, by all accounts, was already overflowing with Ferrari. From there, the goal was “simply to see if I could rebuild the thing myself, make it mechanically sound, and sort of leave the exterior a bit of a mess.”
Now that is an undertaking. Not knowing which parts he did and did not have, and without the use of a shop manual, Scott simply started putting things together, sometimes spending days just staring at a part or series of parts and wondering where they would actually go. To me, the idea that one might assemble a Ferrari Testarossa without so much as a shop manual is utter madness, but like I said, the man likes to tinker with scruffy Ferrari’s. And it’s not to say Mr. Chivers’ didn’t do some math beforehand; frankly, if either the engine or the gearbox could be made to work, the entire rest of the car could be thrown in the trash heap and more than his entire investment could be recouped by selling either of those parts individually: a working gearbox, in today’s market, is worth around $25,000.
Restoring the car to stock, or to even something that looked good, was never part of the equation. To paraphrase, Scott could have spent a hundred grand on restoration to end up with a car worth fifty. In today’s market, or even the near-term future market, the math didn’t work. But a cheap, numbers-matching Testarossa rat-rod? That seems like a spectacularly fun talking piece.
By just looking at “Ratarossa,” it’s easy to tell which parts didn’t come with the car—on the outside, at least. The strakes in the radiator-feeding side pods, along with both exterior mirrors, are bright red rather than primer gray. The interior is tan, except for the dashboard, which is brown.
“The dash was a lucky one," Scott says. "I was able to nick it for a steal, and it was in great shape.” He isn’t lying: it’s probably the cleanest part of the whole car, even if the colors don’t match.
Most people think it’s a fake. Car enthusiasts are smart enough to know Ferrari never produced a TR in a Spider, and the body panel fitment is medium-atrocious, especially the rear of the doors, where the strakes simply don’t line up right, and where the buttresses used to meet the engine cover, plasma-cut off and Bondo'd right over. Plus, the paint is far too shit (there really isn’t any, in fact) to be a real Ferrari, right?
Except, all the proportions are perfect—usually the giveaway of fakery—and the interior is correct, if mismatched; the wheels are obviously the real deal; and the reverse clamshell does reveal a very genuine, 390-horsepower, 4.9L flat-twelve. “It probably needs a service, definitely some plugs, and possibly a valve job eventually, but it does work,” Scott says, underselling how well the engine runs.
The reactions of folks on the street morph from laughter at what must be fake, to disbelief that there is such a thing as a beater Testarossa Spider parked in front of Windsor Castle, to getting way too comfortable around the car; apparently if a Ferrari doesn’t have good paint, folks think it’s cool to just splay out across the hood for a photo.
Scott isn’t as offended as I am by people’s behavior. “The paint is shit, so who cares? That’s why I have a beater Ferrari. To not care when people act like idiots around it.” He makes a good poin as I scream at a tourist to show some respect for other people’s stuff.
From the second I slide my American-sized bum into the oddly-shaped-yet-comfortable bucket, I lament the fact that Ferrari did not build Spiders. The silhouette is phenomenal. The views out the front and back are marvelous. The headroom is, shall we say, infinite. There’s no roof at all, so it’s just like a 550 Barchetta, minus the provenance, rollover protection, and value. And thanks to the removal (by the “coachbuilder”) of what I can only assume is an essential heat shield, you can drive Rattarossa year-round in the UK; a literal waterfall of heat pours into the cabin from between the seats. If you think about it, this is where the fire will start, so you don't think about it.
The front bonnet doesn’t lock properly and vibrates badly at anything over 40 mph. Only one of the pop-up headlights work.
But, no matter. This is, like my friend Freddy would say, a real, working Ferrari for less than the price of a decent Toyota Corolla.
Though it feels as if a few ponies may have run away in the thirty years since this TR left Maranello, the engine idles smooth and quiet, and pulls through the revs with surprising strength. I keep it off redline to be kind, but it’s more than happy to spend time between 3 and 5 grand. What it doesn’t like is being lugged; shift too low and it’ll sputter and get angry, but the old "Italian tune up" of a few seconds on full throttle wakes it right back up. It’s happy to rev, like a good Ferrari should be.
“I can’t wait to put the sports exhaust on it,” Scott says, referring to the near straightpipe sitting on a shelf in his garage. I agree that more volume would be good, because this is one of the quietest Ferraris I’ve ever driven.
The dogleg 5-speed is as satisfying as ever to snick-snick through the metal gate, and Ratarossa does feel, for all intents and purposes, like a real Ferrari. Third gear is crunchy when it’s cold, but I pay it little mind, because it also crunches when it’s warm. Double-clutching helps. I still like the sound of the shifter and try to think of it as an opportunity to practice footwork.
Scott’s installed new, adjustable-height shocks and is now on his third set of custom springs, trying to get the ride height correct, since the weight distribution of the Spider is now off. We are still bedding in the new springs, which I learn as I hit bump-stop more than a few times on our drive. “This is why I called you to come drive it,” Scott jokes, “the English journalists are too small to bed in the springs properly.” But the KW shocks do offer a smooth, even ride, and will probably be great once dialed in at the right height.
The manual steering is light once the car is moving; but god help you if you need to make a rapid three-point turn. It’s deader on center, with more play than the last TR I drove, which could be blamed on a tired rack, or any number of other things, but once loaded up in a corner, responds well to small inputs.
It is at this point where I probably have to qualify the phrase “loaded up in a corner” by pointing out that the Ratarossa doesn’t feel particularly safe no matter what you’re doing with it. Though there are less jiggles than expected thanks to the ladder bar reinforcement, the dynamics are not exactly inspiring from a performance standpoint. Cruising down an English B-Road at 45 mph, stuck behind a Fiat Panda, I am not wishing for a racetrack, or to be out in my normal canyons, loading up the suspension and tires, zinging the twelve to redline. This, here, is fast car slow. Over the course of three hours Scott and I cruised the countryside, did some pulls for camera, tried to present the car as somewhat dynamically compelling, and utterly failed. You can watch the video and judge for yourself, but I’ll call this a 3/10ths car; four at most.
I don’t like Ferrari’s because of how I look in them. I like Ferrari’s because of the feedback, the sensory ‘fizz’ that comes with the sounds and the revs. Not this one. Scott has reassembled the perfect pub-going vehicle. I love how I look in this car. I love driving it slow, through the city. I love how people smile at me, whether they get the joke or not. But especially when they do. I love how they think it’s fake, but then I give some revs, and there’s a “Hang on, that is a Ferrari engine in there.” Followed by a more-than approving nod. I love how, when I park it up outside Windsor castle, it draws a crowd. And those folks aren’t sneering like if I had illegally parked a 488. If I shipped her to LA, and went to dinner on Sunset, I assure you, the valets would move the 488’s to the back. Hours after I left with Ratarossa. I was walking past the castle where I took the photo. Two homeless guys approached me, “Hey man, what was that ugly Ferrari thing you were driving earlier? Was that real? Couldn’t be, it was trashed”
“Yeah, it actually was a real ’87 Testarossa. Runs pretty good too.”
“That’s fucking awesome man, that was so cool. I didn’t even know they made a convertible!”
“So someone cut that up at home? Amazing!”
I had been identified, on foot, hours after leaving the car, utterly without pretense, and full of appreciation for the car on its own terms. That’s the impression Ratarossa makes on bystanders. They remember you.
As most of us know, Ferrari owners tend to take themselves very seriously. You don’t see a lot of modified Ferrari’s (except with parts from better Ferraris, like Challenge Grilles on 360’s), and you don’t see a lot of people who have a sense of humor about any of it. Ferrari actively discourages laughter around any of their product, even if you’ve paid full price and own it. (Who remembers when they sued Deadmau5 for changing the badging on his 458 to the cat meme-worthy ‘Purrari’.)
This is the opposite of all that. There is nothing serious about the Ratarossa, aside from the effort one man, in a small garage in the English countryside, gave to get it back on the road. Everything about it—from the crap paint, to the door hinges on the clamshell, to the mismatched interior and the heat pouring onto you as you drive—is funny. Simultaneously awful and wonderful. Perfectly shit. Everything makes me smile.
I have been operating on a theory that, when you drive an iconic car of any kind, there is always one question that gets asked of you over and over. You never want the answer to that question to be “no.” I once owned a Superformance Shelby Cobra replica. The one and only question anyone had for me was, “is it real?” to which I would have to, if I was being honest, answer “No.” Even though real Cobras are for the 1 percent of the 1 percent, you just deflate the whole experience with that “no.”
This is the exact opposite of that. The confusion, followed by understanding, then elation from folks who realize that yes, this is a real numbers-matching Testarossa rat rod with a sawzalled roof, and it's absolutely spectacular. It’s the opposite of everything most people know and understand about these cars, and their owners.
So here’s to you, Scott and your Ratarossa. You’ve done something that was previously thought impossible: you’ve found, fixed, and put back on the road the only Ferrari in the world with a sense of humor.