Something old, something new

According to John Butt, of Maserati UK concessionaire Meridien, we’d be getting “a weekend you will remember”. As I stood, three blocks away from the 1937 factory that made around 1800 Maseratis last year (about 70 of which were sold in Britain), I reflected that he must have been psychic.

Slumped miserably on the kerb of the freezing Modena avenue was the latest bearer of the Ghibli name, a 161 mph rocket whose rear end bore testimony to the inattention of a learner driver in a diesel Golf. Impact speed was around 30 mph. Around me I could hear the wheel spinning antics of the factory reconnaissance team as they sought the wounded demonstrator. My driver, a youthful and skilful Maserati employee, and the crew of the severely damaged Golf (wearing its headlights in the cylinder block) stared morosely at the carnage wrought to the £40,000 rump. An aged quattroporte saloon lurched into view, B-movie style, and I was removed from the debris to contemplate my ‘luck’ on the 13th day of December, 1992.

Preservation orders

Next stop was a deserted museum, where former British resident and ’60s Cooper Maserati mainstay Mario Condivi, who racers may recall for his management of Roy Salvador, and others for his trading activities with de Tomaso, BMW and Alfa Romeo, was our tour guide. The silent exhibits bore mute testimony to the love and care that is devoted to them by one life-long Maserati employee. An array of 15 engines from 1926 (a 1.5-litre eight cylinder, developing 115 bhp) provides lasting tribute to Maserati’s creativity.

The best story?

Having received a specification guide from France, Maserati dusted off a compact V6 from its home under a workbench and rushed it, in the boot of a saloon, to Citroen. The result was the SM.

There was barely time to do more than glance at an array of in-line, vee and marine motors, but some of the cars begged longer study. I had not seen oval bowl racer ‘Eldorado’ before. The ironic Cadillac name belongs to an elongated single-seater from the 420/M/58 series, of the type that raced in the USA and at Monza. In place of Eldorado Italia’s garish 1958 colour scheme, seen threading its way around the Monza banking in the hands of Stirling Moss, I saw a stripped silver monster, its multi-tube frame bereft of the short-stroke (93.8×75.8 mm) V8 motor. An offset drivetrain delivered a claimed 450 bhp at 8000 rpm from 4.2 litres, allowing a reported 217.5 mph. The quadruple Weber 46 IDM carburettor unit stood on a workbench alongside, freshly rebuilt. Only the bald Firestones and shabby wire wheels remained as evidence of Condivi’s reminder that “We got this back as a bag of bits from America.”

A 1965 A6G sports coupe also took my eye. “It was one of four built with Pininfarina bodywork.” explained Condivi, eyes atwinkle, “and a man took this car and ran a few kilometres in the Targa Florio of that year. He hit something pretty soon, and pretty hard. We got the car back to repair and have heard nothing from the driver ever since. So it turned to a bucket of rust. After 30 years, or so, we figured it was ours again and the restoration began.”

It is now a truly beautiful sports racer, its twin plug in-line six (1985cc/150 bhp at 6000 rpm) sitting well back in the traditional tubular frame. Enormous drum brakes are nearly as striking as the mandatory coats of red paint and the distinctly period single-seater nose.

A stretched Birdcage Maserati frame (for the Briggs Cunningham equipe) contradicted the Type 61’s reputation for supreme ugliness. “Probably the ugliest car seen on the racing circuits of the world,” says a delightfully candid official history — one written on such blotched and frequently photocopied sheets that it comes as no surprise to find that its version of events terminates in 1977!

The museum also taught me what a ‘proper’ Ghibli looked like in 1968, the factory example finished in black. They expected 300 bhp and 174 mph from its 4.7-litre V8.

Thoroughly modern Maserati

The new Ghibli I drove, based on the longer wheelbase (99 in) development of the Biturbo theme had ‘only’ 1996 cc, as a sop to taxconscious Italians. Even so, it harvested slightly more power (306 bhp) than the ’60s V8 that had more than twice the cubic capacity.

Today, such horsepower is extracted from a further development of the 90-degree alloy V6. It has an exhilarating 153.3 bhp per litre, a figure shared with the road-going Barchetta.

It differs to previous Maserati Biturbos thanks to developments such as enlarged IHI RHB 5.2 turbochargers. These supply healthy boost (1.1 bar) to a redeveloped version of the classic quadruple valve layout, which has beltdriven twin overhead camshafts for each triple cylinder bank and sodium treatment for the exhaust valves.

The short-stroke V6 (82×63 mm) continues to have its 7.6:1 compression cylinder heads cast by Cosworth at Worcester (as does the Shamal V8, incidentally). The limited slip differential is based on Salisbury components.

We hear that the Barchetta was crash tested in Britain for the European authorities, before the bug-eyed wonder is made available for those who want that ‘racing car on the road’ feeling next spring. In the UK, the Barchetta will be price between C70,000-80,000. It is thought up to half a dozen lhd examples could be imported.

Also expected in Britain next spring, but likely to have a torquier 2.8-litre V6 and a five-speed Getrag gearbox, rather than the two-litre/six-speed layout we enjoyed, is the latest machine to sport a Ghibli badge.

This features the traditional Maserati frontengined/rear-drive format, but the independent strut suspension is a masterpiece of crafted location tubes (the front has a double wishbone below the strut) and a cast alloy lower arm almost worth mantelpiece space. Giant ATE disc braking systems fill up the spokes of 16 in alloy wheels (7 and 8J), but anti-lock braking is at least two years away. “Anyway, our braking system is very good. and I am not terribly interested in ABS,” says Alejandro de Tomaso provocatively. The controversial autocrat has run Maserati since 1975 (it is now 49 per cent Fiat-owned) and also has managerial/financial control of Innocenti, Moto Guzzi and the aged development of the de Tomaso Pantera line (still Ford V8 powered, but a proposed replacement is whispered to have BMW propulsion).

The Barchetta two-seater road car is closely based on those that have competed in the 1992 Grantrofeo Barchetta, a one-marque series that characteristically kicked off late and provided a platform for unemployed former TA/R Jaguar driver John Nielsen to win all seven rounds! The cars are unusual not just for their enticing aluminium honeycomb chassis and composite body (mainly glassfibre in appearance), but also because they run Michelin MXX3 road tyres (245/40 ZR fronts and 285/35 rears on 8 and 10.5Jx18 Machesini rim sections). A six-speed Getrag is deployed (with right-hand gearchange) along with a 3.875 final drive that allegedly allows over 186 mph. Depending on your choice of final drive (there are three available), it is possible to sprint from rest to 62 mph in 4.8s.

The conversion from race car to Barchetta Stradale is simple. Officially, it is described thus: “There are two headlamps and sets of seat belts, but we don’t do carpets or any of those soft things!”

Looking around the press conference example and some of the racers that arrived with a magnificent police escort, an absence of silencing and no lights in the fog, it could be seen that Maserati has actually done quite a bit more than that. Most obvious is the absence of the rear wing, and dual exhausts became quadruple chrome affairs for the street. Most of the racers used small Momo steering wheels, whereas the Stradale wore a more sturdy implement and the seats tended to vary as well. Some of the racers had larger boost gauges deployed: we could hardly fail to notice that some were looking for 1.5 bar rather than the usual 1.1.

We were passengers in two new Ghiblis and drove one example. As with our recent Shamal V8 experience (see MOTOR SPORT, November 1992), we were genuinely surprised at the unique motoring experience Maserati is offering at prices clearly below that of the benchmark Porsche 91 I . Expect the Ghibli to cost £45,000 in Britain (it is currently just under £40,000 in Italy), but remember it will not have the engine and gearbox we tried.

As a passenger the docile ride four-position electronic damper adjustment is standard and excellent engine management by Weber Marelli were immediately apparent. Without the brace of a steering wheel, the test driver’s foggy pace in the 160-180 km/h band (100-112 mph) was only fed to us in the form of the tremendous cornering loads generated by the plump Michelins at work on the pockmarked grime of the moderately twisty autostrada.

Driving adds another dimension to our impressions, although we covered no more than the proverbial blast around the block… even if that ‘block’ does incorporate a dual carriageway ring road. In amongst the wood cappings, the wriggle to achieve a decent driving position is aided by electrical assists for the backrest, but the seat distance is manually controlled and the steering wheel’s vertical rake is governed by a knurled knob that requires a precautionary extra twist to ensure you really have locked the column in place. One detail has not been overcome; the cowl of leather around the steering column shroud stays in situ as the column is dropped, leaving a crack in the otherwise complete cabin detailing. The luxuriant finish extends to a wood surround for the ashtray and plenty of one-time forestation in the habitable (it’s a true two-plus-two) back seats.

Other standard creature comforts comprise push-button air conditioning, internally adjustable Koni dampers and the usual electronic aids. Despite this extensive specification, dry kerb weight is quoted at 1295 kg, which means the power to weight ratio hovers around 241 bhp per ton. Confirmation of that effective power to weight ratio can be found behind the dated, but undeniably elegant, wood-rimmed steering wheel.

The alloy V6 with the highest specific production output per litre I can recall driving on public roads holds a regular 1000 rpm idle with a mumble. As soon as the weighty, but user-friendly, clutch is released, the potent two-litre does demonstrate its fierce power, and the unit has an altogether harder edge to its power delivery than its predecessors and the (comparatively) unstressed Shama! V8. This is especially true in that you need 3000 rpm to get really moving and the 5000-7000 rpm spread is swallowed in a snarl of power that is exhilarating without being unduly intrusive.

The effect is that of driving an insulated racer, for the Ghibli takes off with traction-threatening determination; if anything, the 0-62 mph prediction of 5.7s feels pessimistic. The forward thrust is only constrained by prudence on this short acquaintance, so we levelled off at I 00-110 mph to find that noise levels are far below the sporting norm, but in this respect there is no comparison with the big luxury cars from Jaguar and BMW. The final drive ratio certainly is short and the engine is flattered into looking rather more flexible than I suspect to be the case. I found little need to overwork the six-speed gearbox, save to establish that change quality remained better than that on any rival six-speed, something we had already experienced with the Shamal.

Other chassis details should not receive too much praise on this quick trip, especially as wet roads are likely to make a mockery of almost any powerful, turbocharged, front-engined, rear-drive car that’s in a hurry. There was lots of grip in the drizzly fog we encountered, but I would have given the new BMW M3 (also shod by Michelin, and similarly powerful) maximum cornering points if I had driven it in identical conditions, and experience tells me that such a verdict would have been mistaken. Currently, Michelin is superb at providing staggering road tyre grip, but it often emphasises sheer adhesion at the expense of progressive handling traits when grip is scarce.

On this showing, both brakes and hydraulically power-assisted steering had the pedigree qualities you would expect of Maserati. The steering is notably shock free and yet supplies good feedback. I disagree with de Tornaso and think ABS should be present (if Lotus could do it for a few hundred Esprits annually, why should Maserati customers not be served with equal safety?), but the brakes did all we could have wished… and rather more than that errant Golf diesel could cope with!

Today’s Shamal and Ghibli offer a slightly chintzier version of the traditional British wood and leather cabin (far more elaborate and more exhaustively detailed, in my view, than anything we make below Rolls-Royce level), packaged compactly with potent but refined performance. The Ghibli has a hint of the old Jaguar 3.8 Mk2’s virtues, with the emphasis on interior grace and road pace rather than exterior style.

As for the rest of my Maserati education, the press conference was full of such outrageous statements and car-blasting translations that I just could not have taken a word seriously. unlike the 1047 men at Milan who were sacked when body manufacture was transferred back to Modena after a I 5-year absence, or the 500 or so devotees currently employed to build a range comprising the Spyder (convertible), 442, Shamal and Ghibli.

It was an informative weekend, and we wait with curiosity for further experience of the Barchetta and rhd Ghibli next spring, to see if this rekindled fervour for the Trident marque will be maintained over more extended courtship. JW