In the four resonant syllables of its name the Modena marque has its finest marketing tool. For a few sad years the product did not back it up, but today things are different
It’s the Geneva Motor Show and, despite the legion calls on his time, Luca di Montezemolo is in a mood to chat. This is a man with a lot to smile about: the man who ran Ferrari’s race team in the 1970s, he’s responsible for the stellar reputation Ferrari enjoys on road and track today as well as the seemingly relentless sales growth of its supercars. He remains as Ferrari president to this day but also runs another Italian automotive concern, called Fiat.
But today he wants to talk Maserati. ‘10 years ago,’ he says, ‘Maserati was nothing. The factory was shut. Now look…’ He gestures me towards the wide expanses of curvaceous Maserati metal on the stand and it’s hard not to take his point. There’s the Quattroporte, flawed for sure but beautiful, capable and with a unique appeal. And, just beyond it, and the true object of di Montezemolo’s adoring gaze, is the new GranTurismo. This Pininfarina-designed coupé is not merely an exceptionally beautiful car, more than any other in recent memory, it is every inch a Maserati. Certain cars can do this. If you’d been shown a debadged Aston Martin DB7 prototype back in 1993, you’d have known in an instant what marque it represented. Similarly, a Bentley Continental GT looked like no other Bentley in history, but it still could not have been anything else.
And, looks aside, we know already that the GranTurismo will have an epic engine, for it is the same 4.2-litre V8 found in the Quattroporte but breathed on to produce 405bhp. And the chassis, a shortened version of the Quattroporte’s conspicuously impressive platform, should provide a fine match. I’ll wait until I drive it, but I already know that if the GranTurismo is not the most capable road car ever to wear a trident on its nose, there will be just cause for disappointment.
It was not always like this. When I first got into this business, Maseratis were often unreliable, usually disappointing and always ugly. I can remember driving a Spyder in the mid-1990s and discovering the first car I’d ever driven that could not climb a steep hill on wet tarmac without trying to spin. Too little throttle and the twin-turbo engine would threaten to stall, too much and it would assume slip-angles that would make Ari Vatanen proud. I never cared for the Shamal or Karif or any of the other weird cars made in that era, with the sole exception of a 2-litre Ghibli with a six-speed gearbox and 306bhp – which was never sold in the UK.
Even in the modern era, Maseratis tended to be best when parked: the coupé looked nice and went hard but was nothing next to a 911, while the Spyder shook and rattled like an old convertible Cavalier. I did a test of five luxury convertibles for Autocar and the Spyder not only came fifth, it did so with the fourth-placed car barely in sight. How I longed for those days when I was a young lad, reading how great were Maserati road cars, with their huge quad-cam V8 motors and names as evocative as Khamsin and Indy. And imagine my disappointment when I drove them years later and discovered they were all sheds too. Good to look at, great to listen to, but sheds all the same. The only one I really liked was the Bora: far from being the malevolent-handling poor man’s Daytona I imagined, it was delicate, progressive, comfortable and even quite quick.
Exceptions apart, Maserati had somehow acquired a reputation that appeared to have nothing to do with the cars it was producing and I have long wondered why. Part of it comes down to three numbers and one letter: 250F. Maserati made many other fine sports and grand prix cars of course, but I doubt they did half so much to secure Maserati’s place in history as the 250F. More than just achingly beautiful, exquisite to drive and capable of taking the world title four years after it was conceived, it was a 250F that allowed Stirling Moss to enter the absolute top rank of grand prix drivers, and it was a 250F that allowed Fangio to leave it as the unchallenged greatest of his era.
But there’s more to it, even than this. Just as a name, ‘Maserati’ is the greatest of them all. Whether you look at it on a page or simply roll it around your tongue, that happy assembly of letters is the most evocative of any car company – better than Ferrari, better than Lamborghini. Historically I think people have simply liked the idea of owning a Maserati, however unprepossessing the actual car. Maseratis also suffer none of the image problems of other supercars. Drive one and no-one’s going to suspect you’re having a colossal mid-life crisis, they’re much more likely to think you’re a person with a mind of his or her own, effortless good taste and a non-conformist’s desire not to be sucked into something as numbingly predictable as a Porsche 911.
Time alone will tell if the GranTurismo is as good to drive as a 911 – many have tried and, in my experience at least, every one of them has failed. But even if it’s merely close enough, its looks and that name will surely do the rest and complete the most unlikely comeback since John Glenn dusted off his spacesuit and climbed aboard the shuttle.
As di Montezemolo said, a decade ago Maserati was near enough moribund. Now it has one of the most exciting futures ahead of it of any sporting brand. All it needs now is to establish the GrandTurismo on the track. I think a GT3 car would be a good place to chance, not least because then we’d see works-supported Jaguars, Aston Martins and Maseratis all battling it out together on the track. When did we last see that? Answers on an e-mail please.