Published in Forza Magazine - Written By Jesse Westlake
I just bought my high-school dream car: a red/tan 348 tb. I still have all the magazines that reviewed the 348 when it was new, and never cared about all the complaints -- the 348 just looked so perfect. I drove several cars before buying mine, and mine was definitely the best of the bunch. There's only one problem: In every single case, the shift lever was really stiff. It's something "built" into the car, and that's okay, but is there any way to make the shifting lighter, easier, something? Shifting improves very slightly when the car is fully warm, but remains very stiff.
Growing up, the my Testarossa print sat alongside posters of two supercars. An elite German car of the 80’s as well as a timeless, over-hyped, English rocket ship. I should have had the F40 because it was the rightful part of that awesome trio. But the Testarossa just had these irresistible lines that I just had to have. Now, all grown up and having the chance to work on and drive all the horses in the stable, when I want that 80’s look and feel, I gravitate towards the 348 that I dub The Mini-Testarossa. All those great lines put in a small sports car package that’s much easier to handle. It may be the door scallops that do it for me, or the square taillights. Or, maybe it’s just because they represented a whole new language of love. Either way, I think Ferrari got it right with the 348 in that era.
While ushering in new design for your senses, Ferrari also made mainstream the concept of the modular powertrain and subframe unit found on the 288 GTO. The GTO had an interior access cover to perform timing belt maintenance but still had the powertrain set on a removable subframe. On the Testarossa, Mondial T, and 348, timing belts meant major surgery in removal of the powertrain due to the cooling system moving to the midship and the fuel tank sitting directly below the rear window. During the course of this service most people will replace all fluids including the gearbox and will at least have to uncouple and recouple the shift linkages. Since this service is so time consuming, it also means quite costly. Therefore, most 348s commonly suffer what we call “deferred maintenance”. The prescribed three-year timing belt maintenance makes a lot of sense to many owners in the first ownership or decade. Resale value is still high and pride of ownership trumps all. As time ticks by the conversation shifts more to the five-year timing belt interval and “but I hardly ever drive it…” objection. Beyond just timing belts, these intervals inspect and address most items like bulbs, air conditioning, door/window function, and shift linkage adjustment and lubing. The longer in-between these major services, more opportunity lubrication has to get hard or go away completely. The more a poorly adjusted pivot has to grind a permanent groove on itself, the less likely it can be nursed back to perfection. These facts don’t change the valid conversation of cost of maintenance, but they still remain the same. At San Francisco Motorsports, we strive to make a car feel different after any service – better than when it came in. You bet the engine runs its best. But the park brake is adjusted a perfect 3-5 clicks, the doors don’t creak, hopefully the windows may roll up just a little faster, and yes, the gear shift feels as good as possible. This is accomplished through adjustments and lubrication at the shifter itself and at the gearbox during the course of these large services.
The 348 especially suffers from a stubborn cold shift. There is no doubt that temperature is a major factor with the 80’s Ferrari car shift feel. It’s such a non-secret in 348 that Ferrari made continuous changes to the gear shift and clutch throughout the vehicle build. In the field there are many things that can help, including some parts that can be replaced that are “more 355”. There are also aftermarket remedies in fluids and hard parts that can help.
There are three big effective players in the gearbox fluid conversation. I say conversation because all three have been claimed to help, and all three (in my experience and what I hear) have been claimed to be the best. First is The recommended factory fluid which was known for a long time as Shell Donax TF1055. This is a specialty fluid packed with Ferrari co-developed additives and modifiers that they believe works best in the gearbox they engineered and built. SWEPCO makes a very good gearbox fluid that can come in several viscosities and seems to hold up to the miles. The most popular alternative is Redline Shockproof gear oil which also comes in a variety of viscosities. This is a slick fluid that has good initial results. The only downside is that it seems to lose those properties relatively soon and requires frequent changes. I carry all three on the shelf and will fill any request. Without a request, we fill with the TF1055 (which has recently been replaced with Spirax oil as the recommended fill that covers DCT gearboxes as well). Fluid fill is a hot topic for all that have an opinion. When it comes these gearbox oils, or other high quality synthetic oils, you really can’t go wrong. But in the end a well revved and timed shift on a warmed-up car is the best recipe for a great gear change in car and gearbox that has no other peripheral issues.
The shift control on 348/Mondial T is different from all other Ferraris in that they use two cables to translate fore/aft and side-to-side movement. Previous cars used a single rod that twisted and push/pulled. 355 and later cars all went back to the rod setup until 360/F430 where selection cables made a comeback. These cables came together under the left of the engine to a box that re-translated movement into a twist and push/pull movement for the gearbox input. This box, while being redundant, is nearly the lowest hanging equipment on the powertrain. It is common to see this box damaged from a road hazard and needing attention. With this box put out of place and impacted, the fussy cold shifts are even more impacted. This is a first step inspection for a shift concern and must be inspected, repaired, and adjusted before moving onto other candidates. With a screwdriver in the cockpit a handy person can take on a few inspections and repairs. The shift gate is easy removed by removing two screws. Found under the gate should be a pleated rubber cover. The early cars had foam instead, and some cars have nothing by now. This cover keeps dust, coins, and liquids out of the gearshift mechanism. Some cotton swabs put to work here and underneath this boot followed by a good sticky lube is a great way tackle the low hanging fruit. There is also a “slick shift” gate available on the aftermarket that can assist those who’d rather pay attention to driving than how imperfect their shifting is. These feature more rounded entry and exit points for the gear positions. With a stock gate or aftermarket one, the two screws are tapered and determine 90% of the final position. The remaining 10% can allow an extra bit of adjustment for smoother shifts.
Finally, either from refinement issues needing field fixes or for 355 future development, Ferrari made significant updates to the clutch and clutch release mechanisms. The 355 shifting was a huge improvement over previous models’ feel. Early 348s and Mondials used a twin clutch disc that was later replaced with a single disc. The throw out bearing was also updated to a far more solid design. A clutch that continues to spin the input shaft will not allow a shift to take place. Given that so many issues with 348 were worse on the twin disc cars, it is possible to suspect the dual disc system was not able to disengage fully or carried too much mass to slow the input shaft when released. If shifting is truly miserable, and you know you have a twin disc equipped car, it can be upgraded to the single system by replacing multiple components like the flywheel and throw out bearing pedestal along with the clutch and release bearing. I would caution that this is expensive and will not change the stripes on this zebra. There will be a greatly improved shift feel but a resistance into 2nd and 3rd will always be present when cold regardless.
Like all Ferraris, the 348 comes with its own personality. And not surprisingly, those characteristics can be better or worse from one car to the next. As always, a qualified mechanic with a caring ear can help investigate and counsel you on what exactly your 348 needs.