Study in Scarlet

In an era of superb, sensational sports-racers, Maserati built arguable the best looking, best handling of the lot. Paul Fearnley drives a 300S at the site of the model’s most famous win, the Nurburgring

When I think Ferrari sports-racers of the late 1950s, I think foundry; unburstable engines, sturdy gearboxes, beefy back aides. I also think ‘bit rough around the edges’ — show put to the sword of go. When I think of their Maserati counterparts, I think machine shop; superb detailing, neat design touches, polished finish — show echoing go. I think tubby genius Medardo Fantuzzi, hammer in hand, bucking and forming another sensuous shape; I think legendary test driver Guerrino Bertocchi sliding another superbly-balanced chassis around Modena, or giving it the gun down an autostrada. Ferrari might have had the last laugh over their impecunious acrosstown rival, an unstaunchable flow of new bodies and engines, combined with sheer weight of numbers and impressive reliability, pummelling them into submission, but Maserati could allow themselves a knowing smile. For it was they who had produced the better car: the 300S. Just ask Stirling Moss. He loved it, felt at one with it Thirteen 300S starts (plus three team-mates’ car secondments) brought him nine wins, three seconds, a third, a fifth — and two retirements.

The most famous of these victories was achieved here, on the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife. It was a typical Moss comeback charge, his delight in racing adversity verging on perversity. His early lead in the 1956 1000 Kilometres came to nothing when a rear spring broke away from the chassis with co-driver Jean Behra’s stint but a few laps old. Team boss Nello Ugolini swiftly commandeered the second works 300S, originally assigned to Piero Tantffi and Harry Schell, and the chase was on.

The prey, no less, was Juan Manuel Fangio, sharing a Ferrari 860 Monza with Eugenio Castellotti. Behra got to within 10 seconds of ‘El Chueco’, the powerful but live-aided Ferrari cumbersome compared to the Maserati, but the rescheduled handover put Moss more than a minute behind his great rival. It was a situation he relished. His action plan? To brake later and get on the power earlier. His genius is without question, but this simple-to-say process was made possible by the peerless 300S. It could have been built especially for the Niirburgring being, for all intents and purposes, a two-seater 250F: gobs of torque from its long-stroke (90mm) 3-litre straight six, excellent traction via its 250E-derived de Dion, transverse leaf spring rear end, and wellmannered handling as befits a car with copycat 250F weight distribution, wheelbase and track. A fired-up Moss sliced six seconds a lap from Fangio’s lead, so that when the Ferrari pitted for a splash-‘n’-dash, Stirling swept by to win by over half a minute.

And now here I am picking carefully over the same ground. Jackie Stewart’s ‘Green Hell’ description of the Nurburgring has taken on a russet-red-orange hue with the onset of autumn. The surface is wet-drydamp on a bright morning and there are enough leaves mulching on the track to cause Railtrack-type paranoia. Undaunted, the ‘Ring’s regular biker loons are champing on their chinstraps. I, however, face a dilemma. This car needs to be driven with the right foot, its heavy worm-and-sector steering verging on spear-carrying status when matters are conducted as they should be. But this car is worth six times more than my house, is sensationally svelte and boasts a works, repair-free chassis and body. This is no time to be a hem, that was Stirling’s job, this is a time to savour.

A place to savour too, especially as only the run to the Karussell accesses my recognition chip. I’m green when it comes to the ‘Green Hell’. A bit yella, too. Every 300S is picture perfect pretty, but this particular one, Hartmut Ibing’s chassis 3056, is the Sophia Loren of the lot, with its long-nose body and chrome side grilles glinting in the low sun. It’s a seductive process, the way its headrest fades into that shapely rump, the way the rear wheel arches fractionally break the plane of the Dunlop racers before they sweep around, down and away from those purposeful, heavily-offset Borranis and their Ben Hur-chariot spinners. Superb detailing flows into neat design touch flows into polished finish to provide the classic shape of the era. It’s sublime, yet given an aggressive edge by a slightly nose-up, hunkered-downtail stance that suggests never-ending acceleration, even when stationary. A car poised on muscular haunches.

The 300S first pounced in 1955, and 3056 was the sixth chassis to emerge from the factory, and the first to find itself in European privateer hands, Swiss Robert Jenni taking delivery of it on 20 June 1955. Fellow countryman Benoit Musy received his the following day. Beating Ferrari was almost the model’s secondary purpose; its first was to earn much-needed money for the Orsi brothers, Omer and Adolfo, Maserati’s owners, which is why the fust three that rolled out of the door and onto Viale Ciro Menotti were shipped directly to America. Unlike Ferrari, who made a bewildering menagerie of models, Maserati, once happy with a prototype, tended to put it into production, and then gradually develop the basic design thereafter.

What they did change at will displaying a sleight of hand that any Mississippi riverboat huckster would be proud ofwere chassis numbers.

And paperwork, I am happy to report, was bottom of Maserati’s list of priorities if such a list existed, of course so the historian plunges into murky waters. There’s even debate about how many 300S were built -28 or 30.

What we do know is that Jenni’s first notable 300S act was to loan 3056 to his good friend Baron Emmanuel de Graffenried, who finished second with it in the Lisbon Grand Prix on 24 July 1955, after which the car was sold back to the factory.

The rest is conjecture.

It would seem that the car had a long-nose body fitted in 1956, but there is no record of it racing, certainly not internationally, that year. It then reappeared at Le Mans in 1957, when co-driven by Joachim Bonnier and Giorgio Scarlatti. At least the chassis number reappeared, for this car boasted the five `shark’s gill’ air outlets just behind the front wheels, part of the third and final 300S body shape, whereas 3056 today features the three-bar grille outlet, part of the second phase. It ran as high as 12th before the dutch failed after 73 laps. 24

The car’s next outing was at the Venezuelan Grand Prix in Caracas, the final round of the sportscar world championship. The race proved an unmitigated disaster for the hard-up Maserati, three of their works cars being badly damaged in accidents, as was the Temple Buell-run 450S of Masten Gregory.

Bonnier was running third in 3056, and being caught by team-mate Schell in a big banger’ 450S, when a blowout caused the Swede to spin right in front of the happy-go-lucky racer. The pair collided. The 450S hit a wall and burst into flames, while 3056 smashed into a lamp post, knocked it flat, and was bent like a banana. Or was it? Many historians now believe that the wrecked 300S was chassis 3072, which puts the kibosh on suggestions that 3056 had to be rebuilt using chassis 3077 Maserati actually entered four can for this title-decider, but one them didn’t make the grid. And one of them was a 300S fitted with a V12, a fact clearly shown by a photograph in Tom Bumside’s superb book, American Racing. And this car carries Bonnier’s race number, six. On which would you put your money making it to the start — the tried-and-trusted straight six or the new-fangled, tricky V12? Were the engines (or, even easier, the numbers) swapped? Did 3056 sit on the sidelines and miss the demolition derby and so begin its life in Argentina with not a mark on it? Ace 300S restorer Steve Hart, who has been under a host of these cars at one time or another, says there is no sign of damage on 3056 today.

One suggestion is that the car acted as some form of factory testing hack. Does this explain its lack of racing in 1956? Does this explain why it was only one of two 300S to be fitted with the needle-roller-bearing five-speed box (probably in ’57)? This unit was being developed for the car Maserati was pinning its F1 hopes on, the V12 250E Would a privateer sportscar be given such an important task? Added to this, Hart believes 3056 was fitted with a different engine at some point. A 3-litre V12? Finally, 3056 features the bigger 450S drums front and rear — a common tweak on the fronts only.

So this car would appear to be a works-favoured example. And if it had a testing/development role, might it also act as a donor car? Does this explain why some of its bits appear on other cars? Chassis 3077 has carried rear backplates marked 3056 and 450S front brakes stamped 3066, another 300S. These three cars seem to be linked, intertwined even. The singleton 300S at Le Mans in ’58, driven by by owner Francesco Godia and Bonnier, is listed as 3066, yet it bears all the masks of how 3056 looks today.

The speculation is endless. And I have just added to it. Sony. But there are two things I know for sure: the car is here, and I am in it. Chassis numbers mean nothing when the ignition is flicked, fuel pumps tick and the little light inside the starter button glows. Press here. Now. The car has stood for months in the Nurburgring museum alongside Fangio’s 1957 German GP-winning 250F, another prized Ibing possession, but a few squirts of fuel down the chokes of its three Weber 45DCO3s has it spitting, then firing. That extra 15mm of stroke above and beyond the 250F, and those marginal silencers on the over-under twin exhausts, give it a deeper,sound than its single-seater cousin. A darker sound. An unseen thumb jabs my solar-plexus.

I note the ‘bent tube’ door hinges and the leather strop door handle. Lightness is everything. Maserati must have spent hours aligning the holes on a jig and then welding them all together. Even the flared swing-wing bonnet and boot catches have five holes drilled in them, varying in size from small to tiny to teeny-tiny. The wood-rimmed, three-spoke wheel sits closer than I’d anticipated — no straight arms here — and to my left lies the understated gearlever, slumped flaccidly, return spring-free, in the top gear plane. This lacks the mechanical ‘I’m home!’ chonk of a Ferrari unit, but proves a doddle to use, moving swiftly and easily up, down and across the gate, and only requiring two stabs of the clutch for downchanges. It is the best Maserati transaxle of them all, providing a quicker change, closer ratios and a more useable first gear than the others.

In fact, the car is extremely userfriendly and tractable. I am surprised to discover upon checking its spec sheet after my drive that the clutch is a multi-plate affair, so light and progressive did it feel on the move. The throttle is weighted perfectly too, and requires minimal movement to summon response, power kicking in at 3000rpm and pulling smoothly through to 6500rpm.

From the cockpit, which borders on cramped for my 5ft 11in frame, I stare out over two red rollers called wings, a theme picked up by the ‘choppy sea’ metal sunound that fixes the shallow screen to the scuttle, and the azure Veglia rev-counter which, rather optimistically, reads to 10,000 rpm. Optimistic for the straight six, but spot-on for a 2.5/3-line V12. As the engine warms up, and I unashamedly pose by blipping the throttle for the benefit of the biker loons, I note the fuse box in the centie of dash. From the top it reads: dawn, fcui antinebbia, cruscotto, avOamento. Why does it sound better in Italian? Acquaolio. I love everything about this car.

Except the brakes. Without doubt I never get them up to working temperature, being too concerned about them grabbing and locking up, but I also guess it’s going to take time for me to get used to 50-year-old stopping technology. I find I’m in good company, though; the tigerish Behra often burned through his on the 300S. The car had a habit of breaking rear axles and snapping driveshafts too, but with Moss behind the wheel, it lacked for nothing.

Except power. The first idea was to use a bigger-bore 250F unit of 2.8 litres, but it tended to overheat. 300S designer Vittorio Be_llantani (Colombo had recently left the firm to design, of all things, Bugatti’s mid-engined GP challenger) was a fan of the long stroke approach and, with different cams and carbs, coaxed 260bhp from the eventual power unit. Being particularly adept on long straights, I touch 130mph during our final run from Dottinger Hohe. That would have left me with a further 30mph to play with. Trouble was, the 4-litre Ferraris had 15-20mph to add on top of that. Even Moss was up against it on the quicker circuits, and Maserati knew it. Hence (mainly in 1956) the 350S, featuring a dry-sump racing version of the 3500GT straightsix engine, and the ‘bazooka’ 41/2-litre V8 450S (mainly in 1957). The former never worked, while the latter had its moments, and wins, but was a real handful, hardly relaxing over a long-distance race.

Maserati had to try motor racing never stands still but, in hindsight, this diversification might have cost them their most memorable sportscar victory, possibly a world tide. Moss defended his Mille Miglia crown in 1956 at the wheel of the untested 350S. It was faster than the 300S in a straight line, but had none of its poise or finesse, and understeered for Italy. When he found himself unable to shake off the 300S of Cesare Perdisa, an honest journeyman he would usually have brushed aside, Moss knew a mistake had been made. Given a 300S, given the miserable conditions that prevailed throughout the event, it’s difficult to see him not winning for a second time. Instead, he was plunged down a ravine by his recalcitrant new mount

It’s less sure that he would have won the round-Italy race in 1957, but he would surely have got further in a 300S than the handful of miles he managed before the brake pedal of his 450S sheared clean off.

His anger on that occasion was dissolved by the tears of anguish from his dead-on-their-feet mechanics. Maserati people loved their motor racing. And I would argue that theirs was a purer love than even Ferrari’s. They could not really compete with the ‘foundry’ when it came to bolting together ground-shaking straight-shrinkers, but when it came to crafting a pure thoroughbred racing car for pure thoroughbred racing circuits, their ‘machine shop’ was simply where it was at. The 300S is proof of that.