Maserati's 1957 450S V8

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Alan Henry

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The Maserati 450S was a spectacularly fast contender for major sports car championship honours when it arrived on the scene at the end of 1956, but a number of trifling failures and misjudgements prevented it from showing its full potential in a great many races during 1957. Only ten such cars appear to have been built and one of these, owned by the Hon. John Fellowes, is a regular sight in historic races in this country.

Encouraged by the upsurge of interest in historic racing cars over the past few years, the J.C. Bamford sponsored championship has attracted back to the circuits a good number of original and not-so-original post-war sports cars. By and large, there’s an over-riding intention to keep these cars as close as is possible to their original specification, even though demands of some previous owners who raced their cars in less contemporary times have resulted in the appearance of some strikingly non-original developments. In addition, the presence a current competition amongst contestants has resulted in alterations creeping onto the cars which, although allegedly intended for incorporation by the manufacturers, were not fitted when the car was built.

A classic example of this “unoriginal development” has gone on beneath the skin of the Hon. John Fellowes’ Maserati 450S, one of ten cars built by the Italian factory for the 1957 World Sports Car Championship. The Maserati illustrated is one of a pair of 450S V8s owned by Fellowes, this particular car having been bought back from the United States by Colin Crabbe and acquired by its present owner in 1971 since which time it has been a regular contestant in historic club events. But the history of this, and the second 450S in Fellowes’ collection, since Maserati’s retirement from racing at the end of 1957 is clouded in mystery. So, keen to unravel some of the Maserati lore surrounding these impressive and graceful sports-racers, we spent a recent afternoon in rural Huntingdonshire chatting to Fellowes and the man responsible for the car’s race preparation, Trevor Stokes.

In no way is this intended to be a definitive history of these handsome cars which in many ways represented the Trident’s finale in big-time sports car racing. Motor Sport’s D.S.J. was closely involved with Maserati’s efforts in the mid-1950s, passengering with Stirling Moss in a 450S only for the car to have a brake pedal snap off a few miles after the start of the 1957 Mille Miglia. His reports at the time accounted for seven of the ten chassis apparently built, leaving Fellowes’ 4509 and 4510 with an apparently indiscernible history stretching back to 1957.

The four o.h.c., 94 x 81 mm., 4477 c.c. V8 motor provided the culmination of Maserati’s developments which started with the 3-litre 300S and progressed through the 3 1/2 litre, six cylinder unit. The cars were shatteringly fast but their useful life amidst international competition was limited to that one year. Nine of the cars did service as open two seaters, while one (4507) was fitted with an aerodynamic Coupe body for Le Mans, designed by the capable Frank Costin, built by Zagato and then ruined by the Italians’ failure to understand aerodynamics and the addition of various ungainingly modifications which completely destroyed its effectiveness. Anxious to reduce the speed of sports-racing cars, the C.S.I. reduced the capacity limit to 3-litres for the World Sports Car Championship, leaving the surviving 450S Maseratis to pursue a career in American club races.

Fellowes’ second car, the yet to be completed 4509, is believed to be one of the Maseratis involved in the great pile-up in Caracas, Venezuela which helped to drive the final nails into the coffin of the financially teetering Italian marque. Privately owned by American enthusiast Temple Buell, the car was thought to have been driven at Caracas by Masten Gregory and Dale Duncan. Contemporary reports suggested that Gregory collided with another car before crashing, but Fellowes’ was actually later told by the American that this was not the case and he simply rolled the car after hitting a kerb. It’s believed that this car was subsequently rebuilt for use by Fangio in Cuba the following year, although the Argentinian never had a chance to use it as he was kidnapped before the race took place.

As far as 4510 is concerned, its only traceable history stems from a small folder which recently came into the possession of Trevor Stokes. There is no indication that this car was ever, in fact, raced in Europe, but the contents of this folder indicate the detailed gearing required for a host of S.C.C.A. club race circuits – by the look of the track lay-outs they all appear to have been on airfield runways – dotted all over the central United States. Chester (South Carolina), Cocoa (Florida), Dothan (Alabama), Fort Worth (Texas), Gainesville (Georgia) and Walterboro (Louisiana) were the circuits concerned over which a driver by the name of Cline raced this Maserati, neatly lettered handwriting recording the fact that this car took him to several wins over D-type Jaguars and 3.5 litre Ferraris – as well a 4.5-litre V8 should!

From that point on, the history of 4509 and 4510 virtually peters out until their discovery in California, their fate presumably being a series of national-level S.C.C.A. meetings on the west coast of the United States. As far as the purist is concerned, it seems to have been during this period that the Maseratis acquired their non-original features. The complexities of the five speed Maserati gearbox mounted in unit just in front of the differential clearly proved too much for some American “sporty car” drivers and one regrettable, but fortunately well concealed legacy of 4510’s stay in North America is the incorporation of a four-speed Chevrolet Corvette gearbox. However, the de Dion rear end is retained and Fellowes also acquired the transaxle unit in pieces and, although the clutch and clutch housing was missing and the actual gearbox casing was split, Trevor Stokes is now reassembling it prior to reinstallation in 4510 during this winter.

Fortunately both 4509 and 4510 escaped the most terrible fate which befell some of their stablemates; the replacement of their original engines by Chevy units, although 4509 lost its 4.5-litre V8 by means of some pretty crude butchery which seems to have included slicing its engine mountings in half with oxy-acetylene cutting equipment! Fellowes acquired this car without engine and is now preparing to install an original 450S V8 once more. Incidentally, 4509 has retained its five-speed transaxle and de Dion rear end.

John Fellowes was kind enough to take 4510 out onto one of the well-surfaced farm roads on his estate to demonstrate to the writer just what a 4.5-litre V8 motor developing somewhere in the region of 400 b.h.p. feels like in a 17-year-old chassis. That four-cam V8, fed by a thirsty quartet of Weber 46IDM carburetters from a 170-litre fuel tank mounted in the tail of the car, fully lives up to its reputation, providing a degree of acceleration to which I can do no better justice than quote D.S. J.’s words which appeared in this journal in July 1957 “… 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.”

At a time when sports racing cars are little more than thinly disguised 3-litre Grand Prix racers, I couldn’t help thinking as I crouched beside the full-width (but only half-height!) windscreen just how much more realistic the link between road sports cars and sports racers was in 1957. It must have been very disappointing indeed for the Italian crowds who lined the 1957 Mille Miglia that they were deprived of the sight of Stirling Moss and Jean Behra holding their two Maserati “quatro mezzo” V8s at 170 m.p.h. for mile after mile, but Behra had crashed his 450S beyond immediate repair during a test-run and Moss’ had broken its brake pedal . . . a fate which Colin Crabbe also suffered, much later, with 4510!

My impressions of the Maserati 450S were of unbelievable acceleration, a brutally firm ride and incredible stability, although I was relieved to discover that the shortage of space in the “passenger’s footwell’ was due to the fitting of isolated fuel pumps behind a bulkhead – the demands of RAC competition regulations. Other alterations to conform with RAC regulations include a modified oil catch tank and a more substantial “roll-over bar” beneath the sleek headrest fairing on the tail section.

Behind the original Borrani chrome wire wheels with their triple-eared “knock off” hub caps (shod with 6.50L x 16 green spot Dunlop racing covers), 4510 portrays another non-original feature, disc brakes. Even in 1957, Maserati team drivers complained bitterly that the enormous ribbed drum brakes were inadequate to cope with the 450S performance, Moss urging them to adopt disc brakes. Nothing was done about this, however, but there is a story going round that Maserati had made brake discs for the car shortly before they withdrew from racing. Fellowes’ got his hands on some of these discs and AP specially made up the calipers necessary to fit them to the 450S front hubs. At the rear, the car is fitted with disc brakes off the later Tipo 61 “Birdcage” Maserati, so Fellowes’ 450S now possesses braking performance over which its drivers who thrashed mercilessly over the mountains from Modena to Siena, testing for the Mille Miglia, would have drooled with envy. Had Maserati stayed in racing, and had the C.S.I. not proceeded with its 3-litre limit for 1958, then a disc-braked 450S might well have appeared and a very competitive machine it would have been. However, as it stands, the disc-braked 450S must remain a non-original anticipation of developments which “might have been”.

At a time when nostalgia is deemed unfashionable by many, I can only conclude this article by reflecting that this Maserati 450S must go down as one of the ideal sports racing cars along with such machines as the Jaguar D-type, Ferrari “Testa Rossa” and Aston-Martin DBR1. Graceful and flowing, it surely represents to many an ideal definition of the word “sports racing car” even though its contemporary racing achievements were not as great, in retrospect, as Officine Maserati anticipated. As far as John Fellowes’ pair of cars goes, we can only thank him for making available so readily this spectacular glimpse back into the mid-1950s. But where, just where, did those two raucous sounding 450Ss languish for twelve long years and what was their racing history between 1959 and 1971? — A.H.

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