The best car makers reserve a special model name for what they consider their most significant cars. Names like Carrera GT, Silver Ghost, SSK and Ghibli need no further description to those in the know. But what many say is the greatest name of all, GTO, was invented by Ferrari and has been used by them sparingly, almost lovingly, over the years; and always reserved for its most exciting, most dramatic cars.
The first time the GTO name was introduced on a Ferrari was in 1962. These cars - 250 GTOs - were dual-purpose GTs – equally at home on the street as they were in wheel-to-wheel competition. Interestingly, they were “homologated” – a term that means approved by the sanctioning body - by slight of hand chassis numbering tricks as only Enzo Ferrari could envision since the volume built never reached 100 cars as required in the FIA rules. So while the “O” in GTO signifies Omologato, i.e., Italian for homologated, it could also mean “The joke’s on you or more likely, I got your rules right here pal!” But on the track, they were no joke. In fact, they were so powerful and reliable that they won the over 2 liter Manufacturer’s Championship three years in a row.
Leap ahead to 1984 when, once again, Ferrari decided to build cars to compete in a specific race series – the newly announced “Group B”. However, since only Porsche with its 959 and Ferrari with the 288 GTO built the required number of cars for “homologation”, the joke this time was on them since the series quickly went bust. As you now know, the letters GTO means Grand Touring Omologato, but the number – 288 – was picked for the car’s 2.8 Liter, 8-cylinder motor.
So, while the raison d’être for the car ended prematurely when the series was canceled, both Porsche and Ferrari lucked out on the sales side since these two were also true road cars that just happened to have astonishing performance on the track. And, as we know now, all were sold and have since earned their place as some of the most desirable modern cars in the world.
I first met an owner of a Ferrari 288 GTO at a small street concours in a suburban New York town when he was showing his 288 GTO (SN: 58137) and I immediately made a pest of myself and asking a bunch of questions about his rare car. To my surprise, he generously invited me to his home, sharing what you will find to be a fascinating story.
“My passions for the longest times have been food, wine and cars…” That’s the way my conversation with Chuck Schoendorf, owner of the Ferrari 288 GTO sitting below us in his garage, started. We were chatting over a cup of expertly brewed espresso in his kitchen and I can’t tell if it’s the jolt from caffeine or anticipation of my first ride in this true supercar that has my nerves jangling. I try to concentrate as he explains how on a food and wine trip to Italy, ten years ago, he discovered the magic of Ferrari. One of the tour’s “free” days came in Emilia-Romagna – the region in Italy where Maranello is located. Chuck said that while this particular day was left open for individual exploring, the tour operators had arranged three potential options for the group: Visit old churches. Visit the old city center in Modena or visit the Ferrari Factory. Although he did not own any special cars at that time, he said, “Well,’ clapping his hands together, “it was no question!” Then he added, “Before I went over, I knew this in advance that [the factory tour] was an option; I signed up for [it], as did about a third of the group.” To get ready for this possibly once in a lifetime experience, he eagerly did his Ferrari homework, saying, “And so I got out my books on Ferraris. I had never owned one…never driven one. But I had some books that I had acquired over the years and [I also had] decades worth of magazines. So I pulled them out and started looking at the different models and read up a bit.”
So after having read about Ferrari’s long history and its many models, he was in the proper frame of mind for the in-person experience of walking the factory floor, meeting the workers and absorbing the essence of Ferrari. Chuck recalled, “When I got over there, we take the tour of the factory and it’s extremely impressive. To see them hand building these cars, and then the motor shop, [the workers] test driving them, just the whole atmosphere.” And as almost always happens with visitors to Maranello, his group made one more important stop. He said, “And then the last thing we do is go to the Galleria, which is their museum.” Here, I can see his body language change as he adds, “And sitting there in the Galleria was a 288 GTO. Now I had read about them when they came out back in ’84, ’85…anyway, I get over there, see one for the first time and that’s it. Blown away! I’ve got to, when I get home, find one and try to buy one.”
When he returned, he started his search by reading the Sunday NY Times classified ads, surprisingly, Chuck said, back in the day, a decent resource for the prospective car buyer. He said, “So I see a 288 GTO advertized at Miller Motor Cars [in Greenwich, Connecticut] and I call them up on Monday.” Smiling, he says, Ha, the car’s gone; it’s sold!” But unexpectedly, a week later, a 288 GTO surfaces at Wide World of Cars – a NY dealer close to his home. And when he goes to see it, it turns out that it’s the same car from Miller Motor Cars. He said, “They acquired it from Miller to resell it.” As he says that, he puts down his espresso cup and leans forward, saying, “So I run over there to look at the car and” now for the first time all day, he’s speaking faster, “it’s magnificent. Every car in their showroom looks immaculate. Detailed to the hilt. And this car is stunning. And appears to need nothing.” Settling back, he continues, “So I look at the car; drive the car. And this is the first Ferrari I have ever driven. And it’s a 400 horsepower twin turbo 288 GTO. So I managed to drive it OK but I’m not ready to pull the trigger. I want to look at another one.” As luck would have it, he found another one at the shop of another person famous for his Ferrari knowledge - Dick Fritz’s shop – he of Amerispec fame. However, he said the car wasn’t running at the time and for various reasons, didn’t look to his eyes, as perfect as the car at Wide World. Chuck said, “Long story short, I buy the car at Wide World.” The car was so good, and he was so taken with the whole driving experience, that 2 weeks later he went back and bought a 355 Coupe just so he would have, his words, “a less precious Ferrari to drive on the street.” Recalling the purchase process he said his salesman told him he was doing the process in reverse. He said most people buy a Ferrari and then go to Maranello. “In my case, I went to Maranello first. Was blown away; then looked for a car.” Smiling, he added, “And then he complimented me on my discriminating taste to start with a 288 GTO…” Laughing he added, “…pure salesman!”
I am happy to report that Chuck is not just a Ferrari owner. He is a Ferrari driver. Despite his busy work schedule, the constantly appreciating value of the car and its ready-for-concours condition, he makes sure that he finds time to drive it every month. “I’ve had the car for 10 years. It’s been phenomenal.” He said, “I try to drive it as often as possible…two or three times a month, year round. Weather permitting.” But this isn’t just Chuck having fun with one of his toys. There is a practical side as well. He explained, “My philosophy being, if anything is going to go wrong with the car, I would rather find out sooner than later.” Adding, “I want to stay on top of the car. I think it’s better to heat cycle the car. You know, the oil, the water...brakes. [Mainly] run the thing.” And his approach must be working because he says that he has only had very few issues in ten years. One was a cracked windshield - something that just appeared after returning from a concours. He said, “I get home. Not more than ten or twelve miles from the show and I see a crack in the windshield…and I hit nothing. It just happened.” Since Ferrari made fewer than 300 of these cars, the unique replacement turned into a little longer search. “I think it took the repair shop close to a year to find the correct windshield.”
While I think I know the answer, I asked Chuck if his 288 GTO was all he expected? He smiled and said, “Driving it is an utter blast! The power is amazing in that thing.” Fortunately, Chuck lives in eastern Connecticut, a part of the world blessed with quite a few good two-lane twisty bits. “Around here,” he said, “I go up to the Merritt parkway and back.” The “Merritt” is a curve filled, tree lined road with lots of elevation changes and some serious corners if you’re trying to go quickly. For the crowded North East, it’s a sports car lover’s dream road. He said, “I try not to drive [the 288 GTO] to a destination other than a car show…not to the office or to go shopping.” Laughing, he said, “These runs are for the car. [Just] sitting is the worst thing in the world, I think, for a car”
And when it comes to scheduling these Ferrari rides, Chuck is a man with a plan. He admitted that he keeps a watchful eye on the weather and when the planets align, he adds a possible ride to his calendar. He said, “It’s on my to-do list. [I write], tomorrow’s looking like a 288 Day…” But even on one of his fun rides, he has a protocol he follows to help protect his investment. He said, “I look at the gauges to make sure the oil warms up.” He paused and then added more details on how he ensures his engine doesn’t experience any premature wear on a run. “Low RPMs until the water temperature gets up. Medium RPM until I see motion in the oil temperature. And then…go!”
And “Go” he does… He smiled broadly when he admitted, “What’s really amazing about driving the car is when you’re on the highway and you decide you have an opening here and you squeeze on the throttle on the car and the boost gauge flies over to the right…the car takes off.” Adding (and still smiling), “Other cars just disappear in your mirrors – any gear, it doesn’t matter. The range of the motor is so vast.” But he did want me to know that all of that power isn’t binary. He said, “…It can be very docile to drive too because the turbos aren’t on all the time.”
When the 288 GTO was shown to the world at the Geneva Salon in March of 1984, it was, literally, in a class by itself. The only car with a similar performance envelope was Porsche’s 959. Some say, with the introduction of the 288 GTO, Ferrari helped coin the term “super car.” It also happens to be the lowest production number of any of Ferrari’s super cars. The homologation rules only dictated that they build 200, but demand was so great that in 1985 they filled orders for several more cars, topping out at 272 to 274 built (depending on who you choose to believe). Chuck’s car is number 258 – very close to the last one made. For reference, they made around 1,300 F40s. That explains why you probably see more of them at shows and at the track than 288 GTOs. And, yes, the literature says that they were all painted red.
In 1985, even the best sports car makers in the world were struggling to produce cars with 250HP or ones that could top 150 MPH – e.g., Ferrari’s own Mondial was rated at 240Bhp with a max speed of 139MPH. So when the 288 GTO was test driven, it had journalists tripping over their typewriters and digging into a Thesaurus for superlatives. Road tests at the time gave performance figures that were eye popping for its day and darn good even by today’s standards. Top speed was posted as a “measured in Maranello” 189 MPH. Its zero to sixty time was in the low 5-second, high 4-second range. 100 MPH was reached in about 11 seconds and the quarter mile went by in a tiny fraction over 14 seconds. The 0-80 stopping distance was recorded as a mind-blowing 240 feet. Again, very respectable stats now but quite unheard of back then. And remember, these road tests were done on mid 1980’s rubber with no traction control or electronic nannies, other than the driver’s right foot, to help out! The car originally came shod with Goodyear Eagle, 225/50VR 16’s up front and 265/50VR 16’s out back. These were mounted on 8-inch wide front and 10-inch wide rear, “modular” cast alloy wheels. I imagine that all of the magazine’s performance numbers would improve if modern, lower profile “R” compound tires were fitted today – hey, if someone is willing to risk their precious ride to try to rewrite the record books, give Forza a call!
All in all, the Ferrari 288 GTO is one of the most important sports cars ever built and the first in the line that continued with the F40, F50, the Enzo and LaFerrari. It is light weight (listed as 2,555 lbs), powerful (400 Bhp, 366 lb-ft of torque) and drop dead sexy. Unlike a lot of today’s designs, cars that owe their shape more to the dictates of the wind tunnel than a talented designer’s eye, the 288 GTO is exciting from every angle. And while this Pininfarina design actually did spend time in the wind tunnel, there are no bad lines on its fiberglass, Kevlar composite, steel and aluminum, tube frame flanks. It’s just beautiful. Period.
On the inside, its luxury touches belie its racecar underpinnings. The seats, clad in Italian leather, are supremely comfortable (even for my ample dimensions). There is a proper GT interior with electric window lifts, a Blaupunkt, AM/FM cassette radio with door-mounted speakers labeled “Ferrari GTO” – the bomb in 1985 - and it even has pretty good air conditioning.
Down the road, it has a stiff but not jarring ride and is surprisingly quiet (but thankfully not too quiet). Wind noise is minimal and road noise over the smooth asphalt we drove was never intrusive. The engine still manages to sing Italian opera as the revs climb, despite being muffled slightly by the twin IHI turbos. And yes, it is fast – capable of pinning you in your seat in just about any of its slick-shifting 5 gears. This performance comes from the dream-like combination of a lightweight chassis and 400 twin-turbo charged Italian ponies always eager at your right foot. And despite the age of the design, it goes, stops and handles like it just rolled off the showroom floor. Close your eyes and you would think you are being driven in a Ferrari made yesterday. In person, the 288 GTO still looks fresh in its “probable cause red” paint and it still turns heads. Especially when Chuck and I blast by those heads at full chat! Now, pardon me while I reprogram the GPS for the Merritt parkway.