Secret Weapon This Ferrari 288 GTO was once part of the Sultan of Brunei’s collection. We take it to Scotland and let it run. Sultan’s Ferrari 288 GTO driven. The 288 GTO, a rework of the 308 GTB for a 1980s race series, became an exotic, road-legal legend. We take on Scotland in an ex-Sultan of Brunei car. Words Nigel Boothman. Photography Jonathan Jacob.
How many other cars of this era had a push-button starter? It’s now back in fashion, but in the mid-Eighties it was as unfamiliar as a klaxon... except in competition cars. So twist the key a full 180 degrees, thumb the rubber-covered nodule and eight angry cylinders bark into life. The pedals, gathered together near the car’s centreline, are pretty firm underfoot. Bold action with the throttle averts a stall and we’re off, feeding gears through the gate. It’s already warm, but it still takes an assertive hand to move a rather long linkage quickly. That, and some speed… which is easy to come by.
Explore the lengthy throttle travel and a bad-tempered growl rises along with the hairs on the back of your neck. I’m quickly up to 3500rpm and then a much harder, faster snarl erupts towards the 7800rpm redline, overlaid with a high-pitched turbo whistle. The lunge is immense, but if you’re planning for it, it’s not too frightening when it arrives. Turbo lag? Yes, it’s there as a tiny pause between right foot and result when you change up, but use the gearbox’s nicely grouped ratios to full effect and it’s easy to keep it on the boil. Letting the revs drop below 3500rpm and then expecting it to respond with the same violence it does at 6000rpm isn’t turbo lag, it’s just clumsy driving.
We’re travelling fast but not at ten-tenths, and the road is dry so hints are restricted to the odd twitch as the road surface changes. Nonetheless, this lovely-looking machine clearly has the potential to bite very hard indeed. Both track and wheelbase are around four inches larger than for the 308, which proportionally speaking is a greater increase in track – hardly a recipe for softening the moment when you finally lose it. If a fast bend suddenly tightened on you, if you gave it the beans too soon after an apex, you’d better do what it says on the sign outside my local church. Try praying.
It’s partly down to weight, or lack of it. This car doesn’t use particularly large tyres for something with nearly 400bhp and 365lb ft – specifically 255/50 16s at the back, 225s at the front. And it weighs 1160kg, just 50kg more than a Golf GTi of the same age, or 125kg less than a 308 GTB Quattrovalvole. I can think it through bends here in Scotland’s Southern Uplands because there isn’t much mass to shift. The lovely steering helps, feeling as light as it is accurate. It’s a quick ratio too, though less so than was intended for competition. Today, it hasn’t been necessary to move the wheel through more than 30 degrees until we take a twisty sideroad and find the almost Alpine climb to Meggett reservoir. Back down on the main road, it’s time for a breather.
Although ultimately intended to compete in Group B’s stillborn track-racing offshoot, the 288 GTO’s convoluted roots lie in the better-known world of Group 4 and Group B rallying. Following on from the Lancia Stratos, Ferrari created the wide-arched Group 4 308 GTB/4 prototype, which completed initial testing at Fiorano in 1976 before the Scuderia outsourced the project to rally preparation specialist Michelotto of Padova, which developed 308 GTB rally cars mainly campaigned by Charles Pozzi.
As Group 4 gave way to Group B in 1981, the 32-valve 308 GTB Quattrovalvole was homologated for rallying, but Michelotto developed an altogether more specialised prototype, the 308 GTM. The wheelbase was shortened, the engine turned longitudinally and new bodywork was fashioned in Kevlar carbon composite. Despite extensive testing, its lack of turbocharging meant it struggled in its only competitive outing, the 1984 Rally di Monza. However, Ferrari had taken note of its potential as a racer.
The 288 GTO used a 2.9-litre, twin-turbo V8 in a slightly longer and wider 308 GTB-like body, built with a spaceframe chassis and much glassfibre to keep the weight down. At launch in 1984 it was the quickest and probably fastest production car in the world, at least until another road-going Group B racer appeared – the Porsche 959. But the Ferrari’s reputation for staggering performance and spiky road manners created an instant cult following. Before you meet a 288 GTO, it’s likely you’ll be pondering various things. Will it be as fierce as everyone says it is? Will it turn out to be a thinly-disguised track car? Will it look like a 308 on nandrolone? All of which makes the actual first impression – that of a lean, striking beauty – a bit of a surprise.
The shape is much like a 308 GTB’s, but it’s much more than a flared-arch version of a standard shell. Indeed, the only panels common to the 308 are the steel doors. It dates from 1977, when Leonardo Fioravanti used Pininfarina’s wind tunnel to smooth the airflow over the proposed 308 GTB/4’s wider track and improve rear downforce. It adds a dose of muscle in those hips and front wings, but does it with fine judgement. His aluminium prototype was brought to reality mostly in vetroresina – glassfibre to you and me – but also using a Kevlar-GRP honeycomb for bulkhead and bonnet. Harvey Postlethwaite, then Ferrari’s F1 designer, developed this material and it found a new home in the GTO project.
The huge rear deck, lengthened by a wheelbase change and finished with a lip spoiler rather than a silly wing, never looks out of proportion with the neat nose. You walk round it, marvelling at how anything with such a lairy collection of air scoops (three per side) can be so svelte and pretty, and you think this is how the 308 should have looked in the first place. There isn’t a bad angle on it. It would have been good practice to study the engine bay before driving this car. On something so fast and notorious it could give you a hint of what to expect and a clue to what might go wrong.
Here, two things strike you – the engine is hiding, having made way for a large transaxle, two intercoolers and some gorgeous pipe bends. Secondly, those two little turbos look a long way from both the exhaust and inlet manifold. Happily, it seems their dinky size partly makes up for the lag-inducing distance the air has to travel.
Look closer and the engine is there after all, or about half of it is. The other half is in the passenger compartment, displaced so far forward that only the rearmost portion is visible. I don’t envy the person charged with swapping a set of spark plugs. It’s all very different to a 308’s transverse arrangement and it’s clearly going to cut down on accommodation, though you have to admire Maranello’s dedication to siting the engine so close to the centre of the car. At least that’s what first occurs to you – Paul Frère stated in his 1984 Motor road test that the longitudinal layout was actually to allow better gearbox access for rapid ratio changes in competition, with the added bonus of making space for the turbos.
That odd engine capacity is actually 2855cc, the first two digits of which give the GTO its variation on the 308 model number. Use FISA’s supercharging factor of 1.4 and you’ll find that it equates to 3997cc, tucking itself neatly under the 4.0-litre limit for naturally-aspirated Group B cars. With a minimum weight of only 960kg, it would have been a monster in competition trim. In fact, park a road-going GTO next to a Lancia LC2 Group C racer and beneath both engine covers you’ll find an under-bored twin-turbo 308 engine, the same Weber-Marelli engine management system and a similar five-speed transaxle.
With that in mind, let’s have another go. The door’s little flapcatch is like a 328 item rather than the 308’s odd vertical lever; all the better because it feels appropriate to open the doors on this lightweight competition-bred machine with just one finger. Those under six feet tall can wriggle into the cockpit with reasonable ease, though the engine’s intrusion pushes the bulkhead forward to a point that keeps the seat from reclining once it’s at the back of its runners and that makes the roof seem awfully close.
Ignore the cramp and it’s a fabulous place to be, with a sweep of coal-black suede over a neat gathering of orange-font dials. The view ahead is Eighties video-age while a glance down to the handbrake and surroundings is pure classic Ferrari, with sliders for heat and fans, electric window controls, other circular flickswitches and that famous open gate. The only sour note is the air-con controls above the radio slot – parts-bin rotary knobs on little cut-outs of square plastic with stickers on.
I’m enjoying the snarl and the whistle as the little IHI turbos kick in, then that fast-forward sensation as the trees become a blur. At full chat this car requires all the concentration a driver can muster, and sometimes more – but it’s wonderful fun even when driven at eight-tenths. That psychic steering and the adrenaline pump under your right foot do not require an entrance exam. Driving a 288 GTO with enthusiasm means you quickly arrive elsewhere.
The A701 looked much longer on the map. The trees and hedges become fences and walls as we hit the edge of Edinburgh. How will it cope with civilisation? Surprisingly, we seem to fit in, judging from the fact that few heads are turning.
Something about this car separates the enthusiasts from the rest. It’s partly down to the black paint – a red Ferrari is much more obviously a Ferrari, to even the most uninformed observer. When this one is noticed, it’s by discerning blokes (yes, always blokes) of a certain age or car-mad boys with smartphones who race to turn on the camera function. They’re wise to do so, because they won’t see another one quite like this. Our example is right-hand drive and that alone suggests something about the car’s early history. Brunei’s royal family commissioned the majority of specially converted rhd Ferraris in the Eighties and Nineties, but some were more easily arranged than others. DK Engineering’s James Cottingham brought the car to the UK in 2015 and he believes that only one was sold to the family directly, with others assumed to be sourced from individuals, then converted and exported.
‘The 288s were for VIP clients and Ferrari wouldn’t sell more than one to one entity,’ he explains.
Other Ferraris that never entered official rhd production – the F40 for instance – were converted in small batches by Pininfarina Research and sold directly to clients with no dealer involved, so it’s possible the same thing occurred with the 288 GTO.
The collection in Brunei became so extensive that for numerical reasons alone, few cars were actually driven. Most were stored with minimal mileage in vast garages, some buildings offering better protection than others. In the last decade or so a few cars have departed, including this 288, thought to be one of four rhd GTOs eventually sent to Brunei. Despite fewer than 1000km on the clock it had suffered in the heat and humidity and required a full restoration, after which the car came to the UK and has now been Brendan O’Brien’s property for two years.
The streets of Scotland’s capital city are hardly a natural environment for the 288, but it’s not crippled by speed humps or potholes like some ground-hugging projectiles can be. The ride is firm – you wouldn’t expect anything else – but for such a competition-focused creation, Ferrari and Pininfarina between them made a remarkable job of adding some comfort.
If we want to turn a few more heads, there’s a pedal on the right that helps. The 288 makes an amplified snarl at anything more than idle and with very little flywheel effect you can blip the throttle and bounce the noise around the ancient stone streets. The engine’s voice has more in common with the later V8s, say a 355 or a 360, than with the 308 family. That hollow-sounding rapid and regular beat is common to all though, thanks to a flatplane crank that allows even firing intervals, plus the kind of spitting, angry exhaust note that announces a high compression ratio.
The 288 GTO’s compression is supposedly 8:1, but that doesn’t take into account the extra density of the mixture shoved into each cylinder by the turbos. At full boost and full throttle, the engine is coping with a compression ratio equivalent to almost 14:1. This was raised still further for five loopy run-out examples built after Group B was declared dead forever. The 288 GTO Evoluzione was everything the ‘standard’ GTO was not – an all-consuming bodykit turned it from a catwalk beauty into a carpet sweeper and an even more extreme programme of weight paring and engine boosting gave it tempestuous, track-only performance.
Ferrari needed to build 200 GTOs for homologation purposes but sold them easily, despite the end of Group B, and made a total of 271. It later made five times as many F40s, but that’s not the only reason why the GTO is currently worth more – say £1.5 million for a standard lhd car in red, compared to not quite £1 million for the equivalent F40. Many have raved about the F40 as a driver’s car, but I wonder how many of them had a chance to try this lighter, more comfortable, less showy way to get two turbos on your Ferrari V8?
If you think you’d miss the F40’s extra 60bhp and 10mph, maybe you’re missing the point. The 288 was the original; the first in a line of Ferrari hypercars that still runs today – after the F40 came the F50, Enzo and LaFerrari. The GTO is probably the prettiest too. And the least well known? That makes it the coolest of the lot.