You never think you’ll get to drive one. There’s just no way: values are too high, owners are too careful, insurance companies know better. Sure you can see one, just head over to the Petersen, drop by Malibu Cars and Coffee—you might get lucky. But drive? Good luck pal. It’s my damn job to photograph these things and I never thought I would get to.
Until I went to the GTO Engineering headquarters in Reading, England, just a short drive west of Heathrow airport.
Now it’s important to remember that GTO Engineering’s 250 SWB is of course not a factory-original 250 SWB. I shot one in Malibu last year, and I’d be impressed if you could find me a “real” SWB that looked as beautiful. The cars are obsessively engineered, and built to a level of fit and finish that I’d wager even Ferrari wouldn’t have been capable of 60 years ago.
Sitting in one for the first time is right when you notice it: everything just feels tight. The wheel in your hands, the gearshift lever, the dash fitment, the door action, everything. Tight like a tiger. Going to turn the engine over for the first time cold is correspondingly measured, minus the typical anxiety and insecurity associated with starting a vintage $10mm Ferrari. I’d have to imagine there is some charm in the stressful ownership and maintenance of an original SWB, some feeling of achievement every time you get into it for those 18 miles a year you put on it at Pebble Beach. But as far as I’m concerned, you can stick that car in a vault.
Why? Because the GTO Engineering recreation is 100% ready to be daily driven.
Head mechanic Lee Jones and I switch seats at a pull-off on what he affectionately calls the “GTO Test Track,” which is actually just a mile-and-a-half-long country road sans speed cameras. It’s 65 degrees and blindingly sunny, the car is up to temperature, and I’m very suddenly in the driver’s seat.
Until you have your right hand on the hulking metal shift knob, you’ll never really appreciate how big it is. I’ve photographed dozens, we’ve done films on several. I’ve just never understood the size and proximity to the steering wheel until it was my responsibility not to grind the gears, which leads me to my next point: I didn’t grind, stall, or baulk for one second in my test drive. Typically it’s a bit like meeting a celebrity for the first time, I get all nervous at first when someone lets me drive something like this, and then I inevitably cock it up at least once or twice. Not so in the GTO. It was smooth and slick out of the gate.
Appreciating that I looked comfortable enough to not be shaking in his $500k+ toy, Lee gives me the “Go for it” nod, and so I do. All twelve cylinders sing to life in glorious choral unison. The car has been freshly tuned, creating a symphonic tidal wave from the hood as we fly through first gear and into second. 50, 60, 70mph fly-by as I click into 3rd while the outside air is rammed through the competizione sliding plexiglass windows. 80 and 90 approach and depart quickly—the road is empty for miles in either way, we’re alone on a beautiful sunny day and the engine is roaring. Lee would later describe the look on my face as somewhere between giddy and dumbfounded.
As the intoxicating smell of carburetors grew stronger, that obnoxious quote from Enzo Ferrari about how “aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines” keeps rattling around my brain. The man was right: this is what an engine should be. This is the sound a car should make. This is how driving should feel. Liberating.
The car is lighter than I had anticipated, so at around 105 I let off as things get a bit floaty for my taste, which is a bit like that buddy who is the first to leave the bachelor party at 1am. I had had a full experience, but it was very clear that the party was just beginning.