Ferrari 250GT SWB – 'the greatest road car ever' according to Stirling Moss

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Conduct a straw poll of people who really know Ferraris and the answer will invariably be the same: the finest all-rounder to wear the Prancing Horse is the 250GT short-wheelbase berlinetta. People such as Sir Stirling Moss, for instance: “Without a doubt it is the greatest Ferrari road car – perhaps the greatest road car of any make. You really could drive it to a race, compete – and win – then drive it home.” He should know. From 1960-’62, SWBs dominated GT racing and Moss – along with fellow Brit Mike Parkes – was responsible for the lion’s share of its victories. Aboard Rob Walker’s ‘2119GT’ (and later ‘2735GT’) Moss took two Goodwood Tourist Trophies, twice won in Nassau and was victorious at Brands Hatch and the British Empire Trophy at Silverstone.

SWBs also won at Monza, Snetterton, Spa, Montlhéry and Auvergne, plus various SCCA events in the USA. They took Tour de France laurels three times – with 1-2-3s in 1960 and ’61 – and scored class wins in enduros at Sebring and Le Mans. “It was comfortable on long-distance events,” recalls Moss. “I had a radio fitted so that I would know how the race was going from Raymond Baxter’s commentary!” 

Yet it’s as much for its ability as a road car – not to mention its gorgeous shape – that the SWB has become so highly prized. “I used to drive it on the road when I was in Nassau,” says Moss. “They are docile but then you can really turn up the wick on the track – it’s a very versatile car.” 

Versatile, and desirable. And chassis 3067GT is the most coveted combination of all. Ordered through Colonel Ronnie Hoare’s Maranello Concessionaires in November 1960, it was completed in December 1961 with Competizione alloy coachwork by Sergio Scaglietti’s Modena carrozzeria and Lusso trim. In April ’62, first owner Geoffrey Barnard handed over £4500 – plus a massive £2166 17s 2d in Purchase Tax – for RU 15, his new Rosso Corsa SWB. The elderly enthusiast also ordered an extra Ferrari badge for his dog – to replace the one the hound had worn when riding in the 300SL ‘Gullwing’ that departed to make way for the Ferrari. One of just four alloy-bodied right-hookers, ‘3067GT’ combines a lightweight body and alloy gearbox – saving 300lb – with a fully trimmed cabin, tractable ‘street’ 240bhp engine and smaller (22gal) fuel tank to leave a decent boot for touring.

After covering 3800 miles in six years, Barnard sold the car on to East Grinstead Motors. It was sent back to the factory for an accident repair before passing to plant-hire magnate Geoffrey Marsh of Hampshire in January 1969. Over the ensuing dozen years he added just 3700 miles to ‘3067GT’, selling it in 1981. The SWB was in the care of a Michael Hall from 1985-’99, with whom it made its first appearance on track at the ’92 Silverstone Historic Festival, before changing hands again for £518,000 at Brooks’ 1999 Goodwood sale – still reading just 13,509 miles.

When guitar legend Eric Clapton began looking for an alloy SWB, Maranello Concessionaires tracked down ‘3067GT’ and Clapton promptly sent it to Ferrari authority DK Engineering for a ground-up rebuild. “It was quite sad,” recalls DK’s David Cottingham, “but very original, which I prefer. Every time a car is taken apart and put back together original bits are lost. Getting the body right was a challenge because there was a fair amount of corrosion.” Was it worth it? Cottingham thinks so, both financially and subjectively: “It’s the best all-round Ferrari there is – that’s why they’re such incredible money these days.” Clapton clearly agrees: he also owns a 250GT Lusso, one of the marque’s prettiest offerings, and an Enzo, the fastest Ferrari yet, but it’s the little berlinetta that gets the most use.

It certainly looks spectacular, its beguiling shape the ultimate expression of beautiful form dictated by purpose: low at the nose, broad at the tail, with a taut roofline and slashes aft of each wheelarch to release hot air from the all-round discs. Legend has it that Carlo Chiti put a scale SWB in his self-made wind tunnel, powered by a four-cylinder Ferrari engine. “Is it the most beautiful car ever? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly the most handsome,” says Jaguar Design director Ian Callum. “Every time I see it I tingle, it’s so perfect. It has a wonderful spontaneous line – as if someone sketched it with incredible artistry and great knowledge then just made it, capturing the sense of life that often gets lost in translation. There’s real intent, the coiled-up energy an animal has when it’s about to leap.”

Design guru Stephen Bayley is equally effusive: “The GTO makes the aesthetic error of going a little too far in the exploration of advanced styling metaphors, but the SWB is more subtle and more effective because subtlety reaches a more profound part of the psyche than excess. In contrast to the blatant, provocative GTO the SWB is understated and truncated to the point of being almost stunted. There is no coloratura here, but powerful reticence. Neuro-aestheticians know we crave balance: the SWB has that. And economy too. There are no wasted gestures and every line is an economical one.”

The relationship between Enzo Ferrari and Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina first yielded fruit in 1952, despite the duo’s differing views. Farina was said to believe that a car should be like a beautiful woman – as years go by her looks should not wane – and Enzo believed it was winning races that made a car attractive. The SWB satisfied on both counts. Curvy yet restrained, it’s a shape that works equally well drifting through Fordwater, spotlamps ablaze, or pulling up outside La Scala for the evening performance of Tosca.

Evolved from the 1954-’59 250GT berlinetta, the SWB lines were laid down mid-way through ’59 with a long-wheelbase car built for Le Mans. The SWB as we know it – on the type 539 chassis with its 2400mm wheelbase rather than the 2600mm type 508 – was unveiled at the 1959 Paris Salon. From 1961 came the second-series cars, with quarterlights and revised side window line, more curvature to the front and rear ’screens and subtly revised grille, wing and roof lines. In the metal it’s small, and exceptionally pretty. The finish on ‘3067GT’ is exquisite: immaculate without appearing over-restored.

Pull open the doors – carefully, the slim alloy skin is little over 1mm thick – and feed yourself in behind the large, three-spoke wheel. Inside it’s roomier than its long-wheelbase predecessor – one of Enzo’s few compromises to making the road cars more saleable – and its hip-gripping buckets are trimmed with restrained luxury.

Before firing up, it’s hard to resist hopping out to sneak a peek beneath the bonnet. Flanked by twin distributors and topped by a trio of downdraught Webers, the shallow V12 sits amazingly low in the chassis. Instead of the Lampredi-designed 3-litre of the 250 Europa, the SWB uses a development of the 60° V12 conceived by Gioacchino Colombo for the 1947 125S. For the SWB – the 250 tag denoting the swept volume of each cylinder – the all-alloy unit uses a single chain-driven camshaft per bank with roller rockers and Testa Rossa heads with outside plugs.

Clamber back into the cabin to marvel at the comfortable driving position, the plush, leather-topped dash – instead of the crackle-black finish of competition cars – with its jewel-like two-tone, two-layer Veglia dials. It looks special, but feels like a thin veneer of luxury with the racer beneath straining to be released. To do so, turn the key through 180°, reach under the dash and flick a toggle switch to prime the carbs, wait for the ticking to subside, then press the key. There’s a gentle whirring then, one-by one, the dozen cylinders reluctantly wake and fall into a subdued, surprisingly refined idle. 

The pedals are offset to the right, the wheel perfectly placed with its slender rim a joy to hold. It’s a pleasure to operate, too – hard to believe it’s not rack and pinion, such is the accuracy and fluidity of the ZF worm-and-sector set-up.

With values of genuine alloy cars starting at £2m, we won’t be doing anything too enthusiastic today. Not that this sublime engine needs to be pushed to feel quick. It might displace just three litres, but the V12 is tractable, happy to trundle along at 2000rpm without complaint. 

Depress the springy clutch, grab the alloy ball that tops the long gearlever and enjoy the sensation of mechanical strength as you pull it across the gate to drop a cog. Give the hefty throttle a shove and, after a flutter, the engine digs deep. From 3000rpm the exhausts emit an operatic bellow and the swell of power starts to build. There’s a second surge at 4000rpm as it gets into its snarling stride and willpower is all that stops you screaming to 7000rpm and beyond. Do so and it’s quick: from a standing start it will cover the quarter-mile in 14.3 secs, hitting 105mph, and top speed varies from 125mph to a theoretical 166mph depending on final-drive ratio.

Initial encounters with bends reveal more understeer than you might expect from the SWB’s 53:47 front to rear weight distribution. That’s because the car isn’t hooked up yet: what it needs is more pace, more revs and more positive helmsmanship. “It was remarkably good to drive when you consider how unsophisticated its suspension was,” says Moss, who drove ‘3067GT’ at Goodwood for a Supercar Classics test. It might have had a cart-sprung rear axle, but the chassis was honed by the likes of Chiti, Mauro Forghieri and Giotto Bizzarrini, and carefully assembled from welded oval tubes by Vaccari in Modena with telescopic shock absorbers in place of the lever-arm dampers of its predecessors. “It was one of the greatest GTs of its era, better than the Aston [DB4GT],” concludes Moss. “The Aston had more torque but a poor gearbox. The Ferrari had a great gearbox and the balance was easier, more user-friendly. The steering was light and positive and the car was so well balanced that you would only use the steering to present the car to a corner then take over with the throttle. In comparison the Aston was a bit of a truck – a carthorse as opposed to a polo pony.”

Any equine analogy seems unfair. If a DB4GT is a carthorse then this is a cheetah: more responsive, more eager than its long-wheelbase siblings yet no less usable, no more intimidating. Nearly 50 years on, Ferrari’s first commercially successful GT car remains its finest. As Autosport’s John Bolster concluded after testing Ronnie Hoare’s ‘1993GT’: ‘Even very fast cornering is completed without drama. The equipment and creature comforts are in the luxury class [and] the 12-cylinder engine is smooth enough to render this one of the fastest and most desirable of road cars.’ It’s the Ferrari that has everything: beauty, brawn, balance and birthright. Bellissima!

Factfile

Sold/number built 1959-’63/158 (88 steel, 70 alloy)

Construction steel multi-tubular ladder-type chassis with steel or alloy body

Engine front-mounted, all-alloy sohc-per-bank 2953cc 60° V12; 73x58.8mm bore/stroke;
cr 9.2-9.7:1; twin Magneti Marelli distributors, three Weber DCL6 or DCL3 carburettors

Max power 240bhp @ 7000rpm 

(up to 280bhp for competition cars)

Max torque 183lb ft @ 5500rpm
(up to 203lb ft for competition cars)

Transmission Ferrari four-speed manual with Porsche-patent synchromesh, driving rear wheels through LSD 

Suspension: front independent by double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear rigid axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, radius arms; Koni telescopic dampers f/r (Miletto on early cars) 

Steering ZF worm and sector 

Brakes Dunlop discs, with Bendix servo

Length 13ft 9n (4200mm) Width 5ft 8in (1720mm) Height 4ft 2in (1270mm)

Wheelbase 7ft 10n (2400mm)

Front track 4ft 5n (1354mm)

Rear track 4ft 5in (1349mm)

Weight 2318-2649lb (1051-1202kg)

0-60mph 6.3 secs

Top speed 144mph (with 4:1 axle ratio)

Price new £6666 17s 2d (1961)


This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words: Alastair Clements; pictures: David Shepherd

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