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Back in the 1950s and 60s the World Sportscar Championship was far more prestigious than it is these days, with most of the interest today focused on Formula 1. That was the time when Ferrari, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Porsche and Maserati fought in long distance races on the Nürburgring, in Spa, Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, the Targa Florio or Goodwood for points to crown a Champion at the end of the year. The 1950s were dominated by Ferrari with two exceptions, the 1955 season with the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, and the 1959 season with the Aston Martin DBR1 which won over the final generation of the legendary 250 TR.

Not just the sports prototypes were popular back then, but also a wide variety of GT cars were entered in these races. Unlike the works entries in the prototype classes, the GT cars were often entered by smaller teams or even wealthy gentlemen drivers. As these cars were also drivable on the road, a win on a long distance race proved both the speed and reliability of the cars and formed the slogan “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”. As all of the mentioned manufacturers built sports cars in small quantity their financial survival needed the ambitious sportsmen to buy the latest cars as a potential race winner and Ferrari was successful with its 250 Series.

With the 1962 season the regulations changed and the sports car championship was announced for GT cars rather than prototypes. Although the Ferrari 250 GT SWB was unbeatable in the right hands, Enzo Ferrari decided to build a new car for the upcoming season back in 1961. As the regulations required a total production of at least 100 cars for the homologation, the new car had to be based on the SWB, so the frame including the rigid back axle had to be taken over rather than starting from scratch. The idea was to place the TR engine in the chassis as the last development of the race engine. Its dry sump allowed setting the engine lower into the chassis, resulting in better handling due to the lower centre of gravity and a better aerodynamic with a lower front end. Giotto Bizzarrini designed the body with the three characteristic air intakes for the air box above the radiator opening. The rear spoiler was added later after extensive testing. The car was presented in February 1962, missing the first race of the season in Daytona but won in its first outing in Sebring. At the end, the 1962/63 GTO easily won both championships in 1962 and 1963, and 1964 in its final evolution against the strong Shelby Cobras. By 1965 Ferrari lost interest in the GT class due to new regulations and so the GTO stayed the final evolution of a long tradition.

After its active racing career a few cars were still entered by privateers in smaller races. However most of them changed hands a few times, before ending up in long time ownership of enthusiasts in the late 1960s or early 1970s. In the 1980s the GTO became a symbol of the rising classic car market and when Ferrari revived the name GTO with the 288 GTO, millions of teenager slept under posters of the 250 GTO or had scale models on their desks.

Back then also the first GTO meeting was held to celebrate the 20th anniversary in 1982, when the cars were still used on the road, before their value went into the millions of Dollar. In this first peeking of the value, several cars changed hands to end up in some of the most respected Ferrari collections, as these cars seemed to be on top of every collectors shopping list. Some might ask why these cars stand so high above many others, but there is no other car that associates all features the way the GTO does. For many the look is the best of all GT cars of this era, furthermore few cars were that successful in the hands of the best racing drivers of its era, including Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, Mike Parkes, Innes Ireland, Graham Hill, Roy Salvadori or the Rodriguez brothers. And last but not least, it is a true all-rounder; this car that can be either raced or rallied, according to long time owner Nick Mason, it even takes the children to school in winter when the other cars refuse to start. Some other cars might be rarer but it is built in the optimal quantity to be still rare but enough to have a good active market.

Every 5 years the small but selected group of owners come together to enjoy their treasures with like-minded on a tour, and certainly the golden jubilee this year was no exception. After the last meeting in the USA five years ago this year's event organized by a French champagne company was back in France. Rumours started spreading since the fall of last year, but little information was available in advance as the program was one of the best-kept secrets. This is certainly necessary as the appearance of two-third of the total production usually leads to tumultuous crowds as can be seen on the few public accessible stops. Nevertheless in the time of the new media a vivid exchange of the few available bits of information led “the usual suspects” to the Hostellerie de Briqueterie in Vinay near Epernay on Tuesday morning, where the owners met for the first day of driving. Unfortunately the organizers’ interpretation of privacy was rather to invite a few journalists from mainly life-style magazines to join the drivers for the dinner and champagne tastings, than allowing car related journalists to take pictures during the stops, so access was limited to the few stops on public ground and following the cars along the road. Standing like children in front of a candy shop photographers were lined up in front of the hotel waiting for the things to come.

Most of the cars were already there the day before, whereas the owners had dinner in Paris arriving in the morning, either in a dark limousine or by helicopter. The majority of the owners knew each other from the last tours but a few new ones had to be welcomed. The latest “entry ticket” was sold earlier this year for a record price, as reported on Anamera. From time to time, a GTO left the hotel grounds to pick up some petrol in the nearby village or some owners did a small test drive with their mechanics.

After lunch the first drive on the program was to the Circuit de Gueux at Reims, one of the few public stops. Today the circuit is a triangle of public country roads. The D27 was closed off for the cars to park in front of the old paddocks and grandstands, where hundreds of Ferraristi were already waiting. While following the cars on their way, it became clear that either the road book was not the best, or the navigators of these cars are not used to them. Several cars already lost their way on the first stage, at some roundabouts cars were approaching from three different directions, and more than few of them had to turn around once or twice a day. At the end, all 20 GTOs including one of the 330 derivatives found their way for the group shot, an impressive line-up, even more spectacular than last year's Pebble Beach class. Although briefed just minutes before the start to do 3 laps behind the police escort, the convoy left after just one lap to Hautvillers, where the cars were parked over night at the place of the Abbey, behind solid wooden doors shielded from curious vistas.

Wednesday morning the route led from Hautvillers to the lunch stop at the Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte, which had already been the starting point of this year's Tour Auto. It’s an interesting drive on some twisted roads through the surrounding vineyards, typical for the region of the Champagne. The afternoon journey led though the valley of the Loire where again some cars lost their way, as could be seen at the entrance of the Hotel in Onzain, where the cars arrived from two different directions. With two additional cars running that day, the total count was 22 cars, the largest gathering for years. It is rare to see one of these cars, especially on the open road, but it is even more impressive to see them running in groups.

Thursday had two stops, the first one closed at the Chateau de Champigny-sur-Veude, the second one for a short coffee break at the Chateau de Villandry. Unlike the other locations, this one was open to the general public and some of the tourists might have been surprised by the cars coming in.

In the evening, the cars were parked in the garden or the Chateau de Chambord, which too was publicly accessible, making this the most interesting day for all followers of the tour. The Chateau was without doubt the most memorable background of the entire tour.

Friday the cars were invited to Le Mans to do some parade laps during the Le Mans Classics that were being held the same weekend. Having been advertised in the LMC programme, this was the spot for many fans to see the cars and more than few made their way to the Sarthe just to see them. As the cars entered the paddocks to their reserved spots, they were welcomed by one of the many showers during the race weekend. Fortunately the track dried up by the time they did their parade between two of the practice sessions. Many of the cars were back after having completed the original 24h in period, unfortunately again none of them was entered in the Classics this year. This might be the downside of the high value of the cars: the fact that owners become afraid to risk them in proper racing. Unfortunately the anniversary tour proved that accidents might happen even on a touristic joyride, as one car was missed in Le Mans. The blue-yellow ex-Norinder car (3445GT) was reported having had an accident earlier that day with another road user. The fact that the driver’s wife was injured upstages any regard of the car’s value, as anyone’s concern is naturally with her well-being, rather than the car’s condition. We wish her all the best and a quick and full recovery.
It seems that the French GTO meetings are ill-fated as 10 years ago 3729GT was involved in a crash as well, fortunately without injuries back then.

The tour ended on Saturday at Versailles, where the owners were bid farewell during a gala dinner. Some of them may be back in 5 years on the next tour, but it will be interesting to see any developments during this period. With the high value of the cars at the moment the market is very active and the next meeting might see some new owners. Hopefully the cars will not end up as a pure investment and this will not have been the last time one could see 22 such cars together on the road.

Images ... Thomas Quintin, Peter & Wolfgang Singhof (www.ClassicCarPhotography.de)