Gavin Green’s Greatest Ferraris: CAR+ archive, June 2007

Published: 25 July 2012

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, CAR magazine, June 2007

Of all the cars gathered, the 275 GTB/4 is my favourite for the road. It handles and goes beautifully, serenades with its fast-revving V12, and charms with its style and refined manners. It is also, in many ways, the purest evocation of the Ferrari magic. It was the last road car that Ferrari built as an independent maker. The next sports car, the Daytona, came after the Fiat takeover. Thereafter, commercial rationality guided the company just as strongly as automotive emotion. The 275 GTB/4 was also the last of the great lightweight road-going Berlinettas, designed more for blasting over Alpine passes than cruising Californian boulevards. All subsequent Ferraris were corrupted, to some extent, by over-arching safety regulations and legislative nannying. The 275 GTB/4 was truly the last of a breed.

The Daytona that followed – surely it should be in this list of all-time greats? – was a heavier and bigger brute, faster but cruder. Rather, my favourite Ferrari from that era wasn’t really a Ferrari at all. The Dino – there was no Ferrari badging on the body or cabin – was a delightful contrast to the mighty meaty Daytona and a far sweeter vehicle to drive. It was no ponderously powerful warhorse but rather a rampant pony.

The Dino 246GT was the Ferrari for the masses (though these things are relative). It was cheaper and made in bigger volumes (3700 between 1969-1973) than any Ferrari that went before, yet made all the right noises, drove fast and handled delightfully. Named after Ferrari’s only (legitimate) son, the Dino was a little jewel, derived from the 1965 V6 sports racer of the same name. To save costs, many of the parts came from Fiat but this hurt the driving experience not one jot.

It does not feel fast today – how could 195bhp? – but what impresses is the sweetness of the V6 engine, singing sonorously behind your shoulder, the linearity of the steering and its agility. Next to a Dino, a Daytona felt like a truck. More than any other Ferrari, you wear a Dino. It’s Ferrari’s Lotus Elise. Whereas the big front-engined Ferraris give much but demand more, the Dino asks very little of its driver.  It also offers brilliant all-round visibility, helped by that unusual U-shaped rear glass.

The Dino was a turning point for Ferrari. It was the company’s first mid-engine road car, and progenitor of not only the 308 and Boxer which immediately followed but also, further down the line, the 355, F40 and even the Enzo. None would prove quite so sweet.

Were Ferraris of the ’70s so bad that we now skip to the late ’80s? Well the Boxer was impressive, the Testarossa that replaced it less so, but none was in the same class as the greatest Ferrari of the ’80s, the 288 GTO.

This car was allegedly conceived for motor racing – thus the Omologato suffix – though it rarely turned a wheel in competitive anger. Ferrari’s road cars had long ceased to be racers, despite the pretence of the 288 GTO and the subsequent F40. Rather, the 288 GTO stands alongside the very greatest Ferraris because of its majestic style, the refinement of its performance, its speed, and the sweet nature of the driving experience. Many Ferrari collectors rate the 288 GTO as the finest Ferrari of all. In this pantheon, I would place it second only to the 275 GTB/4.

I confess that I may be biased. The most enjoyable long Ferrari drive of my life was in a 288 GTO in 1985 when the first examples were making their way back to Britain. We collected it from Maranello and then drove it home, mostly on fast back roads. If I close my eyes and reminisce, I can still feel the explosive power – it was never really anger – of the 400bhp twin-turbo V8 coming on boost, I can feel that lovely black little Momo steering wheel dancing in the palms of my hands as we criss-cross the Alps and I can remember the high speeds as we blast across France in beautiful summer weather.

Gavin Green's greatest Ferraris, CAR magazine, June 2007

It is so good to be reacquainted with a GTO! And that style! Whereas the F40 and Enzo look like weaponry-on-wheels, the GTO is elegant, poetic. Pity the cabin is so poor, though. Those orange-on-black instruments, Fiat switches and nasty black felt atop the dash do not belong on a Ferrari.

The F40 that followed was a different sort of animal. Now 20 years old it was a loud, brutal, aggressive car. Although Ferrari claimed it was produced solely to celebrate the company’s 40th anniversary, the view outside Maranello was that the 288GTO – fine car such that it was – had been outshone by Porsche’s 959 and something had to be done to redress the balance. Whatever the reason, it was also the last car created under the watch of Enzo Ferrari, who died in 1988. Power came from a fettled version of the 288 GTO’s twin-turbo V8. No lip service was paid to comfort; there weren’t even any inner doorhandles. Instead, a pull cord (as on the 250 GTO) would suffice. There was no power steering, no carpets. Windows, at least on the early examples, were sliding plexiglass just like an old Mini’s. This was a full-blown hardcore racer for the road. Except that, unlike the old GTO, it never raced with any real distinction.

For all its faults, and there are many, the F40 is probably the most exciting road Ferrari of all. To get behind the wheel you first have to vault a plank of carbonfibre, part of the sill. You sit absurdly low, backside only a few inches off the tarmac. The V8 sounds more aggressive and angrier than it does in the 288 GTO. It’s a more potent engine, in a higher state of hyperactive tune. Not only can you hear it, as it barks and rasps a few inches behind your back, but you can clearly see it too, behind its vast Perspex cover. The engine, such a masterpiece of engineering, is on full glorious view to the outside world.

The F40’s performance wrote a new chapter into the supercar rulebook. It was the first production car to break through the 200mph barrier, with the engine truly coming on song from around 4000rpm, then relentlessly propelling the car forward to its 7750rpm redline.  Exciting? Yes, but real world usable? Considerably less so. With space to breathe on smooth tarmac, the F40 would consume almost everything in its path, but on tight, uneven back roads, a capably driven hot hatch may well be able to stay in touch with the monstrously spoilered rear.
The F40 was eventually replaced by the F50, an inferior car apart from its V12 Formula 1-derived engine.  In turn, the F50 was succeeded by the Enzo, the fastest and most technically advanced Ferrari of all time.

The most faithful adoption of a Formula 1 car for the road yet, the Enzo simply bristles with tech – such as its carbonfibre monocoque body, its F1-derived 650bhp V12 engine, its six-speed electro paddle gearchange, carbon-ceramic brakes and even an F1-style launch control (just perfect for Sunday drives in Sloane Square). In many ways its tech is beyond regulation-strangled F1  – including a trick semi-active suspension that continually adjusts to the road and speed conditions.

Drive it and it’s a breathtaking experience. Unbelievably fast. Yet without all the drama and huff and puff of the F40. What’s more, it’s so easy to drive. Power steering. Simple, clutchless semi-auto paddleshift (forget to change down at the traffic lights and it does it for you) that affects gear changes in just 150 milliseconds. Not anyone could get into a 250 GTO or F40 and drive briskly. The Enzo, on the other hand, is easier to drive than a five-speed Fiesta. A five-speed Fiesta with a couple of rockets strapped to the roof, that is.

As such, it’s symptomatic of its times. Technology makes life faster and easier. I just wish it were more challenging, more engaging. There’s little to deny that the Enzo is viscerally quick – it lunges forward so relentlessly that you can almost feel your body parts hastily re-arranging themselves to catch up, but upward technology means that drivers can dumb down. I suspect the deceptive ease with which Enzos can be driven at three miles a minute is a reason why such a large number seem to be crashed. Strap a relatively novice driver in the cockpit, give them an empty circuit to play with and the Enzo’s drive is so flattering that they’d have the traction control switched off after a half dozen laps. Then be plucked out of the crash barrier just a couple of laps later. I wish it were also smaller – it’s over seven feet wide for heaven’s sake – and lighter. 

Plus I wish it looked better. While most Ferraris are elegant birds, the Enzo is an ugly insect. The body shape is more a product of aerodynamic need  than aesthetic desire. The 6.0-litre V12 engine requires huge amounts of oxygen to chew on, the carbon-ceramic discs need ample dollops of cooling and achieving 0-62mph in 3.7 seconds and a top speed of 217mph can only be made possible with extreme bodywork sculpting.

Of course, the result is spectacular and eye-catching, but as we gathered on that glorious spring day, beautiful cars in abundance, only one vehicle visually jarred: the newest one. If the prerequisites for great Ferraris are red paint, stunning performance and an unmatched sense of occasion, then I shall add one more: all great Ferraris must be beautiful.

Gavin Green's greatest Ferraris, CAR magazine, June 2007

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience