Mercedes-Benz has AMG and BMW has M to run their motorsport divisions, and, with a history that stretches back nearly 40 years, Ferrari has Michelotto. Yet despite being the guiding force behind the development of iconic models such as the 288 GTO Evoluzione and every non-Formula 1 race car since 1996, its history is not a very well-publicized one. The reason is that Michelotto sells directly to racing teams, so no resources are wasted on frivolous advertising or PR, and that’s perhaps why no journalist has ever been invited inside to tell the story of the treasures found there.
Imagine a workshop as top secret as Area 51, where access is restricted to the 40 staff and not even customers are allowed to tread. A well-lit space, immaculate to the point of being clinically clean, the cars cubicled off with rows of bespoke tool kits, bodies off to expose the intricate inner workings. An engine room that looks like the assembly point for a fleet of spaceships. Boxes of hand-machined cogs for the gearbox department. Customer cars, too, both competition models and their road-going counterparts, on hand for restoration or upgrades.
This is all conjecture, of course, as the Padova-based workshop is not a scene for the uninitiated. During my visit, I wasn’t allowed to photograph anything and was sworn to silence about what I saw. But what I can say with certainty is that the company has come a long way since 1969, when a young Giuliano Michelotto started an all-marque service center that prepared Minis and DAFs (a long-gone Dutch automaker) for rallying.
IN 1977, AFTER YEARS of campaigning a Lancia Stratos to an impressive 30 rally wins and no fewer than five Italian championships, it was time to take a new direction. The Ferrari 308 GTB caught Michelotto’s eye. With a mid-engine configuration, a powerful V8, and, as early models had fiberglass body panels, light weight, the 308 looked like a possible winner against the period’s Opel Asconas, Fiat 131s, and Ford Escorts on tarmac events.
That was the theory, at least. But Ferrari had pulled out of sports and GT racing at the end of 1972 to concentrate fully on its Formula 1 program, so anything racing with a Prancing Horse badge was a privateer effort with very little, if any, input from Maranello. In other words, it would be a project Michelotto would have to tackle by himself.
Developing a road car from scratch to take on the established works rally teams was no easy feat, though, especially for someone funding the project out of his own pocket. In the beginning, Michelotto focused his attention on the permitted engine upgrades: lighter heads and high-compression pistons were fitted to the all-alloy V8, raising power from the stock 255 bhp to 300. At first, finishes were hard to come by—let alone good results—but Michelotto was confident enough in the car’s potential to continue. A second-place finish at the 1978 Rally Monza gave a first glimpse of what the 308 was capable of, and, apparently, caught the eye of Enzo Ferrari.
Ferrari had fond memories of his cars winning the Targa Florio and Tour de France from the late 1940s through the mid ’60s, so was interested in seeing the 308 perform as well as it could on the international rally scene. He actively encouraged the project, and among other things helped arrange a very favorable tire deal with Michelin.
From 1979 to ’82, 11 Michelotto-built Group 4 cars took 30 victories in national championships and select European Rally Championship events. (They were designed to compete on tarmac, so stayed away from the rougher gravel rallies.) In 1980, a partnership with Ferrari France injected capital into the project as well as bringing driver Jean-Claude Andruet into the picture, which made for a very successful combination. Andruet, in the red and white Entremont-sponsored GTB [We featured a replica of that car in issue #152’s “Group 4 Revisited.”—Ed.], entered only seven rallies in the 1981 European Rally Championship yet managed to finish the year in second place. In comparison, championship winner Adartico Vudafieri drove his works-supported Fiat 131 in 15 events.
That year also saw Andruet race to victory in two storied events: the Targa Florio and the Tour de France. If Ferrari was interested in the project before, now he was properly impressed. To commemorate the latter win, Enzo commissioned a special bronze trophy in the shape of a Prancing Horse. Despite the GT championships and class wins in legendary events like Le Mans and Daytona that would come over the next decades, that bronze horse still stands as pride of place in Michelotto’s office. It’s considered symbolic of the moment the long lasting and incredibly successful Ferrari-Michelotto relationship began.
The single highest achievement of the Group 4 program came in 1982. On the tight, twisting tarmac of the Corsica rally, Andruet, driving a Pioneer-liveried 308 GTB, led the first five stages ahead of Jean Ragnotti in his works Renault 5 Turbo. Despite how hard the flamboyant-driving Frenchman pushed, Andruet looked to have the race in hand—at least until a heavy rain shower soaked the mountain roads. Ragnotti’s much bigger service crew had a chase van ready with a set of wet tires, and this proved to be the crucial difference. Andruet, slithering around on slicks, dropped to second. It was a disappointing finish but an amazing result, one that’s likely to remain Ferrari’s one and only WRC podium.
FOR 1982, THE FIA LOOSENED up the rules to allow high-performance homologation specials. This was the beginning of the now-legendary Group B era, and many of the works teams put massive budgets behind their new cars.
Michelotto’s first attempt was the 308 GTB Group B, which was basically a revised Group 4 car. Upgrades included lightened and adjustable wishbones, a short-ratio steering rack, a heavy-duty clutch, adjustable shock absorbers, and bigger brakes. The biggest change was a new 32-valve Quattrovalvole cylinder head that would be fitted on later-model 308s and gave a 20-bhp boost.
Despite these improvements, the car’s potential was masked by homologation rules that required the use of narrow tires and the road car’s steel body panels. Weighing 30 kilograms (66 pounds) more than its predecessor and offering less traction, the 308 GTB Group B was ultimately an uncompetitive package.
Knowing that top-flight rallying success couldn’t be achieved through tuning a road car, Michelotto set about designing and building a pure-bred competition car from scratch. This would come to be known as the 308 GT/M.
Michelotto’s starting point was Ferrari’s 3-liter V8, which was positioned longitudinally (as opposed to transversely in the 308) in a lightweight, specially constructed spaceframe chassis, then mated to a 5-speed Hewland synchromesh gearbox. In addition to offering a lower center of gravity, this configuration, similar to that used on circuit-racing cars, was much easier for mechanics to work on. The engine was fitted with a Quattrovalvole cylinder head—as on the earlier Group B car—along with redesigned pistons, valves, and camshafts, and a Kugelfischer fuel-injection system with Bosch injectors. It delivered an impressive 370 bhp.
For bodywork, Michelotto turned to Auto Sport in Bastiglia, located near Modena, which took styling cues from the Pininfarina-penned 512 BB/LM of the late ’70s. The finished car weighed just 1,852 pounds.
The GT/M—for Michelotto, of course—stands as the only car not conceived, designed, and built in Maranello to be called a Ferrari, so exists as a well-crafted symbol of the extraordinarily high regard in which Enzo held Michelotto. Only three examples exist, so it is also one of the rarest of all Ferraris.
As a prototype, the GT/M was eligible to enter the Rally Monza, an event which teams often used to test their pre-homologation cars in a real-world environment. Michelotto-backed teams had won the event twice before, and Lele Pinto, who’d done most of the testing work on the GT/M, was leading until he slid wide in one corner and broke a wheel against tree. He eventually finished fourth.
THE GT/M NEVER MADE IT INTO PRODUCTION, but the strength of its performance pushed Ferrari to enter Group B in earnest. Michelotto knew his car would do well in tarmac rallies like Corsica, but the main target was the FIA’s proposed Group B circuit-racing series, which would see Maranello go head to head with Porsche’s 959.
For homologation purposes, 200 road cars had to be made. This was a reasonable undertaking for the big manufacturers like Peugeot, Lancia, Audi, and Ford (which built the 205 T16, Delta S4, Sport Quattro, and RS200, respectively), but a far larger one for tiny Ferrari. Nonetheless, the end result was something special: the 288 GTO.
As in the GT/M, Ferrari’s V8 was turned longitudinally ahead of the transmission. To make room for the layout, along with twin IHI turbochargers and their intercoolers, the 308’s wheelbase was extended by nearly four inches, and the track was widened. (In accordance with Group B’s turbo-equivalency formula, the turbocharged engine displaced only 2.8 liters; this was deemed equivalent to a 4-liter normally aspirated engine.) Rose-joint suspension and Brembo brakes were fitted, as was composite bodywork, although the doors remained in steel.
The 400-hp 288 GTO was the first street-legal production car to reach 300 km/h (186 mph). While only 200 were originally built to satisfy the homologation requirements, demand was so high Ferrari produced another 72 examples of its first supercar. But as special as the GTO was, it was in fact simply the starting point for something even more special: the incredible 288 GTO Evoluzione.
With bigger turbos and 1.4 bar of boost, the Evo’s engine could reportedly put out 650 bhp—the same as the F1 cars of the day. Stripped out and refitted with an all-new set of lightweight bodywork, the car weighed just 940 kg (2,072 pounds), and with its ultra-aggressive new suit of clothes and massive rear wing would have been an incredible sight to see tearing around a racetrack…but, sadly, it was not to be.
By 1985, speeds on the rally stages had grown uncomfortably high and rallying’s governing body was considering ways to decrease performance. Then disaster struck, when Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto were killed when their Lancia flew off the road and exploded during the Corsica Rally. Within hours, the FIA cancelled Group B; the Evoluzione project was aborted soon after, with just six examples completed.
While the Evo never saw action, all the work that went into its development was not in vain. The popularity of the 288 GTO revealed that there was a market for seriously high-performance supercars, so Ferrari used the Evoluzione as the starting point for what would arguably be one of the most recognizable cars in history, the F40. And Michelotto would be working in tandem with Maranello to develop the road car and create a racing version—but that’s a story for another day.