Maserati’s Brutal Beauty. Mick Walsh takes the wheel of Bira and Straight’s Maserati. A Maserati like no other. The story of a unique 8CM racer. This unique 8CM is not for the faint of heart. An awestruck Mick Walsh follows in the wheel tracks of Straight, Bira and Seaman. Photography Tony Baker/LAT.
When asked to nominate the most beautiful racing car, the Maserati 8CM chassis 3011 should be high on any list. One of just 19 3-litre beauties that were handbuilt in Bologna under the direction of Ernesto Maserati, this glorious machine mixes Italian, American, English and Siamese influences through its development and long racing life. From every angle it looks majestic and superbly proportioned, while beneath its skin the supercharged twin-overhead-cam engine and suspension are exquisitely made with extensive use of magnesium.
“It’s a pure racing design made by proud engineers,” says specialist John Moore, who works on 3011. “There are no short cuts. The detailing – such as the engine’s gear tower and the fantastic forged front axle – is amazing.”Aformer ‘Buxted Boy’ with Crosthwaite & Gardiner, Moore has been closely involved with some of the greatest racing cars, from Bugattis to Auto Unions.
1933 Maserati 8CM road drive
What makes 3011 particularly special is the refinement both to looks and design by its wealthy first owner. Whitney Straight was just 21 when he ordered three 8CMs, but the New York-born racer already had a great eye for style.
For the few years he raced, Straight’s team cars were always immaculately turned out, none more so than this. His allegiance to the Trident marque started with a beautiful black 26M that he refined and developed, including fitting a pre-selector gearbox under the guidance of respected mechanic Giulio Ramponi. Yet Straight was unhappy with the new 8CM’s whippy chassis, heavy gearchange and awkward styling, so his were immediately sent to Thomson& Taylor’s Brooklands workshop.
Straight first met Ramponi on the buying trip to Bologna, and enticed the talented Italian back to Britain to run a newly formed race team. Ramponi was closely connected with designers and drivers including Tazio Nuvolari, who’d shared his concerns with regard to the disappointing early 8CMs. Back in England, this valuable insight and Ramponi’s own ideas were used to refine Straight’s racers.
Their revisions included replacing the Weber carburettor with an SU and increasing the blower speed to 1½ times that of the engine. They improved the cooling, too, and modified the rear suspension, before the project was dispatched to J Gurney Nutting for a new body. Straight no doubt had a hand in the aesthetics and the result was one of the most attractive single-seaters of the early ’30s. From the slanting grille to the muscular tail, the proportions were perfect. Even the external exhaust had an elegant sweep.
Straight believed that the only colour for a racing car was black – as his older 26M had been finished – but for international events he was required to present the 8CMs in the American colours of white body with blue chassis. With Hugh Hamilton as the second driver, the team of 70mph Dodge lorries carrying the immaculate Maseratis headed for North Africa for 3011’s debut at the ultra-fast Mellaha circuit for the Grand Prix of Tripoli. Aholed piston in practice spoilt its debut, but once back in England the car’s dramatic pace was apparent. Straight set Fastest Time of the Day – and a new hill record of 40 secs – at Shelsley Walsh.
So began the illustrious life of this great Maserati, with highlights of Straight’s single season in 3011 including wins at Brooklands, Donington and South Africa, as well as impressive times up the greatest European hillclimbs – he finished as runner-up to the works German titans at Klausen. With international events over, 3011 was back in the workshop for a black repaint before seeing off the fastest 2-litre ERAs at Brooklands in October, where Straight set fastest lap with twin rear wheels fitted.
After failing to secure an Auto Union for the 1935 season, Straight, still just 23, decided to retire and put his cars and transporters up for sale. Still smitten by the 8CM’s spectacular performance, he indulged himself by converting 3012 into a sports car. Gurney Nutting produced a stunning black design complete with heartshaped grille, and Straight’s racing monogram replaced the Trident as a badge.
His prized racer 3011 was slow to sell, but was eventually acquired by privateer Harry Rose as a replacement for an outdated Alfa Monza. Ramponi continued to look after 3011 for Rose and hatched the idea of slotting in the brilliant young Richard Seaman for a one-off race at Donington.With the engine sleeved down to 2695cc, he won the British Empire Trophy.
When Rose decided to retire in 1936, the two year-old Maserati was bought by Prince Chula for his cousin Bira, who wanted a proper racing car to substitute for his ‘mickey mouse’ voiturette ERAs and increase his competition experience. As with all of the cars in his superbly presented White Mouse equipe, 3011 was immediately repainted blue, and team manager Chula threw Bira in at the deep end with an entry at Phoenix Park. Starting as the scratch man, Bira set a blistering pace, lapping at over 100mph, thrilling the Irish fans, finishing an impressive second on handicap, just behind an MG.
Bira’s chances in the ’1936 Donington Grand Prix were spoilt by a muffed start due to wetted plugs, but he stormed back to fifth after a new set was fitted. Smitten by the 8CM’s performance, Bira instructed his team to rebuild 3011 for 1937. After early success at Brooklands, Bira returned to Ireland for the Cork GP, where he was lucky to survive a high-speed crash after mounting the kerb and scraping along a wall.
Back in England, chief mechanic ‘Lofty’ England arranged for the purchase of Straight’s 8CMsports car, from which parts were cannibalised for the rebuild. By August, Bira was back at the wheel of the Maserati. Its speed was again underlined on a trip to Ireland, where Bira broke the Phoenix Park lap record at 107.28mph, and he was the first non-German car home at the Donington Grand Prix.
Like many pre-war Grand Prix machines after WW2, the 8CM was restricted to hillclimbs and Formule Libre speed events, with successful builder Kenneth McAlpine eventually buying it from Bira in 1948. Repainted black and later red, 3011 raced throughout the 1950s, with guest drivers including Tony Gaze, Cliff Davis and Jack Sears. A new life began at Vintage Sports-Car Club meetings in the hands of Nobby Spero and Dan Margulies, both enthusiastic Maserati men, before it ended up in Lord Doune’s Scottish collection for a well-earned rest.
In the 1980s, it passed into the hands of David Heimann, who had Ivan Dutton restore it to Straight colours and commissioned Denis Jenkinson, a long-term admirer of 3011, to write a book on the famous Maserati. The engine’s lack of reliability frustrated the new team and, against uprated ERAs, it never found its previous form. After spending a few years with Peter Giddings in America, this popular machine finally returned to England with Chris Jaques, who coincidentally is related to Prince Chula’s wife Elizabeth ‘Lisba’ Hunter.
A major rebuild commenced, with Jaques enlisting Moore and Paul Bonewell, both former C&G specialists, to carry it out. The result, finished in the White Mouse team colours from the 1936-’37 seasons, is a tribute to the owner’s vision and the workmanship of these gifted engineers. After a meticulous rebuild and the frustrating challenge of sorting out previous mistakes – particularly regarding the crankshaft – 3011 now looks and sounds as good as it did during the 1930s. On dyno tests, the engine developed a mighty 320bhp at 5500rpm.
This car has long captivated me. While I was a student in the late 1970s, I hitched all the way up to Scotland to see it resting in Doune Castle, and later chatted enthusiastically with hero Denis Jenkinson after its restoration. When Jaques recently agreed to a test run, it was a dream come true to sit where Straight, Seaman and Bira had commanded 3011 to impressive results. Born before independent suspension and streamlining took hold, the upright 8CM has a special aura from an era when engines were still the main focus of performance.
The team goes through a well-rehearsed prerun routine on 3011, with le Patron Jaques often sitting in the cockpit with his checklist, which was inspired by a pilot friend’s pre-flight procedure with a Bücker Jungmeister. With soft plugs and a small amount of fuel for start-up, just to draw through the methanol, the rear wheels are jacked for a warm-up. A remote battery is plugged in and, with magneto and fuel-pump switches down, the starter button is pressed. The unsilenced straight-eight gruffly erupts before the highly corrosive alcohol is drawn into the supercharger and down the efficient inlet tracts.
Once warmed, the engine is switched off and hard plugs fitted before the restart, which results in a clean, raucous roar, the exhaust and engine gear tower dominated by the blower’s whine. Regular driver Rob Newall does a few laps to check that everything is fine before Jaques generously invites me for a much-anticipated test. Entry via the right side is recommended because it’s easy to grasp the hot exhaust without thinking. The rear semi-elliptic makes the perfect step before climbing in and slipping beneath the chunky three-spoke steering wheel.
On the advice of no less than John Surtees, the seat has been bolstered to improve the view of the front wheels. In the footwell, your legs are split around the heavy, large pre-selector casing with throttle and brake down to the right.
The dashboard is dominated by a bold Jaeger rev counter that’s redlined at 6500rpm, but Newall rarely exceeds 5500rpm. Temperature gauges, plus oil and fuel pressure, nestle on the cramped dash around the steering column. There’s a hand fuel pump to the left, but it’s rarely needed once the engine is running.
“Make sure you firmly push the selector pedal down all the way,” advises Jaques as I adjust my goggles. To prevent the engine’s vast torque rocking the chassis, it’s best to hold the car on the outside brake lever before hitting the starter.
Having driven a few pre-selector racing cars, I had no fears about gearchanges, but the right quadrant here takes more familiarity than expected. Rather than the sequential-type movement that’s such a delight with ERAs and Rileys, this has a trickier action, with two defined ridges between the N-1 and 2-3 changes that initially requires more concentration. If the selector lever isn’t correctly slotted, the huge Armstrong below will remain in neutral or the previous gear.
From the off, the engine delivers serious poke, with beefy torque from 1500rpm right through the range. Once into third, you can relax about the gears because the change from third to top and back is direct via a cone clutch.
The acceleration in third is awesome, the surge taking my breath away, and it’s easy to see why this 8CM has had such a long competitive life. With just a linen helmet on, the exhaust and shrill supercharger must have been deafening after a three-hour race. Initially, the 8CM’s character feels accessible, with well-weighted, direct steering and smooth power, but the faster you go the more physical it gets. The storming delivery requires total concentration, and you really have to grip the steering wheel. The brake pedal is weighty and the drums pull the car up strongly, but with such reserves of power they need to.
After a few laps I’m full of admiration for Nuvolari, Straight and Bira, who harnessed 8CMs on rough road courses for hours on end. To prepare for racing 3011, 68-year-old Newall has started working out for the first time in his motorsport career in order to strengthen his upper body, and particularly his grip.
It seems that Newall was destined to race 3011 for Jaques. These long-term friends first met when racing Jaguar XKs in the 1990s, and later shared Jaques’ C-type in several events including Goodwood and Le Mans. When he bought the Maserati, Jaques, who’s since hung up his helmet, felt there was only one person to trust racing it. “My father used to compete with his MG at Brooklands and Donington,” he says, “and when he died, Mum passed on an envelope she’d discovered in a drawer. Inside were four old photographs of a white racing car at Brooklands. On the back, Dad’s handwritten notes identified it as Whitney Straight’s. It would have been special if he’d seen me race it.”
As a Porsche driving instructor, Newall managed to arrange a first test of the newly acquired 8CM at Millbrook. “It was an extraordinary experience,” he recalls, “and as I held the steering wheel, I couldn’t help thinking about its amazing history and the great drivers who’d sat here. Compared to Chris’ Bugatti Type 35, it felt much heavier and more powerful. The acceleration on Millbrook’s straight was spectacular, but it felt a very physical machine to handle.
“The pre-selector is easy, but with such impressive torque you need only third and fourth at Goodwood and Donington Park. Now the engine is sorted, its straight-line speed is amazing. At the Members’ Meeting, it was the fastest car through the speed traps on the Lavant Straight and across the startline at 127mph.
“The car likes fast corners and feels very stable, but it’s too important to take risks. There’s no way we’ll catch Calum Lockie’s 6CM, but at Goodwood we were really pleased to beat all the ERAs. I held back through the corners because you have to respect the brakes, but once on the power it just picked them off.”
Other highlights have included a class win at the Festival of Speed in 2012: “We tried the twin rears for the first time, which didn’t make much difference due to the extra weight, but at the prize-giving Lord March remarked that it was the car he most wanted to take home.”
After several years in America, it’s wonderful to see this Maserati back in England with such an enthusiastic owner and team. “It’s such a special car and I love to see it race, but we limit the outings to three or four events a year where it’s really appreciated,” says Jaques. Stand around 3011 in the paddock and it’s soon apparent how much enthusiasts love this beautiful racing car, its presence and glorious sound often refreshing old memories, including a former mechanic from the 1950s who turned up at Goodwood.
“It was Bruno Pericardi, who had worked on 3011 for ‘Nobby’ Spero,” says Jaques. “After problems at Silverstone in 1957, he’d borrowed Spero’s helmet for a few test laps in practice. When he returned to the paddock, everyone kept telling him to stay in the car until the attention had calmed. It turned out that Bruno had put the car on pole. He’d come to Goodwood just to see 3011 for the last time.”
There’s no question that the long list of famous folk involved with the car’s history would approve of the present team’s dedication to 3011. All are volunteers on race days, which says everything about this fabulous machine.
‘IN ANY PADDOCK, IT’S SOON APPARENT HOW MUCH ENTHUSIASTS LOVE THIS MASERATI’
Gurney Nutting increased scuttle height by 2in to accommodate the tall Straight. More recently, John Surtees suggested raising the seating position; gearbox casing is magnesium; l-r: Jaques with Paul Bonewell, John Moore and Paul Steed.
On the crest of a wave: courageous Prince Bira conquered the horrendous conditions to take victory in the 1939 International Trophy at Brooklands.
Clockwise: pre-selector quadrant is mounted on steering column – the pattern takes a little practice; gearchange pedal needs a firm push; recreating the White Mouse team’s Brooklands prep – complete with period-correct umbrella.