A Ferrari Dino 246 GT, built 1971, sits parked in...

A Ferrari Dino 246 GT, built 1971, sits parked in downtown Baden-Baden, southern Germany. (July 12, 2003) Credit: AP

It has to be considered one of the most public gestures to honor a son, ever.

Had he not died, Dino Ferrari would have had the racing world in the palm of his hand.

As the son of Enzo, it was Dino's destiny to some day take over the reins of the company his father built, a company with a closet full of exotic automobiles and checkered flags.

Instead, he died a young man after living just 24 years.

He never ruled the Ferrari kingdom, but his father, as a tribute to his son, commissioned a rolling automotive monument. In the end, Dino would become better known in death than in life.

Even still, arguments continue to this day as to whether Enzo Ferrari's magnificent Dino sports car is, in fact, a real Ferrari. On one hand, none have the Ferrari name or its famous logo. Il Commendatore, as Enzo was respectfully called, specified that only a simple "Dino" nameplate be displayed on the nose of his creation. And how could it be called a genuine Ferrari when the engine, a V6 and not the usual V12 that powered the "real" thing, was largely the creation of Fiat, the giant automobile conglomerate that would eventually purchase Ferrari in 1969.

On the other hand, Enzo commissioned the Dino with the hope that a whole new line of smaller, lighter (yet still high-performing) exotics would bear his son's name. As for the powerplant, Ferrari's engineers handled all the design work and built many of its key components as well as the chassis and suspension, at the Maranello, Italy factory. Fiat simply supplied the block and a few other accessories to Ferrari's specifications.

To prove the point, some Dino owners have gone so far as to place Ferrari badges on what they feel is the genuine article.

Whether they do it for pride or to counter the critics is hard to say. In the end, the ongoing controversy probably wouldn't amuse the company's founder, who held sacred the memory of his son. In the years following Dino's death in 1956 from failing health, his father was rarely seen without a black tie around his neck, a sign of perpetual mourning.

When the first mid-engined Dino was displayed nearly a decade later at the 1965 Paris auto show, the world was only just beginning to discover the power and handling benefits of positioning the engine behind the passenger compartment. The bodywork, crafted by the Italian studio Pininfarina, was a knock-out, with curved front fenders, deeply recessed headlights, steeply raked windshield and "flying buttress" rear roofline that surrounded the embedded back window with a swooping sail on each side that ran almost to the tail of the car. It was a true thing of beauty.

Two years later, the Dino 206 GT (the numbers represented the 2.0-liter engine displacement and its six-cylinder engine) entered production. Among the many innovations were its transverselymounted (sideways) engine, fully independent suspension, five-speed gearbox, four-wheel disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering. These features had been harvested from Ferrari's vast racing experienced and converted to road-going use. The unique frame was made using tubular steel, upon which hand-formed aluminum body panels were attached.

The finished product was on the small side, but nonetheless visually appealing. Unfortunately, it was also noisy and uncomfortable to sit in and lacked any semblance of luggage space. More importantly, the alloy engine required almost constant maintenance. Destined for the European market, only about 100 of these 180-horsepower Dinos were made during its brief lifespan.

But Enzo Ferrari refused to abandon his offshoot brand and in 1969 released a new-and-improved 246 GT. Not only did it have a longer wheelbase (and more cockpit room), it offered a stronger 195-horsepower 2.4-liter V6 with a cast-iron block instead of aluminum.

Weighing just 2,200 pounds, the Dino could hit 60 mph from rest in seven seconds and reach a top velocity of 140 mph. These numbers weren't even close to the 12-cylinder Ferrari Daytona coupes (zero to 60 in 5.4 seconds and a 170-mph top speed) that were sold alongside the Dino at Ferrari dealerships in Europe and, by that time, North America. In its defense, the mid-engined Dino was at least $5,000 cheaper (about 25 percent) and could easily out-handle its faster relative. It was also, in many people's minds, better looking. As a result, Dino sales clobbered those of its pricier relation.

By 1972, the car's cuteness factor was on the rise as the targa-roof 246 GTS arrived. With its top panels removed, the sports-coupe-turned-roadster was more practical and even more appealing to the eye.

Critics continued to harp about the Dino's raucous engine and mechanical noises that could drown out normal cockpit conversation, but their complaints were never addressed. For purists, these sounds were like a concerto to the ears and a necessary and desirable part of the Ferrari experience.

Production wrapped up in 1974 after some 4,000 cars had been constructed. Like the son Enzo Ferrari had lost years earlier, there would only be the one and only Dino.

Regardless of whether they carry the retrofitted Ferrari name, the Dino remains one of the company's grandest - and a father's proudest - achievements.

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