Italian blood, British heart

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The unique BRP-run 250GTO is the car Moss was meant to race at Goodwood, but that Innes Ireland took to victory – which makes driving it today both a thrilling and a worrying prospect

Just imagine for a moment that it’s the spring of 1962. The telephone rings and your friend and employer on the other end asks you to fly to Italy and make your way to Maranello, where you are to collect a brand new Ferrari 250GTO and drive it home. Across the Alps.

Then think about that journey – a thousand miles in the company of Giaoacchino Colombo’s finest engine, Giotto Bizzarrini’s greatest design and Enzo Ferrari’s masterpiece. There’d be no need to be gentle with it: the engine’s running in process would have been started on the bench and completed on the road long before you arrived and, besides, this motor was almost as famous for its indestructibility as for its V12 soundtrack.

So you’d set off and soon be in the mountains. Imagine the noise bouncing off sheer cliff walls as you belted through the valleys. Imagine the tunnels! You’d slide it through the hairpins simply because you could, and on the straights that connected them rev the motor to 8000rpm simply because it would. Who knows what gears lived inside its five-speed transmission, but if they were Le Mans ratios, they’d take you past 170mph – possibly more. You’d exist in a time and place all of your own, a small but perfect cocoon of automotive ecstasy, dreading only the north coast of France where your journey would end. Surely you’d never want to get out.

The lucky man was Innes Ireland and the voice on the other end of his telephone line then and on mine today belongs to Ken Gregory. Along with Alfred Moss, Gregory had founded the British Racing Partnership in 1957, which by ’62 was under the patronage of the UDT credit company and now calling itself UDT-Laystall Racing. The GTO had been bought for 5000 of UDT’s pounds and it was intended for Moss’s lad, Stirling, who had been doing rather well for himself these last few years.

“Innes went and got the car from Ferrari,” remembers the 83-year-old Gregory today, “but it was first going to be raced by Stirling at the Easter meeting at Goodwood.” Pull back the upholstery on the driver’s seat today and even now you can still make out where Ferrari mechanics had scrawled the name ‘Moss’ and the car’s chassis number ‘3505GT’ on its aluminium back to denote its intended recipient.

Sadly Moss himself remembers nothing of the car in period and if a photo of the two together exists, I’ve not seen it. “I’m not even sure I drove it in practice,” says the legend, speaking from home where he is happily recovering fast from his calamitous encounter with a lift shaft, racing spirit still burning sufficiently bright to ask if it would take Fordwater flat. He did, however, drive the GTO prototype at Monza late in 1961 and recalls the car as “formidable, much faster than a Short Wheelbase but just as good to drive”.

Though I still can’t quite believe it, this is a claim I have been able to put to the test. Thanks to Goodwood, Twyman Racing (which has spent the last two years restoring it) and, above all, its owner, one sunny day at Goodwood, 3505GT was made available to me.

When you see it, what strikes first is the colour. Some 39 GTOs were made in two different body configurations and by no means were all in red. But to see this one in its pale green BRP livery, complete with Innes Ireland’s tartan strip across the bonnet, is to put its identity beyond doubt.

The focus of its restoration was not to make it ‘as new’. On the contrary, the brief handed down to Neil Twyman was to return it to its original state and, as Gregory confirmed to me, “competition Ferraris didn’t come out of the factory in showroom condition; they were racing cars and distinctly rough around the edges”. This is why there is next to no trim in the cockpit, with its tubular spaceframe exposed in places. It has one black windscreen wiper and one that’s silver – because that’s how it raced in period. Even the external bonnet catches that are so distinctive on other GTOs are nowhere to be seen, because the car never had them when new. And its original nose, which was replaced many years ago, has been refitted.

History recalls that 3505GT’s first outing was indeed to have been in the Sussex Trophy at the Easter meeting at Goodwood in 1962, but with Moss in a coma and Ireland already paired up with a UDT-Laystall Lotus 19 (with which he duly won the race), the Ferrari sat on the sidelines. Understandably Gregory’s thoughts were for Stirling in his hospital bed, not the GTO in the paddock. “I’d flown down to Goodwood for that meeting but had to get someone else to take the plane back. I was in no fit state at all.”

Instead it made its race debut at the International Trophy meeting at Silverstone in May, where The Kansas City Flash, also known as Masten Gregory (clearly no relation), came home second. Its first win arrived later that month at Brands with Innes at the helm, so hopes were high for Le Mans where these two lead BRP drivers were to share the GTO. “It all started just fine,” recalls Ken Gregory, “with Masten and Innes driving beautifully.” But it was not to last: 11 hours in the dynamo failed and, with a rapidly dwindling supply of sparks and lights, the GTO was retired. Clearly it’s a defeat that rankles Gregory to this day. Despite the fact that there were no fewer than six GTOs in the race he does not hesitate to point out that it was his GTO that was leading them all (and the class) at the time of its retirement. Racing is full of what ifs, but it’s perhaps worth mentioning now that the GTO that inherited that lead not only duly won the class but overall was beaten to the top step of the podium only by a works Ferrari prototype.

How appropriate, then, that in all these circumstances its day in the sun would finally come and that it would be at Goodwood with Ireland at the wheel. Surprisingly he makes no mention of the 1962 Tourist Trophy in his autobiography All Arms and Elbows (and if you haven’t read it, you must) other than to say, “I also won a race or two in the new GTO Ferrari”. But the fact remains it was an epic encounter.

This time there were five GTOs in the race, four of them locking out the business end of the grid. On pole sat Ireland and 3505GT with John Surtees (in his first race in a Ferrari), Mike Parkes and Graham Hill mere tenths behind. To give some idea of the GTO’s superiority, Jim Clark’s Zagato Aston DB4 GT qualified in seventh place, three full seconds off Ireland’s pace, with Mike Salmon’s Zagato next, a further three seconds behind Clark. The question was not whether a GTO would win, but which one.

Predictably the four lead GTOs simply disappeared, Ireland being overtaken by former Lotus F1 team-mate Surtees with whom there was little love lost. By lap 62 Surtees and Ireland were out on their own with everything seemingly under control for Big John. But then he came up behind Clark who, despite being in sixth place, was about to be lapped for the second time: that’s how fast the GTOs were. Clark moved aside at Madgwick to let Surtees through but then uncharacteristically lost control on the corner’s notorious bump, spun the Aston, collected the Ferrari and deposited them both in the wall.

But the race was far from over. Ireland seemed secure in the lead until a late pitstop, with just 10 of the 100 scheduled laps to go. The GTO’s rear tyres were changed with a catastrophic effect on the car’s handling. Graham Hill’s white John Coombs-entered GTO was now second and closing fast, sniffing a surprise victory. But Innes held on, despite losing two to three seconds a lap to the hard-charging Hill, crossing the line at the conclusion of the 100th lap just three seconds to the good. Mike Parkes came home almost a minute adrift to complete an all-GTO podium. Everyone else was lapped.

And that was that. Job done, Gregory sold the car at the end of the season, cannily turning a £500 profit on it, and didn’t see it again until last year’s Goodwood Revival when he and it took part in Stirling’s 80th birthday celebrations. Gregory, who’d been Stirling’s manager from his early days as a privateer racer right through to his career’s untimely end, called it a “magical and very nostalgic moment”.

*

Even without such perspective, I couldn’t help noticing feeling strange as I approached the open door of the GTO. I might have even trembled a touch. It’s a moment I have spent my adult life and the bulk of my childhood expecting never to happen and, now that it was about to, I didn’t know what to think about it. More than anything I didn’t want to discover that all the hype that had been heaped upon it over the decades was just that, and that the car was not, in fact, inviolate but merely a very successful car whose looks had allowed a myth to gain traction. Could it really be that good? To me it seemed improbable and, if I thought about it too hard, something closer to implausible.

So I settled myself into Stirling’s seat and looked around. It was exactly as I had imagined: grey Veglia dials with thin white needles huddled behind the large alloy-spoked, wood-rimmed wheel. The rev-counter, dead ahead, is flanked by dials for oil and fuel pressure, water and oil temperature and, correctly, there is not a speedometer to be seen. It’s cramped in here with a helmet on, but not intolerably so, and any discomfort is worth it just for the view through the windscreen along the length of that power bulge in the bonnet, there to clear the 12 trumpets of its six downdraught Weber carburettors.

Even in 1962 there was nothing clever in the design of its dry sump 3-litre motor. It was a proven unit which first won the World Sports Car Championship for Ferrari in 1958, fitted to the Testa Rossa. Each of its 12 cylinders had just two valves, both operated by a single camshaft. But it gave great power: individual engine outputs varied between 296 and 302bhp, which meant around 100bhp per litre with 24-hour reliability – an unprecedented combination in GT racing at the time. Moreover, not only was its reliability the stuff of legend, it was also an immensely driveable engine, spreading its power evenly over the rev range to give one more reason why those who drove GTOs adored them.

I can wait no longer so summon the V12 to life. Even at idle, the noise fills your mind: the volume is one thing, but this is also one of the most mechanically complex you’ll ever hear. Whatever point of the register you concentrate on there is always something fascinating to focus on, though it’s best to zoom out and listen to it generally, in its entirety. There is not a road car made today that even comes close.

The clutch is gentle and the spindly steel shifter falls back into first gear with all the well-oiled ease of the precision instrument that it is. It’s a hoary old cliché to liken it to a rifle bolt, but that is precisely how it feels.

A lift of the left foot, a dab of the right and the GTO is padding down the pitlane and out onto the track.

My fear was that I’d need Innes Ireland-spec talent, or to at least drive the GTO spectacularly before it would release its secrets to me, and as I was unable to provide the former and unwilling to do the latter in someone else’s car, I wondered what these few laps would bring save the eternal joy of knowing you’ve driven a GTO.

But the GTO is not like this: it has been my great fortune these last few years to race a 750 Monza Ferrari and it is a truculent and intimidating car, the reward at journey’s end substantially being the inestimable relief to have made it there in the right number of pieces. The GTO, just seven years younger, is the polar opposite: it seems hardly to matter where you’re heading so long as you go there by GTO. It’s a delight even crawling around the track at 30mph for the shots you see here.

But mercifully the photographer’s thumb soon goes up, the camera car peels into the pit and Goodwood and the GTO are mine. Tempered only by noise regulations that mean I can use not quite all the revs, and haunted simply by the thought of becoming the first person ever to inflict significant damage upon this car, I step through the gates of heaven.

Somehow you have to keep your mind off the noise. The car is pretty loud if you’re standing outside but in the cabin the myriad howls, snarls, shrieks and wails try to fill every available space in your head, and part of you – most of you – doesn’t want to stop them. I can’t imagine an Ireland, Hill or Surtees being much delayed by such an issue but I can report only as I find.

So I conquered that urge and shortly thereafter discovered it’s all true: the GTO is indeed an almost perfect racing car.

When people who’ve raced GTOs describe them as beautifully balanced I always understood them to be talking about a handling characteristic, and maybe they were. But now I know there’s more to it than that. The balance is not just between oversteer and understeer, it’s between engine and chassis too. People who make racing cars don’t sit there dreamily deliberating about how best to match grip to power, they muster as much of both as they can and leave the driver to get on with it; so we can only presume that the fact the GTO feels like it needs not a single horsepower more or less is purest serendipity.

Like the engine the chassis is an essentially simple design down to its leaf-sprung rear axle, and just like the engine there is magic in that simplicity. I wish I could share better with you how a steering system can be so light yet so full of feedback, how the rear axle is so predictable that it seems more natural to adopt a mild slip angle than not. Intoxicated by the engine, inspired by the gearchange and emboldened by the chassis we circulated the Sussex track, each lap a little quicker than the last. Fourth past the pits, then fifth, back to fourth for Madgwick, fifth for Fordwater (which I suspect would be flat with Stirling at the wheel, but not me), then fourth for the whole of St Mary’s to keep the noise down, third for Lavant, up to fifth down the straight, fourth for Woodcote, third through the chicane and start again.

*

To do one lap like that in a GTO is probably more good fortune than one man deserves and it gives some insight into the mind of the professional racing driver that Innes Ireland did 100 at a rather greater effort level, winning the country’s most important sports car race in the process, yet felt no need even to mention it in his autobiography.

I, on the other hand, will be very hard to shut up on the subject for some time to come. It is said you should never meet your heroes because they can never live up to your expectations, but when that hero is a Ferrari 250GTO, I beg to differ. Driving the GTO did not shatter the dreams I had built up over 30 years of gawping at them, it performed the rather more useful service of converting them first into reality and then into ineradicable memory. However good I thought the GTO might be, truth is it was better even than that. It has become a timeless icon because that is what it is, one of those rare cars that is so much better than the sum of its parts you wonder if its makers even knew how good it was going to be. Put it this way, of all the cars you could conceivably drive on both public road and a race track, I know nothing that even touches it.

Our sincere thanks to Neil Twyman, Goodwood Motor Circuit, Julius Thurgood, Keith Bluemel and, of course, the owner of 3505GT for their help with this feature.

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