I once asked someone at Ferrari's Maranello headquarters who he saw as the company's main rivals. "Wea av no raivalz", came the rather snooty (and wholly inaccurate) reply, but it wasn't always like this. Turn the clock back 25 years and there was a definite fly in Ferrari's ointment - one that also had a prancing horse on its badge. Yes, Porsche and Ferrari were practically at each others' throats. And there was no denying it.
The two cars you see here - Ferrari's 288 GTO and Porsche's 959 - represent the absolute pinnacle of what their makers were capable of in the mid-1980s, and they were both rivals in every sense of the word. Two and a half decades later, they still split opinion, and I'm here to decide which is the better driver's car - a task I've been looking forward to for as long as I can remember. The Ferrari was built purely to perform on the race track; the Porsche was a veritable science laboratory on wheels, designed to whip the Italian upstart with a combination of brute force and technological might. The gloves were off.
I'm in the wilds of Yorkshire, on the east coast of England, where the guys at a dealership called Specialist Cars of Malton (www.specialistcarsltd.co.uk) have kindly negotiated with the owner of both cars, one Lord Mexborough - serial collector and all-round good sport - for me to have the keys, not just for an hour or so but for two whole days. The reason? Well, most magazines have, for years, been comparing the 959 with Ferrari's F40 because they were launched around the same time. But the 959's direct competitor has always been the forerunner of the F40, the 288 GTO, and here's why this test is the real deal.
Group B was a race series conceived by the FIA and introduced in 1982 to tempt major manufacturers back into motorsport. The rally side of things was a sensational success, giving us some of the greatest, most iconic competition cars of all time, but there was supposed to be another arm to Group B - track racing. It was a tempting proposition for manufacturers. They could produce just 200 roadgoing examples and the rules were lax enough to allow truly incredible power outputs, making for an exciting race series that would generate endless publicity. Only it didn't, because just two manufacturers signed up: Porsche and Ferrari, with these two models. Group B racing was abandoned, but both companies had invested too much time and money to just simply forget it.
Unveiled at the Geneva Auto Salon in 1984, Ferrari's 288 GTO stole the show. For Group B racing, Ferrari had drawn first blood and the result was the world's fastest production car - 304kph might not sound that impressive, but in 1984 it was headline news. Everyone wanted one and Ferrari had to meet demand by building 72 more than expected. It's easy for many to dismiss Ferraris of old as delicate, unreliable, nothing more than pretty trinkets. It's a prejudiced, uninformed way of thinking and you certainly couldn't say that about the 288 GTO - it was born to win. But while the use of composite materials in its construction might have been revolutionary, compared with the car Porsche counter-attacked with, the GTO was positively stone aged.
Where Ferrari had used simplicity with the GTO, Porsche brought hitherto unseen technology to the fight with the 959. The world had seen nothing like it. It had the unmistakable physical profile of a 911, it had a 911 interior and it had a flat-six engine out back, but that's where the similarities ended between the two Porsches. Ahead of its time? That's an understatement - cars are only just catching up now, almost a quarter of a century on.
Four-wheel drive, traction control, adjustable ride height, ABS, run-flat tyres and every conceivable luxury was piled into it and, when it was finally unveiled three years after the GTO, Porsche had stolen Enzo's thunder - the 959 was, with a top speed of 317kph, the world's fastest production car. Enzo was allegedly so furious that he'd been trumped in every way by Porsche that he sanctioned the F40, the last car he was ever to see bear his name, which upped the ante still further and stole the 959's top-speed crown.
The extent of Porsche's development of the 959 meant the company lost twice what each of the 220 examples sold for - something Bugatti currently says about the Veyron. Yet today, a 288 GTO, if you can find one for sale, will fetch twice what a 959 would cost - and I've been wondering why that is. Perhaps it's to do with how they compare, not on a specification sheet but on the road. There's absolutely no doubt that, had Group B happened, the 959 would have kicked the GTO's backside, but the road is where we'll get the measure of the two and maybe discover why the GTO is so coveted.
I start to worry about the Ferrari, thinking the drive may disappoint - that no car could live up to its physical appearance like this one will have to. The Porsche just doesn't tug at the heartstrings like this. The 911 shape may be too familiar to pull off that trick but the way that Porsche's designers had to smooth its lines to reduce drag resulted in a car that looks like a jelly mould. Time has not served the 959 well.
It's the Ferrari's keys I grab before heading out onto some of my favourite roads. I tentatively head out in front of the Porsche and trundle through a small town before hitting the open road. With the oils cold, it's difficult to engage any gear with the open-gate lever but, after 10 minutes or so, things become much easier. This doesn't happen in a 959 - everything's simple from the word go. As the road clears, I drop into second and nail it. The revs climb past 3,000rpm and the twin turbos start to wake up with a discernable whistling. With my foot flat on the throttle, the GTO picks up its skirt and shoots forward with alarming rapidity and I reach for third, still going for it. The speed piles on and on and on and I find there's no need for fourth and fifth unless I just want to take things easy. No matter how fast I go, however, there's a white 959 looming large in my mirror.
After half an hour, I swap keys for the Porsche. It really couldn't be more different and immediately I feel right at home thanks to its traditional 911 vibe. I head back onto the empty road and spend another half hour letting the 959's blistering speed blow me away. It's ferociously fast and capable, but there's something missing: personality; charisma. As the car's electrical and hydraulic systems hiss and hum, I can't help the feeling that I'm just here as a guest. I feel like this car doesn't trust me to make my own decisions, that it wants to take care of everything. Which is exactly what it does.
Back in the GTO and the differences between the two cars are becoming more obvious. Like the 959 it feels totally compliant, soaking up bumps that would have newer Ferraris skitting all over the place and, through demanding corners, it's perfectly balanced with huge reserves of grip. But unlike the 959, it's a dynamic drive and the chassis is so well set up that I can't imagine a car more fitting for these roads. The steering, too, conveys every nuance, every surface undulation without feeling the least bit unsettled.
Push too hard, though, and the GTO overcomes its grip on the road. I have to be careful when those turbos come on boost because it all happens so quickly and the rear tyres can lose their purchase in a split second. As they do, the tail swings and a quick correction with the wheel brings it back into line, but the car's enormous monetary value does serve to focus the mind. The 959, on the other hand, never feels less than totally composed and, if the heavens opened, I know which one I'd be safer in.
It takes two days of this back-to-back experimenting to get the full measure of these two incredible cars, but what it boils down to with me is interactivity. The feedback provided by the GTO makes every drive an absolute thrill, making me feel connected to it in a way the 959 never could. The 959 leaves very little to discover about your talents as a driver, whereas the GTO will continue to astound for many years to come as you get to know its foibles and obvious attributes. And as much as I respect the 959, I don't feel any desire to own one. It's left me cold. Two days of hard driving in this Ferrari, however, will be an experience I shall call to mind until the day I die. It really is that good.