One of the most maligned sports cars to ever emerge from Modena.
By: Jonathan Harper
Car collector and enthusiast, Mike Kovac, approached the idea of owning a Ferrari Mondial T with the kind of skepticism usually reserved for blind dates.
“After all, the popular myths perpetuated by the internet had me believing these things were supposed to spontaneously combust at least once a week in a very crowded, public area while bystanders took sadistic joy in your Italian flambee,” he observes.
The Mondial remains one of the most maligned sports cars to ever emerge from Modena, thanks to a reputation that was earned from the first generation and dogged this mid-engined prancing horse for its entire thirteen-year reign. But Kovac wondered whether the second-generation 1989 Ferrari Mondial T—the one he was considering—deserved the bad reputation.
Kovac headed north to Boston to find out. “The test drive was full of surprises,” he recalls. “The Mondial was everything a Ferrari was not supposed to be, at least according to the many ‘experts’ living in the cosmic web. For starters, the steering was both deliciously delicate and full of feedback, offering up tactile sensations without becoming too much of a chatty Cathy. Its excellent low speed manners were accompanied with a meaty but not tiresome clutch, vibrant brakes, perfect damping and a sweet but not obnoxious sounding small displacement V8 that was tractable and unfussy from impossibly low revs.”
When the first Mondial was introduced in 1980, it was met with tepid reviews, at best.Car & Driver tested the Mondial 8 in 1981, and returned a 9.3 second 0-60 mph time—it was slower than the 208/308 GT4 it was meant to replace. To give a little perspective, the first Mondial would run equal with a 2016 Chevrolet Colorado pickup truck to 60 mph. Not good.
Test driving a used car—especially a used Ferrari—wouldn’t be complete without a quibble or two, and Kovac had some. “The only item that lived up to folklore—only when cold—was a very stiff gearbox. The gated shifter made it ok. Once up to operating temperature, there were more surprises.”
Kovac liked what happened when he turned up the wick. “The harder I pushed it—the owner was encouraging—the better things got,” he notes. “The Mondial’s chassis was a lithe and willing instigator, nudging you to brake later and go harder into corners, and the now warm gearbox rewarding fast, precise shifting. And then there was the engine note…a beautiful, mechanical symphony that turned angry and sharper with each increment of higher RPM, and then finally, a banshee scream if you dared test the 7,500 redline.”
Back in the day, Time magazine went so far as to award the original Mondial a position on its “50 Worst Cars of All Time” list. Critical reception be damned, Kovac learned, the Mondial did have its merits. It was the first Ferrari to use a detachable steel subframe for easier maintenance access, as well as a higher roofline for better outward visibility. It even came with two (very small) rear seats.
Fast forward nearly a decade, through two minor Mondial updates (slight power increases in each case), and we arrive at the 1989 Mondial T Kovac was test-driving. The “T” denoted a brand new engine/transmission arrangement—a longitudinally mounted engine making a “T” with the transverse gearbox. A slightly larger engine controlled by a Bosch ECU wasn’t even the exciting part. This late-generation refresh was essentially a brand new car. New features such as standard adjustable suspension, ABS, and power assisted steering were all Ferrari firsts, making the Mondial T a particularly iconic marker in the illustrious Ferrari lineage.
Most importantly, the rearrangement of the drivetrain allowed for a lower center of gravity, and better weight distribution, making the most of the mid-engined setup. Kovac has joined a small group of other Mondial fans who say the T remains a truly engaging and rewarding driver’s car, thanks to dead-on steering input that can inspire confidence in even the most ham-fisted pilot, coupled with a raspy, mechanical sounding 3.4-liter V8 sending 300 horsepower to the rear wheels. He insists that with the ability to choose among three suspension settings, the ‘89 four-seater coupe is a far cry—a far better cry—than the initial offering.
After transferring funds and title came the best part for Kovac—the drive home. “Some of my friends threatened to place a bounty on me if I put 200+ miles on a 22,800-mile Ferrari,” he says. “Their threats fell on deaf ears and I reveled in my drive southward, from just outside Boston to Northern NJ.”
Now sit yourself down and grab a beer for the most shocking part of this tale. “Nothing spontaneously combusted, broke, fell off, turned into magic fairy dust or stopped working on the drive home,” Kovac says. “Nothing. Everything functioned with the boring monotony of a Toyota. That was about 2,000 miles ago and guess what? Everything is still working and functioning in happy harmony!”
“I’ve taken a few road trips with durations of greater than four hours, most recently in the throes of summer, and the car held perfect temperature in stop and go traffic with the AC freezing my knuckles and eyeballs. The build quality is also impressive—nothing squeaks, rattles, or clunks. Granted, there’s only 20,000-odd miles you say, but these things were supposedly screwed together only on Fridays after lunch and vino.”
Obviously smitten with his peach of an F-car, Kovac has some final choice words for the keyboard jockeys. “I am no longer a believer in anything that gets posted in an automotive, online forum,” he declares. “These days, careful research and taking the plunge into ownership is the only true measure of reality. Had I listened to all the naysayers, I might still be driving something a bit more arcane and truck-like, with the engine slung out over the rear axle, but no less fun or engaging. Real car enthusiasts understand there are no wrong answers, only different remedies to cure our ill for driving pleasure. The Mondial definitely delivers.”