The Unfortunate "Four-Five"

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Some Notes on the 4.5-litre V8 Maserati Sports Car

In the 4.5-litre V8 Maserati sports car the Modena firm would appear to have a world beater, and on all four occasions that this model has been raced it has not only been hot favourite, it has been a certain winner; yet of the four races it has only once crossed the finishing line, and on that occasion it won. It would seem that if the “four-five” can finish a race it will be the winner, but like many good cars it is let down by small things. There is little doubt that it is the most powerful and potent sports car ever built, far greater than the 300 SLR Mercedes-Benz, certainly greater than any Ferrari sports car, or Jaguar D-type. In view of this it would seem opportune to review the events and happenings that led up to this monster, and to look into its brief and chequered career to date (prior to Le Mans).

In 1955 Maserati had developed the 3-litre six-cylinder sports car to a fine degree and it was proving to be an excellent all-round sports/racing car, but the power was a bare 260 b.h.p. and against Jaguar, Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz it was found wanting in performance. In order to keep their position in sports-car racing Maserati started a dual development programme with the aim of replacing the 3-litre 300S by bigger and better machinery. The first engine project was a fairly simple and quick job, which was to build a 3½-litre six-cylinder using much of the knowledge gained with the 3-litre, but nevertheless designing this new engine from scratch, rather than merely increasing the bore and stroke of the existing six cylinder. The other project was a complete breakaway from regular Maserati-Orsi design lines, and that was to design the V8 engine of 4.5-litre capacity. Even though the twin-cam head on each of the four-cylinder blocks owed much of its design parentage to the 2-litre four-cylinder sports-car engine, this V8 unit was a fairly lengthy job to tackle. Concurrent with these engine developments a chassis development programme was undertaken at the same time and the first signs of all the drawing office work to appear in the workshops was the new chassis frame. The front suspension and general layout of the chassis tubes was not far removed from the 300S but the rear of the chassis was an entirely new venture. Whereas the 300S used a four-speed gearbox/differential unit that was identical with the Grand Prix cars, having the gearbox shafts mounted transversely to the axis of the car, and the whole unit on the right-hand side of the differential unit, this new chassis bore no resemblance at all to previous practice. The gearbox was a full five-speed unit, with the shafts in line with the axis of the car and the complete gearbox mounted in front of the differential, but still in unit with it. On the previous de Dion rear end, the de Dion tube ran across the chassis in front of the rear axle unit, but on this new chassis it ran behind the axle and instead of being located by a guide on the final-drive casing, it was now located in a guide fixed to the chassis frame. The suspension was still by a high-mounted transverse leaf spring and double radius rods to each hub located the rear-axle assembly. Half-shafts, hubs, chassis tubes, shock-absorbers and so on, were all very much bigger and stronger than the old 300S and though this chassis was first of all fitted with the 3½-litre six-cylinder engine it was obvious that it was intended for a much more powerful unit. In time for the 1956 Mille Miglia two or these new chassis were built, both having 3½-litre six-cylinder engines fitted and it was intended that Taruffi and Moss should drive them in the race, but the Italian driver preferred to use an old 300S so only one of the new cars was completed. The steering and roadholding proved far from right, and apart from these detects the extra power of the 3½-litre engine over the 3-litre, was not enough to make up for the added weight of the new chassis, the result being that the car was not as fast as a good 3-litre.

At that time, May, 1956, the first castings for the V8 were leaving the foundry and work was started on building the first of the 4½-litre engines, for which the new heavier chassis was really intended. The first of the Mille Miglia cars was finally completed and bought by Luigi Piotti, and though it ran in numerous races throughout 1956 it was never successful. The other car was crashed in the race and when returned to the factory the front end was chopped off and the geometry and layout of the double-wishbone/coil spring i.f.s. was completely redesigned. With a full season of Grand Prix racing to tackle, development work on the 4.5-litre engine was slow by Italian standards and it was not until mid-summer 1956 that the V8 engine was bench-tested. In August of that year it was fitted into the modified chassis, No. 2 of this new series, and the car appeared for practice at the Swedish Grand Prix. The engine proved to be enormously powerful, and though it made the car rush along, the brakes, which were virtually 300S brakes, were quite incapable of stopping it, due not only to the extra speed but also the extra weight. Some further high-pressure development work on the Grand Prix cars precluded any more experiments with the 4.5-litre V8 until the season was finished. Then work proceeded at very high speed, and before the end of the year the whole project was finalised and tidied up into a very raceworthy sports car. The old experimental chassis was thrown on the scrap heap and the general design of the frame was cleaned up, some new, very large and powerful brakes were built, and the engine underwent steady development until it was giving 400 b.h.p. No. 3 car of this series was finished before the end of the year and was sold to Tony Parravano the “Italian in California” along with three V8 engines, two having a reduced stroke to bring the capacity down to 4.2-litre as they were intended for an Indianapolis project. Having finalised the general design of the car, and being well satisfied with the road holding, steering, braking and general handling of the car, a fourth one was completed for use by the factory team. This car went to the Argentine for the 1,000-kilometre sports-car race, to be driven by Fangio and Moss. With very little effort it was able to outstrip all its rivals and was comfortably leading when the clutch-operating mechanism broke. Fangio was driving at the time and he continued to lead the race, changing gear without the clutch, but eventually the gearbox could stand this no longer and broke. Throughout practice and the race the engine had proved as reliable as any touring-car unit, and subsequently this engine reliability was to surprise Maserati more than anyone.

Following the Argentine races came the Sebring 12-hour race, and the same car was this time driven by Fangio and Behra and once more the opposition paled into insignificance beside the performance of the 400 b.h.p. V8. Without ever stressing the engine, chassis or brakes, it cantered home the winner of the Sebring race and left everyone aghast at the leisurely way it dealt with the opposition. By now Maserati were quite certain that they had a winner for the Manufacturers Sports Car Championship, but not content to rest on their laurels they started a programme of testing and development with the next two big sports-car races in mind, these being the Mille Miglia and the Nurburgring 1,000 kilometres. When the car returned to Modena from Sebring, the only work needed was to change the rear-axle ratio ready for practice for the Mille Miglia and Behra then gave the car a thrashing over the mountains to Siena and back, deliberately trying to break it, but to no avail. With the Mille Miglia fast approaching a fifth chassis was nearing completion, while the eighth engine had been assembled, three being in America and five at Modena. Just after Easter the Sebring car covered 300 miles round the Monza Autodrome road circuit, again with Behra driving, and then it was taken to Nurburgring and given a thorough testing round that exacting circuit, lapping at speeds that would have done credit to a Grand Prix car. Returning to Modena a week before the Mille Miglia Behra set off with the car to do a lap of the Mille Miglia route, but after some 400 miles the centre locating bolt on the rear transverse leaf spring sheared and the spring slid sideways and tore into the tyre and brake drum. This was the first mechanical breakage on the car since it had been prepared for Sebring, and all this time the engine had never been touched, nor had the brakes had anything more than adjustment. After making a roadside repair Behra returned to the factory and the spring location was modified to obviate any further breakages. At the same time a new device was fitted to the car and Moss took it out into the mountains beyond Bologna to test it. This device was a two-speed gearbox mounted between the clutch and the normal five-speed gearbox. The clutch is mounted on the back of the engine and behind it are mounted a pair of reduction gears which lower the propeller-shaft line and in turn allow the gearbox/final drive unit to be lower. This new modification was designed expressly for the Mille Miglia, and the two-speed gearbox was fitted in place of the normal reduction gears. Operated by a separate lever it allowed for a set of high ratios or a set of low ratios, the idea being the high set, with a maximum of 185 m.p.h. could be employed from Brescia to Pescara, then the low set with a maximum a 160 m.p.h. could be used for the mountains, and so on, the driver or passenger selecting the high or low position of the two-speed box to suit the approaching section of the course. In practice it was found that it could also be used as a sixth gear, going through the five-speeds in the rear gearbox and then changing up into high on the two-speed gearbox. This resulted in the most phenomenal acceleration from zero right up to 160 m.p.h. reached in low fifth, and then the subsequent surge forward when changing into high fifth was more than the designers ever anticipated. This new arrangement having proven itself in testing a second one was made and fitted to the fifth car which was rapidly nearing completion. At long last, after a thorough all-round testing the No. 4 car was taken apart and the engine put on the test-bed, whereupon it was still capable of developing 340 b.h.p. A new engine was fitted and the car prepared for Behra to drive in the Mille Miglia, and meanwhile the fifth car was finished and Moss took it out on test. With the performance of a full 400 b.h.p. engine, plus the mountain descents it was found that the brakes were showing signs of overheating, so large “nostrils” were fitted to the nose to scoop air to the front brakes, and on each side of the body scoops gathered air which was then fed along large bore flexible pipes down to the rear brakes.

With two such fantastic cars in the Mille Miglia and both of them placed at the end of the list of starters, Maserati hopes for a victory were justifably higher than ever before. However, the 1957 Mille Miglia was not a Maserati day, and the first setback occurred on the Friday before the race when Behra took the rebuilt No. 4 car out on test. While doing nearly 150 m.p.h. a large lorry blocked his path and there just was not room to stop or squeeze past, the result being that Behra suffered an injured wrist and severe cuts and bruises, and the front of the Maserati was written off. All hopes for a Mille Miglia victory rested with Moss, and when he left Brescia at 5.37 a.m. it seemed certain that he would win. A mere seven miles away from the start the brake pedal broke off at the root and though he avoided a crash, the car was out of the race, and all Maserati hopes were dashed to the ground. The whole of the factory were practically speechless with amazement that such a thing could happen, especially after all the testing the prototype car had undergone, but racing does not allow for crying-over-spilt-milk, so with heavy hearts and grey faces they worked on preparing for the Nurburgring race. The Moss Mille Miglia car was naturally “as new” so all it needed was a change of axle ratio, while the Behra car had the damaged front end cut off and a new one welded in place, the engine being undamaged.

Once again victory seemed a certainty, for during practice at Nurburgring, Fangio twice recorded 9 min. 43 sec. once with the No. 5 car and once with the rebuilt No. 4 car. The nearest opposition was one Aston Martin driver with 9 min. 48 sec., and only Hawthorn of the complete Ferrari team could get below 10 min. It seemed that Fangio and Moss on the No. 4 Maserati would merely tour round and win. However, once again fortune did favour the “four-five” even though neither car gave the slightest bother in practice. First of all Moss had difficulty starting his car, and, then having gained the lead, the left-hand rear half-shaft broke between the ball races and the wheel, hub, brake drum and broken shaft parted company from the car, leaving Moss spinning helplessly out of control, coming to rest shaken but unhurt. The second of the “four-five” cars had been running comfortably in third position, but then the oil-tank mounting broke, and though a repair was effected it did not last and the car had to be withdrawn.

Four races, three retirements and one win, does not make impressive reading, yet the car itself is impressive, for when it goes it has no equal. If fundamental things like crankshafts, rods, propeller-shafts, gearboxes or axles broke, the Maserati engineers would have something to get to work on, but always the car breaks things that have stood the test of time over years of Maserati development. The major components of the car are beyond reproach, both in the way they function and their reliability, and because of this there can be no question of abandoning the project of the “four-five” but it does seem to be a car with a hoodoo on it. By the time these words are read the 24-hour race at Le Mans will have been run and won, but whether the “four-five” will be the winner I would not care to prophesy. For the high-speed endurance race on the Sarthe a seventh car has been built, the sixth being a normal open 4.5-litre destined for the American millionaire Jim Kimberley. The seventh chassis has been fitted with  an all-enveloping coupe body designed by Frank Costin. of Lotus and Vanwall fame, and before this article was published the results of his labours will be known.

Having dealt with the development story behind the 4.5-litre V8 sports Maserati, or 450S/Type 54 as it is officially known, let us now record a few details of the model. It is known affectionately by all at Maserati and most of Modena, as the “quattro mezzo” and the sound of its thunderous exhaust note as it is run on the test-bed causes most of Modena to give knowing smiles for it is many years since 400 b.h.p. have been absorbed by the German-built water-dynamometer used at Maserati. The 90 deg. V8 engine has a bore and stroke of 94 mm. by 81 mm., giving a capacity of 4,500 c.c. and develops maximum power at 6.800 r.p.m. It is well capable of going to 7.200 r.p.m. but at 6,800 it reaches the limit of the dynamometer, so that Maserati can only make an estimate of the ultimate power for at 6,800 there is no sign of the power curve falling off. Watching one of these engines undergoing a test-bed run is a most impressive happening, for the whole building and concrete floor vibrate while the noise is such that it is physically impossible to stand within six feet of the engine without wearing ear-plugs. Watching a power curve being taken for one of these engines, the figures came out to 388 b.h.p. at 6.800 r.p.m before correcting for standard temperature and barometric pressure, the subsequent corrected reading being 400 b.h.p. From 5,500 to 6,500 r.p.m. the uncorrected reading was an almost constant 355 b.h.p, and at a mere 2,500 r.p.m. the uncorrected reading was 101 b.h.p. All this was on normal high-grade pump fuel, from an unsupercharged engine, so that looking back over the past 20 years we can see just how progress in power development has been achieved.

Each bank of cylinders has a double camshaft cylinder head, these camshafts being driven by a gear train from the front of the crankshaft. Two sparking plugs per cylinder are used, one set being fired by a magneto driven from the left-hand bank gear train, the other by a pair of coils and a distributor, driven from the right-hand gear train. The reason for using one magneto and one coil system is to obviate any possibility of breakdown, the chances of trouble in both systems occurring during a race being less than trouble in one type of ignition system. The inlet ports are in the centre of the vee of the engine and fed by four double-choke down-draught Weber carburetters, one choke to one cylinder, while the exhaust pipes feed in a double tail pipe on each side of the car, followed by a small expansion box and a large bore exit just in front of each rear wheel.

Fuel for this fairly thirsty engine is carried in a large tank in the tail, supplemented by another on the left of the gearbox/axle unit, while on the right of this unit is the oil tank for the dry sump system, a finned oil cooler being attached to the inside of the curved tail of the bodywork. The body itself is all-enveloping and conforms to present-day two-seater shapes, there being slots cut in the rear wheel arches to allow air to blow on the tyres and also to allow driver and passenger to view the tyre treads. As to the ultimate maximum speed of this 4.5-litre car, it is a matter of conjecture, not unconnected with gear-ratio of the rear axle, but during the testing of the No.4 car it was driven flat-out on Mille Miglia gearing and was timed at 293 k.p.h. (approximately 181 m.p.h.). Getaway from standstill on a high bottom gear, with a rather fierce clutch, is anything but easy and is rather slow, but once the clutch is home and the revs build up black lines appear on the road behind the rear wheels, starting at a soft grey colour and turning jet black as the engine gets up around 5,500. Even with this sort of standing start it is possible to do 0-100 m.p.h. in an easy 11 sec., but the real surge of acceleration is in the 80 m.p.h. to 170 m.p.h. range.

Enough has been said to indicate that this 1957 sports Maserati is a real monster, and is far more potent than most Grand Prix cars, yet the F.I.A. look upon it benevolently, classify it as a sports car because it complies with all the regulations regarding windscreen, hood, doors, starter, dynamo lights and so on, yet six years ago, in 1951, it would have been a very serious challenger for Formula I honours, competing against the V12 Ferrari, the 159 Alfa Romeo or the V16 B.R.M. Viewed as such it will be appreciated that sports car racing of this type is rather farcical, for such vehicles are out-and-out Grand Prix type vehicles with two seats. To get a ride in one of these fabulous racing/sports cars is an experience that bears no relatianship with normal fast motoring, and I am more than happy that I have been able to do this,but for racing on circuits I would like to see such cars as single-seaters and have a return to Formula Libre Grand Prix racing.  D.S.J.