The Ferrari GTO was built to compete in the new Group B Race series and a minimum of 200 cars were required for homologation. However as only Ferrari and Porsche, with their 959, entered, the series was soon abandoned leaving just Group B Rally championship. The Porsche 959 (as the Porsche 961) only raced three times in Group B, but the 288 GTO never raced and all 272 cars built remained purely road cars.
Some of the 288 GTO's styling features were first displayed on a 308 GTB design exercise by Pininfarina shown at the 1977 Geneva Salon. This included the deep front spoiler, fender flares, rear lip spoiler, front lid radiator cooling louvers and quadruple driving lights.
The GTO was based on the mid-engined, rear wheel drive 308 GTB (which has a 3.0 litre V8 engine). The "288" refers to the GTO's 2.8 litre V8 engine as it used a de-bored (by 1 mm) V8 with twin IHI turbochargers, intercoolers, and Weber-Marelli fuel injection. The 2855 cc engine capacity was dictated by the FIA's requirement for a Turbocharged engine's capacity to be multiplied by 1.4. This gave the GTO a theoretical engine capacity of 3997 cc, just under the Group B limit of 4.0 litres.
Unlike the 308's 2926 cc engine, the GTO's 2855 cc engine was mounted longitudinally, using the 308's rear boot space. This was necessary to make room for the twin turbochargers and intercoolers. The racing transmission was mounted to the rear of the longitudinal engine moving the rear differential and wheels aft. As a result the wheelbase was110 mm (4.3 in) longer at 2,450 mm (96 in). The track was also widened to accommodate wider wheels and tires (Goodyear NCT 225/50VR16 tires mounted on 8 x 16" Speedline wheels at the front and 255/50VR16 mounted on 10 x 16" wheels at the rear) to provide increased cornering and braking performance and the ability to apply 400 hp (298 kW) and 366 lb·ft (496 N·m) of torque to the ground. The GTO was an impressive performer with 0-60 mph times in the upper 4 second range. Ferrari claimed 0-125 mph (201 km/h) in 15 seconds flat. Top speed was 189 mph (304 km/h), making it the first street-legal production car to reach 300 km/h (186 mph).
Ferrari also built five 288 GTO Evoluzione models with more aggressive and aerodynamic body styling and increased power. The engine in the 288 GTO Evoluzione originally put out as much as 650 hp (480 kW). With weight of 940 kg (2,072 lb) the car had a top speed of 225 mph (362 km/h). These cars form the clearest visual link between the 288 GTO and the F40 soon to follow.
Only three 288 GTO Evoluziones are still in existence, with one at the Galleria Ferrari museum in Maranello.