In 2008, then-Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans paid $10,894,000 (£7,850,000) for a Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spyder. Following a frenzy of bids at auction, it made history as the world’s first $10 million car.
The 1961 classic had previously been owned by James Coburn. Legend has it the actor was filming in Brussels with Steve McQueen when he spotted the Ferrari and fell instantly in love.
I can see why. The GTO Engineering California Spyder Revival rumbles into view, treating the driveway like a red carpet. Almost identical to Coburn’s car, it oozes Hollywood glamour. All the leaves are turning brown and the sky is ominously grey, but already I’m California dreaming.
As children of the 1980s will recall, the California Spyder was also a movie star in its own right. Ferris Bueller borrowed one for a teenage joyride around Chicago, before sending it headlong through a window to its untimely end.
The ‘Ferrari’ in the film was actually a fibreglass replica based on an MGB. And the Revival is also a replica of sorts, made in Twyford rather than Maranello. However, it’s about as close to a plastic-bodied MG as The Great Escape is to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
The process starts with a Ferrari that is beyond repair. “Typically, they’re cars that have been broken up after a crash or fire,” explains Mark Lyon, founder of GTO Engineering. “All we really need is a chassis number.”
This provides an identity for each Revival, allowing it to side-step 21st century emissions and safety rules. A ‘new’ car is then hand-built from scratch, using period technical drawings, remanufactured parts and 1,500 hours of hard graft. The result is a classic Ferrari in all but name.
Encouraged by US importer Luigi Chinetti and west coast agent John Von Neumann, Ferrari designed the drop-top California with the Golden State firmly in mind.
Just 105 originals were made between 1958 and 1962, making this one of the rarest roadgoing Ferraris. Fifty had a 2,600mm wheelbase (LWB), followed by 55 with a shorter 2,400mm wheelbase (SWB).
The GTO Engineering Revival is based on the prettier SWB, specifically one of the 37 cars with covered headlamps. Penned by Pininfarina, then hand-beaten in aluminium by Scaglietti, it’s stunning from every angle.
For me, the Spyder’s allure lies in its apparent contrasts. A hungry bonnet scoop and muscular haunches sit alongside delicate chrome bumpers and intricate wire wheels. The long bonnet and voluptuous wings embody Italian elegance, but tail fins layer on some American pizzazz.
Like all 250 series Ferraris, whether road or race cars, the Spyder’s beating heart was the V12 engine designed by Gioacchino Colombo – now recreated in its entirety by GTO Engineering. The carburettors are the only parts that aren’t made on-site.
You can keep your Revival as Enzo intended, with a 3.0-litre displacement and around 280hp. Alternatively, you can upgrade to 3.5 litres and 320hp, or 4.0 litres and 350hp. My car has the middling 3.5 motor: good for 0-62mph in six seconds and a top speed somewhere beyond 150mph.
GTO makes other subtle modifications to boost driveability, too. Brakes are uprated and the sills are strengthened to boost torsional rigidity. This example also features a five-speed gearbox, up from the standard four. You can even have a hidden USB for charging your phone, but that’s as far as ‘infotainment’ goes.
One notable omission on this particular Spyder is a roof. Mark says the Ferrari-spec fabric hood is heavy and looks unsightly, plus most cars will find homes in hotter climes (including California, of course).
Sadly, we’re in Berkshire, not Beverly Hills, and the autumn air is now saturated by a fine drizzle. I’m tempted to postpone my drive, but with limited time and a photographer ready-and-waiting, that isn’t really an option. “Go faster and you’ll outrun the rain,” says snapper Barry, helpfully.
Unlike Coburn’s all-black car, this Revival is trimmed in lush cherry red leather, with matching carpets and white Veglia dials. Twist and push the key in the ignition barrel, the starter motor churns and the V12 settles to a pulsating idle. A plump bead of water trickles down the back of my neck. Time to test Barry’s theory.
Hitting the high notes
After driving the GTO Engineering 250 GT SWB – another model in the Revival range, along with the 250 Testa Rossa – I walked away convinced it was the most evocative, most exciting car I’d ever driven.
That sets an impossibly high bar for the Spyder, yet the experience doesn’t fall short – even in damp jeans with palms clamped tight around the slippery, wood-rimmed wheel.
Everything centres on that Colombo V12. It’s a pussycat at low revs, with a swelling surge of torque that seems tailor-made for California cruising. But don’t be fooled. As the revs rise, the engine that won Le Mans multiple times draws out its claws, gathering speed with feral ferocity.
It sounds majestic, too – particularly in the open air. The thudding backbeat is steadily overwhelmed by the gargle of three Weber carbs, the meshing of gears and the rasp of four exhausts. Hold your nerve and the whole cacophony builds to a thunderous, Pavarotti-esque crescendo.
Here comes the sun
Indeed, everything feels heightened in the California Spyder. Its unassisted steering is slow-geared by modern standards, but alive with organic feedback, its pistol-grip shift is unapologetically mechanical and the brakes require a firm shove.
With no electronic driver aids to counteract your mistakes, the right pedal also demands respect on wet roads. Gaining in confidence as I blat back-and-forth around the same bend for the camera, I sense the steering go light and the tyres shimmy at the edges of grip. It feels progressive and perhaps less eager to step sideways than the drift-tastic 250 GT SWB.
Then something amazing happens: the rain stops and the sun breaks free of the clouds. What follows is a drive to remember, chasing Barry back to base on puddle-strewn B-roads. He’s in a new Volkswagen Golf R with near-identical power, plenty of turbocharged torque and four-wheel drive – and not trying especially hard, I suspect. But there’s no question who’s having more fun.
Driven to distraction
Perhaps it was the rain or my increasingly skintight jeans, but I felt less inclined to drive quickly in the elegant California Spyder than the road-racer SWB. This car is such a feast for the senses, I almost wanted to slow down and savour them.
Even so, I took liberties with the £750,000 Revival that I’d never take with a $10 million Ferrari. And that, for me, is the overriding appeal of these cars. Forget the classic car world’s obsession with originality and provenance, this is a California Spyder you can actually use and enjoy.
Whether they’re listening to the searing V12, ogling the timeless styling or simply grinning at a soggy, bedraggled journalist, you can be sure others will enjoy it, too.
See the California Spyder make its world debut at Goodwood Revival this weekend.
Tim Pitt writes for Motoring Research
PRICE: From £750,000
ENGINE: 3.5-liter V12 petrol
0-62MPH: 6.0 seconds
TOP SPEED: 150mph+
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Hollywood glamour, Italian soul : CityAM