There's a kind of golden glow wrapped around the Ferrari 250 GTO. It is the essential Ferrari, the one car that sums up what the company is all about. Its story has acquired a certain romance, even though just 36 of these cars were built in odd lots between 1962 and 1964, an insignificant number over a short period of time. Car enthusiasts everywhere retell the story to themselves over and over again, as if it were some kind of incantation that might make the spirit of Enzo Ferrari walk once again among mortal men.

And yet there's a far more compelling story beneath the romance. If you leave the dirt on the turnip, as the Italians say, you get a deeper appreciation for the way in which the GTO expresses what Ferrari is all about.

As the 1960s began, it was the English sports car manufacturers that forced Enzo Ferrari's hand and led to the creation of the 250 GTO. Although Ferrari is remembered as the leading marque at the 24 Hours of Le Mans during the 1950s, the English teams had won most of the races. Jaguar prevailed with the C-type in 1951 and 1953, and the D-type earned overall honors in 1955, 1956 and 1957. The Aston Martin DBR1 had also outlasted Ferrari's best in 1959, finishing first and second.

So it's no wonder that Enzo Ferrari was more than a little concerned when the Zagato-bodied Aston Martin DB4 GT and the prototype Jaguar XKE were unveiled during the summer of 1960. Earlier that year, the FIA announced that prototype sports cars would no longer be eligible for its World Championship of Manufactur-ers and instead would be replaced by volume-produced sports cars. Ferrari's short-wheelbase (SWB) version of the 250 GT Berlinetta (coupe) had finished fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh at the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans, but the car's future looked problematic in light of the new, sleekly aerodynamic British cars.

And so Enzo Ferrari quietly commissioned a new car himself. The Old Man's design brief was straightforward. The 250 GT SWB's top speed of 156 mph needed dramatic improvement. Trouble was, there could not be so many revisions that the factory would find itself embroiled in a dispute with the FIA about the car's homologation as a production sports car, which technically required production numbers far in excess of the limited number of competition models that Ferrari planned. And, as usual at Ferrari, there was neither money nor resources to do the job properly. Most of Ferrari's engineering capability was required for the new generation of mid-engine Formula One and sports-prototype cars.

As a result, the last factory-engineered, front-engine racing car from Ferrari began as a 1960-vintage 250 GT SWB recycled from the racing team. It was fitted with the latest, dry-sump, six-carburetor, 290-bhp version of Ferrari's dohc 3.0-liter V12 from the Testa Rossa. Then the whole business was shipped off to Pininfarina, where it was done up in the bodywork of a 400 Superamerica with aerodynamics inspired by Pininfarina's Superfast II from the 1960 Turin auto show. Great things were expected from this car when it appeared at the 1961 24 Hours of Le Mans, but drivers Baghetti and Tavano came back ashen-faced after their first few laps. The car's airfoil-shaped bodywork looked scientific, but it kept trying to become an airplane on the long Mulsanne straight.

Enzo Ferrari turned the problem over to the sole authority of Giotto Bizzarrini, the engineer who had tamed the crude 250 GT Berlinetta with steering and suspension revisions in 1957 and then had designed the lightweight SWB version in 1959. Bizzarrini went to work in a tiny area known officially as "Controlli, Collaudie e Sperimentazione." Only Enzo Ferrari, executive Gaetano Florini, Bizzarrini himself and a handful of mechanics were permitted to enter the shop. There were just 2 months before the Coppa Inter Europa, a sports car race held on the Monza circuit on the day before the annual Grand Prix for Formula One cars. It was the most prestigious sports car race in Italy, and the new car was expected to defend the company's honor. Bizzarrini had just five workmen to do the job.

Bizzarrini produced a miracle. First, he made up his mind to build a tin-top Testa Rossa, not just a modified 250 GT SWB. Once again he started with the 3.0-liter V12 from the Testa Rossa, but now he located the powertrain as low and as far back as possible in the proven SWB Berlinetta chassis. This twin-tube ladder frame had been underneath the 250 GT since 1954, complete with the four-link live axle with leaf springs from the 1953 Type 340 Mille Miglia.

When Bizzarrini set about building a body, he first poured over some aerodynamic studies from the University of Pisa's wind tunnel that had been commissioned by Carlo Chiti, Ferrari's chief designer. He also considered the race team's experience with the Testa Rossa TR61. Thanks to the efforts of a panelbeater by the name of Agnani and many high-speed runs on the nearby Milan-Bologna autostrada, a new car slowly evolved.

When Bizzarrini's prototype emerged from its secret shop and began testing for the Coppa Inter Europa, the Italian press was scandalized by its low, protruding nose and high rear deck. They called it La Papera-the Goose. The car didn't compete in the race, and indeed its rough aluminum body was unpainted and marked only by a "T," to designate it as a training car. But Stirling Moss tested it extensively and ultimately ordered one on behalf of his patron, Rob Walker.

When Enzo Ferrari summoned the journalists of the motoring press to Maranello on Feb. 24, 1962, to announce his racing plans for the new season, the 250 GTO was easy to overlook, as the factory courtyard was filled with the company's successor to the mid-engine Formula One car that had won the world championship the year before, plus mid-engine sports prototypes powered by both V6 and V8 engines. Giotto Bizzarrini was not there to see it, however, and neither were chief designer Carlo Chiti, racing manager Romolo Tavoni and virtually all of Ferrari's senior management.

What the Italian newspapers called "The Revolt of the Brains" had turned Ferrari upside-down in November 1961. It began as a simple dispute about the erratic meddling in the affairs of the racing team by Laura Ferrari, still mourning the death of her son Dino in 1956. Then it escalated into an argument about the growing success of the company itself, which had built 441 passenger cars during 1961 and appeared to be on the verge of financial security at last. Enzo Ferrari would tolerate no slight to his authority, even in the name of modern management, and his senior executives all walked away. Most went to begin a new car company bankrolled largely by Count Giovanni Volpi di Misurata, a Venetian industrialist for whom the very GTO on display in the factory courtyard had been intended (and would never be delivered).

The first official entry of the Ferrari 250 GTO in competition took place in March 1962, when Le Mans winners Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien drove one to victory in the Sebring 12 Hours. Yet the car's first competition success really was recorded the month before, as Stirling Moss drove the prototype to victory in the GT class at the International 3 Hours at Daytona International Speedway, the first edition of the track's endurance races. Confusion among the American race officials about the car's status as an Omologato, or homologated version of the venerable 250 GT, led it to be designated as a 250 GTO, and the name has stuck ever since.

Engineering responsibility for the 250 GTO had passed to 26-year-old Mauro Forghieri, later the mastermind of Ferrari's championship Formula One cars of the mid 1970s, and he made some key modifications to the car that calmed its nervousness at high speeds. First, he equipped the car's rear suspension with twin Watts links to the differential to gain more rear suspension stability while cornering. Second, he fitted a small spoiler to the rear bodywork, a crucial aerodynamic device that Richie Ginther, an American driver who had earned Ferrari's respect because of his testing skills, had endorsed during the course of testing the mid-engine 246SP sports-prototype the previous summer. From then on, the Ferrari 250 GTO became famous for its sweet four-wheel drifts.

The Ferrari 250 GTO's success in competition came easily, and the car quickly earned its current reputation as the most successful racing Ferrari ever. The list of drivers with GTO credentials includes virtually every famous professional driver of the 1960s, including A.J. Foyt Jr., Dan Gurney, Graham Hill, Phil Hill, Innes Ireland, Stirling Moss, Mike Parkes, Roger Penske and Jackie Stewart. It was really meant for gentleman drivers, however, and Jean Noblet was its most famous exponent with his GT-class victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

As it turned out, the threat from the Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato and Jaguar XKE lightweight coupe was fitful at best, as the English companies lacked the financial backing to sustain a prolonged racing effort. The Ferrari 250 GTO's greatest rival proved to be Carroll Shelby's Cobra. It was Enzo Ferrari against whom Carroll Shelby measured himself, and the story of Shelby's successful rise to the winning of the FIA's sports car world championship in 1965 is the story of beating the Ferrari GTO. The struggle of these two men and their car companies still defines American sports car racing some 40 years after the fact.

Oddly enough, the Ferrari 250 GTO literally helped invent the legendary Ford sports car racing effort of the 1960s. The story began in February 1963, when Enzo Ferrari let the Ford Motor Company know that he would be happy to sell his complete operation for the sum of $18 million. Discussions quickly began, and Ferrari agreed in principal to an arrangement where he would transfer the company to Ford for $10 million while retaining the right to race its cars under the Ferrari banner. But, as Ford's lawyers looked into Ferrari's books, the Old Man grew resentful and the deal finally unraveled on May 21, 1963, shortly before another watershed in Ford's racing history, the 1963 Indy 500, where a Ford-powered Lotus 29 finished second. Within 48 hours after Ford received the news of Ferrari's withdrawal from the agreement, Lee Iaccoca had prepared a plan to dominate world championship sports car racing with Ford's own models, and the Ford GT40 was born.

The Ferrari 250 GTO's influence in world-class sports car racing rapidly declined after 1965, when the rules regarding production sports cars became even more vague, and purebred mid-engine racing cars arrived on the scene. By that time, the GTO had itself evolved into a number of variants. A total of 36 250 GTOs were built. Three of these cars were constructed in 1964 with the sleek Pininfarina-designed Series II bodywork inspired by the mid-engine 250LM, while four of the Series I cars were re-bodied in similar style. Three 330 GTOs with 400-bhp, 4.0-liter V12 engines also were built in 1963 to compete for overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

It's fashionable today to think that the Ferrari 250 GTO became a bargain-priced cast-off when its competition days ended in the mid 1960s, as if any of us might have reaped the financial rewards of investing in one had we only been prescient enough. But the reality is, the GTO never lost its value the way that the Cobra, Corvette and Jaguar racing cars of that era did. You have only to read the ownership data for each individual car (information now lovingly collected by current GTO enthusiasts) to see that the car has always attracted the most famous and discriminating sportsman. The only "barn-find" GTO ever recorded is chassis #3589, which was purchased by Tom O'Connor for Team Rosebud, a Texas racing outfit. The car's engine was removed and installed in a mid-engine Lotus 19 sports-racer, but the experiment ended when Innes Ireland crashed the car. Team Rosebud subsequently disposed of all of its racing cars by donating them to an auto shop program at a local high school (presumably as a tax write-off), where the GTO sat from 1964 until 1972 before being purchased and restored.

In truth, the Ferrari 250 GTO never lost its aura. When the GTO's 20th anniversary was observed in France in 1982 by a group of European enthusiasts, it signaled the car's stature as the foremost automotive collectible in the world. A Ferrari 250 GTO set the record for the highest price ever paid at auction for a car at $17 million in 1989 during the Ferrari mania that followed the death of Enzo Ferrari.

The Ferrari 250 GTO still determines the corporate strategy of Ferrari. In the GTO's history, we can see the gradual evolution of an automobile into something like a four-wheel Faberg egg, a jewel of artistic collectibility that has a value which far exceeds simple utility. The GTO has style, history and rarity, the three essentials in the art world. Ever since the creation of the 1984 Ferrari 288 GTO, its production limited to 272 examples (each now valued at $250,000), Ferrari has tried to recapture the allure of the 250 GTO by artificially managing the scarcity of certain models in order to enhance their value to the company. Although the 1987 F40's production numbers soared to 1,315 examples (each now valued at about $350,000) when the factory's greed overcame its propriety, the 1995 F50's production was successfully suppressed to just 349 examples (each now valued at about $700,000). The forthcoming introduction of the $670,000 Enzo Ferrari, with production limited to 349 cars, follows the same pattern.

The truth is, every supercar of the last 20 years, from the McLaren F1 to the Porsche Carrera GT, owes its existence to the Ferrari 250 GTO. Not bad for what is really, when all is said and done, just an Italian hot rod developed in a rush by men who were simply searching for a little more speed.

Ferrari 250 GTOEngine: Front-mounted, water-cooled, V12, sohc, 24 valvesInduction: Six Weber two-barrel carburetorsDisplacement: 2953ccPower: 290 hp @ 7400 rpmTorque: 253 lb-ft @ 5500 rpmTransmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel driveBrakes: Front and rear discs, no servoSteering: Worm & rollerSuspension, front: Independent, unequal-length A-arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll barSuspension, rear: live axle, four trailing arms, leaf springs, Watts linkageWeight: 2,400 lbTop speed: 165 mph0-to-60 mph: 5.9 sec.Price (ca 1962): $16,000Value (ca 2002): $7.5M - $9.0M

Sources* "Ferrari 250 GTO," by Keith Bluemel with Jess G. Pourret, Bay View Books, 1998* "Rosso Cina, The Color of Passion," by Michael Jordan, Automobile Quarterly, Vol 26, No. 2, 1988* "Ford: The Dust and the Glory," by Leo Levine, republished by the SAE, 2000* "Jaguar, Sports Racing & Works Competition Cars From 1954," Haynes, 1987* "The Cobra-Ferrari Wars, 1963-1965," by Michael L. Shoen, 1988

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