Zagato Maserati Elegant racebred GT tested. Zagato-bodied A6G/54 remains the marque’s ultimate GT. Something for the weekend. The arrival of the race-bred A6G/54 opened up a whole new roadgoing chapter for Maserati – and this Zagato-bodied variant surely remains the marque’s ultimate GT. Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Matthew Howell.
Left and below. Cabin is relatively sparse but beautifully detailed. Vast wood-rimmed wheel compromises the seating position a little but there’s plenty of headroom, even without Zagato’s usual ‘double bubble’ roof style.
Although it’s difficult to appear off-colour when your skin is already a very pale shade of white, manoeuvring this car into position is freighted with anxiety. This is due as much to the many obstacles within inching distance as the lack of ground clearance. And seven-figure value. And rarity. And the fact that the car is about to leave for a concours in Italy. Oh, and we have spectators, who are circling the scene like leopards at a watering hole. You can feel the weight of their stares.
The truth of the matter is that this sublime Maserati A6G/54 deserves the otherworldly backdrop our location provides. Just 60 or so of these ultra-exclusive machines were made in period, with a third of them being bodied by Zagato as here, so your chances of ever seeing one are slim. In many ways the model represented the jumping-off point for Maserati as a road-car manufacturer, even if it was encoded with racer genes. Yet this strain of GT is greatly misunderstood, various iterations being funnelled into a catch-all category of ‘A6 Maseratis’.
To understand this car’s place in marque lore, you have to consider that motor sport was all that mattered for much of the firm’s first half-century. The 1950s represented the last great decade for Maserati as a major player at the highest level, but racing costs money and in those heady days before coffin-nail sponsorship came along in the late ’60s, it was left to manufacturers or moneyed patrons to bankroll a competition programme. Maserati had almost gone to the wall in ’37, only to be saved by Adolfo Orsi. The epitome of a bootstrap capitalist, this self-made industrialist was aware that winning races had a halo effect on his many other enterprises, but making cars wasn’t a mere hobby. Maserati had to be self-sufficient, which is where the A6G series came in.
Strictly speaking there had been a previous attempt at producing a road car, all things being relative. However, the earlier A6 1500 had emerged somewhat underpowered. The rather sober Pinin Farina outline didn’t help, either. It was only with the arrival of the A6G54 strain in 1954 that roadgoing Maseratis attained a level of appreciation with the target market.
The A6 1500’s straight-six was derived, in a roundabout way, from the race-proven, pre-war 6CM unit. In time, this venerable engine was taken out to 2.0 litres but, for its application in the A6G/54, it gained twinoverhead camshafts and hemispherical combustion chambers. That this newest variation appeared outwardly similar to the firm’s Formula 2 race engine offered in the sister A6G/CM and A6G/CS models was no coincidence. Indeed, the style of two cam covers and spark plugs in-line down the middle would remain a constant for Maserati engines for decades to come.
However, beneath those cam covers this was clearly no competition unit. There were no gear-driven cams and hairspring valves here. Instead, the Vittorio Bellentani-devised ‘road’ engine featured an alloy block and head, along with diecast aluminium pistons. At the bottom end, the steel crank was carried in seven thin-wall Vandervell bearings. The ignition system used a single distributor instead of magnetos, and it was offered with either single or twin plugs per cylinder. Predictably, carburation was by Weber; either single-choke 36DO4 type or gurgling twin-choke 40DCO3s with gorgeous polished trumpets.
But if the engine only slightly resembled those found in the firm’s sports-racers, the chassis was somewhat closer in make-up. An oval tube ladderframe supported double-wishbone suspension with brass bushes up front and quarter-elliptic springs out back. Similarly, the large drum brakes were also borrowed from the competition department, albeit with some of the cooling fins blanked over in an effort to try to retain temperature in them for their new application. And, just like the racing cars, there were unequal-length steering arms and no idler. Yet for many it was the outer dazzle that mattered and, as with most penny-number exotics of the day, a variety of coachbuilders left their mark on the A6G54. Pietro Frua and Serafino Allemano both produced lovely outlines, yet Zagato typically went its own idiosyncratic way and shaped a series of pared-back road-racers. Aside from the coupés, the Milanese styling house also fashioned a Spider variant, which sadly remained unique.
The car pictured here, chassis 2107, emerged from Zagato’s Terrazzano di Rho facility in 1955. Later examples had slightly flared rear arches and broader hindquarters, along with larger back windows mounted higher in the body. These cars may be even better balanced stylistically, but it’s hard to pick fault with this, the fourth A6G/54 bodied by Zagato. The proportions are exquisite, although the identity of who, precisely, styled the car is lost in the midst of time. It represents the alluring alchemy of grace and eccentricity that typified the firm’s output in the 1950s.
That said, there is a bit more tinsel than you might expect, but then this particular example did spend its early life trotting the automotive catwalks. The car was first seen publicly at the September 1955 Paris motor show, where it shared a stand with an Allemano-bodied version and a 150S sports-racer. Distinct from its siblings, it was originally supplied by Maserati’s Paris agent with full-width front and rear bumpers rather than the usual quarter items. However, the ‘lighter is faster’ mantra remained intact, as they were made out of polished aluminium rather than coppered and chromed steel. In a bid to further save weight, Perspex was used for all glazing bar the windscreen.
Zagato knew its market segment; that for all the A6G54’s roadgoing aspirations, punters would invariably want to compete. Here was a car perfect for the gentleman driver who wanted to trade in his double pinstripes and swivel chair for comfortable slacks, a crash hat and stringbacks come the weekend. And this example is no different – it was fielded in the 1957 Tour de France, among other events.
Once you’ve stooped to enter it, the cockpit is predictably stark but no less attractive for that. The seating position is a little compromised thanks in part to the vastness of the woodrim wheel, but you barely notice after a while. The speedo and revcounter dominate the bodycoloured dash, with minor dials and switchgear randomly sited in keeping with Italian exotica of the time.
Yet for all the cabin’s sparseness there are some beautifully thoughtout details here, such as window-winders that are hinged so they sit flat against the doorcard when not in use. Or the Perspex aerofoils mounted on the doorframes that rest in their own aluminium channels. It’s uniformly lovely, although there is clearly a degree of commonality between the Maserati’s cabin furniture and that found in Zagato’s take on the Fiat 8V. Or its assorted interpretations of the Fiat Millecento theme, for that matter.
But unlike a great many Zagato offerings of the period, not least other Maseratis, this car does without the corporate double-bubble roof treatment. Headroom is still plentiful, despite the car’s small scale, and the doors don’t crowd you, either; there’s loads of room for your elbows. It really is an appealing office, albeit one that soon becomes steamily hot thanks to a lack of meaningful ventilation.
Turn the ignition key and there’s a distant whirring from the fuel pump in the boot. This is followed by a raucous din as the straight-six fires. In no way is this a quiet car, the fanfare from the exhaust pipes out back matched for volume by the harmonic thrumming through the structure. You don’t need to be told that the car’s aluminium skin is on the thin side. And once under way, it isn’t long before a giddying aroma of petrol and oil pervades the cabin as your right leg warms itself against the transmission tunnel.
What is clear, even after only a few miles, is that the steering is on the vague side – but at least the vast tiller gives you something to cling to. It isn’t fearfully imprecise, it’s just that the steering doesn’t exactly communicate messages back to the driver. Yet as the car’s custodian Andy Heywood points out, these chassis were conceived with racing in mind. And directional changes would have been performed using the throttle to balance the car.
This is a car that rewards familiarity. Initially it seems a little truculent, but get it up to around 5000rpm and the twin-cam six comes alive. The note takes on a slightly metallic timbre: the engine just keeps pulling, to the point that you want to try that bit harder. Yet marque authority Heywood, whose Bill McGrath Ltd team restored the car, warns against keeping it in the upper reaches of the rev range: the engine’s Achilles heel in period was the unsupported valve stem arrangement, which sometimes resulted in premature wear to cams and valve guides. The factory claimed a top speed of 125mph, which doesn’t seem overly optimistic, but there’s more to the car’s repertoire than just outright performance. The best bit by far is the gearbox. Most A6G54s featured in-house transmissions, although at least one marque historian insists that all Zagato cars featured ZF ’boxes as here. It snicks in and out of gear with only a short throw, and is so good that it’s all too difficult not to blip your way up and down the ’box just to listen to that strident straight-six popping and fizzing.
Commendably, the American collector who owns the Maserati isn’t above giving it a little exercise, not least on last year’s Mille Miglia retrospective. Unfortunately, that outing meant the drum brakes took a bit of a pounding, so it wanders a little under braking. To the left, mostly. But that and slightly inert steering aside, the A6G/54 is a joy to drive. The competition breeding is all too obvious, yet the ride quality isn’t thrashy, so you won’t need to visit an osteopath after each sortie. Which is what you want from a GT car. In many ways, the A6G54 represents a halfway house between a racer and a pure-bred gran turismo, and as such it’s infinitely more fun to drive than the 3500GT – fine car though it is – that followed in its wake. In fact, Maserati has produced no linear descendant since; no road cars that are palpably rooted in motor sport with the possible exception of the MC12 – and that was a Ferrari in all but name.
And for many people that is precisely the appeal of owning a Maserati: that they’re cosseted luxuriantly rather than obliged to grapple with an ornery racing car. But in this particular instance, theA6G54’s competition lineage is the big draw. Well, that and the gorgeous styling, which only increases the attraction. Maserati provided the pomp and Zagato the circumstance, the result being a car that tugs on your heartstrings totally and utterly and forever. It’s perfectly imperfect.
Thanks To Andy Heywood of Bill McGrath Ltd, www.classicmaseratis.co.uk.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1955 Maserati A6 Zagato
ENGINE 1985cc straight-six, DOHC, three Weber 40DCO3 carburettors
POWER 150bhp @ 6000rpm
TORQUE 123lb ft @ 5000rpm
TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Rack and pinion
SUSPENSION Front: wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, quarter-elliptic leaf springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
WEIGHT 840kg (est)
PERFORMANCE Top speed 125mph (claimed)
‘Its proportions are exquisite. It represents the alluring alchemy of grace and eccentricity that typified Zagato’s 1950s output’
‘In many ways, the A6G54 represents a halfway house between a racer and a pure-bred gran turismo’