APR 22nd 2015

Andrew Frankel Drives The Ferrari 250 SWB

Climb into one of those thin black leather bucket seats and look around. The steering wheel is massive, with a wood rim and alloy spokes. It is also a work of art. As are the Veglia dials, a fact clearly more important to their designers than being easy to read, an attitude for which I have a sneaking admiration. There’s a hard crackle black finish to the dash top, a feature of the competizione aluminium cars and a wonderful view down the bonnet to those wings. The driving position is hilarious: knees around your neck, arms outstretched no less than were you hanging off a building. Ferrari_250_SWB_2204201513

You start in traditional Ferrari style by turning and the pressing the key. I’d hoped for some fiendishly complex starting procedure like those needed for carb-fed V12 Ferrari road cars of the 1970s – a certain number of pumps on the throttle, a few churns before it catches and then that period while you wait as one cylinder after another joins the throng until it is finally firing on all twelve. To me it’s all part of the theatre. But it’s not an approach that interests the SWB: all 12 chime in at once with the smoothness of an Italian Jeeves gliding into the bedroom to provide you with your morning pick-me-up. It is ready and at your disposal.


It may only have four ratios, but this is the best gearbox Ferrari has ever made. Every shift is an occasion, a well-oiled, industrially heavy, militarily precise movement around the gate. The steering feels a little dead at low speeds and the engine is quieter than you’d think, but that’s good: you’re driving a Short Wheelbase and there should be a little peaceful time to reflect on that fact before pressing on.

‘As it is, I’m thinking more about not damaging a car carrying an estimate of £8.3 million when it’s auctioned by RM Sotheby’s at Villa d’Este on May 23rd. But there is nothing tricky here …’

But every lap you do at road speed is one less you’ll do at if not quite race pace, then certainly exercising the SWB the way its maker intended. So you go to work.


The extraordinary thing about the engine is that it should be incredibly peaky, because it has a dozen cylinders each displacing a tiny 250cc (exactly half what’s generally regarded as the ideal displacement today) and together they prise around 280bhp from just 3-litres capacity. Back then no other street engine was getting so much from so little so when you hear stories of the engine regularly being taken to 8000rpm, the natural conclusion is that there must be payback in the midrange. But there isn’t: from around 3000rpm to the very conservative 6000rpm I was using, it just pulled with ever increasing ferocity with ever more symphonic sounds filling the cockpit. It would be wonderful to be a passenger in a well driven SWB because you could concentrate on every layer of that eerily beautiful, impossibly complex soundtrack.


As it is, I’m thinking more about not damaging a car carrying an estimate of £8.3 million when it’s auctioned by RM Sotheby’s at Villa d’Este on May 23rd. But there is nothing tricky here: I am blessed to have become intimately acquainted with another short wheelbase, 3-litre Ferrari, but while the pure race 1955 750 Monza would be only too happy to throw you over the hedge, the only four years younger SWB is the most trustworthy, accommodating road racer you could imagine.


First, as soon as you put load into the suspension, so messages start pouring in from the hitherto rather inert steering, the first of which tells you the car can be placed to the square inch, the second that it will tell you more about the grip characteristics of that square inch than you ever imagined possible. By modern standards grip, power and braking performance are predictably modest, but this was a car to be driven not up to the technical level of adhesion, but straight past and into the world of the near constant drift.


Even being very careful with so many millions on a rather dangerous test facility, I can see why Moss loved this car so much: if you have any talent at all, it will allow you to exploit it and the bigger that talent the more the car would allow you to express it. Its balance is perfect, its predictability unquestioned. I just hope those who raced them when they were new realised how lucky they were and how much fun they were having.


Is it a better car than a GTO, for little more than a third of the price? No, or not to me. To me the GTO is inviolate, the greatest road legal sports racing car of all time, but for all they share, and one was derived from the other, the GTO is a very different car: a hard boiled racer wearing numberplates. The SWB’s skill set is broader, even if it lacks the ultimate depth. In any other car that would create a compromised Jack of all trades, but not here; on road or track the Ferrari 250SWB was never less than a true master. And it is which today makes it one of the most entertaining, usable, desirable and memorable cars ever made for use on the road. Or track.

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