Delivered new in the UK; Ferrari Classiche certified,1985 Ferrari 288 GTO Coupé  Chassis no. ZFFPA16B000056207

For 70 years, Ferrari has made the sexiest, most-prized sports cars in the world. Mark Beech revs up the engine

Automotive history might have been very different had Enzo Ferrari not seen a motor race when he was just ten years old – and had his father's business not collapsed a few years later. The story is certainly one to reflect on, as Ferrari celebrates 70 years of making some of the world's fastest, sexiest and most desirable cars.

The young Enzo, born in 1898 in Modena, northern Italy, looked set for an uneventful life. His family made parts for the state railways. Then came that first formative event: he was taken to the Bologna motor-racing circuit and came away declaring that he wanted to be a racing driver like the winner, Felice Nazzaro.

It might have remained a pipe dream, but things changed when his father and brother died, and Enzo no longer had the family factory to fall back on. After war service, the wannabe racer managed to find work as test driver.

The rest, we might say, is history – as documented in the Design Museum's exhibition, Ferrari: Under the Skin. Along the way, we see cars becoming faster and prices soaring to record-breaking levels that would astonish even Enzo himself.

The story is especially remarkable when you consider the faltering start to Enzo's driving career. Rejected by Fiat in Turin, he worked for small companies instead. Enzo came just fourth in category in his first race in 1919, and his second race was worse: his fuel tank sprang a leak. Over the next two decades, he enjoyed better success and set up the Scuderia Ferrari team, racing mainly Alfa Romeo cars.

By now, his dream was to beat Alfa using a car that he had made himself. During the Second World War, Enzo started building his own factory, and in 1945 his designer, Gioacchino Colombo, was completing the transparent mechanical sketches for the 125 S. The rounded car appears innocent enough in an historic photograph shot at the entrance of the Ferrari factory, but under its long hood lurks a complex V12-cylinder engine that was built purely with performance in mind. This extravagance was a bold move in a post-war Europe (and mirrors the Porsche story). Ferrari was 49 years old.

From there, things went at speed – after all, there is no such thing as a slow Ferrari, and many of them look absurdly fast without moving an inch. Peter Whitehead won the 1949 Czech Grand Prix in Brno driving a 125 F1, in effect a 125 S with no road-going accessories.

The Design Museum will display a replica of the 125S, and the exhibition also has a 1950 166 MM, the same model as the racer that won the Mille Miglia race.

Scuderia Ferrari has now won 16 Formula One Constructor Championships using such cars as the F1 2000 – the model that took Michael Schumacher to many wins. Tim Schofield, Head of Motor Cars UK at Bonhams, notes: "With the success on the track for big names like Ferrari, Porsche and Maserati, there was an increased demand for these brands on the road." No wonder, then, that regulars at car auctions across the globe are accustomed to Ferraris topping the lots, often with bidding contests and rounds of applause. At present, the all-time car record at public auction is held by a 1962 250 GTO that sold for some $38 million at Bonhams at Quail Lodge in 2014. Three-quarters of the top 20 prices for classic cars are held by Ferraris.

The 250 GTOs are especially remarkable. Enzo agreed to build 100 of them to fulfil an administrative requirement from the governing body of motorsport. Somehow, he got away with making only 39. One will be present at the Under the Skin exhibition. Its curves and distinctive raised tail were refined in wind-tunnel tests at the University of Pisa.

"In the case of Ferrari," Schofield explains, "these exquisite machines were created by Pininfarina stylists, but the final say always went to the ever-watchful Enzo." Enzo himself once said, "I have yet to meet anyone quite so stubborn as myself. I am animated by this overpowering passion that leaves me no time for thought or anything else. I have, in fact, no interest in life outside racing cars." Enzo's hands-on style meant that many design details started to emerge quickly. As early as the 1920s, he had met Countess Baracca who suggested that he use her fighter-pilot son's 'prancing horse' good-luck emblem as a mascot. The yellow badge soon gained its unusual position behind the front wheels, which often sport a trademark five-spoke design. The twin exhausts, rounded lights, metal gear gate and blood-red bodywork were also rapidly put in place. (This colour tends to do best at auction, though silver and black are also commonly specified.)

Bonhams is including examples of the finest Pininfarina coachwork designs in its Scottsdale Sale in Arizona in January, including three Enzo-era models with multiple concours awards: a 1967 275 GTB/4 – one of the most beautiful Ferraris – as well as a 1972 Daytona and a 1974 Dino. In addition, in the Bond Street Sale in December, there is a 1985 288 GTO Berlinetta – the archetypal car of the decade during which Enzo died, aged 90 in 1988 – and a 2004 Enzo Berlinetta, which has covered only 7,800 kilometres from new.

Limited editions are among the most sought after. The LaFerrari is one, with only 700 examples produced of the car defined as 'the ultimate Ferrari'; the Enzo is another. Both models are able comfortably to exceed 200mph. The styling is becoming ever more aggressive, with the Enzo distinguished by a quirky cabin and doors that fly away from the wheel scoops. The 1988 F40 was made to commemorate 40 years since the very first Ferrari. Enzo suggested that the company do something special "the way we used to do". The F40 used the latest techniques from aerospace and Formula One, including carbon-fibre construction. It was the fastest road
car available at the time.

All Ferrari fans will have their favourite models. For many it will
be the Daytona, so named after the marque's victories there, or possibly the Ferrari-made Dino models, named to honour Enzo's son Dino, who died in 1956 aged 24 from muscular dystrophy. For others it is the angular Testarossa, with its clawed side intakes leading to side-mounted radiators. The Design Museum features a Testarossa Spider commissioned by Fiat chief Gianni Agnelli as his own car.

The curator of the Design Museum show, Andrew Nahum, sums it up: "Ferrari's story has been one of the great adventures of the industrial age. It also represents an absorbing case study in design and development."

A Ferrari is always to be driven with care, especially on public roads, but, as this writer can testify, they are becoming absurdly easy to handle now: the main worry is having to keep within legal limits. Some of the old worries about difficult gear changes, poor visibility and low driving positions have been totally resolved.

There are now easy start buttons, a 'launch' function for ultra-fast escapes from the traffic lights and gears that change effortlessly.

Yet a driver must treat any 'prancing horse' with the greatest respect. If you hit the accelerator, even not too hard, a 488 GTB pins you to the seat. Floor the pedal, and in three seconds you are at 60mph. The G force is incredible, as with many supercars, but only Ferrari has a 3.9-litre V8 making its distinctive tiger roar.

If you have the cash and are wondering whether to get a Ferrari, its enduring value certainly appeals to the head, but it is the sound of those twin turbos that wins your heart.

Mark Beech is an author, journalist and the editor of Dante magazine.

Ferrari: Under the Skin is at the Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington
High St, London W8 6AG; 15 November-15 April.

Sale: The Bond Street Sale
Saturday 2 December at 2.30pm
Enquiries: Tim Schofield +44 (0) 20 7468 5804

Sale: The Scottsdale Auction
Scottsdale, the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa
Thursday 18 January at 11am
Enquiries: Jakob Greisen +1 415 503 3284

Related auctions