Short, back & sideways

Stirling Moss won the 1961 Tourist Trophy in this Ferrari 250 short wheelbase and races it at Goodwood again this month. Matthew Franey discovers the secret of his success

Photography by Andrew Yeadon & Stan Papior

If ever proof was needed that for some people, things come all too easily, then look no further than the case of one Stirling Moss. In 1961 he secured his seventh and final Tourist Trophy win 11 years after he won his first. Not that it took him 11 races to win those seven, for there were, in fact, just nine TTs over that period. In the 1950s and early '60s, if sportscars were involved, then Mr Moss was quite clearly his rivals' nemesis.

For a large slice of his career, it was Moss' relationship with team owner Rob Walker that allowed him access to the kind of machinery he needed to decimate fields worldwide. In the latter years, that meant the cream of the Gran Turismo racers, and none more so than the Ferrari 250 GT Short Wheelbase Berlinetta you see here. Two consecutive victories in the Tourist Trophy came behind the wheel of a Walker Short Wheelbase from Maranello, both on Goodwood's airfield circuit, and neither were what you might have deemed a struggle. In 1961 he came home a lap ahead of Mike Parkes, the year prior he had enjoyed a two-lap advantage over Roy Salvadori's Aston Martin DB4GT — enough of a lead, it seems, to allow him to listen to the radio as he whiled away the hours...

Not that Moss' dominance was welcomed by all sides. A rather terse Motor Sport account of his final win talked of a race that "had lost much of its interest" and, a touch churlishly, took a sideswipe at the organisers, too: "So sure were the BARC that Moss would win that they had a cake made with seven candles on it to celebrate his seventh TT win. Perhaps next year the BARC could issue the results before the race — it would save the 1½-hour wait the Press men had this year."

That Moss should so convincingly fend off the likes of Parkes and Salvadori, let alone Jim Clark and Innes Ireland, speaks volumes for his innate talent, but even Stirling would admit that the Ferrari Short Wheelbase played a pivotal role in that success.

Like so many of Ferrari's most successful sportscars, the SWB made the transition from road to race track with little complaint. To assist it in competition guise, the factory would replace the heavy steel skin with aluminium bodywork, raise power outputs some 40bhp to 280bhp with the aide of some freer-flowing Weber carburettors and higher compression and leave cockpit trimmings to the bare minimum the '61 winner lacked the essential radio... But in all other senses this was an archetypal product from the Scuderia a road car with race track pedigree and, perhaps most significantly of all, the predecessor to the 250 GTO.

When Moss and Walker took delivery of their first SWB, the 1960 TT winner, it was driven across Europe from northern Italy straight to Silverstone in order that he might get in a last-minute run before the big race. On arrival at the circuit, the car's tyre pressures were checked and out he went, setting fastest time of the day just three laps after his very first acquaintance with the car. That, more than anything, is as good an example of the qualities of car and driver as anything you are likely to get.

The shortened version of the 250 GT didn't begin production until 1959, some five years after the first 250s, when its steel-tubed chassis was shortened by nearly a foot to 94.4in in order to improve turn-in and mid-corner poise. Disc brakes also replaced drums but the Gioachino Colombo-designed 3-litre single overhead camshaft V12 engine remained an integral part of the package and one which even today stands comparison with modem high performance units, revving regularly to over 7000rpm and nearer 8000 in a racing driver's hands.

In the search for greater power, later owners of this SWB substituted GTO heads and more aggressive cams and valves for what came before, the result liberating a further 20bhp and creating an engine that hides its capabilities until the far side of 4000rpm. Not ideal for road use it's true, but more than acceptable for the purposes of the race track. Yet, as we will learn, bald figures can never tell the whole story when it comes to a car such as this.

It is the sheer size – or lack of it – that strikes you when you first climb into the Short Wheelbase. Put it alongside any of its contemporaries and the striking blue and white-liveried car, while not exactly dwarfed, still looks diminutive in stature. Its compact lines serve, however, to give it a sense of purpose you cannot miss. Large 15in Borrani wheel rims fill the arches and the Dunlop 6.5x 15 racing rubber at the rear adds still greater width. The deeply recessed bonnet funnels sharply towards the sloping nose of the car, foreshortening the distance between the driver's seat and whatever is looming into view. And at the same time, the obvious proximity of the rear axle to your backside adds more than a little to the car's sense of compactness.

Driver comfort, while never of paramount importance to Enzo or his engineers, at first seems excellent, the beautiful alloy-spoked wooden steering wheel falling close to your chest while the bare metal gearlever, mounted above thigh height, is never more than a flick of the elbow away. Leather seats, criss-crossed with the patina of nearly four decades use, provide more support than you might imagine but it isn't until the Ferrari is in motion that early signs of its racing heritage start to gnaw away at comfort levels.

Passing directly below the cockpit, the exhausts from the large V12 start the slow cooking process not long after you start the engine. Within minutes on this pleasant, but far from stifling, summer's day the heat within is far greater than outside and the only respite arrives after opening a window to create some airflow through the cabin. Fifteen minutes of hard driving is enough to wear you down, so consider for a moment the fact that in 1961, Stirling managed to complete 109 laps of Goodwood, at an average of 86.62mph with just three stops of less than a minute for fuel, tyres and an essential drink.

But if you leave aside the toil of driving the SWB for long stints and concentrate instead on its abilities as a pure sportscar, things move quickly into perspective. Listen out at first for the unique sound of the two banks of cylinders. Here is not the free-revving, easy-pulling nature of many V12s, but an initial cough and splutter which, in the words of its guardian for the day, makes it sound like it's dropped a valve or two. Keep the throttle depressed, allow the revs to rise and there, above the 4000rpm mark, is what turns mere powerplant into absolute masterpiece: a seamless wave of power flowing all the way through to the end of the tachometer, matched only by the harsh whistle of the induction note. Trackside bystander or frantic pedaller, the reaction is the same, as the turning heads and craning necks of the workmen hurrying to finish Goodwood's new pitlane readily attest.

Moving off in the 250 is not difficult, a light floor-hinged clutch pedal allowing you to slip the plates just enough to allow smooth progress. The gearbox, too, is user-friendly and undemanding. A four-speed unit with synchromesh, it engages first gear with an authoritative clunk which suggests that all shifts to come will be as satisfying as the first one.

And so it proves. The Ferrari's gearbox is one of the joys of this car, every change of ratio so assured that the danger of missing one seems non-existent, even if the surprisingly poorly-spaced pedals mean that heel-and-toe downshifts are not as instinctive as they might be. With only four speeds to choose from, selecting the correct rear axle ratio is vital, and for the car's return to the track this September, Moss has already been testing. Early complaints of too high gearing seem justified, the car forcing you to drop down to second gear for the long double apex right-hander at Lavant and first if you are to negotiate the tight chicane without dropping below the critical 4000rpm mark and straight out of the power band.

Keep the car on cam and it will make excellent progress along Goodwood's long straights and fast kinks, the needle nudging 120mph and more at the braking point for the right at Woodcote. Speeds greatly in excess of that will probably be on the cards when, with new final drive, third gear becomes an option at Lavant, the corner leading onto the straight. At these velocities, the wide tyres and narrow track might suggest the car is liable to wandering at high-speed, but the 250 displays a level of ride and stability that is at the same time reassuring and encouraging. Before Moss strode to his '61 TT win, he partnered Graham Hill with the same SWB at Le Mans. The car lasted for just three hours before a fan blade severed a radiator hose but in that brief time he managed to haul the Ferrari up to third place. There, on the long Mulsanne Straight, the steady ride must have felt like a godsend.

Brakes, in the form of 10-inch Dunlop discs are capable without entering the realms of the unbelievable. Weighing in at around 1100kg, the 11;errari still represents a formidable mass to retard, and the softly sprung suspension only adds to the impression of a car which should not be run too deep into a corner. Fade, though, is not a common complaint when Moss is behind the wheel, for where he finds his speed is via earlier braking and then utilising the fantastic chassis and handling to set the car up 'fast and early'.

With independent front suspension courtesy of double wishbones and coil springs and a tried and trusted live rear axle, with leaf springing and a limited slip differential, the SWB is perfectly equipped for Goodwood's smooth asphalt surfaces. Although the competizione models came equipped with stiffer shock absorbers, the only real adjustment that could be made was to the ride height As a result the Ferrari remains a fundamentally softly sprung car, rolling rather alarmingly as it rounds the first half of a corner, the weight of the engine in the nose trying to force the car wide. Yet all it takes is a swift application of the right foot to break the rear end away and gentle oversteering drifts are easy to achieve and hugely satisfying to execute.

The true beauty, therefore, of this piccolo Ferrari is the disarming ease with which the most amateur of drivers can adopt the pose of a professional. Feedback, at all times, at every angle is all any driver asks of his machinery and in this car it is unrelenting. The steering, while seeming vague at low speeds, becomes precise and responsive at competition velocity. Big movements are still needed to exact a big response but the broad steering wheel seems to lead your hands in the correct direction of travel.

On full power out of the chicane, the Ferrari is two cars wrapped up as one. From the inside, body roll aside, everything is as normal: progress rapid, opposite lock just necessary. From the outside it is as Wall hell has broken loose. Study the pictures taken at this spot and you'll see a car at acute angles of lean with an inside wheel waving six inches clear of the ground; and take my word for it, from where I was sitting at the time it was nothing. This is an easy car to drive.

As always, where this car's final few miles per hour lie, and where you will have once again to consult the history books, is in the really quick turns, where discretion is without doubt the better part of a million pound accident. Take Goodwood's first comer, Madgwick. Here, four-wheel drifts are not a luxury but de rigueur for a decent lap time and if you want to know what the comer looks like at 100mph through the side window then consult the photos... the archive ones. For at Madgwick, with the engine buzzing in third gear, the Ferrari betrays its basic roots, its pitch and roll sensitivity reacting to the bumpy exit. To go quickly through here the car needs unsettling way before you reach the corner, and that is the stuff of owners... or S Moss Esq.

As delightful to drive as it is delicious to listen to, there will be little to beat the Ferrari 250 CT Short Wheelbase at the Goodwood revival meeting regardless of the position in which it actually finishes on the track. Come its return in September, it may not be the fastest thing on the track and may not have enough steam to hold off its more powerful rivals when the flag drops. Even so, the last time Stirling Moss drove this car on that track he was untouchable. Anyone want to bet against it happening again?

Our sincere thanks to Clive Beecham of Kinnerton Confectionery for the loan of 1SWB and Colin Clark Engineering (0181 961 9392) for their invaluable help during our day at Goodwood.