40 years of turbo: road cars

25 February 2021

Ben Pulman

As turbocharged Ferraris took back-to-back Constructors’ Championships in the 1982 and 1983 Formula 1 seasons, the technology made the leap to the Prancing Horse’s road cars. It was the start of something very special…

At the 1982 Turin Motor Show, Ferrari unveiled the 208 GTB Turbo, its first turbocharged road car. The first ever four-cam V8 road car to be turbocharged, the 1991cc capacity sidestepped a luxury tax in Italy on engines above 2.0-litres. However, fitted with a turbocharger, it produced only 20cv less than the 308 GTB Quattrovalvole and delivered the kind of acceleration normally unthinkable in a car of this displacement.

Fledgling turbo technology took a giant leap less than two years later, with the unveiling the Ferrari GTO – known unofficially with the 288 prefix, to differentiate it from the 250 GTO. It was the first mid-engined Ferrari with a longitudinally mounted V8 engine, and the first with twin turbos. A pair of intercoolers additionally cooled the charge air and helped the 2855cc engine generate 400cv. Able to achieve 0-100km/h in 4.9 seconds and a top speed of 305km/h, at the time it was the fastest production car in the world.

Lesson learnt on the GTO were transferred to Ferrari’s next turbocharged road car. Just as the 308 GTB was replaced by the 328 GTB, so too was the 208 GTB superseded by the GTB Turbo. Again built solely for the Italian market, a new turbo, an intercooler, and increased boost pressure (up 75 percent) increased power of the 2.0-litre V8 to near that of the 328.

Perhaps the most famous turbocharged Ferrari arrived in 1987. Built to celebrate the Ferrari’s 40th anniversary, the F40 took the extreme philosophy of the 288 GTO to new levels. An increased engine capacity, higher compression ratio, rise in boost pressure, together with twin turbos and twin intercoolers, pushed the V8 to 478cv. The result was the first road car to reach 200mph (322km/h).

Ferrari again planned a turbocharged 2.0-litre version of the 348 TB that was introduced in 1989, using a similar twin turbo and twin intercooler set-up as the F40. A triple turbo version was also considered, and two prototypes were built, but strong demand for the naturally aspirated 348 meant neither project reached fruition.

For the next two and a half decades Ferrari focused upon high-revving naturally aspirated engines, but reintroduced turbocharging to its road cars in 2014 – just as turbocharging returned to Formula 1. A new family of twin-turbocharged V8s were created, and impeccable design and engineering endowed these engines with exemplary power, torque, emissions, consumption, sound and – perhaps the hardest to achieve of all – response.

The first model to receive such a contemporary power unit was the California T. The entirely new direct-injection, twin-turbo 3.8-litre V8 increased torque by 49% over its naturally aspirated predecessor, while fuel consumption was reduced by 15%, both perfect attributes for an open-air GT Spider.

A year later, the 488 GTB cemented Ferrari’s prowess. The 3.9-litre V8 produced 670cv, but as remarkable was the turbocharged engine’s blistering reactions. Sophisticated technologies ensured virtually zero lag, guaranteeing instantaneous response to commands and, as with naturally-aspirated power units, a torque curve that increased constantly across the rev range thanks to Variable Boost Management. It was crowned ‘International Engine of the Year’ by a panel of industry experts, an award that it has held for four consecutive years.

Such an accolade has not seen Ferrari rest on its laurels. Today, the Portofino M and Roma represent one end of the breadth of diversity offered by Ferrari’s V8 engines. At the other, the F8 Tributo is endowed with the extreme evolution of the turbo engine that powered the special series 488 Pista, and the hybrid SF90 Stradale – with 780cv from a new twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8, and a total of 1000cv – looks set to join the likes of the GTO and F40 as an iconic model that showcases the Prancing Horse’s engineering tradition.