Stirling’s ice-cream special

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Built by Maserati, paid for by an ice-cream maker and driven by Stirling Moss, the Eldorado Special should have been Europe’s answer to the US invasion in the 1958 Race of Two Worlds at Monza. Doug Nye reflects

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re Stirling Moss. It’s Sunday, 29 June, 1958, and despite your status as ‘The Man’ or perhaps because of it you have just become worried. You are immersed at 175mph in the high-sided and offset cockpit of a monstrous white painted and be-finned track racing Maserati. The frenzied vibration of its 4.2-litre four-cam V8 engine is rippling through your feet, thighs, back and hands. You’re aware that within the flimsy aluminium tunnel boxed beneath your left elbow is the whirling propshaft, churning more than 400bhp into that hot, raucously whining transaxle mounted inches behind your kidneys. You are ripping past the Monza pits and then your car heels left on to the banking of the Pista de Alta Velocita the High Speed Track’s Curva Sud.

This is your 187th race lap but 15 seconds earlier on the Curva Nord this great thunderous, throbbing missile had felt… spooky.

Moss tells what happened next like this: “The car was wanting to drift high on the banking and I was having to use increased effort on the steering to hold it down to six to eight feet below the lip running tight and fast. I was doing this at over 160mph when suddenly my arms crossed as the steering sheared! The car was fitted with tiny, little 150S sports car brakes, which proved utterly ineffective as I hit them hard in an effort to save my life. It really was a very frightening moment, probably my worst ever, because there was no evasive action whatsoever that I could take…”

The Eldorado Special sponsored and built for Eldorado ice-cream magnate, Gino Zanetti swooped up towards the lip and cannoned heavily along the steel barrier. It was a heavy car, travelling enormously fast, and it flattened several hefty barrier posts and bent back the railing. The impact burst two tyres, and plucked back a wheel before the car slithered down the track, losing speed all the way, until it finally subsided in a cloud of dust in the ditch at the bottom of the banking.

“I stepped out, and walked back, and that was the end of my speedway racing…”

This was another grave disappointment for the Maserati factory another one of many. Seven months earlier the owning Gruppo Orsi industrial combine had collapsed in bankruptcy and works team racing had been abandoned. The receivers would permit no racing activities without full sponsorship from outside customers, but Zanetti of Eldorado had emerged as just that, waving his cheque book and anxious for a car to combat the American visitors from Indianapolis who were to compete in the second Monza 500-mile race. Maserati had a great tradition of USAC-style speedway racing its Grand Prix 8CTF car having won the Indy 500 in 1939 and 1940 in the hands of Wilbur Shaw.

Billed as the Race of Two Worlds, the event was run on the Milanese speedway, which had been built as part of the Monza Autodrome complex in 1955. Once the oval track had become available, the Milan club and the RAC d’Italia had latched on to the idea of inviting America’s track racing specialists from Indianapolis to contest a great showdown with the road-racing specialists of Europe. The Italian 500-miler was to be run in three separate heats to ensure tyre safety on the steeper, faster, more punishing Monza banking, and to provide the excitement of three starts and finishes.

For the inaugural event in 1957, 10 Indy cars and drivers made the long trip from the USA, but found, to their intense disappointment, that the Grand Prix drivers and manufacturers had effectively boycotted the event as a ‘circus trick’.

Maserati was the exception, yet their effort was half-hearted and confined to practice only as the brave Jean Behra handled a 3.5-litre V12-engined 250F single-seater and also tried a stripped 450S sports racing car. Both entries were withdrawn before the race.

For the second Monza 500 Miles, Ferrari prepared a couple of cobbled-up speedway specials but, egged on by Gino Zanetti and his Eldorado ice-cream millions, Maserati took the deepest plunge by building a tailor-made ‘Monzanapolis’ racing car to run as the Eldorado Special.

After receiving Zanetti’s commission, Maserati chief engineer Giulio Alfieri briefed his chassis and transmission design section headed by Valerio Colotti. They laid out a hybrid multi-tubular chassis design combininsg experience from the 250F Tipo 3 lightweight series chassis structure, which had brought Fangio his fifth drivers’ World Championship title the previous season with the big 450S V8 sports-racing car engine, transmission and running gear.

The front suspension came straight from the 450S, and the rear end was a beefy modification of the sport car’s De Dion layout. The engine was a 4.2-litre short-stroke version of Guido Taddeucci’s engine design team’s V8. This quad cam unit had made its debut in June 1956, and an early order had been received from American-Italian customer Tony Parravano – widely regarded at the time as some kind of mafioso – for two 4.2-litre versions of this new V8 to power a USACracing Indianapolis project.

Two of these 420M/57 engines were delivered to Parravano, No 4201 (delivered 12 December, 1956) and 4202 (29 January 1957), but neither could be used before Parravano’s fortunes collapsed and he fled the US, apparently to Mexico.

Now, for Zanetti’s project, fuel injection was tested on 420M/58 engine ‘4203’, but it was discarded in favour of four downdraught Weber carburettors, jetted and tuned for alcohol fuel in contrast to the AvGas aviation spirit just made compulsory in Formula One.

The Monza 500 Miles was a left-turn only race so the V8 engine was offset 90mm to the left in the tubular frame, passing its propshaft high to the left of the low slung driver’s seat, which was offset to the right. The two-speed gearbox provided a low’ for getaway and a ‘high’ for full throttle racing. Final-drive was solid, there was no differential.

The tubular frame was based upon two large-diameter elliptical-section longeron tubes linked by matching cross members, all variously pierced by large holes amazing to behold today as any weight saving can only have been minuscule. One can grip the wall thickness of the tube in these holes and it’s paper thin. Drum finger nails against these longeron tubes and they rattle thinly…

Erected above them was a sketchily triangulated stiffening superstructure of round section tubes. At the nose, scuttle and behind the cockpit were finer-gauge panel support tubes to pick up all-detachable body panels fashioned by Medardo Fantuzzi’s carrozzeria. The car was signed off to Zanetti’s order on 16 June, 1958.

Monza’s bumpy, frost-heaved bankings meted out a terrible battering during inital testing, breaking the spokes in the original Borrani alloy-rimmed wire wheels. Cast-alloy American Halibrands were quickly substituted, carrying large Firestone Speedway Special track tyres 7.60 x 16in at the front and a monster 8.00 x 18in at the rear, all inflated with lighter-than-air Helium.

Zanetti’s wallet served to retain Moss dropping his previous year’s opposition to this strange race and on the weekend between the Le Mans 24 hours and the French Grand Prix at Reims, Moss reported to Monza for his only experience of banked super-speedway racing.

He recalled: “My first practice in the car certainly proved its power, but it skipped and bounded over the bumpy banking and I can’t say I liked it much. I lapped in 57.9sec, 164mph, and next day the skies were heavily overcast and rain was drizzling down. In American USAC racing nobody ran in the rain. Naturally I told Bertocchi [Maserati’s famous chief mechanic and chief test driver] to warm up the car. Some of the Indy people asked what on earth we were doing.

“I said, ‘I’m going out,’ and they gasped: ‘But you can’t. It’s raining!’ This was too good an opportunity to miss, so I said that in Europe we didn’t mind whether it was raining or sunny, we raced in all weathers. It might yet rain on Sunday, race day, so what would they do then? ‘We won’t race,’ they said flatly. ‘That’s great,’ I said. ‘There are quite a few European drivers here and we go racing quite happily in the rain.’ That set them ticking and clucking and worrrying about the prize money…”

Moss knew the good ole Indy boys didn’t really rate the road racers, so on his first lap in the Eldorado, booming past the pits at full throttle, he jiggled the steering just enough to set the great white car weaving wildly in the drizzle. “It must have looked quite dramatic, but it wasn’t really because the rear wheels weren’t breaking traction, it was just me intentionally inducing a weave. But it made the Americans stand back and blink.”

He lapped in 64.3sec in the wet before overdoing his snaking trick past the pits. “I damn nearly came unstuck good and proper, and the moment I was out of sight on the banking I backed right off to catch my breath. Meanwhile, somebody had leaned on the organisers and they flagged me in next time round.” But Moss knew he was in deeper trouble, for dry practice saw the Eldorado running on to the banking at an car-splitting 6700rpm only to scrub speed away and exit some 500rpm slower. “The car felt bad with its front suspension set too high,” Moss commented.

Next day, lower-geared, his times improved, but the real hero was Luigi Musso, unhappily entering the last week of his young life for he would crash fatally at Reims the following Sunday. At Monza he was driving a real man-eater of a special Ferrari. With a 4.1-litre V12 engine, and he promptly qualified it on pole at 175.12mph to put all the speedway regulars and their Offy-engined roadsters in the shade. Moss qualified ninth at 164.42mph.

On raceday Musso held back the entire grid on the pace lap before using his Ferrari’s three-speed gearbox to blitz into a long lead the instant the flag fell for the first heat. By contrast, Moss’s start was appalling. The Eldorado Special came off the first banking pulling only 2200rpm and still in low gear. Moss fought back from ninth to fourth, then third, but after 52 of the 63 laps fell back to fourth again, appreciating that the Indy roadsters with their ‘lay-down’ Offy engines were having an easier time around the banking.

In the second heat Moss felt he was getting the hang of oval racing, disputing third place with Troy Ruttman and eventual winner, Jimmy Bryan, blasting around at 168mph, no holds barred. From outside the banking, down among the Monza trees, each lap’s passage of the cars was announced by a thunderclap of sound and a shower of dust puffing out between the barrier posts on the lip. But the hefty Maserati began to wear its Firestone tyres and Moss had to ease off, finishing fifth.

On the startline for the third heat, the Eldorado’s clutch failed and Moss lost half a lap. He recovered to fourth place, and was aiming to wrest third from a young American named AJ Foyt when that spooky feeling intruded and the most frightening moment of his glittering career soon followed. He was finally classified seventh on aggregate overall.

Zanetti was keen to run the car in the following year’s Indy 500, and against Omer Orsi’s advice had it repaired and shipped to the US for the 1959 event. The car’s body was reworked by Gentilini, losing the jazzy tailfin, and the 30-litre oil tank was exposed on the left-side of the bodywork. More significantly, where the three-heat format of the Monza races had obviated serious need for scheduled pit-stops to refuel and fit fresh tyres, Indianapolis’ one-shot 500-miler made Maserati’s engineers address more effectively the problem of enabling their car to make a clutch restart from the pits and to accelerate rapidly up to racing speed. Consequently, a second two-speed gearbox was applied all’uscita del motore at the output of the engine with a separate selection lever by the driver’s left hand. The car was now said to weigh 1763Ib and in this 420M/59 form ‘4203’ the now red-liveried Eldorado Special was signed off on 15 April 1959. Dirt-track driver Ralph Liguori was entrusted with driving it at Indy, but despite the little team’s efforts the engine’s carburetion was never adequately sorted and he failed to qualify.

At Indy that year Bertocchi also had a second Maserati 420M V8s to worry over. Frank Arciero of Los Angeles had acquired one of the engines originally ordered by Parravano. That unit was fitted with a version of the Hilborn ‘waterfall’ fuel injection which worked so well on Offenhauser’s four-cylinder engines, and Arciero had it installed in an American Kurtis KK500C chassis. Driven by Clark ‘Shorty’ Templeton, it failed to complete a qualifying run.

Shipped back to Modena, the Eldorado Special was stripped of useable bits and its bare bones were left to rust in the company’s mortuary. Its 1959 outing at Indy had been the Maserati factory’s last tremor on the international single-seater scene and it remained in the Viale Ciro Menotti factory until quite recently when Alessandro de Tomaso approved its restoration on a low priority.

This work had been part-completed when The Former Collection of Officine Alfieri Maserati was entrusted to Brooks auction house for sale in their 2 December auction at Olympia, London. Their sales campaign for the 18 cars in this group including the mighty Eldorado Special proved instrumental in cementing a well-funded syndicate of Italian enthusiasts set upon preserving the collection in Modena. After intense negotiation, Brooks who had hoped to find a buyer who would keep the cars together advised the collection owners to accept the syndicate’s offer ‘saving the cars for their nation’. They are now to be preserved and displayed in a purpose-built museum in their native Modena a fitting end to a minor epic.