Until these three came along, the greatest era for Ferrari road racers was the early ’60s, when the 250GT Berlinetta “Short Wheelbase”, the 250GTO and the 250LM hit the road. All were loved by factory drivers and privateers alike; all were used as road cars.
The SWB was closely related to the ’58 250GT and had a Pininfarina body built in both aluminium and steel. According to Hans Tanner “perhaps more than any Ferrari before or since, here was a car equally at home on a race track or a boulevard.”
In the SWB, the four-speed gearbox was shorn of its overdrive and its 3-litre V12 engine, fed by three double-choke Webers, was boosted from the GT’s 220-240bhp to more like 290.
Drive one now and you’ll discover what the racers of 25 years ago knew well: the car is sweet-handling, and fast. Its mechanicals were essentially simple. Suspension was by double wishbones in front and at the rear the car used a live axle on semi-elliptic springs. Brakes weren’t brilliant at first but, from 1960, discs became standard.
The success of the SWB led to the car which, for many, is the greatest front-engined Ferrari, the 250GTO. The model was aimed at GT racing, and was contentious to say the least. Essentially, a Testa Rossa with a roof, Ferrari “sold” it to the FIA as an improved Short Wheelbase including items like a five-speed ‘box and a dry-sump engine.
No two are identical in shape or specification, yet the GTO has a singularity that’s unusual even for a Ferrari. It’s a raucous racer with instant responses, a rock-hard ride, the most blood-curdling engine note imaginable and no concessions to road use beyond headlights and a passenger’s seat. For many it is the most beautiful Ferrari ever: for me, its lines are the most achingly beautiful ever to clothe a front-engined V12.
The layout of the 250LM, Ferrari’s first mid-engined GT, was entirely different. But in its beauty, speed and use of Maranello’s Colombo-designed V12 it was in every way the 250GTO’s successor.
To drive, it’s awesome, still more road-unfriendly than the GTO. More noise and vibration, and the ‘box is a pure-race five-speeder. All controls are heavy but there’s no problem getting close to the wheel. It’s as if they’ve taken the cockpit from a cramped road Ferrari, trimmed everything in vibrating black tin, moved the engine bulkhead forward a foot, then squeezed the driver under the dash. But when you drive it hard, it comes alive, drifting neatly through the fast stuff as cars did in the mid ’60s. Ferrari has produced so many great cars it seems fatuous to sort them into a pecking order. But as racers that could cope on the road, this trio will always be at the top of the pile. Steve Cropley
Letters, April 1991
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