Maserati built the best-handling sports-racers of the mid-1950s and the most powerful. But it was unable to combine both elements, as Paul Fearnley finds out.
The woodland creatures scurry, bolt and scramble, for the ‘Bazooka’, though still some way distant, is most definitely within earshot. This is not a car for the shy or sensitive, timid or tremulous. Genghis Khan or Vlad the Impaler would have loved it, though. Maserati’s Tipo 54, that’s Mister 450S to you and me, sounds like thunder and goes like the clappers. It has a preference for straights, swallowing them whole, but is allergic to corners. It’s big, beautiful and brutal.
And it’s obscuring, aurally and visually, its berserker little brother. My low-slung 200S nestles in the crook of an Arnie-bicep 450S wheel arch, those side-exhaust pulses flexing my ribcage in a sort of automotive CPR. Glancing up, I can’t help but think it: tugboat nudges ocean liner into dock.
It’s hard to be fair to the wean when you put this mismatched pair side by side. The 200S is curvy and sensuous, but the 450S is augmented and outrageous and draws gawping crowds. Onlookers take a few paces back when its 4.5-litre 90-degree V8 Richters into life, but they can’t tear themselves away. In contrast, the four-pot in the 200S is blue-collar and buzzy, its nowt-below-two-five, jarring edge a cause of headaches, not happenings.
But look beyond the glitz and hammer of the 450S and you could well argue that the 200S was the more important car. Almost 30 were constructed — and sold — between 1955 and ’57. Allied to a similar number of 150Ss during a similar period, it’s no wonder that this was the Trident’s golden racing era. The (financial) success of these privateer cars freed up the Orsi bros, Adolfo and Omer, to pour lire into their works Formula One and sportscar efforts. All was well with 250F and 300S, both of which were beautifully balanced and whose success (almost) balanced the books — but 450S was overblown and overdrawn. Its win-or-bust attempt to secure the 1957 sportscar title failed dramatically — and had dramatic consequences: Maserati almost went bust and its works team never fully recovered. The 450S wasn’t the only cause of this sudden downturn in fortune — bedevilled business dealings in Argentina, Mexico and the US, plus the distraction of the forthcoming 3500GT road car, didn’t help the Orsis’ cause — but its $500,000 R&D programme was a mite excessive, while its gargantuan performance (and that of Ferrari’s 4-litre V12s) monstered nervy powers-that-were into implementing a 3-litre sportscar formula from ’58. The 200S wasn’t without problems, but they were more manageable, less significant, and often somebody else’s.
The smaller-capacity classes had a major significance for Maserati: not only were there several lucrative Italian races to be won — and grids to be filled — but more than that there were OSCAs to be beaten. This was a marque set up in 1947 by the three remaining Maserati brothers after their 10-year service contract with the Orsis had expired. Game on.
The 150S came first, the work of Vittorio Bellantani, soon to depart for Ferrari. Initially fitted with an unblown version of the single-seater 4CLT’s four-valve motor, this was replaced by a four-banger based on the two-valve all-alloy twin-spark DOHC in-line six shared by 250F and 300S. Breathing through a pair of Weber 45DCO3s, it delivered 140bhp at 7500rpm — never quite enough for a car that looked delicate but weighed 630kg, dry. That’s not much, but it’s considerably more than its Porsche rivals. True, it beat a dozen 550 Spyders on its debut — a 500km race for 1500cc sportscars at the Nürburgring in August 1955 — but into that particular equation you have to factor Jean Behra and the de Dion version of the car; lesser drivers preferred the slower but easier-to-drive live-axle cars. The 150S had flattered to deceive.
This 200S, chassis 2401, the first to be built, started life as a 150S in 1955, but after Luigi Bellucci’s DNF (when already in 2-litre form) in the ’56 Mille Miglia it was drawn tightly to the works’ bosom and became its racer-hack for the new model.
The 200S was basically a bored-and-stroked 150S (up to 190bhp at 7200rpm). Some of the early cars had the chopped-tail 150S body by Celestine Fiandra, but 2401 would sport Medardo Fantuzzi’s sleeker styling which would become the model’s norm.
And every tap of that fat man’s hammer is here for all to see, 50kg of paint and filler having been removed to return the car to the bare-ally form that Stirling Moss would instantly recognise (see panel, page 72). Every welded stitch and knit, every hole cut then filled, tells a story. And it’s clear that 2401 went through the gamut: five-speeder in for original four; de Dion in for live axle in mid-1956; ‘passenger’ fuel tank in, then out; oil tank under the bonnet, then in the tail; passenger door cut for new-for-1957 Sports Internazionale rules. And like all Maserati bodies it has its nuances: the right-front wing is taller and bulkier than the left, and the headrest is wider and longer, stretching almost to the tail’s tip, than on any other 200S. It’s a car awash with patina and personality.
And right now it’s grumpy in the chill of an early Eifel morn. I don’t crank on sufficient revs and so we harumph out onto the track. I dip the don’t-slip-it multi-plate clutch, build the revs and try again. Better. But not by much.
My first gear change isn’t a thing of great beauty either. The ‘box is in-unit with the motor, its long lever recessed deep into the transmission tunnel by your left thigh. Holding it in the dog-leg first — it tends to jump out — I raise the revs before attempting second. There’s synchro, but not as we know it, and the detent-less lever lolls around a wide gate if you are not confident with it. And I’m not. Second is eventually engaged, but not before the cam is off. Spit. Hiccup. Harumph.
But once under way, and with a smidgen of heat in engine (there’s 17 litres of oil to be scattered and scavenged), gearbox and driver, matters improve: this is a very manageable, nimble machine; no wonder its ilk starred in the European Mountain Championship. Skinny front tyres and positive camber make for light worm-and-sector steering, and that long, track-hugging nose eagerly sniffs out apices. With high cockpit sides, full-width windscreen, narrow footwell and spare-tyre well bulging out beside your left shoulder, this is a car that wraps itself around you. A privateer’s car: mid-grid, comprehensible and forgiving, neither stupidly fast nor downright dangerous.
You couldn’t get a starker contrast — the 450S is a hero’s car: upfront and usually out front, incomprehensible and unforgiving, stupidly fast and — even in the hands of a Moss or a Fangio — downright dangerous. This is not a car that puts a comforting arm around you, instead it grabs you by the throat and challenges you to an arm wrestle. It looks big from without, and feels big from within. You sit low in its wide cockpit and grasp a three-spoke wooden steering wheel that’s set a tad high for my taste. Sports-racers of the 1950s are usually cramped; I feel swamped in this. And daunted by that engine.
Circling and surveying the car as it was warmed-up I’d convinced myself that each bank had a different note: left pipe a background hint of high hat; right pipe the thud of bass drum. The stereo effect once in the driving seat, however, generates a towering wall of sound, menacing at tickover, otherwordly on the hoof.
There are, though, some crumbs of comfort: the clutch is light and Valerio Colotti’s transaxle is a joy, short of throw, deliberate of action. This is a five-speed ‘box as opposed to the four of most 300Ss, and it is sited ahead of the final drive whereas the 300S had its transmission to the right of the diff.
Clearly it’s too simplistic to state that the 450S is a beefed-up version of its 3-litre predecessor, but think of it that way and you won’t go far wrong. It retains, for instance, a coil-sprung wishbone front and transverse-leaf-sprung de Dion rear.
The heart of the matter, though, is very different: Maserati’s first V8 since the R1 grand prix racer of 1935. Penned and overseen jointly by new tech boss Giulio Alfieri and engine specialist Guido Taddeucci, it’s an impressive twin-cam twin-spark two-valve unit that displaces 4488cc, and which almost shook the factory walls down as it registered 400bhp on the dyno. The years of Ferrari outmuscling Maserati were definitely over.
The 450S prototype, unlovely with stub exhausts and a huge bulge in its bonnet (it featured the bodywork of the stopgap 350S), made its first appearance in practice for the 1956 Swedish GP. It honked down Kristanstad’s straights, but teetered around what few corners there were. The 300S was way quicker.
The second effort, for 1957, was much better: stiffer frame, bigger brakes, stronger suspension location, more-in-proportion body. What’s more, Maserati had Stirling Moss and Juan Fangio in its armoury, and this superstar pairing romped away with the opening 1000Km at Buenos Aires in January — until the clutch failed, followed not long afterwards by the abused gearbox.
At Sebring in March, however, Fangio and Behra simply pulverised the opposition. Maserati had proved that not only could it construct the world’s fastest long-distance racer, but also that it could prep it to go the full distance. The Mille Miglia, a race the marque had never won, couldn’t come soon enough.
For this 1000-mile blat around Italy a two-speed ‘overdrive’ unit was slipped-in between clutch and transaxle. Operated by a push-pull that jutted through the centre console, it was designed to provide two sets of ratios: ‘mountain’, good for 160mph; and ‘autostrada’, good for 185mph. Moss was told he could select either only when stationary, but this inveterate gadgeteer, a man always on the lookout for a technical edge, discovered that this could be achieved on the move. Less than five miles from the start in Brescia he selected overdrive top and grinned at Jenks as they pulled a majestic 180mph-plus. Then the brake pedal snapped. Clean off.
Two weeks later Stirling was leading the Nürburgring 1000Km when the left-hand halfshaft snapped and its wheel parted company. Le Mans was a disaster for Moss and Maserati, too, due to a rushed, uneducated effort by Zagato to put Frank Costin’s careful drawings for a streamlined coupé into metal.
Yet a win at Kristianstad, where Moss shared his car with Behra, meant the title was still up for grabs at the Caracas finale in November: Ferrari scored a 1-2-3-4 to take the title; all three 450Ss (and the works 300S) were wrecked by accidents and/or fire. It was a knockout blow.
Thankfully for me (I think), 4502 avoided this carnage, stashed away as it was just south of the Mexican border, just out of the reach of the Inland Revenue Service, which was looking high and low for its owner — cement-and-construction baron, team boss and party animal, Tony Parravano. It eventually found the car and sold it at auction; it’s still looking for Tony. How ironic that Parravano, the man whose cash kick-started Maserati’s V8 project (initially for an assault on Indy with a 4.2 version) never got to see his 450S run in anger (see panel, page 72). If you’re reading this, Tony, — hey, you never know — you missed something really special. For without question this is one of the most exciting sports-racers ever built.
The first shock comes at the first corner. Travelling at no great speed I attempt to swing in — and nothing happens. The first quarter-turn of what should be lock appears to be play, at which point everything loads up and the nose grudgingly comes around. Okay, so you drive it on the throttle. But at this point you are entering Moss territory — and even he reckoned it a handful. Hmm. Then there’s the brakes. They are masterpieces of the casting art, all fins and radial holes drilled at an angle to improve cooling. Clay cold today, they feel dead and grabby.
A bit of heat would improve things — but I can categorically state that they are not up to the job. How? Simply because this much grunt and torque would test far more modern set-ups.
Cracking open the throats of the four downdraught Webers nestling down in the vee causes a supercar-like surge of urge. Snapping them open causes wheelspin in second — and third — in the dry, on the uphill rush to the Karussell. I can’t drive like Moss, but I grin like him. And then the tail steps out through the gentlest of rights after the Karussell and I go all serious again.
And that’s just 5400rpm (in only second gear) according to the telltale; 1600 revs still to go. I’m simply blown away. And that’s with fifth gear still marooned and unused out on its dog-leg. This is one fearsome reputation that is fully deserved. It briefly crosses my mind that Moss might have spent the night before his Mille Miglia ‘disappointment’ stealthily part-sawing through the brake shaft with a nail file. His effort to lead the ‘Ring 1000 ‘Clicks’ in a 450S was Herculean.
Moss will happily admit that he wasn’t sorry to see the back of the 450S — and was lapping the ‘Ring 18sec faster two seasons later in a 3-litre Aston Martin DBR1 — but cars like Maserati’s ‘Bazooka’ don’t merely weed out the good from the great, they put clear daylight between the great and the absolute best. Moss shone in everything he ever drove, and won only once in a 450S, but few cars can have spotlighted his talent as brilliantly, as untouchably, as this wilful beast. He must surely have revelled in that knowledge, in this situation — if not in the braking and handling that came with it.
Thanks to Hartmut Ibing, Wolfgang Zwelfler, Capricorn Engineering, Walter Baumer and the Nürburgring for their help with this feature.
Engine — All alloy in-line four, gear-driven DOHC’s, two-valve, twin-plug, dry sump. Capacity 1993cc. Bore x stroke 92 x 75mm. Max power 190bhp. Max revs 7500rpm. Compression 9.5:1. Fuelling system, two Weber 45DCO3. Ignition, dual Magneti Marelli battery and coil and/or magneto.
Drivetrain — gearbox, four-speed (later five) synchro. Clutch, dry multi-plate.
Chassis — Tubular lattice frame. Body, sheet aluminium over steel frame. Wheelbase 2150mm (later 2200mm), Track (f/r) 1250/1200mm, Length 3900mm, Width 1450mm, height 980mm. Dry weight 630kg.
Suspension (f) independent unequal-length wishbones, coil springs; (r) live axle, longitudinal leaf springs (later de Dion tube, transverse leaf spring)
Running Gear — dampers (f & r) Houdaille hydraulic lever-arms. Brakes (f & r) drums, hydraulic. Steering, worm and sector. Fuel capacity 120 litres (minimum). Wheels (f & r) 4.50 x 16. Tyres (f &r) 5.50 x 16 / 6.00 x 16
Engine — All-alloy, 90deg V8, gear-driven DOHC’s per bank, two-valve, twin-spark, dry sump. Capacity 4477cc. Bore x stroke 93.8 x 81mm. Max power 400 bhp @6250rpm. max revs 7000 rpm. compression 9.5:1. fuelling system four Weber 45IDM. Ignition dual Magneti Marelli battery and coils and/or magnetos.
Drivetrain — gearbox, five-speed transaxle, synchro. Clutch, dry multi-plate.
Chassis, tubular lattice frame. Body, sheet aluminium over steel frame. Wheelbase 2400mm, Track (f & r) 1335/1300mm, Dry weight 790kg.
Suspension (f) independent, unequal-length wishbones, coil springs; (r) de Dion tube, transverse leaf spring.
Running Gear — dampers (f & r) Houdaille hydraulic lever-arms, Brakes (f & r) drums, hydraulic. Steering, worm and sector. Fuel capacity 140-180 litres. Wheels (f & r) 5.00 x 16. Tyres (f & r) 6.00 x16 / 7.00 x 16
From the Nürburgring to Mexico via Cuba
Maserati 200S Chassis 2401
The story of 2401 is interspersed with a certain Mr Moss. His first acquaintance with it was due to force majeure. The 150S he was scheduled to share with Piero Taruffi in the 1956 Supercortemaggiore race at Monza spat its propshaft into the cockpit on the opening lap. In response, team manager Nello Ugolini plonked Moss in 2401 alongside Cesare Perdisa. They finished second.
Moss’s next run in it came six weeks later in the Rheinland Cup, the 1500cc sportscar race that supported the German Grand Prix. By this time the still-unpainted car had undergone another of its updates and now featured a de Dion rear end and presumably a 150S engine! Moss put it on pole position, only for the team to undergear it for the race, because of which Stirling could do nothing about Hans Herrmann’s runaway works Porsche and had to settle for second.
Put into SI spec in preparation for 1957, Jean Behra won his class in the end-of-season Caracas GP — and there 2401 stayed, in Venezuela, having been bought by Ettore Chimera.
But Moss hadn’t finished with it yet thanks to another slice of force majeure. When his 450S was delayed by a New York dock strike, Chimera offered him his 200S for Havana’s Cuban GP in February 1957. Having lapped 15sec faster around the 3-mile street circuit than anyone else in his class, Moss’s race was cut short when the engine seized after just five laps.
Maserati 450S Chassis 4502
This car was meant to be the flagship of Tony Parravano’s impressive race fleet, which included Ferraris as well as Maseratis, but circumstances overtook that plan. Although tested at Willow Springs in January 1957, 4502 didn’t race until ’59. And that was because an exasperated Inland Revenue Service was unable to locate it until the end of ’58. Sold by auction in the parking lot of a Savings and Loan in the San Fernando Valley, it was bought by Jack Brumby of Italia Motors, with financial backing from Dr Rey Martinez.
The now-silvery-blue machine was raced four times in 1959 by Billy Krause, a brave and talented hotshoe whose attacking, sideways style suited the car. Sadly, most of the American circuits on the West Coast’s burgeoning sportscar-racing scene did not.
Krause finished second on his February debut with it at Pomona, despite the steering bracket tearing loose, and was leading the Examiner Grand Prix at the same track the following month when the car snapped into a late-race 360. The rear suspension’s central locating bolt had sheared and an unsecured leaf spring sliced the right-rear tyre. Krause finished fourth on three wheels.
July’s Kiwanis GP at Riverside looked more promising because the track was faster, but both Krause and relief driver Pete Woods were overcome by exhaust fumes. The team had cut an extra scoop into the body. Meant to cool the drivers, it merely funnelled gases into the cockpit!
There remained just one more outing a DNF at Santa Barbara before Krause and Brumby switched to a more modern, more nimble Maserati ‘Birdcage’.
4502 reappeared in Chuck Kessinger’s hands in 1961, but the combination proved uncompetitive against the latest machinery, and after a fourth place in a minor race at Riverside in March 1962, the car was pensioned off.