The Count's Maserati

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It’s been out of sight for 30 years – hanging on a wall. Now one of only four examples of Maserati’s exquisite little 4CM voiturette has reappeared. Its story is intertwined with one of motor racing’s aristocrats, Count ‘Johnny’ Lurani Cernuschi
Words: Gordon Cruickshank. Photography: James Mann

Breeding. It’s in this car’s genes, as it was in its first owner. Giovanni Lurani di Cernuschi was not only a Count but also a racing driver, journalist, team owner and unofficial ambassador for Italian motor racing. He knew everyone who mattered in the sport, and the garage of his home in Cernusco displayed the autographs of hundreds of famous racing people.

Not that he traded on his title. He was more likely to be addressed as ‘Johnny’ than ‘Conte Lurani’ and his easy manner made him a popular figure around the race tracks of Europe. But it was in voiturette racing that Lurani shone, particularly with Maseratis, and most notably with this little gem, 4CM chassis no 1128. It has been invisible for three decades, bizarrely because it has been hanging on a wall. Now it’s on its wheels again, and due to be auctioned at Christies’ sale at Le Mans Classic in early July.

During the early 1930s voiturette racing (in 1100 and 1500cc classes) waxed and waned, sometimes part of a GP, frequently free-standing. In 1933 two things happened which altered the voiturette scene completely. Hitler came to power, offering state help for racing teams. And, slightly less world shattering, ERA came into being. As German technology blew away all grand prix opposition, Italy and France had to watch Britain revitalise the small-car field — and dominate it.

Maserati’s response was prompt: the 6CM. A supercharged six-cylinder, it boasted independent front suspension, and during 1936 proved almost as quick as an ERA. And ‘almost’ is nowhere in racing. So for ’37 Ernesto Maserati simplified it with a twin-cam four-cylinder, shortened the wheelbase by 2in, and enlarged the blower. Torquey and reliable, the 4CM appealed to privateers, and one of the first buyers was Lurani.

Together with Luigi Villoresi and Franco Cortese, Lurani had formed Scuderia Ambrosiana, named after Milan’s patron saint, Ambrose. As 1100cc racing was strong in Italy, Lurani ordered the smaller version, with the parts to convert to 1.5 litres later. A good decision: with chassis 1128 he won the 1100cc class at Turin, Milan, Genoa, Naples and Palermo, as well as in the Freiburg hillclimb, collecting the Italian 1100cc title. He then fitted the 1500cc parts to race at Crystal Palace, finishing third and fifth in heats of the Imperial Trophy.

At the end of 1937 Ambrosiana despatched four Maseratis to South Africa — 6CMs for Piero Taruffi, Villoresi and Eugenio Senna, plus Lurani’s 4CM. But for the dapper Count a third place in ‘the Grosvenor Grand Prix’ at the Lord Howe track was followed by a wrecked engine while duelling with an ERA at East London. The team fitted the 1500 block for the final race at Cape Town, but Lurani looked dispirited as he cruised round in sixth. Then — drama. Villoresi’s six-cylinder blew up, so Johnny gave up his car to `Gigi’, who streaked back into the race and pulled up two more places to finish third behind Taruffi and a victorious Earl Howe in his ERA.

For 1938 Lurani made a major change, fitting Tecnauto spring units in place of the rear leafs. This improved the grip, putting Lurani at the head of the voiturette class in the Tripoli GP — until the oil pressure needle suddenly dropped to zero. After a few frantic minutes in the pits his mechanics realised that it was only a faulty gauge, and sent him out again. Third among the 1500s was not much recompense.

Nor was his brief lead in the Targa Florio — run as a circuit race that year — as it ended with a collision. The season was to get worse: in practice for the London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace Johnny hit a patch of oil and rolled the car, finishing up underneath it with a broken hip. Although he recovered to race in the Mille Miglia and at Le Mans, it was the end of his single-seater career. Yet post-war, his influence burgeoned: he went on to break records in his self-designed `Nibbios’ and, as a member of the FIA, organised GT racing and created Formula Junior. He also wrote extensively on motor racing.

Achille Varzi borrowed the repaired car for an Italian race, but with no success, and Johnny then put it up for sale.

The lucky buyer was English racer Charlie Dodson — lucky because the car suffered a problem on the way to Britain. Lurani’s mechanic met a snowstorm as he drove the transporter over the Alps, which cracked the block, as he found in the paddock at Donington where Dodson hoped to compete in the ’39 British Empire Trophy. Fortunately, the nearby Rolls-Royce factory repaired it and Dodson was able to race, until a camshaft seized. He drove it once more, in the Nuffield Trophy at Donington, but this time the suspension broke.

Following WW2 the car surfaced briefly at a Montlhéry meeting, then vanished again. It reappeared, painted blue, in the 1960s when it was bought by a Swiss family who restored it, but chose to use it as decor instead of racing it. After years literally in suspended animation it has every chance of seeing the track again, a machine with a history which, if not exactly strewn with chequered flags, is chequered with interest.

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