Ferrari 250 GTO: 25th Anniversary

Millionaires' row

GTO— three letters signifying a peak in a famous, possibly the most famous, auto-history. 12 cylinders, 3 litres, 280bhp, 175mph — bald figures, without gazing at the sleek aluminium coachwork. With the quarter-century as the excuse, Cavallino, the international Ferrari owners group, set out to assemble a gathering of rare beauty and value.

In its short day, only three seasons as a works racer, the GTO established itself as the quintessential dual-purpose sports-racer, just as had its predecessors, the 250 Tour de France and the short-wheelbase 250 GT Berlinetta. But Enzo Ferrari felt that the GTO was just too raw a car to be made widely available, and announced in December 1962, at the end of the car's first season, that only a further 10 would be built, making 35 in all. In the event, 39 were constructed, including three with 4.0-litre engines, and between them they built a distinguished race history.

The car was not an outright winner in international championship events, competing as it did against the pure racers in the Prototype class, but it was rarely far behind and regularly won the GT class. At Le Mans, for instance, a GTO was second to a Ferrari prototype in both 1962 and 1963. Yet the car was recognisably a road-going sportscar, and was equipped with bodywork whose sensuous yet purposeful lines would have made it one of the great Italian automobiles even with racing success. Body features originally forced on the engineers for practical reasons have become visual GTO trademarks: the low nose and twin (later triple) slots in the wing to relieve air pressure to counter the lift experienced on the 250SWB-based prototype which ran at Le Mans in 1961; the chopped tail and spoiler added for the competition debut at Sebring in March 1962; and most of all the three removable toenail vents above the grille to increase airflow to the radiator.

It was noisy and spartan, with little in the way of comfort — in many ways the last production road-racing Ferrari. True, its 275 GTB and Daytona successors performed creditably, but under private entrants, and they were stripped-out versions of increasingly comfortable Grand Tourers.

The last year of official competition was 1964, with revised bodywork presaging the mid-engined 250LM, but the GTO continued to contest national and then club events as it became outclassed. Those who for sentimental or other reasons kept hold of one made a wise choice: sky-high desirability has seen prices rocket even faster than the average exotic, culminating in a record auction price in May of £940,000 for a 4-litre — almost £100,000 more than a Testa Rossa in the same sale. Vendors of that TR were the Harrison brothers, who still have a GTO each.

This June event was no fiercely contested concours, nor was it for the entertainment of the public. It was a mobile private gathering, a social congregation of a few privileged people and their cars, a week-long tour through France at a gentle pace, finishing with a few driving tests at the private circuit of Ferrari collector Pierre Bardinon.

It started with a lunch in London for the British contingent, followed by a foregathering in Paris at the premises of Charles Pozzi, the Ferrari importer for France. Here, on a dull Monday morning in a quiet suburb of northern Paris, a pair of high wooden gates were thrown open to reveal a breathtaking 21 scarlet V12 Ferraris. Peppering the GTOs was a sprinkling of variations: two 330 LMBs, their drooping GTO noses kicking up to tails reminiscent of the the Berlinetta Lusso; three examples with the stubbier bodywork of the 1964 season, one being the '62 car rebodied two years later for Colonel Ronnie Hoare of Maranello Concessionaires; and the very famous "bread van".

Strictly speaking, this is one of three pseudo-GT0s, having been constructed in 1962 by Neri and Bonacini on a 250SWB chassis to a Drogo design, but that chassis (2819 GT) was driven to second place in the 1961 Tour de France by Olivier Gendebien.

The tone of this automotive party was discreet, but far from secretive: the cars left Paris after streaming around the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysees with police outriders — all except the cars of Peter Sachs and Nick Mason, both of which sadly broke half-shafts. Their goal was Rhiems, where they assembled in front of the derelict pits of the old GP circuit before a few parade laps through the verdant and gently rolling fields in front of a few score onlookers. It was not racing, the 3 and 4-litre engines were merely cantering through these self-indulgent tours, but to hear 252 Weber chokes simultaneously gulping the air of the Champagne region was as heady as the wine itself.

A splendid lunch hosted by Moet et Chandon brought the cars to the Abbeye d'Hautvillers near Epernay. The abbey, once the home of Dom Perignon himself, has been restored by the company, and the gleaming cars were parked in the grounds overlooking the fertile valleys below. Here stories of pleasures and problems were exchanged; the American owner of the newly-restored Breadvan tried anxiously to borrow a fuel-line part; those who race the GTO today, such as Fabrizio Violati, listened to Jack Sears' stories of racing the cars new. It was just an owners club meeting, really. GC