Maserati’s ‘U16’ great. This V4 was a pre-war record-breaker once owned by the Popes physician. The Grand Prix car in a sharp suit. The 16-cylinder Maserati V4 evolved into the world’s fastest pre-war road car. Massimo Delbo and Mick Walsh unravel its history.
To be an entrepreneur has never been easy, but it was less so than lever at the beginning of the last century. The lack of instantly available information was one problem, to say nothing of a lack of funds. When, in 1914, Alfieri Maserati left the position of test driver at Isotta Fraschini to establish his own company at the age of 27, he took a huge risk. Fifteen years later, his fledgling company was in an odd position. The new Trident marque was known, but not renowned, and its output was limited to small-capacity cars. The Tipo 26 was a class winner, sure enough, but regularly ran in the shadow of larger-engined competitors.
Maserati needed a bigger weapon in order to boost its reputation, but to start a design completely from scratch could drain the finances of the small Bologna firm. Where the idea of a 16-cylinder powerplant originated is unknown, but Alfieri had always proved himself to be a smart and resourceful engineer. Rather than building a completely new engine, he hatched the idea of pairing two of his biggest Tipo 26 2-litre straight-eights.
Conscious of the problems that afflicted other manufacturers that tried this – Bugatti in Europe and Miller in America – Alfieri knew that he had to keep it as simple as possible. In June 1928, the first drawings were completed. The two 2-litre blocks were each mounted at 12.5° on a common crankcase in which the two individual crankshafts rotated clockwise. They drove a central power take-off that worked anti-clockwise. This dictated that the crown-wheel and pinion had to be mounted the opposite way to normal. The daunting assembly featured 3500 individual components including two superchargers, four oil pumps, two water pumps, 32 valves, 64 valve springs, 55 ball races and 29 gears.
Classic pre-war Zagato styling could be an Alfa, but the distinctive spare wheel cover says it all Below: packed engine bay with quad-cam ‘U16’.
The intake and exhaust sides of the right-hand cylinder head had to be switched to mirror the left-hand bank, but synchronising the two engines to run efficiently required all the skill of Eduardo Weber, the Bolognese carburetion wizard. After two weeks’ intense work, Weber produced a masterful design that replaced the earlier Memini and Solex, and the engine ran smoothly – producing 305bhp at 5200rpm.
In August 1929, less than 14 months after the first drawings, the V4 16-cylinder began testing at Monza with a 2-seater body, just days before its debut at the Italian Grand Prix. Even weighing 2250lb, the racer proved rocket-fast, with Alfieri finishing a close second to August Momberger’s Mercedes-Benz SSK in the first race. He retired in the final after setting a record lap of 124mph that remained unbeaten until 1954.
Two weeks later, the Maserati sensation was entered at Cremona for the ‘Giornata dei record’ (Records Day), where a brave Bacon in Borzacchini gunned the V4 down a narrow road to claim the 10km record at an average of 246kph (152.9mph). It’s hard to imagine the reaction of spectators to this vintage beast flashing past on a local road at more than three times the speed of normal cars. The following day, Borzacchini entered the V4 in the feature 200-mile race around die full 25km road circuit, but after again setting the fastest lap, tyre problems eventually forced retirement. The immense power and torque tortured the treads.
Glory finally came in the 1930 Tripoli Grand Prix in Libya, where Borzacchini roared clear to claim Maserati’s first international victory and post the fastest lap. Confident of success at Indianapolis, the V4 was entered for Borzacchini, but, with superchargers banned for die 500-mile race, the engine felt emasculated. After qualifying in 28th place, it retired early with electrical problems after seven laps.
Back in Europe, the V4’s outings were continually frustrated by tyre problems through 1930 and ’31, but Ernesto Maserati claimed victory and fastest lap in the 1931 Grand Prix Reale di Roma. This was the V4’s last important race, and during the winter of 1931 it was replaced by the more powerful V5 (the 5-litre Sedici Cilindri). That car proved to be a nightmare to handle and claimed the life of Amedeo Ruggeri while record-breaking at Montlhery, and nearly that of Piero Taruffi in the 1934 Tripoli Grand Prix.
In the meantime, the V4 was resurrected for a different purpose. Following the motto ‘Nothing has to be wasted’, Maserati started planning a Sport version utilising many parts from the Grand Prix car and, by November 1932, the ‘certificato d’origine’ was issued by the company On the very day that Maserati’s friend Ruggeri was killed in the V5, the V4 was registered to Ludovico Tomeucci – a Maserati and Weber distributor – with the numberplate ‘Roma 33387′. The car was sold in November 1933 to Dr Riccardo Galeazzi Lisi, who in 1939 would become the physician to Pope Pius XII. Due to his profession, Galeazzi not surprisingly kept his passion for fast cars a secret and, together with his other racing cars, the V4 was hidden in a special garage in Civitavecchia. When competing, he used the pseudonym ‘Maometto’ – the Italian translation for Mohammed. Galeazzi’s secret was not very well kept and by December Auto Italiana magazine had reported his purchase of the fearsome machine.
The Maserati initially remained a racing car. It was privately entered in the 1932 Tripoli Grand Prix driven by Carlo Gazzabini, who retired on lap five. It seems that Galeazzi then sold the V4 to Secondo Corsi, the 1500cc Italian champion, who entered it for die Coppa Acerbo. After eight laps, the extra power proved too much to handle and he crashed.
Story has it that the sale was not fully paid up, and the damaged V4 went back to Dr Galeazzi, who had the inspired idea to instruct Carrozzeria La Zagato to create a spectacular new body for the car. Ugo Zagato s Milan-based workshop had already built a reputation for fitting stylish sports bodywork to Alfa Romeos. To keep costs down, the front – from painted cowl up to the bulkhead – was retained, while a new cockpit with cutaway doors, concealed hood, and curved tail housing the single spare wheel followed the signature Zagato house style. The dramatic two-tone colour scheme broke from tradition with Galeazzi selecting a bold all-green theme. The V4 was repainted several times in later years, but evidence of the green paint was discovered during the recent restoration. Contact with Galeazzi’s son also confirmed the distinctive combination. As a boy, he’d been allowed to visit the secret garage, and has never forgotten riding in the V4 alongside the mechanic.
The incredible Maserati sports car remained in the Rome area, where it changed hands several times until, in 1940, it ended up as stock with racing driver Felice Bonetto. A deal was done with Erick Verkade, an amateur Dutch racing driver, and amazingly Tizio Nuvolari was employed to deliver the car to Brussels. Due to a lack of paperwork, the famous Mantuan ace was briefly imprisoned at the Belgian border. Verkade finally secured the V4 in September 1940 (some reports claim he discovered it in a scrapyard in Brussels), but he decided to dismantle and hide the tempting machine from the German occupying forces. The engine was apparently stored in his bedroom.
After the war, the complex jigsaw was reassembled with the help of another Dutch enthusiast, Bert Lyons. Repainted black, it headed back to Italy to collect Verkade s 4CL vionoposto, which he’d ordered before WW2 but failed to collect. Starting from The Hague before frontiers had been established, Verkade arrived at Modena to a terrific welcome.
The spectacular all-Maserati equipe was later seen at race meetings including Nice and Marseille as Verkade continued to use the V4 – still with Perrot brakes – for towing until the engine suffered problems.
Verkade decided to send the V4 to England for repair, but it never returned. In December 1946, a feature appeared in The Motor entitled ‘Hitting on all Sixteen’, in which Verkade, on a visit to Alta, demonstrated the V4 for an anonymous journalist on the Portsmouth Road in the dark among evening traffic. ‘Not wishing to break his unique motorcar, Verkade keeps down to a rev limit of 5000rpm, which carries die car along at 110mph,’ reported the test. ‘The exhaust is Continental, and augmented by the straight-cut gears that unite the two engines, so that “audible warning of approach” is built in.’ The image of the black Zagato beauty roaring down the old A3 from Byfleet is easy to conjure.
The V4 remained at RC Rowland’s race shop, and was eventually sold to Charles and David Lewis. Importation problems restricted its use, but in 1952 Lewis entered the then-red Alaserati in the Brighton Speed Trials, driving it down from London. Despite its tall gearing, the V4 clocked 35.27 secs, but it was no match for Ronnie Symondson s sorted Bugatti Type 57SC.
Engine problems again thwarted its use, and eventually it was stored in Lewis’ mothers garage, where it was discovered by John Howell, a VSCC member with a taste for multi-cylinder machines. Howell apparently spotted the Alaserati only when the garage was being demolished around it, and struck a deal with die owners allowing him use it in return for maintenance. Howell braved the track with the V4 once it had been rebuilt, but that ended in disaster after a major engine blow-up at Snetterton in 1956.
The Lewis brothers later had problems recovering the V4 from Howell, and a long- running ownership dispute was finally resolved in 1968 for £800. Howell struggled to sort the engine, and very rarely was the car seen in public. When Howell became seriously ill in 1999, the V4 was sold to Alfredo Brener, a Texan collector, but the rebuild proved too daunting, and the following year it moved on to Lawrence Auriana.
This fabulous machine then finally received the restoration with foremost specialists that it had long deserved. The chassis and engine were sent to Sean Danaher, while the body was appropriately dispatched to Carrozzeria Cognolato in Italy. To manage and research the project, Auriana enlisted Dr Adolfo Orsi, classic car historian and grandson of the Adolfo Orsi who bought Maserati from the founding brothers in 1937.
“When I first saw the V4,” remembers Orsi, “I couldn’t believe my eyes. Everybody, me included, thought the car lost. Suddenly it was in front of me – totally complete and almost original in every part. It felt like seeing a ghost.”
The restoration took three years, with the aim being preservation. Only incorrect, broken or missing components – mainly for the engine – were remanufactured. The V4 Zagato made its public debut at Pebble Beach in 2003, and has rightfully been a key part of Alaserati s centenary celebrations, with appearances at Villa d’Este and Alaserati 100 at Aluseo Casa Enzo Ferrari.
“No blueprints of the V4 survived with either Alaserati or Zagato,” says Orsi, “but thankfully we have plenty of information about the “Tipo 26. Auriana first saw the car only after the restoration was completed – that speechless moment is one of my most cherished memories.”
|Car||Maserati Tipo V4|
|0-60 mph||7.0 sec|
|Bore and stroke||62×82 mm|
|Brakes||drum brakes, mechanical|
|Chassis||ladder frame, with two longitudinal steel girders and cross members|
|Cooling system||water-cooled, centrifugal pump|
|Dry weight||2,315 lbs (1,050 kg)|
|Engine||25° V16 (8 cylinders per bank), Elektron cylinder block|
|Front suspension||leaf springs and friction dampers|
|Fuel & lubricant||Gasoline / Oil|
|Fuel feed||two Roots superchargers, two Weber DO carburettors mounted ahead of the superchargers|
|Fuel tank||28.60 Imp. gall. (130 litres)|
|Height||48.25 in. (1,230 mm)|
|Ignition||single-plug, two Bosch or Scintilla magnetos|
|Length||159.45 in. (4,050 mm)|
|Lubrication||dual oil pumps (pressure and scavenge)|
|Maximum power||280-305 bhp at 5,500 rpm|
|Model engime||Tipo V4|
|Rear suspension||leaf springs and friction dampers|
|Steering||worm and sector|
|Timing gear||two valves per cylinder set in a 90°V, twin overhead camshafts|
|Top speed||155-161.5 mph (250-260 km/h)|
|Total displacement||3,961 cc|
|Transmission||4-speed + reverse|
|Tyres||front 3.25×19 (5.35×29, 5.35×25); rear 6.50×16 (5.50×31, 6.00×32); Dunlop|
|Wheelbase||105.12-108.27 in. (2,670-2,750 mm)|
|Wheels||wire wheels, front 3.25×19; rear 4.00×19|
|Width||159.45 in. (4,050 mm)|
Thanks to Adolfo Orsi ot Historico Selecta.