Late-Autumn Dreamscapes In Modena: A Day With A Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta SWB
Photography by Andrea Casano
It’s that time of the year in most of Europe. The season of old hatchbacks caked in a gradient of snow and grit, of heel-toeing our daily drivers with all the imprecision afforded by a pair of sturdy winter boots. Save for the odd warm days that melt the slushy surfaces enough for a quick drive in our special cars, the machines that we really care about are more or less relegated to the garage for a few months of cozy hibernation.
The weather in Modena is not nearly as harsh as it is for our neighbors to the north, but drizzly days that hover above the freezing point are not exactly ideal driving conditions for any sports cars, less so for hand-built Ferraris from the early 1960s. But, before it got too cold and dreary this year, my friends at Pastorelli Classic Cars provided me with an unforgettable opportunity to take advantage of this moody atmosphere with a special member of their stable. As you can see, I’m talking about their Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta short-wheelbase (SWB).
I still remember my first encounter with this lionized prancing horse. It wasn’t a real one, it wasn’t even a fake. It was a humble scale-model, but the reverence it instilled in me from the palm of my hand was fully formed. From that moment, I—like any young kid interested in cars and engines surely would—day-dreamed about seeing one of these V12-powered pieces of artwork in person one day. Asleep at night, I could hear the Colombo-orchestrated music, 12 trumpets backed by a set of metallic wind instruments capable of turning plain old air into something to be revered.
It’s a funny thing to finally come face to face with objects like this, and especially so when the context is all but a private meeting. Seeing one of these Ferraris in action on a circuit is a treat, but this more intimate context of a photoshoot under thick fog with a few friends crunching around in the last leaves of late autumn was an experience distinctly separate from real life. It looked like a dream, felt like one, and without these photos to prove it to myself I wouldn’t be easily convinced that it didn’t all happen in my head.
For the better part of one of the better days of my life spent around cars, I soaked in the presence of this 250 GT SWB, or as we sometimes call it in Italy, the 250 passo corto. Besides its obvious beauty, this car was extremely successful in motorsport, earning class wins at Le Mans and the Nürburgring alike, and scoring a hat trick of victories at the Tour de France Automobile road race. The 250 GTO superseded this car in competition when it arrived in 1963, but there was arguably something lost in the transition to the GTO’s out-and-out mandate for motorsport. The 250 GT SWB was, and remains, one of the most elegant hybrids of a road and a race car, and even after the GTO deservedly took up the mantle as the world’s most beloved Ferrari (if sale prices are anything to go by, that is), it would be a crime to say the earlier SWB became anything less because of it.
And to that end, the provenance of the SWB is all but shared with the GTO, its development characterized by the collaboration of legendary engineers, designers, and all-around visionaries. Built by Carrozzeria Scaglietti, drawn by the ever-pioneering hands working in the offices of Pininfarina, and developed by a team of what I can only assume were geniuses led by Giotto Bizzarrini, Carlo Chiti, and Mauro Forghieri, the car’s debut public appearance at the Paris Motor Show in 1959 laid the groundwork for Ferrari’s dominance on the track and in the streets in the decade to come.
Based in part on the longer 250 GT Berlinetta Tour de France (TdF), the SWB lopped 200mm off of the TdF’s 2600mm wheelbase, and although its purpose was primarily aimed at racing, it just so happened to be the best looking car of its time, and to many, it has yet to give up that title. Built in both Lusso (for the street) and competition specifications, the full production run of the SWB was limited to just 176 examples, with few of them being exactly alike. Some were bodied in steel, some in aluminum. Some of them were given souped up or enlarged versions of the famous 3.0-liter V12 derived from the work of longtime Ferrari engine master Gioacchino Colombo, and since the car was sold to privateer racing teams and gentlemen drivers, a number of minor home-brewed modifications were added over the years as the SWBs raced well into the 1960s.
During this photoshoot we didn’t dare to drive the car to even a fraction of its potential (wet leaves and millions of dollars’ worth of metal are not exactly harmonious), but this is one of those cars that emanates. Even the slightest and briefest interactions are imbued with enough goosebump content to make your whole body shiver. To simply open the hood is to form a portal to a dimension outside of our own, one where art and science coalesce without compromise, where ideas are rendered as ideals. Moving the car into a new position felt like nothing short of being tasked with carrying the Mona Lisa around the Louvre under my arm.
The dense fog that was draped around us for the duration of the shoot was perfect, for there are very few backgrounds that can do justice to the way this car looks. Shrouded in this fine billowing mist, this meteorological dreamscape, the car looks even more organically beautiful than normal, unfettered by the usual distractions and trappings of the world around it. I would have enjoyed shooting this beauty in motion, but even though it was built to travel at speed, its good looks give credence to the argument that some cars can transcend their utility to become pure art. Even the most pragmatic parts of the car take on a sculptural essence.
I would have been content to stare at it until I could no longer see my hand in front of my face, but with the temperature dropping alongside the diffused sun, it eventually came time to wake up. As the Ferrari was loaded back into its enclosed carrier to be shuttled back home, I resisted the photographer’s natural urge to cycle through the shots I’d taken, unable to take my eyes off of this machine as the view turned into a sliver before the door was sealed. Even then, I found myself staring at the spot where it was a moment ago, looking at nothing in particular, letting my imagination fill in the blanks like I was holding a toy version in my hand all over again.