For the 18th Earl of Pembroke, cars are a calling. This, after all, is a man whose whose great grandfather used a period grand prix racer as daily transport in early 20th-century London.
The ancestral home of William Herbert, Lord Pembroke, is Wilton House, an elegant English estate set amid the verdant landscape of south-west Wiltshire. The house has an enviable reputation for its remarkable private collection of paintings and sculpture, but it is the contents of the adjoining former riding school that we have come to see.
In the centre of what is now a state-of-the-art garage, surrounded on all sides by an eclectic mix of historic racers, modern supercars and post-war classics, sits a near-perfect 288 GTO.
Homologated for an unrealised Group B sports car series, the 288 GTO was a thoroughbred racer denied its right of passage. In the end, some 272 were made and sold as road-legal customer cars.
With a passing nod to the 308 GTB from which it sprang, the 288 GTO used Kevlar and carbon composites to make up a longer, wider, lighter body that housed a twin-turbocharged 2.9-litre V8, now mounted longitudinally and good for 400bhp.
Performance figures were bewildering by mid-1980s standards, with 100km/h seen off in 4.9 seconds and a top speed comfortably in excess of 300km/h. A production first.
Today the GTO seems no less remarkable. Somehow this 30-year-old car has eschewed the ageing process, as fresh and impactful in its compact, aggressive elegance as it must have been on first sight in 1984.
The engine turns without hesitation, roaring into life and reverberating off the high stone stable walls as we weave gently out into the sunlight. Lord Pembroke is a car guy in the real sense. He has driven his GTO across Europe, to Le Mans, over the Stelvio Pass and home via the Nürburgring, and is open to ‘any excuse’ when it comes to another local excursion.
Twin trumpet exhausts flick a foot of flame back towards vast wrought iron gates as the GTO cracks and burbles its way out of Wilton.
‘Even though I’ve only had it three years it’s hugely special to me, because not only is it utterly stunning – and an iconic piece of Ferrari’s history – but it’s the best car I’ve ever driven. There’s nothing that feels as alive and exciting.’
The unmarked originality of this low mileage example is remarkable, time warp stuff. The heady smell of old leather, the touch of lightweight man-made fibres, the thrum of a V8 mere millimetres behind the bulkhead, it really is all utterly intoxicating.
As we begin to devour empty British countryside at a staggering rate, Lord Pembroke confirms a marked respect for this automotive milestone.
‘The first time you drive one you’re slighty terrified,’ he remarks as revs build and hedgerows blur. He flicks fast and firm through the dogleg H-pattern. ‘What you’ve built up in your mind is never quite how it is the first time, but once you get the hang of things you realise how spectacular it is.’