Epic Restoration Resurrecting a deceptively decrepit Maserati Ghibli SS Spyder. ‘When you sat on the bootlid, the door gaps opened up!’ Careless past work and corrosion made the concours restoration of this ultra-rare Ghibli SS Spyder a far bigger task than expected… Words Nigel Boothman. Photography Dean Smith.
Twisted Maserati Ghibli restored. The perils of trying to untwist the chassis of a Maserati rarity.
Stephen Dowling first walked into Bill McGrath Maserati one day in 2004. Andy Heywood had just moved from managing Britain’s best-known Maserati specialist to becoming the proprietor, as McGrath himself retired. From this first meeting grew some significant projects including the restoration of Dowling’s green Ghibli coupé, Kermit.
‘After that I had total faith in Andy and his team,’ says Dowling. ‘I’d been running my Ghibli Spyder at home in Australia for many years and I was attached to it, but it was going to need attention. When the time came, I knew I wanted McGrath Maserati to do it.’
The car, at this point painted Blue Sera with cream upholstery, was shipped from Brisbane in 2012. It made an appearance on the Maserati Club stand at the NEC Classic Motor Show that year, but Dowling knew from using it that it was getting tired and Heywood could see that all was not well with the body.
‘The body lines didn’t look right. I thought it might be full of filler, but when it was eventually stripped we discovered the body lines were wrong in the metal. That wasn’t all… the back of the car had been twisted at some point and the only way to ix that was to cut the sills of and put it on a jig.’
This added considerably to what was more than just a job. Dowling had effectively laid down a challenge – and one that Heywood relished. ‘Stephen said, “Make it the best you can make it,” with a target of achieving not just the best finish but completely original specification. And a lot of that had been lost.’
Major internal surgery required Andy Heywood has worked with Shane Willis of Prestige Restoration bodyshop in Chertsey, Surrey for many years. Says Willis, ‘I went up to McGrath to see the car before it was stripped. We found that if someone sat on the bootlid, the door gaps opened slightly… which gives you a clue to the trouble! The back was detaching itself from the front.’
Heywood’s team removed the driveline and running gear, stripping the car to a bare shell. It arrived at this form at Prestige Restoration in the first half of 2013, eventually spending almost three years there until its return as a painted shell. Willis expected the worst but didn’t know how drastic the work would have to be. ‘We put it on a flat-bed, a kind of jig where we could weld the bodyshell at the suspension mounting points to keep it completely square while we cut out the areas that were supposed to be keeping it stiff. This is why people dislike doing this kind of work to Maseratis; where you’d get a separate chassis and removable glassfibre inner wheelarches on a Ferrari, the Ghibli has chassis tubes welded to the floor and steel inner arches that give you no easy way in to make a repair.’
Even with two chassis tubes, the Ghibli Spyder needed plenty of extra stiffness built in. Maserati chose to add a second inner sill and created a double-skinned floor with cross-bracing steel tubes between the skins. Sound like a perfect rust trap? It is. ‘We took the floorpans out completely,’ says Willis. ‘There was quite a degree of fatigue in the middle where it had been weakened, so we had to remake the outer sills, inner sills and inner-inner sills too.’
Before anything was re-attached, Willis and his crew measured the car’s alignment. Just as well they did. ‘We got the laser lines on it, so we knew the wheelbase was correct both sides, but we found the back of the car was twisted. The suspension had been taking it up, but there was quite a considerable twist, say three-quarters of an inch to an inch. It had been crabbing down the road.’
Serious skin complaints addressed When the structural issues were remedied, attention turned to the outer panels. Beneath the paint and filler, corrosion had extended into the door skins and frames, so both doors received a new skin. Prestige was obliged to recreate around two-thirds of each door frame and mate it with what could be saved. The mission to save as much useable steel as possible was hampered by both rust – the bonnet skin came back from stripping with barely enough steel to hold a layer of paint – and previous bodges.
‘In the Seventies and Eighties, rusty bits were patched and hidden under paint and underseal, while damage or dents might be knocked out in such a way that the body lines aren’t where they should be,’ says Willis. ‘It’s really easy to get it wrong with the Ghibli unless you see a good one and you know exactly how the crease should interact with the wheelarches.’ Like many classic Maseratis in the UK, this Spyder is a returning visitor to the premises in Kimpton, Hertfordshire. McGrath Maserati had been asked to do work on the car in 1989 for a previous owner, but this time it could go well beyond the scope of that job.
‘It had a partial restoration here nearly 30 years ago, in its blue phase,’ says Heywood. ‘The kind of work that Stephen wanted this time is so much more thorough than anyone was attempting back then.’ Willis and his team altered what they could and cut out other areas to get the lines lowing as they should. But the knock-on effects of one small change can be immensely time-consuming, as he describes.
‘Take the bumpers. They’d had a bit of damage over the years, so we straightened them. But the nose of the car had been altered to it the shape of the bent bumpers, so we had to work on that. And that meant adjusting the position of the headlamp pods a little, and all that goes with that. It’s why we do a dry it.’
‘There were a lot of moments that needed a deep breath, but I think fiddling about with the bumpers, the valance and the nose of the car took the most patience’ Shane Willis
‘Weirdly, it was right at the beginning of the job. Being asked to do the car totally to original specification was great – we could get nerdy and really do our homework!’ Andy Heywood
The dry it stage is crucial, but especially so in this restoration. It returned to McGrath Maserati in 2016 to be built up with glass, trim, latches and handles. Every opening panel was positioned and checked. It took four months.
‘In getting the body lines right, we can affect other stuff – one of the door handles no longer looked like it was in the right place, so we had to alter that next,’ says Willis. ‘The relationship between doors, Quarter-lights, screen and trim is crucial,’ says Heywood. ‘It takes infinite patience. We had to make new trim around the tonneau panel from scratch – brass, silver solder, then of to be chromed.’ Meanwhile, back at headquarters...
As Prestige carried out their painstaking work, Heywood’s team had plenty of time to apply an equally obsessive approach to the driveline and running gear. ‘Maserati V8s need special techniques to rebuild them,’ says Heywood. ‘They have removable liners, so that’s something you normally replace, especially if there’s any wear or damage. They’re an interference it in the block, so to get them out we have to heat the block to 150°C – “spit-rolling temperature” as Bill McGrath used to say – then drift them out from below.’
Refitting is the reverse of removal, as repair manual like to claim – with one important difference. ‘If you heat the block, insert new liners and it the cylinder heads, you’ll find the gaskets blow straight away because the liners get squeezed up and out slightly as the block cools,’ says Heywood. ‘So clamping them down firmly during the cooling process is vital.’
McGrath’s engine builder Simon Wilson adds, ‘The valve guides are also an interference it, so I heated the cylinder heads and knocked the guides out, then cleaned up the carbon build-up before replacing the guides, which have to go in the freezer the night before to shrink them a tiny bit.’
Because of the back-to-standard liners, Wilson also replaced the pistons but the crankshaft survived with a regrind and new shells. Much more innovative is the team’s approach to protecting what are now quite elderly alloy cylinder heads and the engine block against porosity. Says Wilson, ‘We can guard against porous castings by soda-blasting them until they’re as clean as they can be. Then they’re sent of to a specialist who places them in a vacuum tank and introduces a resin that’s sucked into the microscopic pores in the alloy. It’s the same process that some manufacturers use on new aluminium engines.’
The Ghibli’s dry-sumped V8 has scavenge and delivery oil pumps driven from the nose of the camshaft and prone to damage, but this car escaped with the minimum of attention from Wilson to keep the oil where it should be. ‘I had to machine a groove for an O-ring around the outside of the perimeter of the pump body,’ he says.
The five-speed ZF gearbox was looked after by McGrath’s Mechanical Projects Manager Duncan Berry. ‘It had never been apart before,’ he says. It was very grubby but turned out to be in good nick – just a case of clean, inspect, rebuild. Likewise, the ZF steering box had never been touched and was also OK, which was a big relief. They’re very hard to source parts for and we’ve had to create a kit of our own to rebuild them.’
McGrath Maserati also originates new coil springs for these cars, made to their own specification to get as close as possible to what Maserati offered when new.
‘The suspension is double wishbone all round,’ says Berry. ‘We fitted new rubber bushes which are quite hard to find, but they’re vital to keep the ride comfort and original on-the-road characteristics, so we wouldn’t use polyurethane versions.’
The back axle is a tough Salisbury unit with a plated LSD, which was rebuilt by GKN in Birmingham. Soon the team had a lovely collection of refurbished Ghibli components and needed a Ghibli to attach them to.
Refinishing and refitting – very carefully Having gone to such extremes to get the car’s shape correct, Shane Willis and his team were hyper-vigilant about letting anything go wrong at the final stage. ‘Once the metal surface was properly clean, we applied four coats of high-build primer, then rubbed it down to take out any tiny wobbles or depressions in the surface, but also to get the sharpness of every contour just as we wanted it. Two more coats of high-build and another rub down left it ready for primer.’
Yet another obsessive rubdown by hand followed the application of the primer, leaving the car ready for the top coat of Bianco Polo Park, confirmed by Maserati Classiche as the finish with which the car left the factory.
‘It took 150 to 200 hours to paint the car,’ says Willis. ‘And that’s before the polishing or the treatment of the underside in black epoxy.’
For a perfectly original touch, Heywood’s team found a way to recreate the factory’s textured finish for the coating in the engine bay – no artificial shine where once there was none. At this point, in 2017, a year of work was still ahead as the car’s trim, wiring and build-up gathered pace. But before that it had to get back on its wheels.
Duncan Berry turned the Spyder into a mobile object once more by assembling the numerous powder-coated suspension and steering components. With the driveline in place, attention turned to the brakes. If you’re thinking this was a ‘replace everything’ restoration, think again – Berry et al really did re-use parts where possible, rescuing the brake discs and rebuilding calipers with new seals and fresh plating.
‘We made our own wiring loom,’ says Heywood. ‘The loom in this car was a bit hacked around, and that plus age and deterioration meant it needed to be renewed.’ The Ghibli was treated to an original Maserati-branded Autovox radio Heywood had squirreled away and the best ashtrays they could find in the stores.
‘The new windscreen was a challenge,’ says Berry. ‘It was made by Pilkington but the rubbers came from Italy and were a harder compound than original.’ Originality gave way to pragmatism for the sun visors. They’re beautifully trimmed in leather, but would have been heat-welded plastic when new, a process you can’t replicate without a Seventies car factory. Malcolm Barton, McGrath’s trimmer, had trimmed the car in the cream leather it gained in 1989.
‘It held up pretty well,’ he says, ‘but we were going for originality and Maserati confirmed the car originally used Connolly PAC 1545 blue, so that’s what we used. Luckily Connolly has started making the PAC leather – printed and crushed – as it did 45 years ago.’ With a straightened and powder-coated hood frame supporting the perfectly matched blue hood, the finishing touches came from McGrath’s reproduction Fiamm and AGIP decals, placed just as in 1971.
It’s a project Heywood, Willis and their colleagues are particularly proud of, but it was one of a number of exotics in Stephen Dowling’s collection and he felt it was time to thin the pack. ‘I got so emotional watching it being pawed by auction viewers at the RM Battersea sale, I prayed it wouldn’t sell,’ he says. ‘It didn’t, and now I’m keeping it. It’s been a special car for me over many years; I’m not ready to let it go.’
From top: after flirting with selling the Ghibli, Stephen can’t bear to part with it; McGrath Maserati trimmed the car in 1989, but this time fitted Connolly hide in its original colour; badge makes it one of four right-hand-drive Ghibli SS Spyders.
MY FAVOURITE TOOL
‘This is a special tool Bill made many years ago for removing the crankshaft sprocket from a Maserati V8,’ says Andy Heywood. ‘Normal pullers bend the sprocket or break teeth of, but this won’t. You heat the sprocket cherry red with oxy-acetylene, wind this puller onto the thread on the nose of the crank, screw down the middle piece and of it comes. Bill’s engraved, “Maserati Crank Puller, W McGrath” on it in his lovely copperplate handwriting.’
The Spyder at McGrath Maserati in 1989. It took three years to turn the twisted and bodged body into a painted shell resplendent in its original Bianco Polo Park. Bracing frame held structure in place during repairs Most of the lower metalwork had to be remade.
Steel inner arches made repairs difficult. Diamond-pattern quilted PVC under tonneau was hand-sewn by the long-suffering trimmer. Alloy cylinder head and block were resin treated to resist porosity. Engine has to be heated to 150°C to remove the cylinder liners. V8 needed new cylinder liners and pistons. Chromed trim strip was remade by hand in brass, then plated. Back at McGrath for the crucial dry-it process.