In 1924, Delage unveiled France's new Grand Prix hope. Its sophisticated V12 engine promised much…
The magic and the myth
The English dictionary which graces the shelf in Motor Sport’s editorial offices gives the definition of the word classical as “of the first class, of allowed excellence”. It’s an adjective which has frequently been used to describe the 2 1/2-litre Formula One Maserati 250F ever since the car was racing as a contemporary Grand Prix challenger. More has been written about this Italian machine than, arguably, about any other F1 car, so readers may well shudder when they turn to these pages and see what appears to be another diatribe praising the 250F to the heavens. But we hope to bring you a less than emotional assessment of the 250F, examining critically its role, its history and its appeal with the help of people who’ve owned, driven and loved them since they first took to the circuits of Europe as the start of the 1954 season, twenty-seven years ago.
It would be a trite and somewhat superfluous task to run through the Maserati 250F history nut by nut or bolt by bolt, particularly in view of the fact that our own Denis Jenkinson has written the authoritative work on the subject (The Maserati 250F, a Classic Grand Pnx Car. Donington Monomarques No. 2, published by Macmillan in 1975). You’ll also note that D.S.J.’s volume includes that dreaded word “classic” in its title, full consideration of which we’ll come to at the end of this article.
Suffice it to say that the Maserati 250F was inspired by the 2-litre A6GCM which had proved the only realistic challenger to the all-conquering Ferrari team throughout the 1952 and 53 seasons during which the World Championship was run to Formula Two regulations. Powered by a six-cylinder engine of 84 mm. x 75 mm. (2,493 c.c.), the first 250Fs developed 240 b.h.p. running on a mixture of methanol and benzol. It was initially planned to sell the cars to private owners and provide them with a programme of support and maintenance, but a works team was quickly formed with Juan-Manuel Fangio and Onofre Marimon as its drivers. In addition, a number of others were sold to privateers Harry Schell, Roberto Mieres and “B.Bira” and a “production line” was soon established with various other distinguished and not-so-distinguished professional and amateur drivers taking delivery of their cars as the season wore on. One such individual was Stirling Moss, who’d originally made approaches to be included in the Mercedes-Benz Formula One team when they made their reappearance in the middle of 1954, but he was advised by their team manager, the legendary Alfred Neubauer to “go away and try your hand in a proper Formula One car”. He did just that, his family purchasing 250F chassis number “2508” with the aid of a subsidy from the Shell Mex & BP oil company for whom Moss was contracted to drive. In fact, towards the end of the year he became a Maserati “favoured runner”, enjoying special treatment since Fangio had to move across to fulfil his commitment to Mercedes-Benz in the middle of the season when the German marque finally made their re-appearance in the French Grand Prix at Reims.
For Stirling Moss, the Maserati 250F was a crucial stepping stone which the Englishman successfully employed to establish his reputation as a Grand Prix star. Run privately, his car actually led the 1954 Italian Grand Prix, ahead of Fangio’s Mercedes, until it retired. After that performance, Mercedes-Benz were convinced beyond belief and recruited Stirling for the following year Fangio stayed with Mercedes, then moved on to Ferrari in 1956. In 1957 he rejoined Maserati as Moss, who’d always wanted to drive for a British team, moved over to drive for Tony Vandervell in the green, aerodynamic Vanwalls. So you can see that these two great drivers used Maserati 250Fs for widely differing reasons, in many ways. Fangio “filled in” while waiting for Mercedes in 1954 while, at the same time, Moss used the car to establish himself. If you’re cynical about your motor racing history you might suggest that he only went back to handling a Maserati 250F in 1956 because nothing better came up. He was in a slight void between his spell behind the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz W194 and the Vanwall, two cars which perhaps deserve the “classic” tag more than the Maserati 250F.
Certainly, reading between the lines, the Maserati team frequently had to put up with the “best of the rest” driving their 250Fs at the front end of the starting grids. Undoubtedly the best driver to fall into this category was Jean Behra, who drove as Moss’ team mate in 1956 and Fangio’s number two the following year. In fact Moss and Fangio were the only drivers of true World class regularly to drive the 250F in the seven seasons it could be seen racing on the World Championship trail.
The 250F was the only model to last the entire formula, winning the first race in Argentina at the start of 1954 and being represented by American privateer Bob Drake in a 1957 works “lightweight” car on the back row of the 1960 United States Grand Prix at Riverside. They were nice cars made by nice people, in the main driven by nice people and owned in the 1950s by nice people. Perhaps that was the Maserati team’s problem. They were warmer and more pleasant personalities than those at the Ferrari factory in the mid-1950s, and they had an enormous number of hopeful privateers living in and around Modena, all trying to run their cars on shoestring budgets, and scrounging round the factory stores to make ends meet as best they could. Maserati really did (however unintentionally) take on an enormous commitment to supply cars as well as provide facilities to maintain them, and there was frequently a great deal of “juggling round” amongst different people’s chassis and engines in order to keep everybody running. It should of course be remembered that there wasn’t just the World Championship to be contested by the leading Maserati 250F exponents, but a whole host of minor non-title races scattered across France, Italy and Spain which gave drivers such as Bruce Halford, the late Horace Gould, Roberto Mieres and “Bira” plenty of opportunity to pick up decent placings and thus earn enough prize money to move their tiny racing teams along to the next race the following weekend. What Maserati were doing in F1 was a little like the task that March Engineering faced in Formula 2 during the early 1970s where Ronnie Peterson and Niki Lauda were running works cars in the European F2 Championship and a whole host of privateers were running similar cars, often run from the Bicester factory or by a small “factory affiliated” preparation companies. Like March, perhaps Maserati attempted to keep too many people happy!
People like Halford, Gould and the other amateurs didn’t buy their Maserati 250Fs for romantic reasons; they simply wanted to go Formula One racing and this was the only truly contemporary car which was available to a private owner with the factory’s blessing. True, you might have persuaded Ferrari to sell you an outdated chassis, but you wouldn’t have got much help from Maranello. Mercedes-Benz were hardly in the business of “flogging off’ their F1 cars to earn money, and the late Tony Vandervell would probably turn in his grave at the prospect of somebody suggesting that he should have made his highly specialised, costly and exclusive Vanwalls available to any privateer. The latter two teams were in the business of motor racing to win, and no compromise was made that would affect that ultimate ambition. Ferrari were perhaps less averse to doing deals, but Maserati needed the cash generated by the sale of their cars. And the people who bought them simply wanted to go motor racing.
Vivid recollections of one particular Maserati 250F “in its prime” come from a current Grand Prix driver who was only nine years old when he saw “2520” being unloaded from the S.S. Neptunia onto a Melbourne dockside on April 22nd, 1956. The wide-eyed youngster who frantically clawed at what he recalls as “wrapping paper and corrugated cardboard” on that far-away wharf was none other than Alan Jones, the 1980 World Champion driver and leader of the Frank Williams team. In that innocence of youth, Alan recalls being slightly disappointed when he was told that “Dad was having a Maserati and not a Ferrari. As far as I was concerned, an Italian racing car was called a Ferrari and I wasn’t really sure what a Maserati was. As I recall, Dad paid about £10,000 for the 250F . . .”
“Dad”, of course, was Australian racing hero Stan Jones and it was he who had despatched his friend Charlie Dean (who’d originally built the Maybach Special which Stan also raced) to Modena to buy it. Chassis “2520” had originally been built towards the end of 1955 to the 1956 specification and was sent to Argentina at the start of the following season. Stirling Moss had used it to finish second in the Mendoza Grand Prix, probably explaining why it is fitted with a conventional pedal layout with the throttle on the right and the brake in the centre rather than the other may round. Moss always preferred the right hand throttle, centre brake arrangement ever since he’d been “caught out” by the central throttle layout and crashed badly during practice at the wheel of a works car he’d been loaned for the occasion. Incidentally, Behra, who couldn’t really stomach Moss as his team leader, always had his car fitted with a central throttle, even though he could handle either arrangement. The philosophy behind that preference was that he could drive Moss’ car if he had to — but Moss would almost certainly decline to race his!
Alan Jones has happy childhood memories of the late 1950s, going round to all the Australian races in company with his famous father. Stan had a great deal of success at national level with the car, although at Melbourne’s Albert Park in November 1956 he lost control going away from the start and belted the 250F into a tree, the bend in the chassis frame remaining there to this day, much to the amusement of “2520’s” current owner, Eastbourne builder David Llewellyn, whose car is featured within these colour pages.
Throughout the late 1950s Stan Jones enjoyed considerable success with this machine, but it was eventually overwhelmed by the more nimble rear engined Coopers as the next decade arrived and since 1959 it had in fact been advertised for sale. In 1959 the price was £4,500 (Aus.) which had dropped to £2,500 (Aus.) by 1961. With the downfall of Stan Jones’ business interests the car eventually found its way to Britain via a convoluted path which included ownership by Colin Crabbe, Neil Corner, Nigel Moores, Anthony Bamford and, finally, David Llewellyn.
Before we visited Goodwood for a few brief laps in this historic machine, thanks to the generosity and trust of David Llewellyn, we’d already talked to Vic Norman, boss of Russo, the Cirencester Ferrari dealers. His most prized possession is another 250F, chassis “2527” which was a 1951 works car used to considerable effect by Fangio during his World Championship year with the marque. He used this car to win the Argentine Grand Prix and the subsequent Buenos Aires GM Grand Prix while Harry Schell drove it to third place in the Pescara Grand Prix later that same year. It was its most successful around the time that a youthful Vic Norman, then still at school, was being tsken to races in which 250Fs were running as contemporary machinery.
“I recall them making a big impression on me because they always seemed to be basically oversteering”, he recalls, “I was always interested in motor racing and then Charles Lucas recharged my enthusiasm for 250Fs in the 1960s when he had so much success in historic events. I used to think ‘if I ever get an historic racing car, that’s what I want’. I used to go along to see every one which came up for sale, but I kept on putting it off. I’m glad I finally did a deal to get mine. There’s something about them. They’re amongst the last ‘proper’ front engined Grand Prix cars. They’re very nicely made as well. Everything really seems to fit properly.” Norman remembers with great pleasure the sheer delight which showed on Fangio’s face when he was reacquainted with “2527” at last year’s Stirling Moss Tribute Day at Brands Hatch. . .
David Llewellyn’s reasons for wanting a 250F are slightly different. For many years he’d “been involved in ‘bitza’ specials, but I finally decided that I would like a real ‘original’ car”. He admits that he felt the Maserati 250F embodied the image of the 2 1/2-litre front engined Grand Prix contender, although he has a special affinity for Italian racing cars and concedes that “the Vanwall would be a good British contender” for this particular cachet.
When we were invited to step into the capacious 250F cockpit, the Goodwood track surface was still glistening with ominous puddles and an all-pervading feeling of intense apprehension came over the writer. Sitting there, up in the air stream, facing that huge rev. counter viewed through the left hand segment of the smooth, thin wooden rimmed three-spoke steering wheel, I was suddenly filled with a slight sense of sympathetic nostalgia. This was the same steering wheel gripped by that short-trousered schoolboy a quarter of a century ago as his famous father pushed him through the paddocks of Australia and New Zealand race circuits. This was the car which helped to shape young Alan Jones’ impressions of motor racing, a car in which he watched his father become a racing “folk hero” in Australia and a car, arguably, the expense of running which contributed to Stan Jones’ financial downfall, something which bewildered and confused young Alan — and imbued him with a burning desire to succeed when he took up motor racing himself. “When you’re young, and your family’s been rich and you’re suddenly not rich any more — well, it’s all a bit confusing and unsettling”, Alan Jones once told the writer. And the great sadness is that Stan Jones never lived long enough to see his son win a World Championship Grand Prix, dying as he did after a succession of strokes back in 1973.
With David Llewellyn’s warnings not to ride the clutch — “take your foot off it as soon as you’ve selected the gear” — I edged out onto the Goodwood circuit. When you’re used to the braking capabilities of modern cars, it was a little disconcerting to find that the huge, finned brake drums only afford very modest powers of retardation until they’re well-warmed up — and you’ve got to remember this as you’re building up to 6,500 r.p.m. down the Lavant Straight towards Woodcote and the chicane. The gearchange is crisp, but precise once you’ve learned to be firm with it. The pedal positions, relative to the driving seat and steering wheel? Well, now I know that all Italians are obviously shaped that way with short legs and long torsos!
That twin-plug six-cylinder engine is really a dream, like a big smooth road sports car unit, very tractable low down but with plenty of bite towards the top of the rev. range. I never saw more than just over 6,000 r.p.m. in the rain, so this was no track test you’ll be happy to hear. My mind shuddered slightly as the 250F skittered slightly over the puddles at Fordwater a corner taken by Moss, Collins et al at something around 8,000 r.p.m. “You’re supposed to kick the tail out and steer them with the throttle”, D.S.J. told me with a cheery grin on his face. Since I’d already agreed to wear his open-face crash helmet rather than my Bell Star — “too pretentious”, I was warned — I felt that I’d taken my share of his advice for one day, and gently drove the 250F at my own pace.
I loved it, every minute of my six and a half slippery, cautious, perspiring laps. And I can see why everybody adores their own Maserati 250Fs. Truly, they were all things to all men. For Moss, the car that sealed his future; for Fangio, it was a car to win his fifth Championship; for Alan Jones, the car which exerted a huge personal influence on his life. Those who own precious, highly-valued Maserati 250Fs in the 1980s have similar, individual, reasons for holding the cars in personal esteem. The Mercedes-Benz W194 may have been more dominantly successful and more mechanically innovative; the Vanwall more aerodynamically effective. But the Maserati 250F has an all-embracing appeal — you find few individuals who can give a sensible reason for disliking them. Yes, perhaps they are classics after all. — A.H.
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