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Gavin Green’s Greatest Ferraris (CAR archive, June 2007)
25 July 2012 09:00
They gather on a gorgeous spring day, the sky a deep Bugatti blue, to pay homage to the 60th anniversary of the greatest sports car maker in the world. Nine cars, six of which represent the best of the breed, the others a trio of tempting real-world propositions. Appropriately all but two of the Ferraris are blood red – that distinctive scarlet hue that is as much a part of Ferrari DNA as the tuneful engines and thundering performance. Only the dissenting Dino, which strictly speaking isn’t even a Ferrari, and the most elegant car in the group, the 275 GTB/4, break rank. The Dino is a rich silver (the best colour to show up a Ferrari’s contours, or so one of the other owners says), the 275 a deep sea blue.
What a sight! The best of the best! The six finest cars in the 60-year history of Ferrari!
Founder Enzo Ferrari, a one-time mule skinner in the Italian army, was a journeyman racing driver whose special skill was racing management, and as manager of the works-blessed Alfa Romeo team he enjoyed success in the ’30s.
He built his own cars after the war, usually in small batches of five or 10, though proper ‘production’ cars did not begin until the 250 GTs of the late ’50s. Throughout his life, Ferrari sold cars to fund his racing. His distaste for his customers was as legendary as his fondness for his drivers. Authoritarian, autocratic and arrogant, Enzo was never an easy man to work for.
This was never more evident than in 1961, when his key engineering and sales staff, tired of the Old Man’s intransigence, walked out. They subsequently formed a rival sports and racing company, ATS – Automobili Turismo e Sport – which lasted only two years. The walkout came at a difficult time. Ferrari’s latest 250 GT racing car, using a development of the long-lasting V12 engine designed by Colombo (who Ferrari also fell out with) was well down the development path but incomplete. Into the breach stepped Mauro Forghieri, then only 27 and later to become Ferrari F1 technical director and mentor to Niki Lauda. He finished the engineering, while Sergio Scaglietti honed the gorgeous body.
The GTO (the O for Omologato) became one of the greatest sports4 racers of the ’60s, as well as the most beautiful. Its body was not designed to win style awards. Rather, it was a corollary of good aerodynamics and downforce: the early Berlinettas were inclined to get airborne at speed. The GTO was also historically important, as the last of the front-engined sports racing Ferraris.
It was also illegal. GT racing regulations stated that 100 examples of a car must be built. Only 39 GTOs were ever made. As part of his ruse, the Old Man skipped chassis numbers to create the illusion of building a suitable quantity.
Never mind now, for if you get the chance to drive just one Ferrari, and have a choice, make it a 250 GTO. I first drove one in the mid ’80s, and managed 140mph on some deserted roads. The experience has never left me.
So you climb into the small bucket seat, behind that upright wood-rimmed and alloy-spoke steering wheel, impossibly big by modern standards. The black prancing horse dances on its yellow shield at the wheel’s bullseye. The almost vertical windscreen is not far from your face. The black crackle-finish dash is as upright as a cliff and crammed full of chrome-ringed Veglia gauges. Beyond the windscreen and those little Dinky Toy chrome wipers is the long, curvaceous bonnet. The wings rise gracefully either side, and in the centre is a huge power bulge, covering the inlet trumpets of the 3.0-litre 300bhp V12 engine. It was the first street legal car to produce 100bhp per litre. There is no air filter to muzzle the music. Over to your right on this left-hooker – just a small selection of GTOs were right-hand drive – the world’s longest gearstick rises from its six-fingered alloy pedestal like a bent flagpole. Cabin finish is poor, but this is a racing car, first and foremost. Luxury adds weight.
What a noise! The engine snarls and rasps like a wild animal being poked with a stick. You press the heavy clutch in the cramped footwell, move that long alloy gearlever across and down in the six-fingered alloy gate, feed in some revs and the GTO noisily barp-barps, burbles and thrashes its way forward. The engine has astonishing eagerness, a corollary partly of its light flywheel. Back off and the revs die. Feed in more power and the engine zings without inhibition. Turn the ignition off and the engine dies, instantly, without any of the wind-down of a complicated anti-pollution-plumbed modern motor.
It pulls with surprising ease from as little as 2000 revs – it is not a temperamental beast – but you need to roar beyond 4000rpm before the GTO really starts to lift its heels, the engine spins with fury and you’ll be pulling the horizon in fast. The gearchange is firm and long of throw. Precision and a little patience are needed, but it’s surprisingly easy. Brakes – this is one of the first Ferraris with disc brakes, an English technology that old Enzo was reluctant to adopt – feel strong. Steering is heavy, as there is no power assistance. Forearms and shoulders must be used to change direction at low speed.
Handling was one of the GTO’s hallmarks. Despite the crudity of the chassis, not least its live rear axle riding on leaf springs, the car was beautifully predictable, as numerous photos of racing drivers four-wheel drifting GTOs bear testimony. Only when chasing that last half-second, commented former GTO racer David Piper, was the Ferrari prone to sudden breakaway.
Our second car chronologically, the Ferrari 275 GTB, was launched the year that production of the 250 GTO ceased; 1964. It shared the GTO’s basic mechanical layout – sweet revving Colombo-designed V12 engine up front, tubular steel chassis and five-speed gearbox – but supplemented it with a rear transaxle for improved 50:50 handling balance and, more importantly, fully independent suspension at all four corners. The difference compared with the GTO, and earlier 250 GTs, was tangible. The earlier cars had danced on their toes. From now on they would dig in their heels. It needed the extra grip, for the 275 GTB was a good deal quicker than the 250 Berlinettas (GTO excepted). In four-cam GTB/4 trim, it was even more spirited.
The 275 GTB/4 was the first Ferrari production car with a four-cam engine. With 3.3-litres capacity, it had maximum power of 300bhp (the same as the more competition-biased GTO) yet it leavened its hard performance with greater tractability and gentlemanly manners. The upshot is a car that would make a fine companion for long-hauls.
The engine pulls well enough from 1000rpm but, like a racehorse wanting to gallop, it’s happiest when the V12 is exercised hard. As with all Ferraris, the engine is the highlight, and the heart, of the car.
The five cogs are quite closely spaced, so the engine can be kept on cam as you move up through the gears in that precise-shifting but slow gearchange. As the tacho needle bolts past 4500rpm on its long but rapid sweep to the 7600rpm redline, the voicebox of Ferrari’s dozen-trumpet masterpiece changes. The low-speed thrash and restrained growl are silenced and, in their place, as the engine climbs onto the cams to breathe, a more frenzied bellow takes over. The shark-like nose lifts, those curvaceous hips hunker down, and you’re on your way to the top speed of over 160mph.
Roadholding, of course, is not up to modern standards, but it hangs on well enough. More impressive is the handling. It’s a beautifully neutral car, one that can be balanced finely on the throttle, helped by that delectable balance and by its smallness and light weight. As with the GTO, there is a dead feel about the steering at the straight-ahead, and the big lovely wheel does bolt and kick on bumps. Yet it’s sharp and communicative at speed.
Gavin Green’s Greatest Ferraris of all time...continued here