Ferrari 288GTO

With the 288, Ferrari embraced new technology to produce a supercar that sadly never raced but fully deserves its GTO moniker
By Richard Heseltine / photography by Peter Spinney

Inwardly rebutting the notion that it’s possible to brake later, and high on the swirling energy proffered by the shrill V8, this is heady stuff. Shift down a couple of cogs, the lever offering some resistance before banging against the stops, and turn in. The steering’s meaty, responses through the Momo wheel being ever-communicative with only trace elements of bumpsteer. Once pointing straight, power on and… nothing. That’ll be the turbo lag, then. One-two-three, and oh-dear-God!

There are faster cars – these days there are faster saloons – but performance figures don’t do the 288GTO justice. If the factory bumf is to be believed, it will reach 60mph from a standstill in 4.9sec, 125mph in 15.2sec and on to an eventual 189mph. When launched in 1984, it was the quickest production car in the world. But these are just numbers, pub ammo with which to talk the talk and they do not – cannot – adequately convey the power swell of the Gran Turismo Omologato as it shoots for the stars. Hit 3500rpm in third, and the turbo gauge needle flits back and forth like a demented bluebottle as the boost kicks in: this is the point where 85 per cent of the car’s power is delivered. The sheer force, the sheer intensity, leaves your brain pulped and pureed. Unlike so many modern performance cars which render you desensitised from the action, this is unequivocally raw and super-physical. It’s magnificent.

As it should be, for those three initials ensure this car has a lot to live up to. We’re used to manufacturers reviving once-revered monikers and debasing them but the 288GTO – like the 250GTO – really was built for racing; a true homologation special. However, unlike its fabled ancestor, this ’80s wild child never ventured trackside in anger. A pity.

And don’t be fooled by the familiar outline: this isn’t merely a Magnum PI loud-shirt-and-chest-rug 308GTB with extra urge and steroidal wheelarch extensions. In this instance, racing did improve the breed, helping move Ferrari out of the dark ages and embrace new technologies.

The GTO was conceived with the sole purpose of contending for honours in FISA’s Group B category whereby 200 replicas needed to be sold (Ferrari exceeded expectations by shifting 272) before 20 ‘evolutionary’ models with the same basic body shape and minimum weight of 1097kg could compete. Unfortunately, while Group B rallying flourished – if only briefly – the roundy-round side bombed due largely to manufacturer (and competitor) indifference: Group C was where it was at, and C2 was popular with gentleman drivers, so who needed it? Constant rule tinkering didn’t help, either. Only Porsche ventured into competition, the 959 – or rather its 961 derivative – starting just three races. Not that anyone really noticed.

However, unlike the anodyne German techno-fest, with its sequential turbos, computer-controlled torque distribution and other new-fangled doohickeys, the Ferrari represented a mixture of old-school know-how and catch-up technology. Styled by Pininfarina’s unheralded art boy Leonardo Fioravanti, the GTO shared only its steel doors and windscreen with the outwardly similar 308GTB. A longer wheelbase, extra ducts and louvres – the cooling slots behind the rear wheels being a nod to its 250-series ancestor – substantially altered the proportions, the overall effect making it among the prettiest cars of the ’80s. Quite an achievement for a supposed competition tool.

The GTO represented Ferrari’s first step to accepting composite materials for both body and chassis construction. And this was due in no small part to designer Dr Harvey Postlethwaite who’d arrived at Maranello in 1981 to turn around the Scuderia’s flagging fortunes. The Englishman’s dabs were everywhere. First up, the separate tubular steel chassis – borrowed if only in part from the 308GTB – was significantly strengthened by a rear bulkhead made of two layers of Kevlar/glassfibre composite sandwiching an aluminium honeycomb core. The body was then moulded in Kevlar/Nomex, the effect being an ultra-light structure: the front bonnet weighed just 3kg (so best not to slam it, then).

The GTO also marked Ferrari’s earliest attempt at applying forced induction to a production car, save for the home market-only two-litre 208GTB. A brace of Japanese IHI turbochargers – drawing in air from Behr intercoolers – were fitted to the existing (but destroked) 32-valve V8 borrowed from the 308GTB QV which boosted power from 240 to 400bhp. In fact, such were the number of internal changes, only the basic architecture remained, the GTO’s engine being closer in spirit to the ‘286C’ spec unit found in Lancia endurance racers. And here it was mounted in-line rather than transversely, butted against the bulkhead, with the five-speed transaxle sited F1-style behind it. When multiplied by the FIA’s 1.4-litre ‘turbo equivalency’ formula, for racing purposes this all-alloy gem mustered a notional 3997cc – or four litres – from 2855cc. It could’ve been good, or at the very least, loud.

But it never raced. No matter, the 288GTO’s status as an instant classic was assured when it broke cover at the March 1984 Geneva Salon. Would-be owners were foaming at the mouth and paying through the nose to land one with as many as 20 privately imported examples – all left-hand-drive – arriving in Blighty in period. During the hateful collector car boom of the late ’80s, prices rocketed skywards, with one example reputedly parting a soon-to-be-burned speculator from £1.2 million in 1989. This impeccable example was sold late last year for £225,500.

You can only hope that the new keeper drives it, as to inter the car in air-conditioned stasis would be a crime. Save perhaps for the Porsche 911RS and the Ferrari F40, you will struggle to find a more exhilarating road car. Even then, the F40 was simply a development of the 288GTO Evoluzione (five wilder – and uglier – prototypes intended for racing that were used as test beds, the Sultan of Brunei buying the last of them).

Anyone used to modern supercars with their get-out-of-jail-free driver aids will be shocked by the GTO. Very likely a little scared, too. Its limits are much lower but the driver’s have to be that much higher. It’s a hot rod, one capable of lulling you into a false sense of security. To drive one with any semblance of neatness, you need vigilance and focus: then it’s an absolute, undiluted buzz.

Your first impression on flailing into the hip-hugging driver’s seat is one of familiarity. It’s much like any mid-engined Maranello product of the era, with a skewed driving position dictated by the pedals which are canted towards the centreline. It isn’t the last word in opulence although air-conditioning and electric windows were available (the former being vital as the cabin becomes very warm, very quickly).

More telling are the instruments with their orange-on-black markings, the big dials flanking the boost gauge through the top of the steering wheel: the speedometer reads to 199mph, while the rev counter redlines at 7800rpm. Groovy.

Funny thing is, the engine is entirely tractable at low speeds. Peak torque of 366lb ft arrives at 3800rpm, which is reasonably low down the scale, and initially the GTO doesn’t feel all that special. There’s plenty of sound insulation and the ride quality is remarkably pliant – double wishbones, coil springs and anti-roll bars at either end – with only the occasional thump-thump over calloused asphalt from the broad Goodyear Eagles detracting. All very civilised.

Until you pile on the revs. As the boost gauge hits the 0.8 bar, both turbos spool up, start inhaling and then the tyres scramble for traction. This is the warning before take-off. The force of acceleration is entirely palpable yet it’s stable and sonorous, too. Back off and the turbos pop and gobble, the wailing V8 neutered to a metallic burble. Power here is of the incendiary kind and, while lag is nowhere near as bad as a great many cars of the time, you really do need to think ahead. The trade-off for not having instantaneous urge is that you’re quickly forced to master throttle inputs. Apply power too eagerly out of a tight corner and the nose will push wide; then the tail sidesteps as the turbos kick in.

But it isn’t belligerent. Not really. Not as long as you think. You sense real thought went into the weight distribution, and stability on soaring switchbacks is remarkable considering the car’s age. It doesn’t feel skittish and shows real composure at high speed. Certainly, there’s none of the intimidating heft of, say, a Lamborghini Countach or Ferrari 512BB. With familiarity, it’s truly fabulous. The ventilated discs offer massive stopping power with plenty of pedal feel. The gear change is typically unyielding until the transmission oil has warmed up – and there are long linkages – but nicely weighted as you guide it through the shiny six-pronged gate.

The dogleg shift from first to second is a mite ponderous, and the clutch is a little sharp, but this is to be expected. After a while, you barely notice.

Driving a 288GTO is a memorable experience. It is everything a supercar should be – compellingly charismatic, utterly gorgeous and tinged with danger. Whether it would have succeeded trackside is a moot point. It didn’t make it that far in much the same way as the seemingly promising F50GT a decade on. Yet while it didn’t cover itself in motor sport glory, the GTO moniker is entirely befitting. Which, as plaudits go, is about as lofty as praise gets.