You have to admire the former Pink Floyd drummer, Nick Mason. Not because the group’s longest-serving member helped the band sell 250 million albums worldwide. Or because Pink Floyd ultimately influenced musicians from Queen to Radiohead, Genesis to David Bowie. No, it’s because Mason has just tossed me the keys to his £23m Ferrari and invited me to take it for a drive.
Furthermore, the invitation comes just an hour after meeting the rock star, whose multimillion-selling albums include The Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall and Wish You Were Here. When I had turned up at his hangar in the Cotswolds, Mason initially mistook me for the postman. However, if he calls me Postman Pat for the duration of our interview, I don’t care because the iconic 250 GTO is generally regarded as the greatest and most valuable Ferrari of all time. Between 1962 and 1964, just 39 of these cars, costing £6,000 each, were built, with every buyer personally vetted by Enzo Ferrari himself. DJ Chris Evans paid £12m for his in 2010, and a GTO originally built for Stirling Moss recently sold for £23m.
“People thought I was an idiot when I used money made from The Dark Side of the Moon to buy it for £37,000 in 1977. I don’t want to be smug but I think I was proved right in the long run,” says Mason. “The GTO is my favourite car because it’s the perfect all-rounder. The handling is quite forgiving, despite being built for the track and powered by a V12 engine. It is beautiful to look at but some of the engineering is quite crude and the interior is basic. Many high-performance cars are absolute beasts to drive but I think most people could cope with this Ferrari.”
I’m about to put that to the test on narrow country lanes, riddled with potholes and barely wide enough for a tractor. Unlike a race circuit, there’s no friendly gravel pit to save me – or Mason’s beloved motor – if I push too hard and come unstuck. During my time as a motoring journalist, I’ve driven all manner of vehicles, including Damon Hill’s Formula One car, countless Ferraris and a single-seat racer, but the 250 GTO is the Holy Grail of automobiles. I’m a little nervous because it’s left-hand drive too.
Mason has already taken me out for a drive to explain the controls. But now it’s my turn, and as I peer down a long bonnet, I’m faced with a dashboard that displays a rash of unfamiliar dials. “Olio” and “acqua” remind me that this car was built in an era when motor manufacturers didn’t care a hoot about language barriers. But while it is basic in the extreme and lacks the driving aids of modern cars, the GTO is so much more enticing to drive.
“Before Pink Floyd became a success, my father and I went to Goodwood in 1964 and watched this actual car being raced,” says Mason. “We had no idea that one day I would be one of only a handful of people in the world to own a GTO. The car is very light and with a 3.0-litre engine under the bonnet, it finished third in the 1962 Le Mans, then won the International Championship for GT Manufacturers three years in a row. The car has been raced ever since and never underwent restoration, so its value has increased by being very original.”
If you ever find yourself behind the wheel of a 250 GTO, here’s a face-saving tip. Turn the key clockwise, then push the ignition barrel in, or the engine simply won’t start. You will know when it does because four exhaust pipes start to spit and grumble fire from the rear. The five-speed gearbox is mounted high between the seats and as I slip the car into first gear, my only concern is not to tear up the grass on Mason’s lawn with a 20-yard wheelspin.
Above the burbling roar, Mason says he has never had a serious accident on the track. “I’ve spun off plenty of times but I’ve always been lucky. You have to take charge of the GTO – not let it drive you. The back end is light and with so much power, the car will drift sideways when pushed hard into a corner. It doesn’t have the modern gizmos to help keep it in a straight line, which is exactly why classic car racing is a much purer form of the sport.”
Mason doesn’t keep his prized GTO in a museum either. Instead, he has raced it all over the world, hurtling around circuits such as Le Mans and Silverstone with notable success. His two hangars near Cirencester are an Aladdin’s cave of classic racing cars and of trophies. The smorgasbord of automotive exotica includes a Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcage, countless Bugattis, plus Aston Martins, more Ferraris and a McLaren F1.
As I start to gain confidence and speed, Mason sits calmly in the passenger seat and explains some of the idiosyncrasies of the vehicle he knows so well. “It’s a show-off car because you need to be pulling at least 6,000rpm through the gears to make it go well, 7,500rpm to race and 8,000rpm to win. Anything over 4,000rpm and it is so loud you can barely think. It certainly turns heads!”
To prove his point, Mason taps the gear lever and mouths an instruction to “change down” from fourth, to third gear. The cogs grate as I make a clumsy hash of it, then there’s a sound like a fighter jet passing through the cockpit.
The front of the GTO is suddenly lighter, as the surge in power lifts the paintwork and we push forward towards a fast bend. Instead of sitting firm on the road, the Ferrari starts to lean sideways, which requires gentle correcting on the steering wheel.
By the time we return to Mason’s hangar, the car is hot and the dashboard needles are fluttering with every tweak of the accelerator. I’ve crashed the gearbox on countless occasions and managed to splatter the bodywork with horse manure. “I don’t mind other people driving the GTO. That’s what it was built for and I enjoy letting them sample the experience,” says Mason.
“I’m 68 now and realise that I can’t go on track racing for ever. A couple of cars have been sold from my collection but some of them, like the GTO, would be very hard to let go of. From now on I’m planning to concentrate more on touring rallies – the sort of events where you have time to admire the view, hear what your passenger is saying and then stop for lunch.”