Ferrari 288GTO Driven

The ignition key is tiny, with a black grip worn by the passage of time. The door key plain metal and even smaller. I scoop them up and walk towards it, bright red paint shining in the sunlight as only a Ferrari can wear, chisel edged front spoiler like a blade at shin height, four driving lights recessed deep below that. Beyond the curve of the front wings and the jet fighter-like rake of the windscreen, there are those iconic door mirrors, up high on stalks to give the driver a view rearwards over the top of the rear arches. Utterly gorgeous, Pininfarina was having a good day at the office when he drew this.

Open the door, again a tiny handle almost too delicate, I slide down over the vented rivets in the seat back.

No matter how many cars you may have driven in your career, or how fast they may have been, you cannot help feeling your pulse quicken as you slide the key into the ignition of a 288GTO. Sit and look out beyond the instruments, two red front wings are in your peripheral vision, but the main view out is directly to the road ahead, the front panel dropping steeply away.

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Glance left, take in that door mirror. You can’t help but smile. Right hand drops to the gearshift, clack, clack in the gate to check for neutral. Twist the key. High pressure fuel pumps whirr behind you, tiny lights in the dials illuminate. Twist again, push the button, high pitched Ferrari starter whine, then a grumpy bark into life.

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There’s a ‘thrum’ of feeling in your back as it comes to life, the still open door letting in a whiff of fuel and the sound of a cold V8, very akin to the urgent, uneven, fast-idle of a seventies F1 car when cold. Close the door, seatbelt on. Across and back for first, clutch not especially heavy, though the steering is quite weighty and the wheel has that 308-like shallow angle to it.

Move off and the revs climb grumpily, plugs fighting to stay un-fouled. Try for second, feel resistance and then remember those ’80’s test reports about cold Ferrari gearboxes and take third instead. Cruise grumpily through the town and watch the temps climb. Open road ahead and now we’re allowed second as the gear oil thins.

Squeeze… Smooth, linear throttle response and as the engine clears it’s throat, beyond 3,000 and now there’s a whistle and a distinct shove from behind. Shift to third, making a mental note to speed up the shift next time and stop pussying about.

There’s a combination of hard edged, yet super smooth, V8 from behind and a stronger whistle from the tiny Japanese IHI turbos. Across the gate for fourth and mean it this time, as I recall that the faster and more positively you move the lever, the better 1980’s Ferraris shift. Clack. Much better.

Open, sweeping bend ahead as we surge across the North Yorkshire Moors, setting up on the opposite side of the road, turning in and feeding in throttle. The chassis is soaking up mid corner bumps in a way no 1980’s car I’ve ever driven. Soft and compliant, yet with little body roll, staying on line, then surging out with virtually no turbo lag and a lovely, crisp bark, seemingly wanting to rev forever, with no sign of the power tailing off. Down a long straight, take fifth, a glance down at the speed and a moments thought of “Better not be caught….” and a glance into the high mirrors, before squeezing brake for the next bend, heel toe down the box, clack, clack from the gearshift, roll in, pick up the throttle and onwards out of the bend, the grey road surface seeming to disappear directly beneath my feet, such is the view between those red front wings.

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Destination ahead, I slow, flick the tiny, delicate indicator and crunch slowly onto the gravel of the parking area. Open the door as the engine idles to let the turbos cool, there’s a honey sweet smell of emissions and hot oil wafting in, the engine now fully warmed and crisp in it’s responses.

A few more seconds, then switch off. I notice that there are hairs on my arms and neck standing on end, goosebumps appearing, almost a lump in my throat.

I drive a great many cars in my line of work and it’s been many years since I’ve had that emotional feeling. For decades, I’ve wanted to drive a 288GTO, never thought it might happen, indeed sometimes thought that perhaps it’s for the best, then I’ll never be disappointed. But I’m not. The completeness of the engine package, the suspension, the surprisingly good ride quality, that pin-sharp turn in for bends and the quite remarkable lack of turbo lag from a 1980’s engine leave you buzzing inside.

It simply doesn’t feel like a twenty five year old design. I sit, soaking in the patina, the chrome gear gate, the beautifully finished toggle switches and alloy name tags.

I thought comes into my head, “If I die now, then that might just be OK….”

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Time to head back. High pitched starter whine, the idle now smooth. Close the door, across and back, the shift now quick and seamless, I turn around, blessed with an unaccountably empty Yorkshire A road stretching into the distance as the gears click home, the dashed white centre line on the road moving from side to side, using both sides of the road across the open moorland, the odd glance into those mirrors, just in case.

Chianti this evening, I think, with a thin crust pizza and some olives. Then I’ll search online for some purple ink for my fountain pen..

Thanks to everyone at Specialist Cars, Malton, as ever, for the car keys and sausages.

Words and photography copyright Neill Watson

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Author: Neill Watson

If you love the sound of the Cosworth V8 as much as the V12 Merlin, the smell of Jet A1 as much as Castrol R and admire the late Ray Hanna as much as Sir Stirling, you’ll find you’re both on the same page. Neill's love of art deco buildings means that his ideal home would be a brilliant white, 1930′s control tower in Southern France, with crisply mown grass, biplane parked on the driveway and a Ferrari 288GTO in the garage. This is something that those around him tolerate, though it does concern them from time to time.

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