Classic ’50s Ferrari is one of a kind
FERRARI 250 SWB A CHAMPION ON ROAD AND RACE TRACK
What you are looking at here is not simply more than £8 million-worth ($15.6 million) of knee-wiltingly beautiful Ferrari. It is more than the star lot at RM Sotheby’s Villa d’Este auction on May 23. The greater significance of the Ferrari 250 SWB is that it stands as the exception to the rule that says road cars are almost as bad at being race cars as race cars are at being road cars. It did both, and it did both brilliantly.
The 250 SWB (the 250 referring to its individual cylinder capacity in cubic centimetres, the SWB to its shortened wheelbase), also represented the end of an era for Ferrari. For this was the last time Ferrari would make a road car that with little or no modification could be raced successfully at events as big and important as the Le Mans 24 Hours. Okay, you could say the same about the 250 GTO that succeeded it, but only in the most literal sense: the GTO was only designed that way to get around the rules and was a pure racing car.
By contrast, SWBs came first, second, third and fourth in their class at Le Mans in 1960 and even third overall in 1961, yet the car you see here never raced then but was bought new by a Florentine doctor and used as his daily driver. So suited to its double life was the SWB that when Stirling Moss used one to win the RAC Tourist Trophy race at Goodwood in 1960, he did so while listening to songs and commentary of the race he was leading courtesy of the radio installed in the car. Indeed, Moss would enter eight races in SWBs and win seven of them, not a bad record, even for one such as he.
It’s tempting to go looking for its secret, that technological breakthrough that enabled it to be at the same time probably the most desirable road car and the most successful GT racer of its era. But there is none. The Ferrari 250 SWB is a very traditional car, even by the standards of 55 years ago.
It had a state-of-the-ark ladder chassis, albeit with some tubular steel strengthening, and an engine whose basic design dated back to the 1940s. True, it also had independent front suspension, but by then so did everything else, while its live rear axle was decidedly passe, even in 1960. Its gearbox had just four speeds, and while it was the first Ferrari to be fitted with disc brakes all round as standard, Jaguar had been using them since the early 1950s. As so often was the case with early Ferraris, the secret was not the ingredients, but the recipe.
For a start, the 250 SWB was very light, or at least the 72 that were made with all aluminium bodies were. The remaining 104 had predominantly steel bodies and were heavier to the tune of perhaps 100kg. The car that’s coming up for auction is one of the aluminium examples, one factor to account for its eye-popping value.
Then there is that engine: it might have been old, but it was powerful, offering 260-280bhp according to specification from its 3.0-litre V12 configuration.
The SWB’s record in long-distance racing also demonstrated almost unbustable reliability, so even when it couldn’t outpace the opposition, it could generally outlast it.
As for the suspension, it may not have been sophisticated, but it was so well developed and inspired such confidence in the driver that the car could be driven far harder than a technically more advanced solution that proved trickier on the limit.
Today the 250 SWB sits on the test track tarmac, awaiting further instruction from me.
There are lots of people with many interesting cars here, but it seems we all have eyes for just one. All the attention in the atmosphere is sucked into one swirling vortex centred on that exquisite Scaglietti body.
The interior is as ineffably stylish as it is ergonomically inept. The alloy-spoked, wood-rimmed steering wheel is huge, the Veglia dials gorgeous.
But it seems to have been designed more with short-legged, long armed primates in mind than human beings.
To start the car, you turn the key and then push it, expecting an explosion of sound from the V12 engine. Instead, it catches and idles with such smoothness you could be in an old Rolls-Royce. Blip the throttle, however, and a short, sharp bark of menace stabs out of those four rear pipes.
Ease away and savour just for a moment the fact you’re driving a Ferrari 250 SWB. Look down that bonnet and over those wings, see the temperature needles ease off their stops, watch the prancing horse in the middle of wheel writhe gently as you ease the car around the track.
Ferrari continued to develop and refine the 250 engine and chassis during the second half of the 1950s.
And then, because time is short and the car is warm, put it to work. Second gear will do. The engine note hardens as you are pressed ever more deeply into the small bucket seat, revs rising past 4000 and 5000rpm. In its day these motors did 24 hours with a 7700rpm limit, but today I’m stopping well short of 6000rpm, at which speed the sound is so rich, complex, textured and layered you could have more fun blindfold in the passenger seat than driving most other cars.
It feels fast, perhaps Porsche Cayman quick. Fifty five years ago it must have seemed from another planet.
But perhaps the greatest joy comes in the corners, where this old Ferrari lets you set the agenda. If you’re gentle, the front wheels will gradually and predictably relinquish their hold on the road as you reach the limit of grip. If you give it a boot, the back end will slide out copiously.
But if you just ease off the gas on entry then squeeze it on again, the car will drift so easily and controllably, you might think you’re Sir Stirling Moss himself.
Sadly, I’m not and it’s time to give this car with its €11.5 million ($22.4 million) guide price back to its keepers. Last year a Ferrari 250 GTO sold for almost three times as much and, because it’s even rarer, quicker, and perhaps still more beautiful, I understand why. But it really is a track car, whereas the SWB is genuinely as at home in either environment.
Back in 1960 that gave it an appeal that has lasted to this day, along with a unique and special place in Ferrari history. Truth is there is no other Ferrari like the 250 SWB, and there never will be.