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August 10 2019
The Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta.

This spring, Jeff Koons’s stainless-steel Rabbit made headlines in all the respectable papers when it was hammered down at $91.1 million at a New York auction house. But when a Ferrari 250 GTO—the crown jewel of the classic-car world—reportedly changed hands in private for $70 million, it didn’t make The New York Times. After all, it’s not art; it’s just a … car. Italian courts beg to differ.

The Ferrari 250 GTO was born of conflict and a light dose of fraud. Enzo Ferrari—known in Italy as il Commendatore (the Commander), though he preferred l’Ingegnere (the Engineer)—was a demanding boss. After a stint on the Italian front during the First World War, Ferrari drove race cars for Alfa Romeo in the years between the wars, eventually building his own team. By 1948, Ferrari’s group—now its own marque, separate from Alfa Romeo—was winning the world’s biggest races. All of that success, in the face of fierce odds, must have gone to il Commendatore’s head; he pushed his drivers relentlessly. (After one of them crashed during a 1957 race, killing spectators, Ferrari was tried for manslaughter. He was found innocent.) But it was his wife Laura’s involvement in the company that caused dissent within the organization. In 1961, when one of his engineers objected to being ordered around by the boss’s wife, Ferrari fired him—and thus began what was known as “the great walkout,” which saw a cascade of defectors who went on to create Automobili Turismo e Sport.

The Ferrari 250 GTO was born of conflict and a light dose of fraud.

The timing of the exits came at a bad moment for Ferrari. Seeking to defend its reputation and pre-eminence against Britain’s new head-turner, the Jaguar E-Type, it had begun work on the 250 GTO. But the engineer in charge resigned. The company began to rely more heavily on mechanical components from prior models in its flagship design development. Six Weber carburetors fed the high-revving 12-cylinder engine. Driven hard, the exhaust snarls and pops. There is no speedometer. The bare-metal shift gate, seen in other Ferraris, is all business. It is, unabashedly, a race car.

Carlo Maria Abate in a Ferrari 250 GTO in the pits at Le Mans, 1963.

Before a new vehicle was eligible to compete in races, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile required 100 cars of the particular model to be built. Ferrari, however, created only 36 250 GTOs between 1962 and 1964—apparently duping the federation into allowing his cars onto the track. Each example now has an individual history, which informs its value. (Chassis No. 4153 GT, for example, has had a book written about it.) Minor details vary from car to car, as bodywork was customized by individual buyers. These are, after all, cars that were raced, crashed, fixed, and raced again; modifications found to work on one car were picked up by the owners of others. They are all gorgeous.

Enzo Ferrari, the founder of the Scuderia Ferrari Grand Prix motor-racing team, in his office in Maranello, Italy, 1985.

Yet for all its beauty, the 250 GTO is not the winningest car in racing history. By 1964, it was just holding on, and by the time Le Mans rolled around, in 1966, Ferrari would be crushed by upstart Ford, as dramatized this fall in Ford v Ferrari, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale. (Strangely, Ford’s GT40—the Ferrari-killer—even if it is in excellent condition, commands a much lesser sum. Evidently, the appeal of the Ferrari derives from more than just its racing heritage.)

The exhaust pipe snarls and pops. There is no speedometer. It is, unabashedly, a race car.

So, is it art? What justifies a $70 million price tag on a car with roughly the same power output as a well-equipped 2019 Volkswagen? The RM Sotheby’s listing for chassis No. 3413, which hammered down at $48.4 million in 2018, provides a clue: ownership allows “exclusive access to some of the world’s most prestigious events and rallies, including to the famed GTO club and tours.” As with any expensive piece of art, the joy of owning a 250 GTO derives from its exclusivity. A public registry records the provenance of each example; Ralph Lauren has owned chassis 3987GT since 1985. It’s the Golden Ticket to hobnob with the other folks who can spend tens of millions of dollars on an automobile. Ferrari has taken steps to maintain that exclusivity, lobbying the Italian government to forbid reproductions. Last month, a court in Bologna assented, claiming that the 250 GTO was “unique, a true automobile icon.” There shall be no knockoffs—not that they’d fool anybody worth fooling.

Some years before his death, in 1988, Enzo Ferrari spoke of his passion for racing: “Racing is a great mania to which one must sacrifice everything, without reticence, without hesitation.” If you’re willing to sacrifice tens of millions of dollars for art—and for entry into a milieu rather more exclusive than a squash club—keep your eye on the auction listings.

Sam Shaw is a writer and trucker based in Montana.