Saving the Supercars

A visit to Maserati and De Tomaso, newly-blooded brothers

For the motoring journalists sitting around a boardroom table in the eighteenth century grandeur of the Canalgrande Hotel in Modena, it was difficult to decide whether the focal point of our attention, the hotel proprietor, one Alejandro De Tomaso (“I’m 48, though I look 57,” he told a circle of lifted eyebrows), was spinning an angler’s yarn or relating a fabulous fact. Here was the man who took over control of Innocenti from British Leyland, produces 150 m.p.h. supercars bearing his own name, runs Moto-Guzzi and Benelli motorcycles, together the largest producers of motorcycles in Europe, an Argentinian who seems to have the Italian Government round his little finger, telling us that he had paid just 90,000 lire (64— repeat, sixty-four pounds) to take over Maserati, a name carved in motoring legend.

Truth or fiction? We felt like members of one of those obtuse ITV panel games: “Spot the Leg-Pull”, with De Tomaso impersonating Hughie Green. But there it was again: “The Italian Government paid 210,000 lire (£150) to buy 70% of the Maserati shares from Citroen and I bought the other 30%, a total of 300,000 lire.” I looked in my wallet and wondered whether Commendatore Ferrari, doubtless at that very moment seated in his office just 12 miles up the road, would accept Barclaycard for a majority share in his company . . . And then I remembered that Fiat had got there first.

Not much more than eighteen months ago Maserati seemed doomed. Citroen, the then owners, had had their fingers burned by this venture into exoticar manufacture. “It was all wrong, the combination of a small company with a big conglomerate. There was no way it could work,” said De Tomato. Conglomerates aren’t renowned for sentimentality, either; Citroen simply wanted to get out and they would have coolly discarded that famous, but bankrupt, name. Then along came De Tomaso and his Government friends with their £214 lifebelt. Now Maserati is back in business again, with boosted sales, new models in the pipeline and new confidence amongst the work-force.

The rescue wasn’t quite so simple, of course. You can’t run a work-force of 530 people (800 in Citroen days) on the sort of shoestring that bought the shares. What did De Tomaso use for working capital? Here his eyes took on the joyful glint of a man who has pulled a legal financial flanker: “I got the creditors to agree that Citroen should pay all their debts to me, 5.2 billion lire (£3.5 million) altogether and arranged with the banks to consolidate the debts so that I could use the Citroen money while on credit as working capital.”

De Tomaso assured us that there would he no integration between Innocenti and Maserati. A brief breakdown of Innocenti shows it to be split into two separate companies, Innocenti Industriale, which manufactures the Innocenti Minis, and Innocenti Commerciale. which sells them. De Tomaso and the Italian Government own 80% of each company, Leyland the rest. Additionally there is British Leyland Italiana, which sells imported Leyland cars and in which the percentage shareholdings are reversed. De Tomato has an agreement which will reward him with 52% of the entire Innocenti shareholding by 1978. Innocenti employs 2,020 workers, aims for 4,000 and is producing 180 Minis a day currently with an 85,000 units a year potential plant capacity.

“Maserati and De Tomaso will never be brought under the same roof,” said De Tomato. “They are very different cars, the De Tomato having a production engine and Maserati their own. This is the difference— they are aimed at different segments of the market and there is space for both. The De Tomato engine has a different kind of quality.” However, we were to discover that the new Maserati Kyalami 2+2 is very much a restyled De Tomaso Deauville fitted with an all-aluminium Maserati 4.2-litre V8 in place of the iron block 5.7-litre Ford V8. That De Tomaso should use some of Maserati’s extensive engineering facilities would make sense too.

The journalists’ presence in Modena was the result of an operation organised by Mario Condivi (he of the MARIO cherished number plate), whose MTC Cars at West-Bourne Grove, London W11 has taken on the Maserati Concessionaireship, lost during the period of Citroen ownership, alongside its existing De Tomato concessionaireship. The stories of Maserati’s reconstitution have been so vague in Britain that Condivi and the Italians wanted to bring the point home that the Sign of the Trident is very much alive and well and to do that we had to be shown the evidence. Thus it was that we scribes found ourselves jet-stuck at Gatwick along with a party of potential Maserati dealers and Maserati Owners’ Club members while a couple of interloping currency smugglers were dealt with. How much were they smuggling? “Enough to buy a villa or a Maserati,” said Condivi, who had seen the money, putting his prices in perspective, while we reflected on the mentality of a man who had blithely walked up to the pre-flight security baggage check with a briefcase full of notes . . . Our schedule included a whirlwind tour of the Turin Show, the Press Conference with De Tomaso, a test session with Maserati and De Tomaso models on the old Modena racing circuit and visits to both the supercar factories.

De Tomato’s later statements about new models were given impact by our surprise finding of a brand-new model on Maserati’s Turin Show stand. This is a new Quattroporte, styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro (as is the Lotus Esprit shown elsewhere in this issue) and Ital Design and powered by a 4,200 c.c. evolution of the four-overhead-camshaft, four-twin-choke-carburetter Maserati engine. It has conventional coil springs within its independent suspension layout rather than Citroen’s hydraulic medium, automatic or five-speed ZF gearbox, hydraulically assisted ZF rack and pinion steering and conventionally-servoed, floating, self-centring, ventilated disc brakes. This luxury four-door, fourseater will sell at about £15,000 in Italy, competitive with Mercedes.

Maserati’s new Quattroporte is not to be confused with the Citroen-influenced Quattroporte introduced before the company folded. De Tomaso dismissed this V6-engined car as “Too heavy, with too little power and with too complicated Citroen suspension. It was not realistic. It was all tooled up, but we threw it away.” This statement proved to be not quite true when we bumped into several of these “thrown away” cars in process of construction during our factory “walkabout” the following day. It transpired that a tiny production is being kept up for Arab countries where the cars do not have to comply with EEC regulations.

Discussion of this model with De Tomaso spurred him into revealing that one of the first things he wants to do within Maserati is to get rid of the Citroen mechanical influence, particularly the complicated hydraulics, which he sees as unnecessary and a great nuisance for servicing. He plans to use “good, ordinary, reliable British brakes on all Maseratis and make our own parts such as steering,” a policy illustrated by the new Quattroporte.

For the future, De Tomaso revealed that the Kyalami is going into full production right now, the saloon will go into production in the middle of 1977 and the company is currently working on a new 2-litre 2-1 2, which he considers the right sort of recipe for Europe. With the 2-litre, Maserati will be aiming for good performance, consumption and quality, capable of competing with anyone in the 2-litre class. De Tomaso wouldn’t divulge the number of cylinders of the engine, prototype examples of which are being dynamometer tested, but admitted that they had four-valves-per-cylinder for good horsepower, torque and low pollution. The engines will be built by Maserati and fitted to a car which has yet to be styled, but is scheduled for production in the Spring of 1978.

Our visit to the De Tomaso factory was a trifle disappointing. It is a small group of concrete buildings on the edge of an industrial estate on the outskirts of Modena, so small that a colleague from a weekly magazine, thinking that we were merely in the customer service bay (which the assembly area does indeed double as!) asked innocently where the main factory was. The reason for the small size is that all components, including the bodies, are produced by outside suppliers. For hand assembly in small volume there is no need for a huge industrial emporium. The current range includes the Pantera, Pantera GTS, Deauville and Longchamps, all of which use Ford V8 engines, which arc dynamometer tested in an adjacent building and fitted with different sumps and rocker covers to befit their De Tomaso home.

Here was evidence that this enterprising industrialist does not forget history. Parked in a dusty line were snippets of De Tomaso’s past: a 1964 F3 car, 1965 2-litre sports-racing car, 1966 5-litre sports-racing car, 1967 1,000 c.c. sports-racing car and 1966 5-litre GT prototype, the pretty little Ford 1500GT-engined Vallelunga of 1966 which launched De Tomaso into road car production and the bulk of one of the ill-fated 1970 F1 cars. That De Tomaso’s current reliance on “cooking” Ford V8 engines has reflected a lack of interest in engineering his own was made patently untrue by a lineup of engines: a 990 c.c., 120 b.h.p., four-cam, flat-four from 1963; a 1,480 c.c., 140 b.h.p., four-cam, fiat eight from 1961; a 4,782 c.c., 540 b.h.p., V12 with four chain-driven camshafts from 1970; and another V12 of the same capacity and year but with four belt-driven cams and a modest 390 b.h.p.

The Maserati factory proved to be a “proper” and extensive car factory with full engineering and production facilities, though again many components, including bodyshells are supplied by sub-contractors. The engine shop produces V6 and V8 engines from bare castings. Each engine is assembled by one man, who is totally responsible for it from the bare block stage to it being finally signed off after dynamometer testing. V8 engines are tested for 7 hours, V6s for 5 hours. After the final power reading, sumps are removed and all hearings checked.

Maserati make only the chassis frames, where this is applicable, such as in the Bora where the rear suspension and engine/transaxle is is contained in a separate subframe. The bare bodies are built by several suppliers in Turin, then painstakingly built up by Maserati; each Khamsin door takes 13 hours to produce, for example. Curiously, no women are employed, even in the trim section. The English connection is very strong; most models use Girling disc brakes, some rear axles are by Salisbury and all the leather comes from Connolly. Current Maserati production is 600 per year, to be raised gradually to 1,000.

Thorough testing of each new car is insisted upon. First there is a rough test of 20 miles, straight off the assembly line, to find out basic faults. After rectification a further test schedule takes the car into town for brakes and oil and water temperature tests; into the country on a heavy traffic route; on to the autostrada for a speed check; and into the mountains to check handling; a total of some 120 miles.

Our test sessions on the old Modena race track, right in the centre of the town, were but brief in each car. The Bora impressed by its straight line speed, stability and handling, but the test car had brakes which pulled to the left, reminding us violently of the lack of sensitivity of the Citroen power-braking system when wanting to heel-and-toe. The De Tomaso Longchamp was a real old nail, with sloppy brakes and very light, American-style power steering, but, it went well enough despite worn-out synchromesh on its five-speed ZF gearbox. After my experiences with an ill-handling road test Merak a year, or two ago I wasn’t looking forward to trying the latest Merak SS on a circuit; this 3-litre V6-engined car has 220 b.h.p., 30 b.h.p. more than the standard Merak, which has been dropped (though a 2-litre V6 has joined the list to get round Italian tax laws). Yet its handling, on slightly wider wheels than the old Merak, was delightful, and apart from the power brakes I quite liked this Citroen-gearboxed 2+2. With self-centring power steering to contend with and power brakes, the Khamsin was at a disadvantage in a situation where people had only two or three laps of familiarisation. A very comfortable and quick car of character, however.

Lastly I tried the brute power of the midengined De Tornaso Pantera GTS. Totally unsophisticated compared with the Maseratis, it nevertheless managed to be the most enjoyable car of the day, a benefit of a cooking Ford engine with massive torque, conventional brakes and conventional steering.

The man who has rescued this large chunk of the world’s supercar industry arrived in Italy from Argentina in 1954 “with ideas but no money.” Alejandro De Tomaso has been a Maserati enthusiast always and raced a 150S successfully in 1956. Has he a talent for rescuing floundering companies? “The only talent is to work and the insurance is a good product.”—C.R.