Always Meet Your Heroes: Driving A Ferrari 250 SWB Is To Touch Greatness
It was the Ferrari F355 that I awarded the most prominent place on my bedroom wall. Below it, a 1:18 scale Ferrari F50 in silver is the model I remember most clearly, with the GTO and Testa Rossa members of the 250 family a close second and third. In the attic upstairs, tucked away after a house move years earlier and relegated to a cardboard box with ‘Scalextric’ scrawled on its side in black marker pen, sat a Ferrari 250 GT Short Wheelbase.
Looking back now, I hadn’t given the SWB the attention it deserved. Likely bought by my father one weekend at a toy fair held in a local sports hall, and paired with an Aston Martin DB4 of a similar vintage, I had little more than a grasp on the 1/32nd-scale Ferrari’s elevated value. A vague appreciation that the 250 and Aston – and many others, it must be said – were already decades old, delicate and to be treated with care.
That was fine by me. I much preferred racing my contemporary red Ferrari F50, orange McLaren F1 LM and Gulf liveried Ford GT40, their magnets plucked out with a screwdriver thus allowing their rear-wheel-drive chassis to slide gratuitously around every corner.
Two decades later, and I have very different feelings towards that disregarded 250 SWB. If only as a young boy I had recognized the importance of the Short Wheelbase, known more about Enzo Ferrari, understood the magic of the Colombo V12 under the hood and appreciated the car’s many successes at the hands of Graham Hill and Stirling Moss.
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I thought about my lack of appreciation for that car as I drove west out of London one October morning in 2020, heading for GTO Engineering. This was my second visit to the British Ferrari specialist in as many months, having recently driven their sensational 250 SWB Revival, a newly-built, so-called ‘toolroom copy’. Identical to an original SWB (save for the price and the fact this one was built in England and not Italy), on a sweltering hot afternoon the gleaming red Revival, complete with Modena number plates, made for one of the greatest drives of my life.
Today’s drive wouldn’t be as long, as quick, or quite so technically impressive, but it would be hugely more significant.
I had been invited to drive a freshly restored Ferrari 250 Lusso – an honor in itself – but a day before I was asked, since there also happened to be a 250 SWB in the workshop, if I’d perhaps like to drive that instead?
I needn’t have fretted too much over which to choose, as on arrival I saw both cars being warmed up on the GTO Engineering driveway. No other journalist would be driving these today. This was all for me, a pair of classic 250s worth a combined £7m.
First, journalistic duties beckoned and I sat down to interview Mark Lyon, the founder and managing director of GTO Engineering. Lyon talked me through the history of each car, how they had been restored, and how discovering classic ‘barn-find’ Ferraris through the Eighties and Nineties was like unearthing lost treasure. I thought back to my similarly unloved Scalextric SWB, gathering dust in an attic somewhere, the young custodian unaware of its appreciating value.
Interview complete and details of GTO Engineering’s upcoming Squalo shared, it was time to go for a drive. I opted for the Lusso first, given it is the easier of the two to drive – Lusso meaning luxury in Italian. I wrote more about that car here, but to quickly surmise, it was an exquisite thing. Controls as tight as a drum, V12 engine revving beautifully, adequate performance, and easy to drive. Photoshoot complete – including several noisy three-point-turns in someone’s driveway, sorry about that – it was time to return to base and fire up the SWB.
Registration plate FX 9, chassis number 2221GT and originally painted blue, this car is one of just 11 right-hand-drive, steel-bodied examples sold in the UK. It was purchased new by Colonel Ronnie Hoare of Maranello Concessionaires in Surrey, the UK’s first importer of Ferraris, and used as his personal car. FX 9 was first registered on October 5 1969 and displayed at the London Earls Court Motor Show until the end of that month.
Six months and a respray to red later, the car was sold to Ron Fry, who raced it at numerous UK sprint races and hill climbs between 1961 and 1963, scoring 31 podiums and 21 victories from 38 entries.
Chassis 2221GT later moved to a new owner in Italy who continued to race it extensively through the 1970s, converted it to left-hand-drive and replaced the steel body with a lightweight alloy one.
Fast-forward to 2011 and UK classic car specialist DK Engineering brings 2221GT and its removed steel body to the UK. Looking a little worse for wear, the car was bought by a new owner and taken to GTO Engineering for a two-year restoration that saw the refitting of the original steel body and the steering wheel returned to the right.
Now, 60 years and one day after 2111GT was taken home by Colonel Hoare from Earls Court, it’s my turn to press the dainty key and fire the mighty V12 into life.
I instinctively go to pull the seat forward (a habit with which anyone who is 5’6 will be familiar) but quickly realize the SWB’s driving position cannot be improved upon by a sliding chair. In true Sixties’ Ferrari fashion, the small pedals and massive steering wheel are completely at odds with one another, the former off to the right, the latter to the left. The driving position the SWB driver is left with is almost akin to riding side saddle. Strange, but with the V12 now warm and eager to go, something I decide I can probably tolerate.
I push the snooker ball-sized gear knob into first with a firm shove, reach into the footwell to release the fly-off handbrake (another ergonomic misstep), and try to ignore the gray clouds looming above. I follow the photography car down GTO’s driveway, the V12 chuntering awkwardly, clearly unimpressed by being driven slowly.
We turn right onto the main road, and with the merest hint of throttle application the engine wakes up and revs eagerly through first gear. I’m taken by surprise at how quickly a car seemingly rolling its eyes at the driver’s hesitance can suddenly jump into life and charge forwards, like a shark smelling a drop of blood from a quarter-mile away.
Chassis 2221GT left the factory 60 years ago in a semi-competition specification similar to how it remains today, and despite being a fairly close relative of the mild-mannered Lusso, the SWB feels angry. As tired a cliche it might be, this is a race car for the road, and clearly at its happiest with the throttle wide open, V12 sucking hungrily on a heady cocktail of petrol and oxygen.
Oblige, and the experience is almost overwhelming. Not because of savage acceleration – with around 280 horsepower the SWB is quick but not alarmingly so by today’s standards – but the soundtrack. Just like GTO’s Revival, this original Short Wheelbase is an entire orchestra of a car.
No wonder Old Man Ferrari used to say he sold engines and the rest of the car was thrown in for free. The 250 SWB experience is all about the V12 masterpiece up front.
I must now confess, dear reader, this was not the sort of testosterone-fuelled, devil-may-care drive fit for a 1970s issue of Car Magazine. I’m not even sure if I made it into fourth gear, and a great deal of the 20-minute drive was spent trundling along somewhere between first and second, following a tracking car with a photographer hanging from the trunk.
But that doesn’t matter. I had already driven GTO Engineering’s new-build Revival in anger and knew full well what a spirited drive in a 250 SWB feels like. Today was a treat by way of a photo opportunity and a look into how Mark Lyons and GTO Engineering operates. Driving the Lusso was to understand what a properly restored car feels like, while sampling the SWB was to touch greatness itself. A greatness with rough edges, an awkward driving position and an eye-watering valuation, but greatness nonetheless.
It boggles the mind to think what driving such a machine, flat out on a summer’s afternoon at Goodwood or through a rainy Saturday night at Le Mans, must have felt like sixty years ago. Today it is a moment to be savored in all its glory. Not the best car I have driven, if such an award can ever truly be given, but the greatest and most significant. By a mile.
I lost touch with the Scalextric 250 model from my childhood after multiple house moves and a 200-mile relocation for university, forcing me to relive my childhood through a spontaneous eBay purchase in my late-20s. The adopted replacement sits on a shelf above my desk, a constant reminder both of childhood and of that rainy October morning in 2020.
As for FX9 itself, the car was sold by DK Engineering in the summer of 2021 and has since had its paint returned to the Blu Sera it wore when new.
Just as I hope FX 9 will be used and enjoyed by its new owner, I hope my own 250 SWB is now a treasured member of someone else’s Scalextric collection. Or perhaps it’s parked on a cloth-covered table in a village hall, patiently waiting to be picked up, bought and treasured by another little boy and his dad.