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RML Short Wheelbase 2023 review

The RML Short Wheelbase is a stunning tribute to the immortal Ferrari 250 SWB, built around the glorious V12 from the 550 Maranello. We drive it to Goodwood, scene of some of the original SWB’s finest hours

Evo rating
Price
from £1,350,000
  • Sublime reimagining of an icon
  • We can’t afford one

It seems almost inconceivable that a small car company started in post-war Modena by a curmudgeonly man with his eye on road cars but his heart in racing has now become a $50 billion megabrand. Yet it’s all part of the endlessly fascinating fairy tale that is Ferrari.

I’m not sure what Enzo would make of the fast car landscape in 2023. There was a time when he knew all his customers by name. Nowadays almost 9000 cars are built, sold and shipped from Maranello every year. One suspects he would regard many of today’s customers with characteristic disdain, but not before gladly relieving them of their money. It was always thus, apparently.

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He would doubtless be vexed by his beloved Scuderia’s current struggles to capitalise on a quick car. And he would certainly have short shrift for the environmental pressures that threaten the future of his legendary dodici cilindri engines. Not that he appeared to be the sentimental sort, as evidenced by his scrapping of all the 156 ‘Sharknose’ Grand Prix cars at the end of a victorious 1961 F1 season. Similarly, his belief that the greatest Ferrari was the car that had yet to be built points to a man for whom wistfulness simply didn’t compute.

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So, what would he think of the RML Short Wheelbase? You can’t help but think he’d be bemused by the notion of going to great lengths to make an old car look even older. Likewise, that customers would be prepared to pay £1.35m (plus tax) for the finished article. I’m sure there are plenty today who share that view, yet resto-modding remains a compelling phenomenon, one that trades on nostalgia yet increasingly employs modern thinking, technology and materials to make revered classics perform better than they ever did in period. 

As the scene has evolved, so the choice of base cars has become more modern and imaginative. The Short Wheelbase reflects this shift, as does its truly transformative scope of works. Pricing it firmly in hypercar territory, RML boss Michael Mallock makes no bones about the Short Wheelbase being aimed squarely at high-end buyers, many of whom are disillusioned by downforce and dealer allocations and crave a simple, more involving driving experience. 

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Strictly speaking, the RML Short Wheelbase is more of a retromod than restomod, because it both backdates and uprates a late-’90s Ferrari 550 Maranello donor car to create an evocation of the legendary 250 GT SWB from the early ’60s. Funnily enough, RML’s decision to cap Short Wheelbase production at no more than 30 cars matches almost exactly the  number of new Ferraris sold annually in the UK in the early ’60s. How times change. 

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In evoking a Ferrari icon, RML’s SWB is an unflinchingly ambitious and, arguably, iconoclastic project. First shown in late 1959 and put into production in early 1960, the 250 GT SWB ushered in a new decade and a new era for Ferrari. A poster car for la dolce vita, the SWB spearheaded arguably the greatest automotive bloodline of all time, with the Spyder California, GTO, Lusso and LM all joining the 250 series before the SWB ceased production three years later. 

Dressed in one of Pininfarina’s finest designs and blessed with fine handling and a fabulous 3-litre V12, the SWB’s reputation as a great road and race car far exceeded its modest build run of just 168 cars. The GTO might trump it on value, rarity and celebrity, but the SWB is no poor relation. For some it’s the greatest Ferrari ever made. No pressure, then, Michael…

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RML certainly can’t be accused of doing things by half; the Short Wheelbase is a complete nose-to-tail, tyres-up effort. One that sees the 550 Maranello base car stripped to its monocoque before being rebuilt in the image of its forebear. It’s a reflection of the type of ‘whole car’ white-label projects RML undertakes for OE manufacturers that the Short Wheelbase features a full two-piece carbon bodyshell and a completely redesigned interior with all-new switchgear. All the glass and light units are E-marked. The HVAC system has been completely redesigned and a new, discreetly housed infotainment system fitted to deliver the kind of connectivity you expect in 2023. 

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Of the 550 hardware that remains, the engine and gearbox are refreshed and the suspension replaced with bespoke springs and dampers to suit the Short Wheelbase’s reduced mass and more centred weight distribution. Tuned to RML’s preferred settings for ride and handling, the 550’s original brakes, ABS and TC systems are retained for simplicity, safety and serviceability, but a new cooling system was developed to work within the tighter confines of the redesigned engine bay.  

Visually, the end result – both inside and out – clearly borrows heavily from the ’60s icon for inspiration, but in remaking and uprating the 550 that lies beneath, RML has managed an ambitious and appealing reinvention of both. After an early drive of this very car at the Millbrook Proving Ground during its development programme (evo 297), we’re now able to take it away for a few days to drive it on the road. 

How good it is to be back in a manual V12. I appreciate such things mean less and less to fewer and fewer people, but there’s something genuinely magical about the combination of a large-capacity V12 and an open-gated manual. It used to be a true rite of passage, but now it seems like a throwback to another age.

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The shift action is uniquely deliberate, the weighty chrome ball and slender stick sliding between the fingers of the gate with the slightest resistance. The sensation suggests the stick is a few thou wider than the slot, but far from being obstructive it feels fabulous. It even sounds great, each shift accompanied by a satisfying clack-shh-tckk as the gear slips home.

Paddleshifts have their place, but nothing matches the joy of block-shifting up the ’box, say from 2nd to 4th or 4th to 6th, skipping intermediate gears and relying on the V12’s epic flex to pull a tall ratio from walking pace to big speed in one seamless ever-growing surge. The majesty of a big-capacity V12 resides in its reach, and it’s this easy, elastic potency that gives the Short Wheelbase such memorable and malleable performance. 

It’s all part of a very special driving experience; one that’s easy to settle into and enjoy the light and shade. The switch from soothing to searing is only ever a couple of downshifts away, but the way you can relax into a journey is deeply gratifying. We’ve come to associate the term GT with somehow being soft-edged – real drivers choose sports cars, etc – but the Short Wheelbase is a reminder that far from being faint praise, a truly great Gran Turismo is a thing of wonder.

Our destination is Goodwood. Not to attend one of the estate’s many car-themed events, but to enjoy some meaningful seat-time on a wide mix of roads, and head to a place that resonates with the Short Wheelbase’s character and connects with the era it aims to evoke. 

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Even on a quiet weekday, Goodwood has a vibe that’s easy to sense but impossible to describe. Like RML’s creation, it harks back to the earliest days of Ferrari’s presence in the UK, and to the Maranello Concessionaires and Rob Walker teams that used to race 250 GT SWBs with great success. It also acts as a reminder of the Mallock family’s three generations of achievements as engineers and racers.

It’s not known whether Michael Mallock’s grandfather, Major Arthur Mallock, ever crossed paths with Enzo Ferrari. The likelihood is not, but there’s little doubt the latter’s disparaging view of English ‘garagiste’ teams who dared to challenge the Scuderia would have made Mallock bristle. 

Unlike Ferrari, Arthur Mallock’s mission was to maximise the performance of modest machinery. His first four-wheeled creation was built from Meccano, the budding nine-year-old engineer quickly progressing to his first full-scale project in his early teens. His favoured base car was the Austin 7, upon which he developed a succession of increasingly evolved ‘specials’ right up until the outbreak of the Second World War. 

After the war, his series of ‘U2’ chassis (introduced in 1958) revolutionised motor racing by offering those with a limited budget the opportunity to build a competitive race car from commonplace components. Where Ferrari’s approach was to build his cars around the engine, Mallock was the opposite: a chassis man who viewed engines as a necessary evil.

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His reputation as a dynamics guru meant he was highly regarded as a set-up expert. He was a pioneer in taking corner weights – initially using a set of bathroom scales! – and was often employed by race teams and drivers to improve a car’s handling. Apparently, he even worked his magic on a few Ferrari 250 GT SWBs…

Having effortlessly chomped through sections of the A1, M25 and A3, it’s a pleasure to point the Short Wheelbase down some of the sweeping country lanes that wind their way through leafy West Sussex and climb over the Downs. True to its name, the Short Wheelbase feels small and wieldy, threading a clean and satisfying line along these at times knotted and undulating roads.

Much like Aston Martin’s old V12 Vantage, the Short Wheelbase has that feeling of a compact car powered by a stonking engine. Ferrari’s current V12s are wildly powerful and thrive on revs, but the 550 was always more of a cultured turbine. In truth, while providing fabulous propulsion, its voice was always a bit muted. Here it retains that immense, silken surge but combines it with a greater sense of punch through the gears and a more rousing soundtrack to go with it. Thanks to RML’s all-new exhaust system, there’s more volume and drama, with a true howl as you extend it. A few pops and bangs when you ease off the throttle add to the texture, but it meets all noise regs, so it’s still a car for grown-ups.

RML fits the Short Wheelbase with passive Öhlins dampers, while spring rates and anti-roll bar thicknesses have also been tailored and the ride height lowered by a modest amount. It’s good to discover that the development car’s lack of body control has been dialled-out and some welcome feel and connection restored to the steering. It now feels much more together and contained, yet still with plenty of pliancy to work with the road.

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Unsurprisingly there’s a strong similarity to the 550, but where that car could ultimately feel a bit heavy, the Short Wheelbase has more energy about its direction changes. Not to the darty, hyperactive extent of current Ferraris, but just enough to know it can up its game if you wish to inject a bit more urgency into your inputs.

There’s plenty of grip and traction, but because of the deliberate compliance you can feel the car working beneath you, lateral load building nicely as you settle into a curve, and the tail just beginning to squat nicely as you feed in the power. It all makes for a fabulous experience. One that allows you to work the tyres to and beyond their limits without feeling like you’re on a qualifying lap, and comfortably place the car just-so within the confines of your lane.

Being master blaggers, a quick call to our friends at Goodwood secures us a bit of track time to get static images and a few action shots. We can’t do full laps at speed, but we can sneak off to Lavant on the far side of the circuit to get some cornering photos. The Short Wheelbase isn’t aimed at track work (nor was the 550), but it clearly has poise to spare.

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It doesn’t drift through the corners all-of-a-piece in the manner of its skinny-tyred ’60s namesake, but it does come alive at its limits. The way it breaks away is so progressive, and because the steering has that calmness of response you can control the car easily and smoothly with corrective lock and gentle throttle play. It really is a joy to balance, and while driving to this kind of extreme isn’t something you’d do on the road, it does confirm the Short Wheelbase is a benign machine that will revel in fast road use. 

The drive back to RML is a typical contrast of idyllic country roads and hellish Friday-night M25 gridlock. If nothing else, it offers a chance to process the Short Wheelbase experience. Given the calibre of the machine it aims to evoke, it could easily have been the car equivalent of a bad Hollywood remake of a classic movie. Those fears were largely allayed with our development drive last year, but still it comes as a great relief to find RML’s finished effort is respectful of the original while amplifying the character and capability of the underlying car. Think Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale.

Still, it’s not without challenges. Those with a critical eye for aesthetics will pick holes in some of the proportions and detailing, just as purists will question whether it blurs the line between homage and pastiche. The same concerns were voiced when Ford built the 2005 GT, but much like Ford’s GT40 tribute, the RML SWB eloquently counters subjective judgement with an objectively fine driving experience. 

It clearly has real star quality, too. People are genuinely bowled over by it. While sitting in traffic, other drivers pull alongside, drop their window and say how much they love it. Most impressive – and surprising – is that they do so despite not knowing exactly what they’re looking at. When told, they only become more intrigued.

There’s no denying the RML SWB is something of a conundrum. One that only you can satisfactorily unpick by applying your own individual take on what constitutes a great car. The look, price and ethos mean it’s not for everyone, but that’s true of everything at this level. All I’ll say is, if you feel happiest in an analogue world, retain a reverence for old-school V12s and enjoy the restomod sub-culture, you’ll appreciate its audacity, admire its engineering and envy those with the means to own one. 

And if you’re lucky enough to drive it? Assuming you haven’t been weaned on paddleshift transmissions and multi-mode digital dynamics, I guarantee you’ll be seduced. More relatable and useable than an original 250 and more vibrant and dynamic than a 550, it cherry-picks the best bits of the ’60s and ’90s eras and combines them to create a car that successfully revives a driving experience lost in the pursuit of increasingly unusable performance.

RML Short Wheelbase specs

EngineV12, 5474cc
Power479bhp @ 7000rpm
Torque429lb ft @ 5000rpm
Weight1470kg (dry)
Power-to-weight286bhp/ton (est)
0-624.1sec
Top speed180mph (est)
Base price£1.35m plus local taxes

This story was first featured in evo issue 308.

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