Fer­rari 250 GT Lusso

We re­cap­ture the heady days of mid-six­ties Rome by us­ing this Fer­rari 250 GT Lusso for what it was bought for – to be driven

Classic Cars (UK) - - Welcome - Words RUSS SMITH Pho­tog­ra­phy JONATHAN FLEET­WOOD

The car sits idling gen­tly in a non­de­script Buck­ing­hamshire trad­ing es­tate. Sur­rounded by the usual col­lec­tion of trucks, trail­ers and four-by-fours, spot­ting it is like a sur­prise en­counter with Joanna Lum­ley in a Rother­ham fish and chip shop. Clad in Gri­gio Fumo – which, typ­i­cally of the Ital­ian lan­guage, sounds like a top de­sign la­bel but sim­ply means ‘smoke grey’ – the Fer­rari 250 GT Ber­linetta Lusso is el­e­gance per­son­i­fied. Even that idle is lit­tle more than a mur­mur, with only the oc­ca­sional stum­ble to hint at the V12 may­hem that waits to be un­leashed.

This is a car with a big price on its head, though it falls well short of the num­bers ap­plied to other Six­ties Fer­raris. Only the truly deca­dent would call a car with a mil­lion-plus price tag a bar­gain, but all things are rel­a­tive. Rel­a­tive in this case refers to the likes of the Lusso’s slightly older and sportier 250 GT SWB brother, one of which would cost you at least five times as much as a Lusso. And don’t get me started on the now £35m-or-more 250 GTO that sold along­side the Lus­sos from 1962-64. Put in that con­text, the 250 GT Lusso looks sus­pi­ciously un­der-val­ued. In the highly scru­ti­nised mar­ket for col­lec­tors’ Fer­raris and their peck­ing or­der, there has to be a well-es­tab­lished rea­son. Is it a bit of a duf­fer, per­haps?

I rather hope that’s not the case. De­spite never hav­ing driven one before, the 250 Lusso has be­come my stock an­swer to the reg­u­larly asked ques­tion, ‘What’s the clas­sic you’d most like to own?’ The last of the 250-se­ries Fer­raris, there’s a pu­rity to the lines of Pin­in­fa­rina’s de­sign that borders on per­fec­tion. The larger and more del­i­cately pil­lared glasshouse than other 250s is what de­liv­ers the Lusso’s vis­ual bal­ance and height of good-taste el­e­gance. This is com­ple­mented by var­i­ous styling risks that shouldn’t work but do. Walk round a Lusso and you won’t find a bad angle to view it from. It al­most doesn’t mat­ter what it drives like, but experience with other V12 Fer­raris told me that was un­likely to be an is­sue.

The first owner of this one cer­tainly ap­peared to en­joy the driv­ing her car. Chas­sis 5783 GT was de­liv­ered new to Maria Da­ma­sio in Rome on 6 July 1964, near the end of the model’s pro­duc­tion run of 350 cars. By the time of its third ser­vice, just two years later, the Lusso had racked up 32,000 kilo­me­tres. That’s daily-driver ter­ri­tory, in the heart of the he­do­nis­tic early Six­ties Rome de­picted in Fed­erico Fellini’s epic film La Dolce Vita, where the bored rich sought shal­low plea­sures while stu­diously wear­ing their sun­glasses at night, and the height of deca­dence was ac­tu­ally not a Fer­rari but a Cadil­lac con­vert­ible ‘the size of an apart­ment’. Fifty years on we can find no trace, but it’s not hard to imag­ine Maria Da­ma­sio as one of the city’s so­cialites who was con­tin­u­ally pur­sued by the pa­parazzi – a term that was ac­tu­ally de­rived from the name of a char­ac­ter in the movie. If so, the Lusso was per­haps the per­fect tool on Rome’s then much-less-crowded roads for evad­ing the hordes of Vespa-mounted pho­tog­ra­phers. We’re un­likely to find any of those on the streets of Amer­sham, but it’s nice to dream, and I don a pair of Ralph Lau­ren shades just in case.

The en­gine is well warmed up now so it’s time to slip – try­ing hard to look like I do it ev­ery day – into the beau­ti­fully leather­trimmed but un­pre­ten­tious low-back bucket seat. This is so of

‘It was the per­fect tool for evad­ing Rome’s Ves­pamounted pa­parazzi’

‘The Colombo V12 is not a torquey mo­tor and point-blank re­fuses to ac­cel­er­ate from less than 2500rpm’

its era and was widely copied (though in vinyl) for sale in Six­ties speed shops. The same goes for the di­a­mond-quilted black cov­er­ing for the rear com­part­ment’s lug­gage area, which fea­tured in any num­ber of hot rods and spe­cials well into the Seventies. Be­ing buck­ets there’s no ad­just­ment for the seat backs, but slid­ing mine a cou­ple of notches for­ward on the run­ners puts me in what feels like a per­fectly tai­lored driv­ing po­si­tion: arms at just the right angle for long-term com­fort and con­trol, ped­als ex­actly where my feet want them, and when my right hand drops to the gear knob it’s on it with­out need­ing to look. Only the odd up­right handbrake is a stretch and lean away be­neath the dash­board. Lean­ing’s easy though, be­cause there’s only a lap-belt fit­ted, pos­si­bly a hang­over from the mid­dle part of this car’s life which was spent in Amer­ica. Get­ting into char­ac­ter, what crosses my mind is that at least the belt won’t crease my jacket, though I must sadly ad­mit that was made in China, not Italy.

A blip of throt­tle brings a small shiver and a grin, then I slip the lever eas­ily into first and head off in search of a tank of

ben­z­ina be­cause the gauge is hov­er­ing close to the zero mark. I’m im­me­di­ately struck by how easy a car this is to drive. The whole leg­end that has grown up around Fer­rari 250s sug­gests they are such highly strung thor­ough­breds that the 250bhp 3.0-litre V12 will need an ex­pe­ri­enced jockey to tame it. Maybe it’s dif­fer­ent at the limit, but at nor­mal road speeds the re­al­ity is that it’s no harder to pi­lot than the Nineties Volvo I drove down in. The big dif­fer­ence is in the qual­ity and amount of tac­tile feed­back you get from the Fer­rari’s con­trols. That and the free-revving en­gine’s en­thu­si­asm that can quickly get you into trou­ble, com­pounded by the large and beau­ti­ful Veglia speedome­ter be­ing in the right hand one of the two large bin­na­cles in the cen­tre of the dash­board, about 45 de­grees from your line of sight and there­fore vir­tu­ally in­vis­i­ble once you do start to pile a bit of speed on. The nearer one con­tains the rev-counter and is barely any more read­able on the move. Enzo was ob­vi­ously more con­cerned that the driver kept an eye on his beloved en­gine’s tem­per­a­tures and oil pres­sure.

Filled up with Su­per, it’s now time for the start­ing ‘event’. Come on, it’s a clas­sic Fer­rari, you’re not go­ing to sim­ply turn a key; there should be a bit of theatre. So the key is turned half­way un­til you hear the faint whirr of the fuel pump, boot the throt­tle pedal to dump some fuel into the in­lets, then push and turn the key the rest of the 180 de­grees to en­gage the starter. The re­sult­ing snarl turns ev­ery head in the busy Shell sta­tion, though truth be told this car is never short of an au­di­ence.

Out of town and onto some empty roads it quickly be­comes clear that al­though the Lusso is happy to pot­ter along at 1500rpm with­out tem­per­a­ment, it’s not a torquey mo­tor and point-blank re­fuses to ac­cel­er­ate from such revs. You have to drop to whichever gear in the four-speed box puts at least 2500rpm on the (also hard to see) dial, and then all those horses can be turned loose. Which is ex­actly how you’d ex­pect to drive a car like this and it pro­duces a heavenly mix of thrust and music from the en­gine. Hav­ing run up like that through the gears just once I know why it ap­pears that this car has never had a stereo fit­ted. Yes, it is a lit­tle noisy, but it’s the a sound you could never tire of, though maybe a fifth gear wouldn’t hurt for fast tour­ing use.

The gearchange it­self is meaty but pre­cise, as is the clutch. I started to feel that in my left thigh af­ter about an hour – it would prob­a­bly be a bit sooner in Rome traf­fic – but it’s no worse than you’d find in other prop­erly fast cars of this era like As­tons or E-types. Some might take a while to adapt to the Fer­rari’s floorhinged ped­als but I have sim­i­lar in my Alfa Spi­der so it felt nor­mal. What I re­ally loved was the sculpted cutouts in the far side of the gear knob, de­signed to fit your two mid­dle fin­gers and make you hold the knob the cor­rect way. It was such a lovely de­tail and felt so right that I im­me­di­ately wanted one for the Alfa. Other than the cutouts it’s just plain black plas­tic, but the per­fect top­ping for the slim chrome stick protrud­ing from the small­est pos­si­ble leather boot. The Lusso’s in­te­rior looks all the more stylish for not hav­ing the tra­di­tional shiny open gate, and that min­i­mal­ist vibe car­ries through the rest of the cabin – sim­ple things done ex­pen­sively, like the finely etched fin­ish on the solid spokes of the black-lined woodrim steer­ing wheel. It’s a work of art on its own and the kind of de­tail a mon­eyed Sig­nora would ap­pre­ci­ate.

Us­ing that wheel is a de­light, too. Even with­out rack-and-pin­ion, Ital­ians are very good at turn­ing out steer­ing sys­tems that are smooth and full of feel, and that’s ex­actly what you get in the Lusso. It’s never heavy, even at crawl­ing speed, and doesn’t kick back over bumpy stuff. It com­bines per­fectly with sus­pen­sion that strikes a fine com­pro­mise be­tween sporty and pli­ant – all the bet­ter to re­main un­ruf­fled on pe­riod Ital­ian roads, which could be far from smooth. There’s noth­ing clever about it – in fact there are still par­al­lel leaf springs at the back – but this was old tech­nol­ogy that en­gi­neers knew how to get the best out of. I fol­low a mod­ern BMW 5 Se­ries for a while and it’s pick­ing its way slowly over speed bumps and pot­holes that the Fer­rari barely reg­is­ters.

When I do try push­ing things a bit on some quiet twisties the Lusso re­mains com­posed and pre­dictable. The pho­tos later show that it lists a bit in a tight turn but it never feels like that from be­hind the wheel. And even though once up in the power band it snaps into ac­tion with the slight­est throt­tle press, ea­ger to leap for­ward, and the grip is well matched to the power on of­fer. The all-disc brakes are sim­i­larly re­as­sur­ing. Of course on this age of car you don’t get the largest discs and calipers but it’s also not a heavy car and I’d put its stop­ping abil­ity on par – again – with my Alfa Romeo.

It does take a while to get used to the absence of out­side mir­rors, but they would spoil those clean lines a lit­tle and it’s

‘It must have been quite a sight in mid-six­ties Rome, when Al­i­talia air­planes still had pro­pel­lers’

com­mon to see Lus­sos with­out them. The other odd­ity is the row of seven switches spread across the un­der­side of the dash­board for all the minor con­trols. From a prac­ti­cal point of view it’s plain daft – they point down and even if there are la­bels on their faces you can’t see them from the driver’s seat. For a first drive it’s awk­ward – I never do find the light switch – but you’d learn them over time, and it does so suit the clean, min­i­mal style of the in­te­rior.

Feel­ing cheeky I try the high-end De Vere Ho­tel at Che­sham for a break and back­drop. Turns out they are clas­sic friendly – their cor­po­rate-logo’d Minor Trav­eller is sit­ting by the front steps – and are pleased to see the Fer­rari. It has that su­per­model ef­fect on ev­ery­one and one De Vere boss, who stops by on the way to his brand-new Range Rover, gets so ex­cited that for a mo­ment I think we have a cus­tomer.

I take some time to drink in some more de­tails, like the clean Kamm tail that car­ries the large round tail-lights that have re­mained a Fer­rari trade­mark to this day – this was the first model on which they were used.

Then there’s the ge­nius of Pin­in­fa­rina’s de­sign games. No-one in their right minds would think of fit­ting a car with a front bumper that’s only the width of the grille, then putting ‘over-rid­ers’ on each wing be­neath the side­lamps. Yet some­how it works and it’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine the Lusso any other way.

This is also one of few cars that has been styled and fin­ished all the way un­der­neath, be­yond the vis­i­bil­ity point. Look at most cars from ground level and you see seams, rusty jack­ing points and other un­tidy res­o­lu­tions, but not here.

I hit some traf­fic on the way back, and once again the Lusso takes it all in its stride. It gets hot but not too hot, and doesn’t get cranky with it. A dual-car­riage­way blast quickly set­tles all the gauges back to nor­mal lev­els, and re­stores the grin to my face that’s been there for most of the day. I’ve met one of my heroes and not been dis­ap­pointed in any way I couldn’t eas­ily for­give. I can also now make a di­rect con­sid­ered com­par­i­son be­tween the 250 Lusso and the five-times-as-ex­pen­sive 250 SWB I drove pre­vi­ously. Even if they were of equal value, the Lusso is the car I wish I could be bid­ding on at the RM Sotheby’s auc­tion in Septem­ber. It’s no won­der Sig­nora Da­ma­sio en­joyed it to the full. It must have been quite a sight – and cer­tainly a rare one – in mid-six­ties Rome when Al­i­talia planes still had pro­pel­lers and a TR3A could still be a cool man-about-town’s car.

To sum up, this isn’t a Fer­rari that daz­zles with num­bers. It doesn’t do any­thing bet­ter than its sta­ble­mates but the sum of its parts and Pin­in­fa­rina styling mas­tery add up to what I be­lieve is the most com­plete, de­sir­able and us­able clas­sic car there is. For me, at least. The 250 Lusso re­ally does de­liver The Sweet Life (La

Dolce Vita). But it has aged im­mea­sur­ably bet­ter than Fellini’s film. With thanks to RM Sotheby’s, which will auc­tion this car in Maranello in Septem­ber, Torque Agency Group and DK Engi­neer­ing.

Lux­ury, in the form of exquisitely crafted sim­plic­ity

A rear end that’s still spark­ing de­sign trends 60 years later

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