VETERAN TO CLASSIC Maserati V8 RI

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As we saw in Part Two 4502 remained almost unchanged through to 1949, apart from the engine capacity being reduced to 3 litres for the Indianapolis rules. It then almost lost its identity when the Granatelli brothers changed it into a Grancor, installing a 4-cylinder Offenhauser engine and making a completely new body bearing no resemblance to the original Maserati one. The Maserati engine went to George Weaver as spares for “Poison Lil” which was most fortunate as it turned out. The Grancor not proving very successful, it passed into the amateur scene of the SCCA and the chassis and running gear was used to build a two-seater sports/ racing special, using a Chrysler V8 engine and an all-enveloping body.

The remains of this special survived through to the end of the 1970s, when it was acquired by Fred Puhn in California in 1981. By this time the Chrysler engine had gone together with the sports 2-seater body, neither of which were of great importance as Fred had the intention of restoring the car to as near original specification as possible. As the original Maserati engine had gone to George Weaver, as had much of the engine from 4501, he made contact with Barbara Weaver’s car restorer and eventually acquired most of the parts of the original engine. In the wake of the restoration of 4503 which had already started the chassis and running gear were shipped to Peter Shaw in England for a complete restoration and Duncan Ricketts was commissioned to build a new body. While there were no drawings, there were a surprising number of original photographs still about of the car when it was new. This was the car that Farina drove at the Donington Park Grand Prix in 1935, which featured strongly in Part One of this story. Fred Puhn was aware that he had taken on a monumental project in this resurrection but his enthusiasm is typical of the better side of the historic car scene.

Lastly there is the story of 4503, which was the car that Philippe Etancelin owned, and with which he won the 1936 Pau Grand Prix. In Part Two we left the car in Honolulu, still owned by Henry J Topping Jnr and used as a “fun car” on the Topping estates. It is worth recalling that this car only made two appearances under the Topping Special name, driven by “Babe” Stapp. The first at Indianapolis in 1937 and the second at the Vanderbilt Cup Race, also in 1937, driven by Stapp. It stayed in Honolulu through the war years, but by 1945 it had been acquired by two Hawaii enthusiasts, the engine still running on its Ford V8 carburettor. It seems that the supercharger and Weber twin-choke carburettor had gone to someone in South America. A trio of US Navy servicemen, on leave in Honolulu, found the two local lads trying to start the car on the forecourt of a service station, so gave them some help. They eventually got it running and the whole incident ended up with the navy men buying the car. As they were not officially allowed to have motor

vehicles on their station, they dismantled it and discarded the bodywork, which was the two-seater version that Stapp had built for the car’s Indianapolis appearance.

The end of the war found the naval men shipping all the parts to California, and from there they disposed of them. The engine went to Dick Goodfellow in Portland, Oregon, as he was looking for a power unit to put into his early Miller-based “sprint” car. The rest of the car which comprised the chassis frame, all the suspension, the brakes, steering gear, transaxle and gearbox, a seat, the radiator and the springs all went to Leo Dobry of Tacoma, Washington State.

Dick Goodfellow was a regular competitor in oval-track racing in the professional scene of the times (racing Wednesday and Saturday evenings at 8pm at the local Speed-drome!). He installed the V8 RI engine, still unsupercharged, into his flimsy single-seater oval-track racer and had a lot of fun with the car for some years. Meanwhile the rest of the car did not get used, even though Dobry intended to build an Indianapolis Special from it. He was involved with Offenhauser powered Indianapolis cars, but never got round to using the Maserati chassis. During the 1950s it passed through various owners in the sports car world on the west coast of the USA and during its moves it became fully restored as a complete rolling chassis.

Dick Goodfellow made 4503’s engine breathe properly, which it never did on the Ford V8 carburettor, by fitting two racing Winfield instruments, and on his dynamometer he saw over 300 bhp at 6000 rpm and could match the current 4-cylinder Offenhauser-engined cars. By the mid1950s the crankshaft was developing ominous cracks so its racing career was finished. But the engine was not thrown away!

By 1959 the complete chassis of 4503 had reached Seattle and was bought by Trevor Harris, an enthusiastic racing car designer. He set about designing and building a truly state-of-the-art racing/ sports car using the Maserati chassis components in a tubular space-frame of his own design and construction. The Maserati chassis frame was put to one side, but not discarded. The Harris special was powered by an Oldsmobile V8 engine and was improved and modified over the next ten years. One of the major alterations made to the Maserati parts was the fitting of telescopic shock absorbers to the front suspension. This involved cutting a three inch diameter hole in the top wishbone, for the telescopic shock absorber to pass through to its anchor point on the space frame.

If we go back to 1950, when the complete chassis of 4503 was in Leo Dobry’s racing shop in Tacoma, we find a young American enthusiast looking enviously at it, but with no means of making an offer for it. Eighteen years later Paul Kyle was still fascinated by the thought of the Grand Prix chassis he had seen, and he set out to find out what had happened to it, and to the engine. He tracked down Dick Goodfellow, who still had the engine, and acquired it just as it had come out of the “sprint” car, complete with cracked crankshaft. Later he found Trevor Harris, who still had his special, and amazingly, still had the Maserati chassis frame. Paul acquired everything and took it all home to join the engine. When laid out he had almost the complete car mechanically, the only bits that were missing were the front torsion bars, lost at some time during Harris’ ownership, the supercharger, the carburettor and parts of the inlet manifolding. There was no bodywork, fuel tank,

or oil tank. The whole back end was complete, even to the double-jointed spring hangers at the end of the leafsprings, and all the front end was there, still with the three inch holes in the top wishbone members. Brakes, hubs, steering components, steering box and column and a couple of the instruments were all complete. Everything was in a sad and neglected state but there was nothing that time and money could not sort out. However Paul Kyle realised that he did not have a surplus of either time or money and accepted that he could not tackle the job. The real incentive had been achieved, and that was to locate all the parts and bring them back together. The whole lot was boxed up and sold to an English dealer who advertised it in MOTOR SPORT in 1978, along with a photo of an intriguing looking box in his backyard, saying the box was for sale and contained the remains of a Maserati V8 RI. (It was not the actual box in which the remains of 4503 had arrived in England, but that was advertising licence on the part of Colin Crabbe, the owner of Antique Automobiles.)

There now comes upon the scene a chap in the RAF, a pilot of Hawker Hunters, Folland Gnats (when flying as part of the Red Arrows aerobatic team) and Harriers. Wing Commander Douglas Marr was a motoring enthusiast from his school days (like most of us) and began with Austin 7 specials and graduated to Austin-Healey 3000 and DB2/4 Aston Martin, enjoying working on them as much as driving them. At this point in our story he was posted to the north of Scotland and was still rebuilding a supercharged 2-litre Lagonda, with no thoughts of Grand Prix cars, apart from a latent desire, as most enthusiasts have, to one day drive a racing car. In 1978 he visited Antique Automobiles to discuss the re-upholstering of the

Lagonda and while there someone called in to ask Colin Crabbe if he had any interesting cars for sale. Crabbe mentioned the Grand Prix Maserati but the man was not interested in racing cars, and Doug Marr could not help overhearing the conversation and that latent spark glowed. Crabbe had all the bits laid out in “loosely assembled” order at the back of his workshops and showed them to Doug, who instantly became obsessed, even though he knew virtually nothing about V8 RI Maseratis and all the bits looked very sadly neglected. The result was that he bought the remains of 4503 and sold the finished Lagonda in order to finance the restoring of the Grand Prix Maserati. His initial sums on the back of an old envelope suggested a two year work programme

and the money from the sale of the Lagonda being about right for paying for the project. This was early in 1978. Anyone who has tackled a serious rebuilding job will not be surprised to learn that the resurrection of 4503 took eleven years, and we will not dwell on the cost; suffice to say that when Doug eventually found an original 1936 twin-choke Weber carburettor in Italy he “had to pay more than he’d paid for his wife’s car!”.

His first desire was to find out all about the car, and while doing so, find out about the history of the other three cars, so in addition to tackling the practical side of things he spent hours on letter writing, telephone calls, discussions with people like DSJ, searching for photographs, printed articles and so on, compiling a great dossier on the V8 RI cars, without which this story could not have been pieced together. While rebuilding his Lagonda he had made contact, back in the Seventies, with Peter Shaw who has workshops near Grantham, and was aware that Peter was well into the rebuilding of Maserati racing cars, so he solicited his help on the rebuild of the chassis and suspension of 4503. The primary objective was to get the chassis set up on its wheels before tackling the engine. Two fortuitous things happened in the early stages of this vast project. Firstly, Fred Puhn acquired the remains of 4502 and through the “vintage grapevine” they got in touch with each other, and Fred dug out much of the American history of the cars. Secondly, about this time, 4504 came over to Donington Park (only the second time a V8 RI had been seen in England, and curiously both occasions were at Donington Park, the other one being 1935). The sad fact that it had engine trouble was fortunate for Doug Marr for it meant he had a complete V8 RI not far away to

photograph and study. Tom Wheatcroft was looking after Barbara Weaver’s car and was most helpful in letting Doug look at the engine and photograph everything and make drawings.

Once you are into the VSCC historic racing car scene you find enormous help and encouragement on all sides and it was not long before Doug found himself heading into the depths of Buckinghamshire to visit Duncan Ricketts, a young man with a remarkable “feel” for re-creating racing car bodywork with very little to go on apart from photographs. In any historic Grand Prix line-up you will find that most of the cars that have needed new bodywork have had it done by Duncan Ricketts. When the chassis of 4503 was mobile once more it went to Haddenham to have a new body made, and at the same time a new fuel tank.

In the interests of practicality the new fuel tank was made in steel, rather than the original aluminium, and at the same time the rear mounting was redesigned to correct a gross error made in 1936. During his researches Doug Marr made contact with Philippe Etancelin, who was most enthusiastic to hear about the resurrection, and explained why a split fuel tank had put him out of the 1936 Monaco Grand Prix. Normal practice in those days for tank mountings was to use two at the front, onto rubber blocks on the chassis frame, and a single central one at the back, using a gimbal mounting on the rear chassis cross-tube. In that way, any chassis flexing and twisting did not transmit stresses and strains into the tank.

The V8 RI design of transaxle, with the gearbox out behind the differential unit, needed the rear cross-member to take the rear mounting of the gearbox (see Part One, MOTOR SPORT, January 1990). This meant that the single gimbal mounting for the tank could not be used, and in its place there were two rear mounting points.

Inevitably, chassis flexing split the tank, and Etancelin’s retirement in the Monaco Grand Prix was not the only time a V8 RI Maserati had tank problems. Remembering that the cars were originally built to the 750 kilogramme maximum weight rules, a steel tank would not have entered into the design. On the rebuilt 4503 a single central rear mounting point has been designed that fits onto the back of the tank.

Eventually 4503 arrived back at the Marr home workshop, complete with unpainted new body, and fuel tank and all the suspension, steering, brakes, and bits and bobs so that it really did look like a Grand Prix car once more. When enthusiasm is flagging for a gigantic project it is moments like this that are memorable and provide renewed energy. By this time the engine work had begun and as with Peter Shaw on chassis work,

an obvious choice for help with the engine was Tony Merrick in his workshops near Maidenhead. Now one thing that Tony loves is a racing engine, and a rare racing engine even more so. Already his team of engine “fettlers” had tackled two BRM V16 engines, the 300SLR Mercedes-Benz desmodromic valve straight-eights from the Daimler-Benz museum, as well as many simple things like ERAs, Bugattis, Alfa Romeos and 250F Maserati engines. When he agreed to tackle the job of rebuilding the engine of 4503 the owner knew it was in good hands. Once again time and cost estimates went out of the window, for the ultimate Intention was to race the car, not look at it or give demonstrations, so all moving parts were crack-tested and nearly everything was replaced with one-off handmade parts. A new crankshaft was the first prio

rity, as the engine had been withdrawn from racing by Dick Goodfellow when he found cracks developing in the original crankshaft. New connecting rods were made and all simple things like valves and springs were replaced, as in any normal engine rebuild.

The only serious fault that was found in the engine was that one of the cylinder blocks had been sleeved and had some damage to the skirt. On the V8 RI engine the eight cylinders are in four blocks of two cylinders each. These two-cylinder blocks have integral heads and are in cast-iron with one inlet and one exhaust valve, and the single sparking plug situated to one side of the combustion chamber as the single overhead camshaft prevents the use of a central sparking plug. The damaged block could have been repaired, but would have always been the Achilles Heel of the engine, so the decision was made to set in motion the process of casting a new block, with all the costly business of patternmaking and machining. As by this time 4504 was in need of a new block, and 4502 as well, all three owners got together to defray some of the costs of the production. In passing, the trouble with 4504 was that the blocks had been fitted with liners and it is almost impossible to get a good seal at the top of a liner in a “fixed-head” engine, and with steel liner and cast-iron block expansion rates are unequal, which adds to the problem. Compression pressure gases had leaked down between liner and block

casting and burst open the water-jacket. While 4503, with its original design of unlinered cylinder blocks was happy to retain three of its original ones, the left front one now being new, it was deemed prudent to replace all the blocks on 4502 and 4504, now that they were available.

A supercharger for 4503 was a major problem, for the original one was last heard of having gone to South America and there was not even a sniff of another one in existence. It was of the Roots-type, made by Maserati, and after much searching around a Godfrey (Marshall) unit was found that could be adapted to fit on the front of the engine as the original one was fitted, driven off the gear-train that drives the camshafts. The missing parts on the bolted-up inlet manifolding were reproduced, exhaust manifolds were made and slowly the engine began to take shape. Meanwhile a major decision was being made in the Marr household, Doug’s wife, like so many others, having to live with this continuous saga, and their children growing up right through it. The original thought had been to simply restore an old racing car; as that old racing car was a Maserati it would be painted red, but as its past history evolved the objectives changed. After friendly contact with Philippe Etancelin the matter became an obsession, “to return the car to as near as possible as it was when Etancelin won the 1936 Pau Grand Prix”. This meant that it would have to be painted blue, but many

Maserati and old-car buffs got a bit huffy at the thought of a blue Maserati (like they do with Anthony Mayman’s blue Ferrari, which is Louis Rosier’s old car), and even Doug admits that he had been looking forward to having a “real red racing Maserati” in his garage. More deep research turned up the fact that 4503 had been delivered to Etancelin already painted blue by the Maserati factory. As a final decider Doug Mart asked DSJ his opinion and got the instant response that if it was going to be “as raced by Etancelin it has got to be blue” so blue it was painted, which still upsets some people, but not the owner or this writer.

The years were passing and almost since the start of the project Doug had been keeping in touch with me on every move, and I had been keeping in touch with Tony Merrick on the engine progress. Similarly, a lot of other people at home and abroad had been helping to keep Doug’s flagging spirits going, for on any project of this magnitude it is cries of encouragement from your friends that keep it going, especially if you have a full time occupation in a totally different sphere, as Doug had with flying and aeronautical engineering. On one memorable Saturday in January 1989 I was summoned to Tony Merrick’s works to meet Doug Man and see the first public running of the engine 4503 on the test bed. The “public” comprised of the two of us. Not only was this to be the first running of the engine since 1954, but the

first running in supercharged form since 1940, in Honolulu when the supercharger had been removed by the Topping people.

Earlier I mentioned that Tony Merrick loves racing engines, and I know a lot of similar people, like Brian Hart, and I am one myself. Normally Tony is a fairly laid-back laconic sort of fellow, but that morning in the test house he visibly “came alive” as he prepared to start the engine. He was totally oblivious of his two visitors, even though one of them was the owner of the engine, and was 100% absorbed in this fascinating piece of mechanism that was about to come alive.

Come alive it did, at low revs it rumbled quietly to itself as it settled down, and then ran contentedly at 2000-2500 rpm and apart from some icing around the carburettor as the blower sucked the methanol fuel in, it was all systems go, and entranced we watched this memorable sight. If you have never put a racing engine together you will not appreciate the feeling you get when you see and hear it running, but take it from me it is one of the better things in life, and I will travel long distances to see a racing engine running on a test bed, just as others will travel long distances to see a piece of architecture or view a painting.

At low speed the V8 RI had a distinct V8 rumble, which none of us had ever heard before, but after some bedding in running it was given a small burst of throttle to 3500 rpm and its character changed completely, sounding more like a Cosworth DFV or a Coventry Climax V8.

Somewhat stunned, we repaired to the local for a drink, and Tony returned to his laid-back demeanour, but all three of us were elated, Doug naturally more than anyone.

There was still a lot to be done, the engine still needed a lot of detail attention before it was ready to install in the chassis, and there was still detail work to be carried out on the chassis itself. Eventually it all came together and was ready for a try-out at Silverstone, prior to the VSCC race meeting in June. It was almost exactly eleven years since Doug Marr had started this project, and now the real work was beginning! Apart from having to learn to drive it, there was all the usual racing car intricacies to learn about, like fuel systems, ignition systems, carburation, tyre pressures, shock absorbers, cooling systems, the list is never ending.

Apart from some misfiring, eventually traced to the magneto internal wiring breaking down under heavy load, and problems with carburettor icing caused by choke sizes being too small, the car behaved itself adequately. It was the first time it had run on a racing track since the Vanderbilt Cup race in 1937, which is a solemn thought. It performed again at the VSCC Donington Park meeting and then retired to the workshops for the winter, for the engine to go back on the test-bed for further adjustments and fine tuning, principally with a rebuilt magneto, and over 340 bhp was seen on the brake at 5000 rpm. If there were not people who are prepared to tackle seemingly impossible jobs purely because they like racing cars and racing engines, life would be very dull for some of us. As I said at the beginning of this three part story of the Maserati V8 RI, it was an unsuccessful project by the Maserati brothers, but a very interesting one, and that interesting aspect is still very much alive. DSJ

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