A century ago the Maserati brothers started with spark plugs. The cars came later.
Carolina Maserati’s boys – there were six of them: Carlo, Bindo, Alfieri, Mario, Ettore and Ernesto – were the sons of a railway engineer from Piacenza, Italy. All but Mario, the artist, suffered the appropriate fascination of many Italian boys with all things mechanical … especially self-propelled things that went very fast.
When the first generation of crude automobiles began to appear in Europe, the boys’ enthrallment with trains cooled. Gasoline replaced steam in the lads’ pantheon of power. Carlo actually built a single-cylinder motorcycle. It worked very well. Patronage brought the funds for more sophisticated motorcycles, and Carlo entered them in races. He even won a few.
The social currents of early Italian motorsport eased Carlo Maserati into the acquaintance of Vincenzo Lancia, a successful Fiat racing driver. That was the end of Carlo’s motorcycle business and he became an employee of Fiat. But he found Fiat’s racing department closed to him, so employment as the chief tester and racing driver at Bianchi followed.
Carlo ended up in Milan where he built a racing car for a local firm that did not survive. But the racing die was cast. Carlo and Bindo went to work for the esteemed house of Isotta Fraschini as testers. Alfieri became a factory racer for Isotta with his start in the 1908 Grand Prix des Voiturettes at Dieppe, France.
Alfieri built a new grand prix car from scratch for Diatto, who not long after its debut in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, was compelled to leave racing in financial extremis. This financial fragility became a persistent sub-plot in Maserati’s long competition history. So Alfieri left Diatto and took his lovely but undeveloped straight-eight cylinder racer with him.
The first car to wear Maserati’s dark blue cartouche bearing Poseidon’s trident appeared for the 1926 Targa Florio. Maserati was now a car manufacturer in its own right. Naturally, the first true Maserati automobile was a racing car and it won its class with a solid ninth overall finish. That May afternoon in Sicily triggered a hopelessly romantic, five decade ride around the globe that would take the brothers’ Bologna marque to the loftiest heights of international motorsport and to its operatic depths.
Maserati’s cars were straightforward designs with the economic advantage of being simple for the privateer owner/entrant to service. The 1930s brought Maserati success. A quartet of overall victories in the harsh Targa Florio, a race around the rugged mountains of Sicily, earned the brothers continental fame and much needed customers.
While the brothers’ racing engines were robust, their chassis were not sophisticated. However, Maserati’s employment of hydraulic brakes with huge drums gave the Bolognase racers a clear advantage. By the mid-1930s the list of Maserati racers was deep. The great French Champion Raymond Sommer was appointed Maserati’s distributor in France. Maserati’s drivers list is a Who’s Who of trans-war racing stars: Le Mans winners, Bentley Boys Bernard Rubin and Tim Birkin were Maserati customers. So were Giuseppe Campari, Luigi Fagioli and American undergraduate racer Whitney Straight; all won with Maserati power.
New Rules and Unexpected Opportunities
A new set of rules for international Grand Prix racing doused much of the ardor of Italian motorsport. In 1934, the international rulebook brought the Teutonic attentions of a new name – Auto-Union – and an old marque that was as much feared as it was respected: Mercedes-Benz. The new international racing formula summoned a golden age of European motorsport that was dominated by German cars.
What it brought to Italian race car constructors was demotion and, occasionally, humiliation. The Italians turned to voiturette racing: smaller cars, much like the current Formula 3 class, became the staple of Italian racers. Italy, and Maserati, fought for the undercard in the wake and shadow of the German cars.
By the end of the decade, Maserati’s successful spark plug business had attracted the commercial attentions of industrialist Adolfo Orsi and his son Omer. They coveted the brothers’ spark plug business and the glamorous reputation of Maserati’s racers, and saw them as a way to promote their other businesses – steel, machine tools, transport, electrical and agricultural machinery. The sale brought funds to resuscitate Maserati’s racing department.
The three surviving Maserati brothers signed a ten-year “service agreement” with the Orsis and moved from Bologna to Modena. The timing was exquisite. Another new set of Grand Prix regulations was published mandating less powerful engines for 1938 and 1939. This brought the creation of one of the greatest racing cars in history, though its glory days were not on the Grand Prix circuits of Europe, but in America at the most famous race in the world.
New World Orders
Maserati’s new 8-cylinder 8CTF Grand Prix racer was an elegant single seater. Just three were constructed. The first one led the opening laps of its debut race in the Grand Prix of Tripoli. It set the race’s fastest lap, but retired with engine trouble. And the Germans won yet again. But the simple, straightforward and svelte 8CTF had served notice that it had the speed.
This did not escape the notice of 1937 Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw who, after the Vanderbilt Cup road races of 1937 and 1938, decided that a front line European Grand Prix car could win the Indy 500. Maserati’s supercharged, straight-eight 8CTF was his choice.
Shaw qualified his new dark red Maserati wearing the name of its sponsor, “the Boyle Special,” in third place on the outside of the 1939 Indy 500’s front row. Just 16 laps before the checkered flag, Shaw drove the new Maserati into the lead of the world’s most famous race. His old friend, three-time Indy 500 winner Lou Meyer, was second and closing on Indy’s long straights. But Shaw’s Grand Prix Maserati was simply too fast through the turns, and Meyer crashed trying to catch Shaw’s Maserati that became the first foreign car to win the Memorial Day Sweepstakes in two decades.
Maserati’s 8CTF had a fine summer in Europe, but no one could defeat the Germans. This mattered not one bit to Wilbur Shaw and his sponsor who returned to Indianapolis in May of 1940 with the same Maserati that had won the 500 in 1939. This time Shaw qualified in the middle of Indy’s front row.
It was Shaw’s third 500 victory – he became the first to win Indy twice in a row – and this win came under the yellow and checkered flags. Rain spoiled the final 50 laps.
By 1941 the trident badge of Maserati seemed like the express ticket to Indy’s victory lane, and Mauri Rose joined Wilbur Shaw in the Speedway’s Maserati ranks. His 8CTF and Shaw’s bracketed Rex Mays’ Bowes’ Seal Fast Special on the front of the starting grid. It was to be the last Indy 500 before World War II finally engulfed America. Race day 1941 went into the history books as one of the most bizarre Indy 500s, ever.
Early on race day morning a fire burned through Indy’s wooden garages. A welding spark had torched off gasoline fumes. Two qualifiers missed the green flag and the race started two hours late with just 31 entries.
Shaw’s double Indy-winning Maserati 8CTF was still strong and steady enough to control the Indy 500 from the front. Until an undiscovered faulty rear wheel collapsed, sending the claret-colored Maserati into Indy’s Turn One wall. Shaw was knocked unconscious and paralyzed temporarily.
Pole-winner Mauri Rose’s Maserati also retired. Car owner Lou Moore sent Rose into the cockpit of his 14th place Noc-Out Hose Clamp Special, the #16 Offenhauser-powered Wetteroth driven by Floyd Davis that had started in the middle of the field. Rose drove it to the front and kept it there.
The 1941 race was the last Indy 500 before Pearl Harbor, but Maseratis continued to race at the Speedway well into the 1950s. By then peace and prosperity had replaced the dark shadows of the early 1940s. Maserati had become a revered and respected name at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and in the United States.
The Birth of a Classic
A Cold War replaced the horrors of 1939-1945 and the Maserati’s ten year contract with the Orsis expired in 1947. Brothers Ernesto and Bindo Maserati went home to Bologna, and formed O.S.C.A. – Officine Specializate Construzione Automobili (Fratelli Maserati). The little firm specialized in small displacement sports cars. In 1954, the brothers’ new marque achieved its greatest success, again in America. Stirling Moss and Bill Lloyd’s 1.5 liter OSCA – the smallest and least powerful Sebring winner ever – won Sebring’s 12 Hours Grand Prix of Endurance in an upset of epic proportions.
This was a pivotal year for international motorsport and especially Maserati. A new Formula 1 rulebook and the recently minted World Sports Car Championship had seduced the Orsis into a parallel effort to win World Championships in both series. Purpose-built Maserati sports cars (as opposed to modified single seaters) were scheduled to appear on Europe’s roads.
The Grand Prix and Indy 500 rulebooks had finally diverged (though, oddly, the 500 remained on the Formula 1 World Championship calendar through 1960), so a repeat of Maserati’s Indy glories of 1939-1941 was out of the question.
The new Formula 1 Maserati for 1954 was even more svelte and elegant than the 1939 and 1940 Indy 500-winner. It fulfilled its promise almost immediately winning the first round of the 1954 Formula 1 World Championship (Argentina). Then Mercedes-Benz returned to Grand Prix racing with predictable results. That lasted 15 months.
The Le Mans disaster of 1955 took more than 80 lives in a matter of seconds and changed international motorsport and Le Mans forever. It was a foul year: Indy 500 Champ Bill Vukovich perished trying to win his third straight Indy 500. Actor James Dean died in a bizarre road accident on his way to sports car races in Salinas, CA. Mercedes exited Formula 1 and the World Sportscar Championship with both titles.
It took until May of 1956 for Maserati to return to the top step of the Formula 1 podium. Stirling Moss won the 1956 Monaco Grand Prix plus the season’s finale at Monza in September in the voluptuous Maserati 250F. But crosstown rival Ferrari won their third World F1 title.
Dreams of Grandeur
The stage was set for Maserati to join grand marques Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari as double world champions for 1957.
Four-time World Champion Juan Fangio joined Maserati after one unhappy, yet profitable, championship year with Ferrari. Moss left for the British F1 Vanwall team, but stayed with Maserati’s sports car squad for the assault on the 1957 World Sports Car title. It was a dream team. Moss and Fangio had been Mercedes-Benz F1 and sports car teammates in 1955 and their results promised much for Maserati in 1957.
It started well: Fangio won the first three rounds of the ’57 Formula 1 title chase in the elegant 250F. Fangio also won the 12 Hours of Sebring – the first round of the 1957 World Sports Car Championship – with team co-driver Jean Behra in the new Maserati 450S; a car nicknamed “the bazooka” for its thunderous power and exhaust note from its dohc 4.5 liter V-8 engine. The 450S boasted the noisiest and most powerful engine in the unlimited World Sports Car Championship.
By late summer, the Formula 1 title chase was all but over with Fangio the World Champion for a fifth time. It was Maserati’s first world title. But the World Sports Car Championship was wide open and Maserati and Ferrari were locked in a high-stakes, all-Italian sports car soap opera at over 180 mph.
But there had been echoes of the horrors of 1955. In May a Ferrari had speared into a crowd not far from the finish of the 1000-mile race around the Italian peninsula, the fabled Mille Miglia. But Ferrari won anyway and led the World Championship. Even the Pope complained and some newspapers called for an end to open road racing. But the race for the Sports Car World Championship continued.
The German Grand Prix for Formula 1 and the Swedish Grand Prix for the World Sports Car Championship were just one week apart that August. What happened in Germany entered Formula 1 lore and legend as the greatest Grand Prix race in the sport’s 65 year history. That August the Maserati 250F became an icon. Fangio’s mythic winning drive in Germany is still spoken of with reverence and awe over a half century later.
A week later Stirling Moss and Sebring 12 Hour winner Jean Behra won the Swedish Grand Prix with, “the bazooka”, Maserati’s 450S. The final race, the championship decider for the World Sports Car Championship, was now three months off in Caracas, Venezuela; a 1000-kilometer shootout between Modena (Maserati) and Maranello (Ferrari).
Double World Champions
It would have been a glorious way to commence sales of the Modenese firm’s first true production GT car. The Maserati 3500S was scheduled to hit the showrooms in 1958.
The whole Venezuelan adventure started badly. First, team leader Juan Fangio had troubles getting a visa. Then he caught the flu and had to scratch. But the Maserati team had Stirling Moss, still considered the greatest sports car racer of his age. He was assigned to start one of the mighty 450S V-8 roadsters. More trouble at the start: Moss’ 450S and the team’s 300S six-cylinder sports racer stalled on the starting line. Moss hammered through the field and into the lead only to be swept up in a high speed accident with a much slower British AC roadster. Scratch one 450S.
Moss arrived at the Maserati pits on foot as the team’s other 450S was being refueled. As he climbed aboard it caught fire. Only the selfless heroics of Maserati engineer Guerrino Bertocchi saved the car. The Caracas fire department took over and had the blaze extinguished quickly. Maserati team manager Nello Ugolini assigned Moss the task of winning the world championship with the charred 450S. But Stirling was back in the pits very quickly. The seat padding of the big Maserati was still on fire and Moss’ trousers were well singed. So was his personal upholstery. Exit Moss. Then teammate Harry Schell took the wheel. As he began to lap the team Maserati 300S driven by Swede Jo Bonnier, a rear tire on the six-cylinder car burst and collected the Behra/Moss/Schell 450S. It bounced off a lamp pole and slammed into a concrete wall rupturing the fuel tank, which exploded. That was the end of Maserati’s World Sports Car championship adventure. Ferraris finished 1-2-3-4 in Caracas and won the World Sports Car Championship for the fourth time in five years.
Maserati not only lost the World Sports Car Championship, but the 450S racers they had hoped to sell to America to finance their 1958 racing program were destroyed. The fall of the Peron regime in Argentina caused Maserati further fiscal harm when large debts owed Maserati for machine tools went unpaid.
After the fiery debacle in Caracas, a racing car again saved Maserati’s reputation and bank account. Almost in desperation, Maserati engineer Giulio Alfieri knew he had to design a racing sports car that would be competitive and salable to private entrants. It was a lesson Maserati had learned well in their formative years. His elegant solution was the Tipo 60, a profoundly conventional two-liter four-cylinder front engine sports racer with one distinctive characteristic: its small diameter multi-tube space frame. The design gave the new Maserati its nickname, the “Birdcage”.
Made in 2.0 and 2.8 liter forms, the Birdcage sold well and went even better. It won its first race with Stirling Moss driving. A Birdcage led the 12 Hours of Sebring with ease in the hands of Moss and rising American star Dan Gurney who were more than 30 miles ahead when a rear axle failed. Their drive still holds the record for the biggest lead ever lost during Sebring’s seven decade history.
Maserati got vindication and more than a little red revenge on the 14-mile “green hell” of Germany’s towering Nürburgring. Moss and Gurney’s Birdcage beat all comers by nearly three minutes that May afternoon over a half century ago. The same Birdcage backed up the win on the Nürburgring a year later with another victory in the World Sports Car Championship’s 1000-kilometers. Moss also drove a Birdcage to win the 1960 Cuban Grand Prix.
The list of Maserati Birdcage pilots is a catalog of top pro sports car racers. Besides Moss and Gurney, Masten Gregory won big with the ‘Cage. Bill Krause upset a field of supposedly faster, more modern cars to win the big-money LA Times Grand Prix at Riverside in 1960. Cobra-creator Carroll Shelby scored his last victory and drove the final race of his career in a Birdcage.
The Birdcage was exactly what Maserati needed. Sales were strong and Maserati’s reputation was not only saved but enhanced by this car. Today, the precious few Birdcage Maseratis available for sale command price tags well above $1 million.
A decade after the glories of Maserati’s Formula 1 and World Sports Car racing exploits the Modenese exotic car builder finally got to shout it from the roof tops with the introduction of the “Indy” Grand Touring car. The broad-shouldered GT coupe packed the same basic V-8 engine of the mighty 450S, more importantly the Maserati “Indy” earned the right to wear the name of the greatest American race that only one Italian exotic car manufacturer ever won.