The Ferrari 250GTO is quite simply the most wonderful classic of all

| 7 Jun 2017

Starting an article on driving a Ferrari 250GTO is harder than you might think. Burgeoning enthusiasm of achieving a lifelong ambition is tempered in part by the need to sidestep the now-hackneyed clichés (pushing in the slender key, rumbustious 12-cylinder symphony tumbling through the pipes etc), but equally because the GTO elevates itself way beyond the norm, rendering even extreme hyperbole lacking. Words that have in the past been applied to lesser entities, however merited they may have been in the circumstances, simply cannot then be applied to this Ferrari without somehow tainting it, belittling it by implying that it is even tenuously akin to other road transport. Those words are no longer worthy of the GTO; to do this car credit takes massive, mega-immense, sadly as-yet-uninvented superlatives. 

You get the idea, it’s a bit special. So special that any scepticism that the allure of the GTO is largely hype, fuelled by rarity and value, is rapidly banished. Of course, they are insanely valuable. And rare, with just 36 production examples (39 if you include the three 4-litre 330GTOs) built. 

Aerodynamics dictated long roof and Kamm tail

Designed by the 1962 World Sports Car Championship regs, the GTO (does anyone really need reminding that the O stands for omologato?) was launched in February of that year after one development chassis and one prototype had paved the way. In the first two years of production, just 32 cars were built with the iconic bodywork most associated with the car, plus one for Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team that, typically, broke the mould. There the story might have ended, except that the 250LM’s failure to meet homologation requirements necessitated a rethink for 1964. Thus came the Series 2 GTO with its revised bodywork. Three were made, but four earlier cars also returned to the factory for a facelift either because of crash damage, the debatable aerodynamic improvements of the new skin, or simply owner hubris. This car, chassis 4675, was one of those four. 

Having been completed in April 1963, ‘4675’ had a first competitive outing with Guido Fossati at Col Bayard and its first owner was Roman Pasquale Annunziata. He sold it on to Ferrari dealer Vecar within a couple of months before Fossati – who continued to campaign it, mainly in hillclimbs – persuaded Ariberto Francolini to go halves with him in September 1963. Within two weeks of making the car their own, the duo had raced it on the Tour de France, crashed it (lightly, according to photos), and returned it to Ferrari for an updated, ’64-style body courtesy of Pininfarina’s genius and Scaglietti’s graft.

No speedo, big rev-counter reads to 10,000rpm with tell-tale at 7600

With a new owner – Scuderia ASA – by the Spring of 1964, ‘4675’ was then notably raced by Jean Guichet, who drove it to second at the Spa 500km (behind Mike Parkes’ GTO). After the Frenchman came Oddone Sigala and then Gigi Taramazzo before this GTO was sold for the first time to the US in 1966. An unsettled period in its history – which included this jewel being street-parked in New Jersey by owner JR Zazzara – came to an end when it entered Walter Medlin’s Florida cache. There it stayed until the mid-’90s, when ‘4675’ found a new long-term home with Tokyo collector Yoshiho Matsuda. He reportedly owns three GTOs and made sure that this one in particular was regularly used, taking it on rallies as far afield as France and California.

The desolate Essex MoD site that we are let loose on is marginally less glamorous, just marginally, but provides an interesting counterpoint. Besides, this car has a habit of lifting its surroundings. Even in 1964 form, that shape is utterly bewitching. The reformed, still truncated tail with its pronounced sugar scoop bears more resemblance to the 250LM than early GTOs. That 275GTB-ish long nose and broader, squarer snout is smoother and better resolved, if less familiar without the three huge nostrils. Yet the shark-gills behind both front and rear wheels still instil its flanks with menace. Overall, the ’64 shape is both lower and wider than its forebear, and is almost like a stretched LM. See a profile shot of the latter, however, and what strikes you is how compact it is, how the overhangs front and rear are so equal, how the cockpit sits evenly between the axles like the vial on a spirit level. Not so the GTO. The overhangs are similar, but the perspective is distorted by how far towards the rear axle the cockpit is, the trailing edge of the door almost merging into the wheelarch, yet the leading edge is nearly halfway between the wheels. Add to that the steeply raked ’screen, tiny side windows and bulky C-pillar of a canopy dwarfed by the rest of the car and you have a classic long-bonnet, short-tail shape. Probably the classic long-bonnet, short-tail shape. Even so, it is the delicacy of details such as the finger-sized doorhandles, and how they merge into what should be freakish proportions played out in such dramatic curves, that charms the most. 

That visual exaggeration is necessary, of course, because of what that front end needs to accommodate. The shape of the GTO may have changed dramatically, but mechanically it stayed virtually the same. The jewel in the crown is placed centrally beneath those tapering blades of rosso aluminium, and then under a beautifully symmetrical sextet of downdraught Weber 38DCNs, standing to attention like an infantry platoon. Lampredi/Colombo’s sensational 2953cc dry-sumped 60º V12 was carried over from the legendary Testa Rossa by Giotto Bizzarrini (then Mauro Forghieri, post-mutiny) and mounted in a tubular steel spaceframe based on a shortened – to 2400mm – 250GT SWB chassis. The sohc-per-bank V12 was mated to a five-speed ’box, with suspension by wishbones at the front and a live rear axle with leaf springs and a Watt linkage. Braking was via discs – which work well enough, but lack the fluid perfection of the rest of the car – and the whole was topped off with hallmark deep-dished Borrani wires.

A dozen trumpets top the sextet of twin-choke 38DCN Weber carbs, with crackle-black cam covers of the lightweight, sohc-per-bank V12 beneath

With the whole car weighing in at around a ton, its interior is best described as Spartan. There is a single column stalk, a smattering of dials and a few switches. You sit on a simple bucket seat covered in blue cloth, the side windows are two sliding shards of Perspex, a chill wind rushes in and down your neck from above the rear screen, buried deep in that scoop. The exposed battery sits behind you on the left, the fuel-filler neck plunges through the cabin like plumbing pipework in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the passenger footwell is dissected by a thick chassis tube. Make no mistake that, for all its exterior glamour, the GTO is naked underneath that bodystocking of respectability. Not crude in any way, just bare.

Two pumps of the throttle prime the Webers before you turn the key two clicks. Then, well, you, er, push in the slender key – throttle a quarter depressed – then relish the sonorous delight as the rumbustious 12-cylinder symphony tumbles through the quad pipes. The rapid, bellowing pulses of dispatched kinetic energy should be unpleasantly intrusive in this flimsy cabin, but they are nothing more than aural sex. There is no noise in the world quite so brow-beatingly brutal yet so alluringly Siren-like. In truth, that alone would be enough but, knowing that you have just fired up a GTO and hordes of security guards haven’t yet come and dragged you into the back of an unmarked van, you have to guiltily take the adventure further. 

Glimpse of signature blue-cloth seats and exposed tubing through wraparound ’screen

Press the throttle, revel in the roar, let it drop until it sounds like a drum with practice pads on, then steady it at a mere 1500rpm. Clutch down – lighter than you would think – a strong push into first in that raised gate and you can trickle this machine off the line on its super-responsive throttle. Such tractability is astonishing, but not at all what this car is about. Bury the accelerator and start working through the gears, keeping it always above 4000rpm (6000 if you really want it to come alive), and you are on a mesmerising magic-carpet ride, each gentle shove in the back preceding a surge of power that never seems to diminish. Occasionally it will squirm and slither when the Dunlop Racing tyres and damp road surface hit artistic differences, but otherwise you feel as if you are strapped into a rocket.

Such strength naturally leads you to wonder how it will cope with those aspects of driving that demand a certain delicacy. Again the GTO raises the bar, its cornering prowess astounding, its Lotus-like poise belying the speed you carry through as it tackles even relatively tight arcs with a benign brilliance, minute dabs of throttle being all the power-assistance the steering requires. The closest comparison you can make is that it is as if it has hydropneumatic suspension, the cornering forces slightly raising the body of the car yet without reducing its grip on the road, the front wheels absorbing bumps without the balance being upset. Clearly the ride is not soft, but neither is it crashingly harsh despite the bare-bones cabin, reinforcing suspicions that you could use your GTO every day.

Gills slashed into sculpted shape to release hot air from the all-round discs that hide behind elegant Borrani wires

Apart from the engine, the absolute highlight is the steering. An inspection of the complicated system of linkages beyond the ZF recirculating ball suggests there will be a certain detachment between driver and road, but the opposite is true. It feels almost direct, with pin-sharp responses, the feedback as if you are reading the road Braille with your fingertips. The same is true of the gearchange, at odds with the slightly ‘unfinished’ impression given by that bulky, raised gate and high, kinked lever topped with an aluminium billiard ball. With five forward speeds, all synchroed, and strong springing, it is marvellously positive, but never a chore. Just hard enough work that you are aware of the joy of changing gear, the GTO reminding you of the synchronicity of the mechanics of driving as each change is followed by another forward thrust. 

In many ways that is what driving the GTO is all about. Sitting in that barren cockpit, under that shrunken canopy, staring at bits of exposed chassis, it is like being in a sectioned show car, a training tool demonstrating how a car works, how at their peak these disparate engineering elements can harmonise to create perfection.

Guichet with remodelled GTO on ’64 Targa Florio

The pinnacle of motoring, then? Well, the GTO was the last hurrah of an era of simplistic purity in sports-racers, a blend of brute force and sublime delicacy that was soon to be battered by the malevolent Ford GT40, then obliterated by the demonic Porsche 917. Times move on in conjunction with technology, but the beauty of the classic car world is that we can differentiate between outright capability and what is really important. Is the 1454ft Empire State Building (1931) any less impressive because the Petronas Towers (1998) are 29ft higher? No, for many the greater achievement – and the greater beauty – is the former, just as the GTO ranks alongside the McLaren F1 for anyone who can separate time and function. It’s the Leonardo da Vinci of motoring, a true Renaissance car.

We've reproduced this article to celebrate the launch of our special collector's summer issue dedicated exclusively to Ferrari, which goes on sale on 22 June and features an incredible collection of articles paying homage to the Maranello marque. Click here to pre-order your copy – it's the same price as it is in the shops and includes FREE first class postage. 

Ferrari 250GTOSold/number built 1962-’64/36Construction steel tubular spaceframe chassis shrouded in aluminium bodyEngine silumin-block, alloy-head, sohc-per-bank 2953cc 60º V12, with six Weber 38DCN carburettors; compression ratio 9.6:1; bore and stroke 73mm x 58.8mmMax power 302bhp @ 7500rpmMax torque 246lb ft @ 5500rpmTransmission five-speed manual, driving rear wheelsSuspension: front independent by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, Watt linkage, telescopic dampers Steering recirculating ball Brakes Dunlop discs Length 14ft 51/4in (4410mm) Width 5ft 6in (1675mm) Height 4ft 1in (1245mm) Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2595mm) Track f/r 4ft 51/4in/4ft 5in (1351/1346mm) Weight 2375lb (1079kg)0-60mph 5.8 secs Top speed 174mphPrice new £6000 (1963)Price now £20m+

Words: James Elliott Pictures: James Lipman