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


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


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


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

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