Small Wonder With Maserati’s Grand Prix successes fading in the 1930s, the new ‘junior’ 1.5-litre 6CM of 1936 saved the Trident’s pride. We track-test Count Trossi’s championship-winning car. Story by Ed McDonough. Images by Michael Ward.
The ‘junior’ racer that couldn’t stop winning
Voiturette. I have always loved the term. The modern equivalent is probably Formula 2 but that doesn’t really encapsulate what voiturette means. For me, it conjures up images of vintage dusty roads with small cars fighting to stay on terms with bigger ones.
The term voiturette was probably coined by Frenchman Léon Bollée, who was responsible for constructing the first really small racing car, and it became more widely known when a trophy was first presented for voiturette class cars in 1905. These were generally built to a less powerful standard than full Grand Prix cars, and for most of the history of motor racing, there has been this ‘second’ junior class, which has taken many forms. For the purposes of this story, we’ll focus on the period when it was run to 1.5-litre rules, and racing was ultra-competitive. As with Grand Prix cars, the rules about engine size, maximum and minimum weight, and body width changed for voiturettes. Much effort went into making these smaller cars quick, interesting and economically viable. The popularity of the class, especially in France, reached its height in the 1930s.
“Count Trossi joined Scuderia Ferrari to race the Alfa 12C in 1937 but he did come back to race the 6CM”
By 1937, the ‘titans’ – Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo and Auto Union – were dominating in Grand Prix racing, but voiturette grids were populated by large numbers of 1.5-litre Maserati 6CMs.
Maserati was seriously involved in competition from its beginning, starting in 1926 with the Type 26 with eight cylinders in-line, through the 1932M and the six-cylinder 6C34, the V8R1, and then the 1493cc 6CM which appeared in 1936 and would be produced until 1939. By 1935, the factory was having less and less success in Grand Prix events, the Maserati name all but vanishing from the leader boards and only a few privateers getting any results (and no wins). With Alfieri Maserati gone, his brothers struggled to maintain his design standards. The Trident marque backed off from full involvement in major Grand Prix races, and instead concentrated on the voiturette class.
Ernesto Maserati used the company’s experience with the 4CM to develop something new. The 6CM would have a supercharged, in-line, six-cylinder engine of 1493cc with a Scintilla ignition system, single Roots-type supercharger and 55ASL Weber carburettor. With a four-speed gearbox, the new car produced 155hp at 6200rpm in the initial state of development, increasing to 175hp at 6600rpm by 1939. This engine was particularly well designed and efficient. The six cylinders were formed of three pairs, mounted on a common crankcase, with fixed heads and cam carriers for twin overhead camshafts. The supercharger was mounted on the front of the engine and was driven directly by the crankshaft.
The chassis used modern longitudinal torsion bar independent front suspension but the rear had semi-elliptic springs and a live axle derived from the 4CM’s. Ernesto Maserati simplified the gearbox behind the engine by using Fiat internal parts. He also improved the steering and had the engine located lower in the chassis. With an overall weight of 650kg, the top speed was close to 140mph – almost as quick as the 4CM. The plan was to beat the English ERAs and keep wealthy Italian amateurs driving Maseratis.
It is thought that 27 examples of the 6CM were built, although some claim 28. As the chassis was based on the 4CM ladder frame, it’s possible that one of the 4CMs was later converted to a 6CM. Chassis 1531 and 1532 were the best known of the factory cars, especially in the car’s debut year, 1936, and a total of 11 chassis were kept as factory cars over the four years that they competed.
Many 6CMs were sold to private owners. Englishman Austin Dobson had three, while Lord Howe, Johnny Wakefield and Reggie Tongue were other English owners. The Italian Scuderia Ambrosiana ran cars for Lurani, Villorese, Cortese and Minetti. Ecurie Helvetia ran a team for Baron de Graffenreid and Armand Hug. 6CMs raced in the hands of René Dreyfus and Achille Varzi, as well as one Count Trossi – we’ll come to that one shortly. For 1936, Scuderia Torino (formerly Subalpina) ran the works cars in the voiturette classes at Grand Prix and non-championship meetings, the two drivers being mainly Omobono Tenni and Count Carlo Felice Trossi (pronounced ‘troshee’, according to Bruno Giacomelli, the well-known Alfa Romeo team driver with a passion for journalistic accuracy, who has overseen the writing of this piece).
When the 1936 season started, Trossi and Tenni were still driving 4CMs. The first 6CM was entered at Monte Carlo on 11 April for Scuderia Torino president Gino Rovere, who handed the car over to Zehender in the race (which it failed to finish). Then two works cars were entered for Trossi and Laszlo Hartmann in the Eifelrennen on 14 June. Dick Seaman was there in his GP Delage and there were ERAs for Raymond Mays and Marcel Lehoux, as well as Prince Bira in ER2A Romulus.
It was pouring with rain at the Nürburgring when the race started. From row two, Trossi was soon on Seaman’s tail, with Tenni in a 4CM in third and Bira fourth. Trossi took the lead on lap two and dominated the race in fierce conditions, with Tenni second and Hartmann sixth in the other 6CM. It was a fine debut win for chassis 1532, and the beginning of a very good year for Maserati.
On 21 June, the Picardie GP was run in two heats and a final, with half the field in each heat. The first was won by Trossi and the second by Seaman in his Delage. Seaman crashed in the final and Trossi was having mechanical problems and did not finish, which gave the win to Bira’s ERA. On 28 June, the Milan GP saw newcomer Emilio Villoresi put his Fiat 508 on pole ahead of Trossi, but the latter soon took the lead and again made the 6CM look like the car to beat. Trossi missed the Albi GP on 12 July, while the 6CMs of Hartmann and Australian Frederick McEvoy did not figure in the results.
The Coppa Ciano race at Livorno on 2 August saw Trossi back at the wheel of 1532. He was leading by lap four and was never headed. Luigi Villoresi’s 4CM came third, with Hartmann’s 6CM fourth. Seaman won the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara on 15 August, where he and Bira were quicker than Trossi on the long straights, but when Bira caught fire, Trossi overtook to finish second. Maserati withdrew Trossi and Tenni from the Bern GP at Bremgarten on 23 August, saying the cars were not ready, but it seems that the team had been humiliated by the Pescara defeat. Nor did Maseratis attend the Donington race on 29 August. But on 7 September, Bianco’s Maserati 4CM briefly led the Coppa Edda Ciano race at Lucca until Trossi whistled past and won easily. 13 of the 16 entries for the Modena GP were Maseratis, although only one was a 6CM. Maserati sent Trossi to replace Tenni, so it is likely that this was chassis 1531.
Clemente Biondetti was in good form in a 4CM but Trossi moved away from him pretty quickly and went on to win yet again, a very good finish to the season for Maserati and the new car. Trossi duly won the Italian national championship for 1500cc cars.
Sure enough, in 1937 many 6CMs appeared on the voiturette grids, but some notable personalities had changed. Count Trossi had joined Scuderia Ferrari to race an Alfa Romeo 12C but he did come back to the Maserati fold for one final voiturette race, the Coppa Principessa Di Piemonte at the Posilipo circuit near Naples. Trossi was quickest in practice but shared the front row with two other works Maserati drivers in 6CMs, Ettore Bianco and Franco Cortese. After being held too long at the start, Bianco got away first but was soon caught by Cortese, who stopped to try and fix his gearbox on lap five. Trossi and Bira got past Bianco, then Bira led in his ERA until Trossi forced his way past and won by a full minute. The 6CM had a good 1937 and did well in the next few years as well, although it continued to face strong opposition from the ERAs on several occasions.
However, early in 1937 the Maserati brothers sold their company to Adolfo Orsi. The brothers stayed with the company, and with financial support, went back to planning a new Grand Prix car, while the 6CM carried the company colours for the season.
DRIVING CHASSIS 1532
The car you see here, chassis 1532, had numerous wins in its first year in the hands of Count Trossi. It subsequently passed to Italian Edoardo Teagno, who had campaigned a 4CM in 1937, and then seems to have owned two 6CMs, 1543 and 1532. Shortly after, this car was exported to South America, before coming to the UK in the 1960s. After a variety of owners, it was restored and passed to Irvine Laidlaw and looked after by Sean Danaher. More recently it was acquired by Nigel Griffiths, who brought it to race at Goodwood in 2019.
So 84 years after its grand debut, 1532 is alive and running. Nigel Griffith’s team brought it along to Blyton Park circuit in Lincolnshire for a photo shoot “and maybe a run”. I was on board for the possible run just in case – fortuitous as I had won a sprint event at Blyton only a week before in my old Dulon Formula Ford. Blyton has fast straights, high-speed bends and a few very tight corners.
Seeing the car sitting majestically gave me plenty of time to ogle over the shape and take in all the details. It surely is a perfect example of the period: a car with all the serious bits exposed, the cockpit open and roomy, and the sides low so you hang out through the corners. The beautiful lines carry through to the tail, the exhaust on the left curving with the bodywork. A proper car.
Behind the four-spoke steering wheel are the basic gauges: rev counter to the right (reading to 9000rpm but red-lined at 6200rpm), oil pressure, water temperature and so on. Then there’s the chassis plate bearing the writing, Automobili Maserati Bologna Tipo 6CM Chassis No 1532. The seat, in black leather, shows wear from moving backsides, and is supported on both sides so you are reasonably well anchored. Down in the footwell, the clutch is on the left, and the brake and throttle on the right – no central throttle on this one.
The gearbox and driveshaft are, basically, adjacent to your crotch, the driveshaft going under the seat. Best not to think about it breaking… The gear lever is directly behind the wheel, canted slightly to the left – I’ll need to think about that!
The puddles have mostly dried our and Nigel Griffith’s regular driver Ewen has given the car a few warm-up laps. Nigel himself has arrived and tells me, “You know your way around, so do some laps, drive it a bit, but watch it.” I finally climb on board but it’s more ‘on’ than ‘in’ – not like being horizontal in a modern. In spite of its age, everything about this car is efficient. Starting is by turning on the switch and pressing the button, after a few pumps to get some fuel up. Ewen warns me that it might need a few pumps if we run slowly, which we need to do for a few laps behind our camera car. In fact, there’s never a problem and it just runs smoothly. The standard H-pattern gearbox is extraordinarily easy to use, just a few revs to get it moving, left hand to shift and just stay aware of where the lever is.
1532 is a place where I feel immediately at home. I love being able to hang out the side going into and out of corners. You know exactly where the line is, you see exactly what the wheels are doing. Don’t lean too far left, though: that exhaust is out there. Ewen was puzzled when I asked what the brakes were like. “Just fine. I don’t notice, they are that good”. And so they are, although I don’t use them too much in the first few laps. I try to imagine Trossi’s presence in this car; would he be smoking his pipe? But attention needs to be kept on the line, and where the wet tarmac is.
The tail slides slightly when accelerating out of the slower corners, as it should, but all is manageable.
We get the photos done and a wave from the side says ‘keep on driving’. It’s time for a few ‘real’ laps, letting the car go a bit more. It’s stunning up through the gears, that straight-six humming smoothly – very smoothly – up through third for the medium bends on the East circuit, a bit of braking into the right/left and harder acceleration up to top, then easing off for the medium slow left at the end of the straight. There’s a little twitch or two going down to third and then hard on the throttle, and another little twitch. The fuel pressure is staying up and the temperatures are fine, so it’s hard through the swerve and then fourth gear again. Traction, even in the damp, is superb. Ease onto the brake for the tight right at the end of the straight, down to third, then second for the corner. There’s the sweet smell of the 85% methanol-plus- fuel and a bit of acetone mix.
I’m using the revs now, carefully, and it is eating up this circuit, dipping a bit on entry to the corners, lifting the nose on exit and settling into the run to the next corner. There is nothing like the fresh air you get when hanging on to a stunner like this. A wave from the ‘pit’ says do another lap and all the joy of driving a pre-war champion comes to the surface. The car is predictable, and behaves well on its Dunlop Racing tyres (it originally ran on Pirellis), both in the damp and dry, and the wiggling from the back end is all part of the fun.
At our Autumn Motorsport Day at Brooklands, Ewen Sergison had plenty of tail-out fun in very damp conditions