Objective reporting can only carry you so far when it comes to a car like the Ferrari 250 GT SWB Berlinetta Competizione. But as it’s one of the most venerated and valuable cars of the late 1950s and early ’60s, it’s hard to do anything else. Calm, rational analysis is near impossible, not least because of the considerable difficulty in persuading somebody to lend you one.
The faster and prettier versions of the Ferrari 250 sit right at the top of the automotive pantheon. But within its family are degrees of specialness, and the short-wheelbase Competizione—faster, sleeker, and lighter, thanks to aluminum bodywork from Carrozzeria Scaglietti—will always be among the most desirable. It’s not quite at the level of the 1962 to ’64 250 GTOs that billionaires fight over—one of which sold for $70 million in 2018. But to land a good original example of one of the 74 aluminum-bodied GT SWBs, you’ll still need a budget that runs into eight figures.
Which is why you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the car pictured here isn’t a genuine GT SWB Berlinetta Competizione. This is a near-perfect recreation, built by GTO Engineering in the United Kingdom with almost every detail correct except the provenance that wins big concours prizes. It has been given some non-standard updates and modifications, but only ones that most of the supreme originals have acquired over their long, interesting lives.
GTO Engineering’s managing director, Mark Lyon, knows plenty about such alterations and also the fine line that divides the heirloom-grade period cars from the replicas. His company frequently works on early 250s alongside its recreations such as this one. Most originals now have replacement engines, especially those that race, with original V-12s carefully preserved elsewhere. “You’d be a little mad not to,” Lyon said, “as one catastrophic failure is going to take 25 percent off the value of a numbers-matching car.”
GTO’s Revival cars are designed to be driven and used. They take the legal identity of what are normally basket-case Ferraris from the same period, most often 330s or 365s, and are then rebuilt with a new chassis, bodywork, and a fresh V-12 engine. In the case of the GT SWB, that means hand-formed aluminum bodywork, with the big change being an effectively invisible one: GTO Engineering rolls the panels rather than hammer-beating them as Scagletti’s craftsmen did.
Buyers can opt for a variety of non-period modifications. Air conditioning is a popular upgrade for those planning long road trips, as are bespoke audio systems for those who don’t regard the sounds made by a high-revving V-12 as sufficiently entertaining. Yet it is also possible to specify a car to be effectively identical to an original and for a sizeable discount. This will be the only time a car with a roughly $1-million starting price gets described as a bargain.
While most automotive legends grow with the telling, this new-old 250 GT SWB feels every bit as special as its hype would have you believe. The GT Competizione employed a 3.0-liter version of Ferrari’s Colombo V-12, one that made around 240 horsepower. Adjusted for technological inflation, that’s about 1000 horses in 2020 terms. GTO Engineering builds a new-old V-12 for each Revival, which they say takes 300 man-hours apiece, with displacement options of 3.0, 3.5, or 4.0 liters. The buyer of the car we borrowed specified a 3.5-liter engine—a popular and permitted upgrade in some historic racing categories—which bumps the output to 315 horses. That output only has to cope with a lighter-than-Miata mass of 2150 pounds. A claimed six-second zero-to-60-mph time and a gearing-limited 150-mph top speed are impressively brisk for a design more than 60 years old. While it might not be any quicker than a modern hot hatchback, we are entirely certain that nothing sounds as good as a hard-working 250 GT.
Ferrari’s old V-12 is special in a way that modern engines just aren’t. The idle is loud and lumpy, with even the gentlest throttle input sending the revs soaring. Our test car’s competition clutch and chunky four-speed manual transmission meant that getting rolling required more revs than finesse, but the engine is surprisingly tractable at sedate speeds, the induction rush and gurgle from the triple carburetors overlaying a mechanical symphony.
But gentle use is not the point of a car like this. Greater accelerator pressure delivers both instant responses and a dramatic change in sound as the exhaust starts to snarl and bellow. It doesn’t wail like modern Ferraris; the sound is rorty and angrier and utterly compelling. The fury of its top end was savage enough to have us doubting the numbers on the tachometer. Shifting up at 6000 rpm felt daring, and it took most of the half day we spent driving the car to build up to the indicated 7400-rpm redline.
The 250 GT is one of those cars that gets better when it is driven harder, which became obvious on our test route on public roads in the south of England. The long-throw shifter of the four-speed manual becomes more accurate when moved firmly and decisively. The four-wheel disc brakes—a first for Ferrari at the time—feel mushy under gentle use but turn solid and forceful when you stand on the pedal. And the Avon tires—impossibly tall and narrow compared to the low-profile rubber of modern supercars—seem happiest at the edge of their adhesion.
This is not hard to do as grip levels are not high, especially not when we catch a shower of English summer rain. The car we drove had been given a quicker 17:1 unassisted steering rack—another popular modification on original cars—which delivers both impressively quick responses and unambiguous feedback when the front axle runs short on grip. Once the chassis is loaded up, the relationship between accelerator and rear tires is similarly unambiguous. The GT can be powered to the breakaway point of traction, or even slightly beyond it, with ridiculous ease for something so expensive and exotic. We now know why the racing examples were so often photographed in opposite lock with grinning drivers.
As you might expect, driving in the real world does bring some issues. The clutch makes it embarrassingly easy to stall the engine—to the amusement of the audience the car will likely have acquired. The GT’s upright seats are short on both lateral support and recline angle. Interior distractions are limited to those provided by the row of gauges atop the dashboard, all of which are labeled in Italian for extra effect. Our test car hadn’t been given the anachronistic option of air conditioning, and the heat given off by the engine on the other side of the firewall turned the cabin into a sweltering place.
Replica cars are never going to be taken as seriously as those they copy, and that is especially true when it comes to Ferraris. Some will surely view the 250 SWB Revival as heresy, an insult to the brand as egregious as a Fiero-based Testarossa. Yet, barring its price and its lack of qualifications to enter some of the snootier historic racing series, this really does feel like the real thing. If only all tribute acts were this good.
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