There’s a common misconception that the Ferrari 288 GTO was built for Group B rally, but it wasn’t ever intended to go off-road. Instead, it was built for a circuit racing series alongside the Porsche 959, the Jaguar XJ220 and the Lamborghini Countach QV Downdraft that was to use the highly open FIA Group B rules, but it never got off the ground due to cost and the overall death of the Group B formula due to an increasing number of tragic accidents.
But did you know that Ferrari did actually build a purpose-built rally car? The origin of Ferrari’s forgotten rally car lies with the growing popularity of the World Rally Championship in the late 1970s as several teams approached the highly-pedigreed company with requests for a rally version of the popular 308 GTB. As is still the case, Ferrari was highly committed to Formula One and, therefore, didn’t want to be directly involved with a different series. Instead, they directed their customers to Michelotto Automobili, the racing engineering firm whose relationship with Ferrari reflects that of GM and Pratt and Miller, the company that builds the Chevrolet Corvette C7.R GTE race cars.
Michelotto had already modified some 308 models to compete in rally racing, but these were light modifications informed by the more restrictive Group 4 formula. While their 308s were updated to take advantage of the new Group B rules, Michelotto and Ferrari planned on building a much more hardcore, purpose-built version. Ferrari gave Michelotto full control of the project, access to any Ferrari parts and a blank check to develop a Group B competitor. Work began in 1982 under compete secrecy.
The first change that Michelotto made to the 308 was to completely alter the tubular frame of the car so they could mount the engine longitudinally instead of transversely like it sits in the road car, allowing mechanics easier access in between rally stages. The 3.0-liter V8 itself was extensively modified as well, with stronger and lighter internals, an equal-length exhaust system and a unique fuel injection system that helped boost the power to a healthy 363 horsepower.
Michelotto also revamped the suspension to better suit the dynamic surface conditions of rally, as well as a complete redesign of the body work to shorten the front and rear overhangs considerably — allowing a much more favorable weight distribution that made the car perfect for rally. Carbon fiber also was used for all body panels, lowering the weight to a mere 1,852 pounds, although that number was slightly increased due to regulation ballast requirements. The finished product was called the 308 GT/M, for Michelotto, after the company that was responsible for the design.
During the early years of Group B Racing, the 308 GT/M would have had the greatest power-to-weight ratio of any car on the circuit, but, unfortunately, the first car wasn’t finished until 1984. By this time, the world of Group B rallying had shifted greatly due to the introduction of the 4-wheel drive Audi Quattro. The Quattro dominated the Lancia 037, which was similarly configured to the GT/M, leading Ferrari to determine that their car was outdated before it would ever hit the stages.
Despite Ferrari’s attempts to keep the GT/M under wraps, word managed to get out. Jean Blanton, a Belgian racing driver and longtime loyal customer reached out to Ferrari, asking to buy the special rally car. Blanton raced for Ferrari for many years, developing a great relationship with Enzo Ferrari and the company as a whole. This convinced Ferrari to consent to sell Blanton the car for an unknown sum. This car went to Belgium, and while it never competed in a WRC event, Blanton did race it every now and then in local rallies.
After Blanton bought the 308 GT/M, others started reaching out. The Italian rally driver Raffaele Pinto convinced Ferrari to build him a GT/M, which he entered into the 1984 Rally Autodromo di Monza. Pinto finished fourth, a full 2:40 behind the winning Lancia 037 — but even more embarrassingly, he finished behind the standard 308 rally car built by Michelotto. This result proved to be the end of the 308 GT/M program, and Ferrari canceled it. Pinto sent the car back to Michelotto, and they converted it into a road car. It would never race again.
However, one additional car was built after the project’s cancellation, using a spare chassis, for a Dutch collector named Nico Koel. It never raced in any rally events, but it is known to show up at Ferrari events and track days.
While the 308 GT/M never quite got off the ground, the lessons learned definitely lived on. The 288 GTO was never intended to rally, but it featured many of the changes made to GT/M — like the longitudinal engine. Furthermore, the 288 GTO Evoluzione racing version intended for Group B Circuit featured similar aerodynamic elements and carbon fiber body panels. While the Evoluzione never raced, these features informed the design of the F40, which marked the beginning of Ferrari’s modern era.