The Maserati Bora

Most of the imaginative, exotic styling exercises emanating from the fertile minds of those renowned and remarkable Italian car designers sink without trace once the Turin and Geneva Motor Shows have closed their doors. The mid-engined Maserati Bora, the absolute epitomy of Modena exotica, is a rare animal, a production car in which the stylist, in this case Giugiaro, coincidentally the designer of the new VW Scirocco, was given a free hand to design what in appearance could be mistaken for another styling exercise, but in practice is a modern-day classic. Undoubtedly it is one of the best road sports cars in the world today, a dream successfully put into practice, with a shape approaching the ultimate in passenger car aerodynamics, a claimed maximum speed of over 170 m.p.h. and roadholding and handling with hardly an equal off the racing circuit.

A replica of the test car complete with the optional air-conditioning, essential because of the close-confines of the two-seater cockpit, and Autovox radio/cassette stereo unit, would cost roughly £12,100, some ,£500 dearer than the Iso Rivolta Lele tested by D.S.J. last month. Heady money indeed, but while a proportion of that must go towards the privilege of being allowed to purchase such exotic styling, the rest is carefully applied to assembling a formidable amount of engineering sophistication upon four wheels. In addition to its other attributes it is also the most practical of all the mid-engined production cars in terms of luggage capacity and were it not for the fact that the sums or the imagination went wrong when the designer arrived at the front passenger’s foot-well, it would almost be a practical GT car. While this point may sound fatuous, it would be interesting to know of another production car in which my 5 ft. 1¾ in. wife had insufficient leg-room in the front seat. Forget the dreams of lithe, leggy Italian blondes climbing into your Bora passenger seat: this Italian designer had dwarfs in mind. Somehow he found plenty of space for the 4.7-litre V8 engine and adequate luggage in the front boot within the confines of the 14 ft. 2½ in. length but when he’d achieved that he remembered that a heavy duty battery and a heater unit had to be accommodated somewhere. Rather than encroach on boot space he moved the vertical bulkhead rearwards into the passenger foot-well, leaving space between it and the boot to accommodate these bulky items. Access to the battery is gained by removing a panel in the carpeted boot, allowing the battery to be slid out easily on its tray, which did little to appease my wife who had to remove her shoes in order to be comfortable.

Still, this is a car made for driving and in this respect it is designed to satisfy the most demanding connoisseur. The engine and seats are so positioned within the monocoque and the 8 ft. 6 in. wheelbase as to give 42 per cent load on the front axle and 58 per cent on the rear, with a consequently low polar moment of inertia resulting in neutral handling. It has independent wishbone suspension all round with coil spring damper units and anti-roll bars front and rear. Huge ventilated disc brakes are fitted all round, 240 mm. diameter front and 248 mm. rear, which have benefited from Maserati’s Citroën association, this firm’s pressurised hydraulic system having been adopted, notable for its almost zero pedal movement and the astounding effect it has on stopping power for very little effort on the part of the driver. The pedal is also extremely sensitive, which takes some getting used to, and once accustomed to them, driving a conventionally braked car is a frightening experience for the first few braking applications.

The Bora is no lightweight, the all-steel construction weighing in at over 1½ tons, so that its shattering performance is a credit to the 4719 c.c., 310 b.h.p. DIN version of Maserati’s 93.9 mm. bore and 85.0 mm. stroke, four overhead camshaft V8. Maximum power is produced at 6,000 r.p.m., a worrying 500 r.p.m. beyond the start of the red line on the tachometer, while the 340 lb. ft. torque is produced at 4,200 r.p.m. Drive is transmitted through a ZF five-speed gearbox with all-indirect ratios to 15 in. diameter, 7.5 in. wide alloy wheels shod with 215/70 VR Michelin XWX tyres. On the K-registered test car (which had nonetheless covered a mere 1,200 miles) the front tyres too were of 215 section, but the 1974 model carries 205 section front tyres and 215 rear. It is a pity that the superb body design should be spoiled by unimaginative wheels with big stainless steel hub caps covering the nuts.

Sophistication continues into the cockpit, where beneath the attractive and durable, satin-finished, stainless-steel roof panel the high-pressure hydraulic system fitted initially for the brakes is put into action for driver’s seat and pedal adjustment. No fore and aft adjustment is provided for the driver’s seat: the insensitive (or should it be over-sensitive) hydraulic system lifts up the one-piece seat, slightly tilting forwards the back-rest and almost banging the poor driver’s head on the roof if he touches the lever haphazardly, and leg-length is allowed for by moving the entire pedal box backwards or forwards with a separate lever. The driver thus remains moreor-less the same distance from the facia and screen whatever the settings of the seat and pedals. Further adjustment to comfort is offered by a steering column adjustable for rake and reach and the front of the seat is adjustable manually for angle. In spite of all this paraphernalia I could not find a perfectly comfortable position and perhaps because of the effort required to operate the extremely heavy clutch and move the gearlever across the gate against the strong spring between second and third gear plane and fourth and fifth gear plane, first being down to the left (this particular car was said to have a bad gear change—in spite of the spring and a certain amount of notch mess I found it good for a mid-engined car), I found myself with backache after moderate distances. The seats themselves, with cushions curving down almost to the calves, and built-in, adjustable headrests, were extremely comfortable, but another criticism I would make is that the hydraulically-operated driver’s seat would not lower far enough for me, and I am only 5 ft. 7 in. tall. I would hate to he a six-footer peering through the wide gap the otherwise excellent wipers leave at the top of the deep, steeply-raked screen.

Good quality hide is used throughout the interior for the seats, facia, door trims, centre console and rear bulkhead. Facia design meets the high standard of the exterior’s appeal, the Veglia instrumentation being particularly well positioned, except for the poorly calibrated, 200 m.p.h. speedometer, which had its critical left-hand top quarter obscured by the thick leather-rimmed, 14 in. steering wheel. The oil pressure gauge between the speedometer and 8,000 r.p.m. tachometer registered no pressure on tickover, but happily 40 to 100 lbs. sq. in. at reasonable revolutions. In the centre of the facia, placed at a perfect angle for the driver’s vision, are the oil temperature, water temperature, “benzina” for the 19.8 gallon tank and below them the Veglia Electronico clock and battery condition indicator. At night they are lit with sensible green lighting which unfortunately does not have proper rheostat control, only low and high. An annoying bright green light in the tachometer remains on permanently as a sidelight warning. Electric window switches and air-conditioning controls are contained on the centre console part of the facia. Two-speed wipers and washers are controlled by the left-hand steering column stalk, the end of which when turned anticlockwise operates the interior light, while a knob on the facia offers practically infinite timing for intermittent screen wiping. Of the levers on the right, one controls indicators and nothing else and the other lights and, if pressed, the town horn, additional air-horns being operated by a conventional button in the steering wheel boss.

The system of controlling the lights with a combination of three levers is both confusing and a little unsatisfactory. For the lights to be operated at all by the column master switch the retractable headlights must first be raised, which is achieved smoothly and quickly by the main hydraulic system, not at all Lotus-like. They must be raised even for the sidelights to be switched on by the master switch, or alternatively there is a separate parking light switch which I was advised to use to avoid raising the headlights. Daylight flashing is practically impossible, for a combination of two levers needs to be operated and there is a time lag before the lights raise. If the parking lights are left on when the car is parked, and if the column master switch is in the dip or mainbeam headlamp position the headlights will be switched on too, even if they are retracted— and if they are retracted it is impossible to tell that they are on. And because climbing out of this low car is fairly awkward the lights stalk on the column can be kicked easily: the result is likely to be a flat battery. Whether it was such a mistake or simply a drained battery which couldn’t cope with illuminating the sidelights for three hours I don’t know, but the test car’s battery couldn’t have been flatter when I returned to it after the RAC Awards Presentation at the RAC Club in Pall Mall. Now it doesn’t say much for that august body that after an hour the patrolman rung for by an official of the RAC had failed to arrive and the embarrassed Maserati was rescued finally by another guest who appeared with jump leads and a Mercedes. Subsequently the alternator failed to recharge the battery during the course of the drive across London on sidelights only and I have to thank Talon Engineering of Finchley Road, specialists in work on exotica such as this, for putting things to rights and regaining the couple of cylinders which had been intermittently fluffing when the car had been delivered.

Small lockers in the armrests of each door, a lockable, if restricted, cubby hole and a most useful locker behind a sliding door in the bulkhead to the left of the facia (the equivalent space on the opposite side is filled by the fuel tank) provide oddment space inside the cockpit, but I would have thought it not beyond the bounds of possibility to make openable the double-glazed window immediately behind the occupants’ heads. This would provide stowage space for jackets and so on above the engine platform, which carpeted area, suitable for golf clubs or other lengthy luggage, is otherwise inaccessible without releasing the levers for the two main catches and a safety catch knob in the passenger door shut-face pillar and then lifting the entire top part of the rear bodywork, hinged at the rear. Also accessible when the bodywork is hydraulically raised are two small lockers, one in each pillar behind occupants’ heads, the left-hand one useful for a can of oil, polishing cloths or something, and the right-hand one containing the header tank for the front-mourned radiator. Lifting out the domed centre section of the carpeted engine cover, taking care not to damage the heated rear screen, reveals a huge air-cleaner on top of the four, twin-choke Weber carburetters and a pleasing ease of access to plugs and other essentials. The spare wheel lies right in the tail under a vinyl cover fastened by broken and corroded zips on the test car.

At the other end of the car the boot will take a couple of large suitcases standing on their sides plus plenty of soft things. In addition to the panel hiding the battery is another hiding the washer bottle. The boot lid is released from within the car and by a safety catch hidden by the Maserati badge, inoperative on the test car.

Starting that complex piece of machinery amidships is accomplished undramatically if the correct routine is adhered to. From cold the vertical quadrant choke lever could be ignored as a potential source of plug wetting: instead, I was advised to press the throttle to the floor once to partly prime the Webers, turn the engine over briefly, press the throttle once more to finish the priming, turn the key and normally the engine would fire instantly. Too much priming would wet the plugs: a Fleet Street motoring journalist told me the other day that when he had the same car on road test he learnt the hard way that too much throttle and use of the choke could have temporarily disastrous consequences. He spent most of one morning screwing plugs in and out and drying them before the beast would fire. Fortunately I developed the right knack, all eight cylinders regularly burst into immediate life once Talon had doctored the car and what is more, the engine proved fully responsive immediately. Starting from warm was instantaneous, just a whisker of throttle being necessary.

I expected such a highly-tuned thoroughbred engine to be relatively inflexible, but the Bora confounded me by proving most tractable, capable of pulling from as low as 25 m.p.h, in the 0.74:1 fifth gear ratio. Circumstances dictated that I was unable to extend that loping ratio to its ultimate, 139 m.p.h. being the maximum achieved on a far from smooth piece of tarmac, at which speed the noise level was not noticeably more than at 60 m.p.h. At moderate speeds the fat front tyres had a disconcerting habit of following ruts and bumps on poor roads, kicking the steering wheel a little, but deflecting the car negligibly. This phenomenon disappeared at high speeds and I have a feeling that Maserati were not unaware of the problem, hence the probable reason for the reduction to 205 section front tyres.

However, to return to the characteristics of the engine, which produces an impressive 340 lb. ft. of torque at 4,200 r.p.m., this particular one, flexible as it was, was unhappy being compelled to travel at such reduced revolutions for long, one, sometimes two, plugs sooting themselves temporarily if too much town work was indulged in or if those superb aerodynamics were wasted by cruising for too long at 50, 60 or even 70 m.p.h., an uncomfortable situation for an endorsement-weighted licence. A quick blast to higher revs. would quickly clear the offending plugs, hut “blasting” is the operative word, plug-clearing being a highly-illegal exercise in any gear if the engine is taken to peak-power at 6,000 r.p.m., when first gear represents roughly 50 m.p.h., 2nd over 80, 3rd 120 m.p.h., 4th 147 m.p.h. and 5th 168 m.p.h. The Bora ridicules the 50 limit, 70 limit or any other stupid limit and I am prepared to believe that it is safer at its maximum speed in the right hands than most 100 m.p.h. family saloons are at their maximum. Incidentally, in my travels I met the owner of one of the 18 Boras sold in Britain at that time, and his did not suffer from plug fouling.

In practice it is quite unnecessary to scream the engine up to peak power to achieve breath-taking performance and indeed the red line on the tachometer begins at 5,500 r.p.m., anything over that being advisedly for short duration only, which would nevertheless give a happy cruising speed of 154 m.p.h.

Standing-start figures are impressive, though perhaps not so astounding as one might expect—well, compared with something like a 7-litre AC Cobra-0-60 M.p.h. taking roughly 6.5 sec. and 100 m.p.h. appearing in a little over 15 sec., for 30 cwt. requires a fair amount of effort to thrust it off the line. In the language of more mundane automobiles those figures are shattering nonetheless, hut it is when one puts the potential into action on the open road that one realises what Bora motoring is all about. Overtaking manoeuvres are achieved by a simple thrust on the throttle and in the instant it takes to blink, the obstruction has gone. The torque provides a tremendous thrust in the back in any gear, so the gearbox does not require stirring too actively. At the other extreme, the brakes are equally staggering, a light touch on the centre one of the big, well-spaced pedals halting the beast from over 100 m.p.h. in seconds, almost complete lack Of nose-dive and the Sheer stability giving the effect of being halted by a giant hand. However, on wet, slippery surfaces, it was all to easy to lock the front wheels by panic braking the sensitive, highpressure system. Traction is such that those same surfaces provoke little more than a few yards of wheelspin if too heavy a foot is applied. In the dry, wheelspin can be measured in feet before the car shoots off like a rocket and it goes without saying that this same tremendous traction helps provide colossal cornering capabilities.

Cornering power is at least as breathtaking, on first acquaintance, as the performance. Without being suicidal it would be impossible to break away either end on a dry road: roll is practically non-existent, the Michelin XWXs grip the tarmac like the proverbial limpet .and the “g” forces which can be Created whilst the Bora remains on its appointed line have to be felt to be believed. At low speeds handling characteristics are nominally those of understeer, hardly relevant, for it is not until the aggressive nose is thrusting forward at respectable speed that the suspension needs to exert its virtues at all, and by then the handling has become, and remains, neutral. Steering is all that one might expect of such an utterly exciting machine, utterly precise and responsive yet remaining fairly light even at parking speeds. Talking Of parking, a glance at the design shows that this Cannot possibly be one of the Bora’s stronger points, and the lack of visibility means it isn’t. With practice, though, it can he manoeuvred in such circumstances with the same amount of alacrity with which its handling allows it to he slotted through traffic. Ride is surprisingly good, some low-speed choppiness disappearing as the springs and shock-absorbers begin to work at speed.

It must be admitted that the Maserati Bora has one or two detail short-comings which might not be expected at the price, but most of which must be inherent in a midengine design. They arc small sacrifices to accept to enjoy the pleasure of what must be the ultimate in fast motoring. It is difficult to envisage a journey on which the dramatic, exciting performance could he used to the full in these days of blanket European speed limits, but while the Bora owner is awaiting the removal of the temporary limits before stretching that 170 m.p.h. ability across Europe to the sun, he can relax in that curved seat and revel in the sort of attention front onlookers and other road users which is normally reserved for pop-stars and filmstars—which unfortunately is probably what he is in any case.—C.R.