It must be a car dealer’s worst nightmare. A fella turns up to test drive your precious Ferrari 288 GTO – worth millions – and then takes off with the thing when you step out to swap seats.

Exactly that happened to a dealer in Dusseldorf, Germany earlier this week. Fortunately, the car was recovered soon after, but the thief remains at large.

The dealer had been exchanging emails about the Ferrari with the thief for a couple of weeks before he arrived at the showroom by taxi. The test drive had been going perfectly normally until they stopped so that the dealer could swap into the driver’s seat. As soon as he was out of the car, the thief floored it and disappeared.

Thing is, a Ferrari 288 GTO is a bit… distinctive. So the police were quickly able to track it down to a garage in the nearby town of Grevenbroich.

The 288 GTO in question once belonged to former Ferrari F1 driver, Eddie Irvine and is valued at around £2 million. Exactly what the thief thought he could do with it is anyone’s guess. Because, while there are some places in the world it might be possible to sell a stolen 288 GTO, it would be virtually impossible to move on one as well-known as this particular example without someone noticing.

Ferrari conceived the 288 GTO to go Group B racing – on track, rather than in rallying. While it was based on the same chassis as the mid-engined 308, by the time Ferrari’s engineers were finished with it, it was a completely different car.

It used a spaceframe chassis made from high-strength steel, with Kevlar, aluminium and fibreglass used for other bits of the structure and the Pininfarina-styled bodywork. Which had to be stretched and pulled significantly to accommodate the powertrain and keep the thing planted on the road.

Because there was quite a lot of power to deal with. The engine – again, loosely based on that of the 308 – was a 2,855cc, 32-valve V8 with a pair of massive IHI turbos strapped on, producing 395bhp and 366lb/ft of torque.

Those were immense numbers in 1984. Especially in a car that weighed a featherweight 1,160kg. And whose traction control and ABS systems were the driver’s feet.

Ferrari needed to build 200 examples of the 288 GTO to compete in Group B – 272 left the factory between ’84 and ’87. In the end, lack of interest meant the Group B racing series never really got off the ground and was cancelled before the 288 GTO could compete. Group B itself was, of course, killed off altogether at the end of ’86 after several horrific accidents in the World Rally Championship.

Still, the 288 GTO was by no means a waste of time. Ferrari learned many lessons from it about exotics materials and turbocharging that were applied to the iconic F40.

The 288 GTO stolen in Germany actually comes in at the low end of the value spectrum, thanks to its relatively high mileage. Top-end examples can go for £3 million or more.

By Graham King