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Wednesday 11th March 2009


PH HEROES: FERRARI 288GTO

When it was released the 288GTO was the fastest car in the world. Richard Heseltine drives a true '80s supercar...


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, and turn in. The steering’s meaty, responses through the Momo wheel being ever-communicative. 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 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% of the car’s power is delivered. The sheer force, the sheer intensity, leaves your brain pulped and pureed.


Which is as it should be: 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 eighties wild child never ventured trackside in anger.

And don’t be fooled by the familiar outline. The GTO was conceived with the sole purpose of contending for honours in the 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 circuit-rooted side bombed due largely to manufacturer indifference.

Styled by Pininfarina’s Leonardo Fioravanti, the GTO shared only its steel doors and windscreen with the outwardly similar 308GTB. A longer wheelbase, extra ducts and louvres substantially altered the proportions, the overall effect being among the prettiest cars of the ’80s.

The GTO represented Ferrari’s first hesitant step to accepting composite materials for both body and chassis construction. 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 ultra-light body was then moulded in Kevlar/Nomex: the front bonnet alone 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 IHI turbochargers 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 the moment it broke cover at the March ’84 Geneva Salon. Save perhaps for the Porsche 2.7 911RS and the Ferrari F40, you will struggle to find a more exhilarating road car.


Yet anyone used to modern supercars with their driver aids will be shocked by the GTO. Likely a little scared, too. Its limits are much lower but the driver’s have to be that much higher as it’s perfectly 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. Altogether more telling are the instruments with their brash orange-on-black markings, the big dials flanking the boost gauge through the top part of the steering wheel: the speedometer reads to 199mph, while the rev counter redlines at 7800rpm. Groovy.

Surprisingly, the engine is entirely tractable as low speeds; initially the GTO doesn’t feel all that special. There’s plenty of sound insulation and the ride quality is remarkably pliant 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 0.8 bar, both turbos spool up; start inhaling and then the tyres scramble for traction. This is what passes for a warning before take off. Power here is of the incendiary kind and 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 as long as you think. Stability on soaring switchbacks is remarkable considering the car’s age. It doesn’t feel skittish and shows real composure at high speed. With familiarity, it’s truly, really 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. If anything, the dogleg shift from first to second is a mite ponderous, but this is to be expected. After a while, you barely notice.

Driving a 288GTO is such a memorable experience. Compellingly charismatic, utterly gorgeous and tinged with danger, it’s everything a supercar should be. Whether it would have succeeded trackside is a moot point. But 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.

Author: heselt