It’s a good old bus,’ says Classic Cars reader Jon Driver with a grin, and while a Dino 246 GT might not usually be referred to in such a manner, it’s obvious that phrase is meant as a compliment.
We’re standing on a freezing disused airfield in north-west England. It’s not the most glamorous of locations, but the Dino radiates charm and beauty in a mesmerising manner: more than enough to warm our hearts, if not our ears and fingers. The Dino’s aura, belying its diminutive size, is something that’s tricky to put into words, but you know it when you feel it, and right now we’re really starting to feel it.
“I’ve always been interested in Sixties and Seventies sports cars and supercars”
What makes this dream drive even more interesting than usual is that our reader is a Ferrari owner, and moreover owns the model that effectively replaced the 246 GT in the Ferrari ranks: the 308 GT4, initially marketed under the Dino badge as the 246 had been. Today will be fascinating, if nothing else to see whether it meets his expectations – and if it can justify the enormous price premium over the 308 GT4 in the current marketplace.
Our reader Jon has owned an eclectic group of cars, including a period with a Lamborghini Urraco. ‘I’ve always been interested in Sixties and Seventies sports cars and supercars,’ he says, ‘although I started off with Ford Escort MkII RS2000s – I thought I was Bodie and Doyle. I always dreamed about Lotus Esprits, and then had a number of them. I believe in living for the day: you’re only here once. I’ve had 25-30 cars over the years.’
Jon Driver’s List
Despite owning a Ferrrari 308 and having sampled Lotus Esprits, various TVRs and a rather ‘costly’ Lamborghini Urraco, Jon’s love of fast Fords means his wishlist was entertainingly varied, from the Group B homologation special Ford RS200 to the Lamborghini Miura.
Dino 246 GT
Ford Escort RS1800 MkII
De Tomaso Pantera
Ferrari 365 GTB/4
When it comes to the Dino, Jon’s influences go back to the TV series The Persuaders! (where one of the lead characters, played by Tony Curtis, drove a Dino) and via another passion of his – rock music. ‘Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey and Cozy Powell all had them.’
It might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it really is a small car – the kind you feel you can wrap your arms around and pick up. ‘It’s a petite, usuable supercar,’ says Jon, studying it closely. ‘It’s all about the curves – it’s an iconic shape, but it’s doesn’t look intimidating like a Daytona. It really embodies the time – it’s the type of car to drive to Saint-Tropez.’
A delicate little lever opens the door and then you thread your body down low into the cabin: yes, it’s snug in here, but the surprise for me is just how accommodating it is given the dainty overall dimensions. Although the laidback steering wheel is a bit of a stretch for both Jon and I, we have enough headroom and our knees are far from jammed under our chins.
The overall finish of the cabin is simple: the dash top is covered in a suede-like material known as ‘mouse fur’, and the ventilation sliders are arranged haphazardly in the centre of the dashboard. The switchgear is rudimentary, but as tools of the trade the small, simple Nardi steering wheel and the open-gate shifting mechanism – complete with chrome ball atop wand-like lever – have yet to be bettered for looks.
Nevertheless, Jon isn’t terribly impressed, and says earnestly, ‘I’m not sure I’d pay £200,000 for this. That’s a lot of dollar – I think I’d buy a Boxer for half that. I can’t believe how basic it is inside, it doesn’t feel as comfy as mine.’ Perhaps that’s our big question for today: can a sports car built in relatively large numbers, and one that’s more about making you feel like you’re going fast than actually going fast, really be worth so much money?
This car belongs to a man whose love for the Dino runs deep – he should be able to provide some pointers. John Sykes has owned one since the age of 21, and he currently has three GTs. It’s a car in stark contrast to those of his day job, running Triumph specialist TR Bitz, but as he says, ‘It’s the car I’ve always wanted, and although I’ve sold a few over the years I’ve kept this one – I’ve had it 28 years now. People don’t hate you for driving it, and I’ve seen people even walk past a genuine 250 GTO to say how much they like the car.’ This Dino effect then, it’s a powerful force… But how did it feel handing someone else the keys? ‘It was nice to be on the outside looking in for a change; there’s not a straight line on it.’
Fairly soon the 246 is swooping through some narrow Cheshire lanes, delivering an aria spat from quad tailpipes jutting from the cut-off tail. Yes, I know, we’re perilously close to careering into car magazine clichés here, but it’s at times like these that I realise all those road tests of old Ferraris weren’t exaggerating. Jon looks relaxed. Far from sweating at the value of the car, he seems to be enjoying his time behind the wheel. ‘It’s really easy to drive, I wasn’t expecting that,’ he shouts over the din of the little V6 idling busily away as we pause for a moment.
Finally, it’s time for me to drive. I’m surprised by how easy it is to get comfortable, and note with a grin the shapely, almost pornographic front wings as they rise and fall in the extremities of my forward vision. They are the Dino driver’s gunsights for the road ahead, but also a constant reminder that I’m driving something beautiful. The view aft is equally inspiring, framed by those delicate roof buttresses.
Jon was smiling when he jumped out, so I can’t wait to ask him if he’d changed his mind from his initial lukewarm reaction. And yet right now I need to concentrate: there’s an open-gate gearshift to master, and a 41-year-old Italian temptress to try and coerce into doing what I want.
I need not have worried. The gearlever requires a considerate hand to drop into first, but other than that it couldn’t be any easier: everything about the car is precise and uniformly weighted so that driving it becomes second nature very quickly – I can see now why Jon was immediately at home. However, it’s the engine that really dominates the experience, dazzling with its willingness to rev and serving up a soundtrack that has every single hair on the back of my neck rigid with attention.
John lowers the passenger side window, all the better to hear the hungry induction of the Weber carburettors, and I’m soon driving along laughing away to myself. The steering is a close second in appeal, possessing real precision and fabulous feedback from the road surface beneath the front wheels: yes it does weight up when you apply lock, but it never loses that delicate sense of cohesion, and it’s all very manageable.
The Dino is a car that asks for, and benefits from, a light touch by the driver, and while it’s undeniable that there are many modern hot hatchbacks that could leave it gasping in a straight line, so the rewards of driving it are vastly beyond the reach of most cars. My mind is drawn back to something John had said earlier, ‘It’s the sensory experience, it makes you feel like you’re going fast.’
All too soon it’s time to hand the keys back. Rarely can I remember aching so intently to keep driving. Let me see, might make France by midnight, quick stop overnight, then on to the Alps… hmmm, I wonder if the owner’s up for that...
Jon and I exchange knowing glances – I can see he feels it too. ‘What surprised me was how easy the car was to drive, and how agile too,’ he says. ‘It’s clear and crisp in its responses. In fact, it’s probably easier to drive than mine. It’s not at all the Stone Age experience I was expecting, because I feel like I’m a part of the car when I’m driving it, like it has been built around me.’
Then he pauses and frowns before continuing, ‘The frightening part was not having any wing mirrors, which was scary in a £200,000 car. I couldn’t see anything.
‘It felt more compact than mine,’ he adds. ‘With the engine right behind you – it’s just six inches behind your ear – it allowed the rasp of the exhaust to come through. It’s more distant in my 308.’
I ask him about the performance. ‘For a little fella it bombed along nicely, quicker than I thought it would be – much quicker.’ He has a point, and it reminds me that the thick end of 200bhp was still a commanding figure back in 1973.
“There’s no other car you can drive down the road and get the reaction you get in this one”
‘You know what,’ says Jon, pausing momentarily for thought and then smiling in resignation, ‘I would pay £200,000 for it. When I first saw it on the airstrip it looked so small, like a little bug, and I thought how can it be worth that sort of money? But for all the reasons above it is worth it, and there’s no other car you can drive down the road and get the reaction you get in this one. It’s like art too: the art of the motor industry is the modern art of our times.
‘Given £200,000 to spend on a new Ferrari or one of these, I’d go for the Dino: there’s no electronic trickery, it’s a raw, in-your-face sports car, and I suspect it would be easier to maintain.’
With the same budget, I think I’d buy one too, Jon.
Thanks to John Sykes of TR Bitz (trbitz.com, 01925 756000) for the Dino 246 GT and John Greatorex of Ferrari specialist GT-Cars Ltd (gtcarslimited.co.uk, 01925 262800).