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Ferrari 250 GTO

Ferrari 250 GTO

By Jack Nerad

Ferrari 250 GTO It is perfectly in keeping with the Ferrari tradition that the car whose legend still resounds through history, the car many claim to be Enzo Ferrari's masterpiece, got its name as a literal afterthought. Ferrari was always too concerned with making the cars better to worry about what people called them. Naming consultants and market research were never on the list of Things to Do at Scuderia Ferrari.

So it was that the Ferrari 250 GTO received its name in the most mundane fashion. Designed to be the keeper of the flame in Ferrari's grand touring efforts, the 250 GTO was named for the fact it was homologated, which simply means it was approved for racing. In Italian, the name is Gran Turismo Omologato - Gran Touring Homologated, not a phrase that ripples off the tongue. But mention the term GTO today and even the least "gearheaded" will tell you it has something to do with racing.

Something to do with racing indeed. Enzo Ferrari was nothing if he was not motor racing's ultimate gamesman, and so it went with the GTO. In 1962, the FIA, racing's premier sanctioning body, decided to make an extra effort to ensure that the cars racing and winning the production Grand Touring class were actually production cars. It was a quaint notion that eventually resulted in not only the Ferrari 250 GTO but in the Shelby Cobra as well.

At the time Ferrari's entrant in the Grand Touring class was the 250 GT SWB ("SWB" referring to its short wheelbase). It was an attractive enough car, but with its relatively blunt front end and exposed round headlights it was an aerodynamic brick. Despite the fact that its overachieving 3-liter V-12 engine churned out 280 horsepower in race trim, it figuratively hit the wall when it topped 150 miles per hour.

That, of course, just wouldn't do, so Ferrari decided to create a new, more aero-friendly body shape, while claiming that the car with the new body was simply a variation of the 250 GT SWB. It was an important distinction because Enzo had zero intention of producing the 100 copies of the GTO that would otherwise have been required for homologation.

In the infant days of automobile aerodynamics, Ferrari's faltering steps to a better shape weren't pretty. (On the other side of the Atlantic, Chevrolet engineers weren't doing much better, finding that the sleek new shape of the Stingray racer nearly made the car fly.) At times efforts were as rudimentary as applying plaster of Paris over hardware cloth to build a wind-cheating front end. When that failed, Ferrari experimented with using the body from the 400 Superamerica on the 250 SWB chassis. But the Pinifarina-designed body, though considerably sleeker than the 250 SWB, was not the answer. At speed the front end began to lift from the pavement, making steering a heart-stopping task at 150 mph.

Finally, Ferrari turned the effort over to Giotto Bizzarrini, whose name would later grace an exotic sports car of his own. Bizzarrini took the problem to the wind tunnel at the University of Pisa, and the result of his experiments was the low-nose, high-tail wedge shape that remains the basis of today's racing GT's. Instead of the 250 GT SWB's expansive, forward-sloping grille opening, the GTO featured a smaller opening lower than the faired-in headlights. Above the opening, three distinctive half-moon shaped ports could be opened for additional cooling if the situation demanded it. The tail of the car was truncated, a fastback backlight sloping in a wide arc to an integral spoiler. (American racer Richie Ginther, who drove for Team Ferrari, is credited with this innovation.)

Under the taut and muscular skin was the same basic chassis as the 250 GT SWB, but, in typical Ferrari fashion, engineering and construction details were always in a state of flux. The GTO maintained the SWB's 94.5-inch wheelbase, and chassis was constructed of alloy tubing, but the construction details were different with the goal a stiffer chassis.

One sop Ferrari did make to the FIA was the retention of the live rear axle from the 250 GT SWB instead of using an independent rear suspension. Though Ferrari racing machines had long since shifted to four-wheel independent suspension, even the Commendatore didn't have the chutzpah to try to bluff that change through.

Despite the lack of an independent rear suspension, when it first appeared at the annual Ferrari press conference in February 1962, there was little doubt the 250 GTO was built for racing. The side windows were simple sliding pieces of plastic, and there was no cockpit insulation whatsoever. Both the sharklike nose and blunt tail were unprotected by bumpers or even nerf bars.

As with many Ferraris, no thought was given to driver or passenger comfort. For the driver, pedal placement and the rather large steering wheel conspired to impede shifts, which weren't all that easy with the long-throw gated shifter hitched up to a Porsche-designed five-speed gearbox. The passenger had to contend with a frame brace, a battery and an engine oil tank in an effort to find some semblance of comfort.

But comfort, of course, was not part of Ferrari's program. Speed was. And in the GTO speed was available in abundance.

As with any Ferrari, the heart of the 250 GTO was its engine, a 3-liter aluminum masterpiece designed by Gioacchino Colombo. By 1962, the Colombo V-12 was tried-and-true, but continual experimentation continued to wring more and more horsepower from its immaculately machined alloy block. Topped with an imposing array of six twin-throat downdraft Weber 38 DCN carburetors sans any effort at air filtration, the engine was a sight to behold. Single overhead cams operated the valve gear in each bank, venting fuel into cylinders with a compression ratio of nearly 10:1. Dry sump lubrication was required for the heavy-duty demands of racing and had the added benefit of lowering the car's center of gravity.

In race trim the 250 GTO had about 300 horsepower on tap at an ear-splitting 7,000 rpm. The result was a top speed of 170 miles per hour in a chassis that was raw and unsophisticated by today's standards, but very driveable in its own day.

The 250 GTO paid off Ferrari's adventure in rule-bending by winning the World Manufacturers' Championship in its first season on the race course and in the next two seasons as well. Despite its racing heritage, the GTO has also proven one of the most enduring street cars of all time, as its price at auction will attest.
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