‘The most compelling beautiful and elegant of all fast cars, the one to set standards by which all the others might be judged.”
So wrote revered car scribe L.J.K. Setright of Ferrari’s 250 GTO, some three dozen of which were built between 1961 and 1964, and which today have been known to change hands for upwards of $30-million a copy – putting them right up there at the pointy end of the collector car price pyramid. They’d sold new for about $20,000.
The press release writer for this weekend’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in California wasn’t quite as eloquent but gets the message across well enough by calling the 250 GTO simply the “greatest Ferrari of all time.” A description most Ferrari aficionados wouldn’t disagree with.
More than 20 of these legendary Ferrari sports racers are expected to line up on the pristine 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Golf Club on Sunday to celebrate the model’s 50th anniversary.
They’ll be surrounded by one of the most wonderful and diverse assemblages of automobiles and motorcycles ever gathered at the now 61-year-old California concours, which celebrates the 125th year of Benz, Daimler, Mercedes and Mercedes-Benz automobiles and the centennial of American sporting make Stutz, and features stately Edwardian-era Rolls-Royces and flamboyant and racy Italian motorcycles. As well as a host of other makes that will compete for concours honours in some 20 categories.
But (hypothetically at least) $600-million-worth of Ferrari 250 GTOs has to be this year’s show stealer.
What makes 250 GTOs so special is that they represent the last and best of the old school front-engined racing Ferraris.
Back in 1961
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While Ferrari was creating the 250 GTO, Turkey's president was ordering engineers to create a home-grown car. After just 130 days, four prototypes of the Devrin (Revolution) had been hammered out, one of which carried the president about 100 metres before failing to proceed.
They were created when Il Commendatore Enzo still ruled autocratically and with passion and his cars still had a purity of purpose allied to a simplicity of design born of an earlier epic age. The 250 GTO was an admixture of bravura and bellicosity wrapped in sensuous bodywork only a higher being or an Italian designer could create, and, of course, they had snarling V-12s engines under their long hoods that powered them to victories in hard-fought racing battles.
Like any thoroughbred, the GTO has a long bloodline and this one traces back to Ferrari’s Europa GT of the early 1950s, after which that vital essence coursed through the veins of the GT 250s that followed reaching pur sang form in the 250 GT SWB (short wheelbase) that debuted in 1959. In the 250 GTO, it was distilled into a true ichor of the automotive gods.
Ferrari had launched the GTO project, some say in response to the new Jaguar E-Type, with engineer Giotto Bizzarrini calling the shots. He started with the GT 250 SWB and chopped and changed it, moving the engine back and lower in the chassis, among other things allowing that long-deck/fast back body shape. Bizzarrini then decamped and engineer Mauro Forghieri took over the mechanical bits while Carrozzeria Scaglietti created aluminum bodywork in a voluptuous form that would become iconic.
The 250 GT SWB’s chassis was lightened and strengthened, the independent front and live rear axle supensions and brakes tweaked. But also on Forghieri’s to-do list was pumping up the power of the 2,953-cc, single-overhead-camshaft V-12. This was accomplished by fitting Testarossa big valve heads and no less than six twin downdraught Weber carburetors to produce 302 hp at 7,500 rpm with the redline set at a screaming 8,500 rpm. A five-speed gearbox replaced the previously used four-speed.
With this setup, the 250 GTO could get to 100 km/h in about six seconds and reach a top speed of 280 km/h.
What would become the 250 GTO appeared in early prototype form as the GT 250 Sperimentale, which Stirling Moss drove to a GT class win and fourth overall in the 12 hours of Daytona in 1961, with production of 250 GTOs beginning late in the year. The GT 250 Sperimentale will also be parked at Pebble Beach this weekend.
Like the GT 250 SWB, the 250 GTO was among the last of the Ferrari line designed to win on the track but driveable, if you were willing to put up with the minor discomforts of minimal upholstery, no interior trim to speak of, no speedometer (the other gauges did have shiny chrome trim rings, however) and an ear-splitting exhaust, on the street.
But it was on the track that the 250 GTO became a legend. It made its debut at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1962 with American ace Phil Hill and Belgian star Olivier Gendebien taking second place to a 250 Testarossa. It then went on to become a dominant force in GT racing, winning the FIA International GT Championship three years on the trot, counting class wins at Le Mans in 1962 and 1963 and three back-to-back class wins in the Targa Florio.
“The GTO beat everything in the world for about three years running, which is quite an accomplishment when you consider the marques racing at the time,” says Pebble Beach chief judge Ed Gilbertson.
The 250 GTO was the last successful front-engined racer to carry the prancing horse brand.