DRIVEN: FERRARI 288 GTO
THE 288 GTO STARTED A DYNASTY OF MINDBENDING FERRARI HYPERCARS, WE GET OURSELVES REACQUAINTED
It set the tone for F40 and a dynasty of hypercars after that – and why it deserves more credit
BEFORE YOU DRIVE a Ferrari 288 GTO, it’s likely you’ll ponder various things. Will it be as fierce as everyone says it is? Will it spit me backwards out of a roundabout when all of its 294 forcefully induced kilowatts hit? Will it turn out to be a thinly-disguised track car? Will it feel like a 308 on steroids? All of which makes the actual first impression – that of a lean, striking beauty – a bit of a surprise. You can understand the nerves. After all, not only is this a Very Expensive Car, but it’s rare too. Just 271 were ever built, and this is probably the only one in black, and one of a handful in right-hand drive. So it’s a very special version of an already very special car indeed, one born out of Maranello’s wish to compete at the top of Group B competition. It also sired a line of Ferrari hypercars that persists to this day. This car’s follow-up, the similarly twin-turbocharged F40, might be heralded as the first hypercar due to its 323km/h full whack, but they’re almost common. To understand why this car is so much more special, we’ve taken a suitably epic car to suitably epic driving roads in Scotland’s Southern Uplands. A fitting location, given the crisp cool air is prime for the 288’s twin turbos. Time to bring a bedroom poster to life. Twist the key a full 180 degrees, thumb the rubber-covered start nodule and eight angry cylinders bark into life. The pedals, gathered together near the car’s centreline, are pretty firm underfoot. Bold action with the throttle averts a stall and we’re off, finding gears through the gate. It’s already warm, but it still takes an assertive hand to move a rather long linkage quickly. That, and some wheel speed… which, unsurprisingly, is very easy to come by.
Explore the lengthy throttle travel and a bad-tempered growl rises along with the hairs on the back of your neck. We’re quickly up to 3500rpm and then a much harder, faster snarl erupts as the tachometer winds towards the 7800rpm redline, overlaid with a high-pitched turbo whistle. The thrust is immense, but if you’re planning for it, it’s not too frightening when it arrives. So what about that most 1980s of things, turbo lag? Yes, it’s there as a tiny pause after you change up, but use the gearbox’s nicely grouped ratios to full effect and it’s easy to keep it on the boil. One cannot let revs drop below 3500rpm
THE INTIMIDATION FACTOR IS PARTLY DOWN TO IT WEIGHING 125KG LESS THAN A 308 GTB QUATTROVAVOLVE
and then expect response as if at 6000rpm.
We’re starting to quicken the pace, but any twitch from the chassis only happens when the dry road changes in surface. Nonetheless, this lovely looking machine clearly has the potential to bite. Both track and wheelbase are around 10cm longer than the 308’s, which proportionally speaking is a greater increase in track – far from reassuring if you ever do lose it. If a fast bend suddenly tightened on you, or you indulged in too much throttle, it would take luck and skill in that order to get things back in line.
This intimidation factor is partly down to weight, or lack of it. This car doesn’t use particularly large tyres for something packing 294kW and 496Nm, they’re specifically 255/50s at the back, 225s at the front, on 16-inch wheels. And it weighs 1160kg (dry), 250kg more than a Golf GTI of the same age, or 125kg less than a 308 GTB Quattrovalvole. Cornering takes very little effort as there isn’t much mass to shift. The lovely steering helps, feeling as light as it is accurate. It’s a quick ratio too, though slower than intended for competition. Today, it hasn’t been necessary to move the wheel through more than 30 degrees until we take a twisty side-road and find the almost Alpine climb to Meggett reservoir. Back down on the main road, it’s time for a breather.
Although ultimately intended to compete in Group B’s stillborn track-racing offshoot, the 288 GTO’s convoluted roots lie in the better-known world of Group 4 and Group B rallying. Following on from the Lancia Stratos, Ferrari created the wide-arched Group 4 308 GTB/4 prototype, which completed initial testing at Fiorano in 1976 before the Scuderia outsourced the project to rally preparation specialist Michelotto of Padova, which developed 308 GTB rally cars mainly campaigned by Charles Pozzi.
As Group 4 gave way to Group B in 1981, the 32-valve 308 GTB Quattrovalvole was homologated for rallying, but Michelotto developed an altogether more specialised prototype, the 308 GTM. The wheelbase was shortened, the engine turned longitudinally and new bodywork was fashioned in Kevlar carbon composite. Despite extensive testing, its lack of turbocharging meant it struggled in its only competitive outing, the 1984 Rally di Monza. However, Ferrari had taken note of its potential as a racer. The 288 GTO used a 2.9-litre, twin-turbo V8 in a slightly longer and wider 308 GTB-like body, built with a spaceframe chassis and much fibreglass to keep the weight down. At launch in 1984 it was the quickest and probably fastest production car in the world, at least until another roadgoing Group B racer appeared – the Porsche 959. But the Ferrari’s reputation for staggering performance and feisty road manners created an instant cult car. And look at it...
The shape is much like a 308 GTB’s, but it’s much more than a flared-arch version of a standard shell. Indeed, the only panels common to the 308 are the steel doors. It dates from 1977, when Leonardo Fioravanti used Pininfarina’s wind tunnel to smooth the airflow over the proposed 308 GTB/4’s wider track and improve rear downforce. It adds a dose of muscle in those hips and front guards, but does it with fine judgement. His aluminium prototype was brought to reality
mostly in vetroresina – otherwise known as fibreglass – but also using a Kevlar-GRP honeycomb for its bulkhead and bonnet. Harvey Postlethwaite, then Ferrari’s F1 designer, developed this material and it found a new home in the GTO project.
The huge rear deck, lengthened by a wheelbase change and finished with a lip spoiler rather than a silly wing, never looks out of proportion with the neat nose. You walk round it, marvelling at how anything with such a lairy collection of air scoops (three per side) can be so svelte and pretty, and you think this is how the 308 should have looked in the first place. There isn’t a bad angle on it.
It would have been good practice to study the engine bay before driving this car. On something so fast and notorious it could hint at what to expect or what might go wrong. Here, two things strike you – the engine is hiding, having made way for a large transaxle, two intercoolers and some gorgeous pipe bends. Secondly, the two little turbos look a long way from both the exhaust and inlet manifold. Happily, it seems their dinky size make up the lag-inducing distance the air has to travel.
Look closer and the engine is there after all, or about half of it is. The other half is in the passenger compartment, displaced
YOU HAVE TO ADMIRE THE DEDICATION IN PLACING THE TWIN-TURBO V8 ENGINE SO CLOSE TO THE CAR’S CENTRE
so far forward you can only see the rearmost portion. Swapping a set of spark plugs would be hard to say the least. It’s all very different to a 308’s transverse arrangement and clearly impacting accommodation, though you have to admire the dedication in placing the engine so close to the car’s centre.
At least that’s what first occurs to you – former racing driver and journalist Paul Frère wrote in a 1984 road test the longitudinal layout allowed better gearbox access for rapid ratio changes in competition, with the added bonus of making space for the turbos. That odd engine capacity is actually 2855cc, the first two digits of which give the GTO its variation on the 308 model number.
Use FISA’s supercharging factor of 1.4 and you’ll find that it equates to 3997cc, tucking itself neatly under the 4.0-litre limit for naturally-aspirated Group B cars. With a minimum weight of only 960kg, it would have been a monster in competition trim. In fact, park a road-going GTO next to a Lancia LC2 Group C racer and beneath both engine covers you’ll find an underbored twin-turbo 308 engine, the same Weber-Marelli engine management system and a similar five-speed transaxle.
With that in mind, let’s have another go. The door’s little flap
catch is like a 328 item rather than the 308’s odd vertical lever, which feels appropriate to open the doors on this lightweight competition-bred machine with just one finger. Those under six feet tall can wriggle into the cockpit with reasonable ease, though the engine’s intrusion pushes the bulkhead forward to a point that keeps the seat from reclining once it’s at the back of its runners and that makes the roof seem awfully close.
Ignore this tight fit and it’s a fabulous place to be, with a sweep of coal-black suede over a neat gathering of orange-font dials. A glance down to the handbrake and surroundings is pure classic Ferrari, with sliders for heat and fans, electric window controls, other circular flick-switches and that famous open transmission gate.
I’m enjoying the snarl and whistle as the little IHI turbos kick in, then that fast-forward sensation as the trees become a blur. It requires all the concentration a driver can muster, sometimes more – but it’s wonderful fun even at eighttenths. That accurate steering and the adrenaline pump under your right foot are easy to gel with. Driving a 288 GTO with enthusiasm means you quickly arrive elsewhere.
Something about this car separates the enthusiasts from the rest. It’s partly down to the black paint – a red Ferrari is much more obviously a Ferrari, to even the most uninformed observer. When this one is noticed, it’s by discerning blokes (yes, always blokes) of a certain age or car-mad boys with smartphones. They’re wise to do so, because they won’t see another one quite like this. Our example is right-hand drive, which suggests something about the car’s early history. Brunei’s royal family commissioned the majority of specially converted right-hand drive Ferraris in the ’80s and ’90s, but some were more easily arranged than others. DK Engineering’s James Cottingham brought this car to the UK in 2015 and he believes only one was sold to the family directly, with others assumed to be sourced from individuals, then converted and exported.
“The 288s were for VIP clients and Ferrari wouldn’t sell more than one to one entity,” he explains. Other Ferraris that never entered official right-hand drive production – the F40 for instance – were converted in small batches by Pininfarina Research and sold to clients with no dealer involved, so it’s possible the same thing occurred with the 288 GTO.
The collection in Brunei became so extensive that few cars
were actually driven. Most were stored with minimal mileage in vast garages, some buildings offering better protection than others. In the last decade or so a few cars have departed, including this 288, thought to be one of four right-hand drive GTOs eventually sent to Brunei. Despite fewer than 1000km on the clock it had suffered in the heat and humidity and required a full restoration, after which the car came to the UK and has now been Brendan O’Brien’s property for a few years. There are a handful of 288 GTOs in Australia, too.
The streets of Scotland’s capital city are hardly a natural environment for the 288, but it’s not crippled by speed humps or potholes like some ground-hugging projectiles can be. The ride is firm – you wouldn’t expect anything else – but for such a competition-focused creation, Ferrari and Pininfarina between them did a remarkable job of adding some comfort.
If we want to turn a few more heads, there’s a pedal on the right that helps. The 288 makes an amplified snarl at anything more than idle and with very little flywheel effect you can blip the throttle and bounce the noise around the ancient stone streets. Its voice has more in common with the later V8s, say a 355 or a 360, than with the 308 family.
That hollow-sounding rapid and regular beat is common to all though, thanks to a flat-plane crank that allows even firing intervals, plus the kind of spitting, angry exhaust note that announces a high compression ratio. The 288 GTO’s compression is supposedly 7.6:1, but that doesn’t take into account the extra density of the mixture shoved into each cylinder by the turbos. At full boost and full throttle, the engine
IT MAKES AN AMPLIFIED SNARL ANYWHERE ABOVE IDLE
is coping with a compression ratio equivalent to almost 14:1.
This was raised further still for five loopy run-out examples built after Group B was declared dead. The 288 GTO Evoluzione was everything the ‘standard’ GTO was not – its bodykit turned it from a catwalk beauty into a carpet sweeper and an even more extreme program of weight sparing and turbocharging (boost more than doubled to 25psi) gave it tempestuous, track only performance. It weighed at least 113kg less and produced 485kW at 7800rpm. Top speed was a claimed 362km/h and just six were built – five for customers, one prototype.
Heady stuff, but as I shift down to third and feel my spine compress into the seat, this normal version of a distinctly un-normal car is more than enough.
Ferrari needed to build 200 GTOs for homologation purposes but sold them easily, despite the end of Group B, and made a total of 271. It later made five times as many F40s, but that’s not the only reason why the GTO is currently worth more – say A$2.7m for a standard left-hand drive car in red, compared to not quite A$2.4m for the equivalent F40. Many have raved about the F40 as a driver’s car, but I wonder how many of them had a chance to try this lighter, more comfortable, less showy way to fit your Ferrari V8 with two turbos?
If you think you’d miss the F40’s extra 44kW and 16km/h, maybe you’re missing the point. The 288 was the original; the first in a line of Ferrari hypercars that still runs today – after the F40 came the F50, Enzo and LaFerrari. The GTO is probably the prettiest too. And the least well known? That makes it the coolest of the lot.
BELOW The 308 GTB played the donor car for the 288 GTO, but only its steel doors remain
ABOVE Ferrari coined GTO in 1962 on the 250, with “Gran Touring Omologato” meaning grand touring homologated
MAIN The 288 GTO’s wheelbase was longer than the 308’s but is still shorter than a Ford Fiesta ST’s
ABOVE RIGHT The V8’s cylinder banks each score their own intercooler, intake chamber and exhaust manifold. These paths only merge at the shared wastegate, placed between the IHI turbochargers
OPPOSITE It’s hard to think the 288 GTO is now 36 years old; meanwhile only the 599 has used that suffix since
TOP LEFT Speedline 16-inch alloy wheels came with a centre-lock and the succeeding F40 would echo their design
ABOVE LEFT The transaxle housed its gears behind the rear diff and relied on a twin-plate clutch