Cruise Missiles Blending supercar pace with luxury saloon opulence, the gorgeous Ghiblis are finally getting the recognition they deserve. Words Martin Buckley. Photography Tony Baker.
GREATEST MASERATI? DRIVING A GHIBLI DUO OPEN AND SHUT CASE Buckley argues in favour of the gorgeous Ghibli as the finest Maserati of all, with a lucky blast in an SS coupé and Spyder.
The dream of owning a Maserati Ghibli is one of those recurring exotic-car fantasies that I used to think might actually one day come true. They were, after all, cheap for decades, moving from being a must-have fashion trinket of the playboy classes to irrelevant GT dinosaur in one easy move. They are not even all that rare in exotica terms: 1295 cars in six years makes a Ghibli positively common compared to any Iso or Monteverdi you care to name. In fact, the Ghibli was the most successful of the classic V8 Maseratis, and a curious case of a firm’s most expensive car also being its biggest seller.
And yet, even at its lowest financial ebb, the fast, beautiful and relatively abundant Ghibli was still somehow always priced just beyond the grasp of the likes of me. I can’t moan, really, because I had my chance: the failure to capture a tired but otherwise respectable example 15 years ago (for £12k) certainly feels like one of my poorer fiscal decisions when you consider the £300,000 this beautiful SS coupé is expected to make when it goes to auction in September. Andy Heywood of McGrath Maserati knows as much about Ghiblis as anyone else in the world. His boys have just finished on this Bianco Spyder a restoration with such awesome attention to detail that it is hard to see it not making its £1.2million estimate when it crosses the block at RM Sotheby’s on behalf of owner and serious Maserati collector Stephen Dowling.
Value-wise, the open cars were always another game altogether; only 125 were built and this 4.9-litre SS – chassis AM115/49S1251 – is one of only four right-hookers, supplied new in the UK to the future Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, a lad of about 20 at the time. If the Spyder is almost beyond pristine, the 4.9 SS coupé is merely immaculate. Finished in Rosso Rubino with white Connolly leather, chassis AM115/491668 left the factory in April 1970 with left-hand drive, was converted to RHD in Australia in the early ’70s and restored there 20 years later. It was the car that launched Dowling’s Maserati collection and has been looked after for some years by McGrath, which also swapped it back to left-hand drive for him. Compared to cars such as the Mexico and the Mistral, the Ghibli – first shown as a tentative prototype on the Ghia stand at Turin in 1966 – appeared to come out of nowhere. But it was really a response to the sensation caused by the Lamborghini Miura, and designed to keep interest in the ageing Maserati range alive.
Production started in 1967 and at first the plan was to build only 100 examples, but this was soon increased to 400 with annual production peaking in 1968 at 276 units.
We tend to think of Maserati as a company that bounced from one crisis to the next in its ‘classic’ period, but the Ghibli actually emerged from a time of relative stability under the Orsi family, with the expense and distraction of Grand Prix racing long behind it and the turmoil of the Citroën takeover still to come.
With Giulio Alfieri in charge of engineering, Maserati created the most successful range of exotic cars in the world, with the widest choice of engines and transmissions. It also had a loyal customer base, who valued good finish and comfort over the last word in mid-engined chassis design – but still liked the idea of driving behind a thoroughbred, race-proven engine with links to the 250F and the great sports-racing cars of the 1950s and early ’60s.
The other secret of this period of success was that Maserati never seemed to have a problem with adapting its cars to take luxuries such as power steering, automatic transmission and air-conditioning; if the customers wanted it, they got it. Maserati also tended to shop around for styling. In the mid-’60s it was offering series-produced models with bodies by Frua (the Mistral and Quattroporte) and Vignale (Mexico and Sebring), and had not long since dropped the best-selling, Touring-bodied 3500GT.
So where Ferrari had a cohesive visual identity bound up with Pininfarina, the Maserati approach at least kept buyers’ interest engaged in a fashion-led luxury Grand Touring market. It also tended to mask the fact that the new shapes hid familiar componentry: Alford & Alder front suspension, Burman steering boxes, ZF transmissions, and well-located but emphatically leaf-sprung Salisbury rear axles. Alfieri argued, not unreasonably, that these were proven, reliable components and that a solid rear axle gave customers the most predictable handling. He could not claim that there was anything revolutionary about his oval-tube chassis with box-section sills; the point is that it was strong, and ideally suited to a traditional production process that was intensive in man-hours.
The Ghibli was the first Ghia-bodied Trident since the one-off 5000GT built for industrialist Sig Innocenti. Ghia never worked with Maserati again, but the success of the Ghibli put momentum behind the idea that subsequent Maseratis should have less formal shapes and a family resemblance, which was why Vignale’s 1969 Indy looked like a four-seater Ghibli and almost matched its production run.
Working at a rate of four a day, Ghia built the steel Ghibli shells in Turin before sending them to Modena to be welded to the chassis. It was styled in three months by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the young designer formerly of Bertone and soon to strike out on his own. In my opinion, he has never – at least in the realm of exotica – done anything better since.
Both of ‘our’ cars await us on a disused piece of runway at Enstone Airfield; it is a strange commentary on the values of these vehicles now that shooting them on public roads is not really an option any more.
They are substantial things: low and wide, on doughnut-section Michelin XWXs with roomy cockpits behind aggressively raked screens. The panels are a masterful blend of crisp edges, soft curves and other subtle devices to trick the eye into seeing simplicity when in reality there is much more going on: the reverse curve in the front wings that highlights the power in the plunging bonnet line; the chamfered edges to the coupé’s roof; and that crease in the flanks spearing between the wheelarches. The bodies are steel apart from the bootlids, and if you find a coupé with a lid that extends to bumper level then you’ve got one of the first c100 cars built.
That means a smaller 4709cc, 306bhp engine (with four Weber 38DCNLs rather than the later 42DCNFs) plus solid front discs, a hefty twin-plate clutch and possibly manual steering. The SS or Super Sport specification was a longer-stroke, 4930cc version of the quad-cam V8 producing 330bhp and a shade more torque (355lb ft as opposed to 341lb ft), built as a way of countering emissions regulations as much as increasing output. Heywood suggests that the difference was greater than it appears, because the later figures were more honest. The engine bays are neatly presented, practical workspaces dominated by a massive rectangular airbox atop the Webers and four crackle-black cam covers. There are no blanks for the extra plugs to make the link with the exotic 450S sports-racer and the luxurious 5000GT, and there is just the one distributor, augmented by electronic ignition.
While the rarity of the open version makes it one of the greatest prizes of all to the Maserati collector, I would take the coupé over the Spyder any day (who needs a convertible when you have air-conditioning cold enough to make your toes ache?), particularly because I’m not a big fan of white cars or of bolt-on wire wheels. Still, with its steel hood cover giving it a smooth profile it is a beautifully resolved open-topped adaptation, with additional bracing behind the seats to make up for the lack of a roof.
But the gaze is continually drawn back to the elegant purity of the coupé, which in any case drives better – if only because the Spyder, with its sticky gearchange and tight, freshly rebuilt V8 – “no more than 2500 revs,” says Heywood – still needs some shakedown miles.
There are some interesting detail trim differences on the cars, such as the treatment of the indicators in the front grille, and the circular versus oblong repeater flashers on the front wings – plus the Spyder’s slightly incongruous front overriders. But both have the old favourite Alfa Berlina rear lights and those extraordinarily aggressive twin tailpipes that look like sawn-off shotguns from a ’70s sub-post office robbery. Inside, there is a difference in driving position between the coupé and the Spyder that I can’t quite put my finger on, but is probably something to do with steering-column angle or the seats themselves, which look identical at a casual glance but are actually quite different.
The ignition is on the centre console in the open car and on the steering column in the closed one. The fact that they have different clocks and doorhandles probably has more to do with what was in the factory stores on the days they were being built than anything else, but the anorak in me needs to know these things.
It was the supposed top speed well in excess of 170mph that gave the Ghibli supercar status. I’m not sure anybody officially got one much over 160mph but, on the right day, with the longest back-axle ratio and a willingness to pull deeply beyond the modest redline, who knows? Alfieri was more interested in a smooth drivetrain and lots of torque in a flat, even curve. That meant a car that would see off almost anything on its way to 120mph in third, could cruise at 140mph and, because it didn’t need to be revved hard, had more potential durability than certain V12s.
Running well, and ministered to by the right people, the MaseratiV8is certainly magnificent: silky and sonorous, with refinement in pick-up that is born of beautifully accurate and smooth throttle control yet with just enough growl to let you know that it is a classic Modenese quad-cam all-alloy engine. Heywood says that the 4.9s, with their later carbs, are much smoother.
It is certainly not your typical ‘throbby’ V8, which probably has something to do with firing order or the design of the exhaust manifolds. The ZF’ box in both cars has an ‘H’ pattern, with fifth on the dogleg, and requires a little thought when manoeuvring the lever with some meaning around the compact gate. Both are quiet and the smooth clutch means that there is no excuse for jerky progress. With vented discs and twin calipers up front the brakes are strong and balanced, if possibly a little sensitive at lower speeds. Power steering was standard on the 4.9 SS and it can’t be anything other than a blessing in 4000lb cars such as these. What you lose – fractionally – in feel and fine control at speed you are paid back in triplicate in terms of ease of driving, especially because the turning circles are so huge, and you get quicker gearing, too.
There are no tricks to the handling of these big Maseratis, either: they don’t pretend to be Elans or even E-types, but carry their weight beautifully and feel completely balanced and reassuring at all times. If they roll, you can’t detect it from the inside and they are magnificently stable and neutral through long, fast corners. Neither is a ‘sports car’ you toss about roughly, but both have poise and manners, riding better than they have a right to on such ‘traditional’ suspension. They have a sort of dignity, which sounds a strange thing to say about a near- 16ft-long piece of two-seater Italian exotica.
Perhaps, one day, we will look back and think £300k was cheap for a car such as the Ghibli.You certainly can’t buy one for £12k any more, and what does £300,000 buy you in the ’60s Ferrari world these days? Or £1million, if you like, when it comes to their drophead equivalents?
I suppose everyone has a story like my £12k Ghibli. The point is that, at the time, I would have struggled to get that £12,000 together, never mind find the money to keep it on the road. Sometimes, with cars and many other things, you have to acknowledge your limitations. There’s a sort of liberation in knowing that I can’t even dream about owning a Ghibli now, so why waste energy on it? Better (as with so many cars) to admire from afar, celebrate the fact that such things exist, think yourself lucky you are not liable for the eye-watering upkeep and, in my case at least, feel grateful for the chance to spend a few hours with two of the nicest examples on the planet.
Thanks to RM Sotheby’s. The Dowling Maserati Collection will be sold at its London sale on 5 September; see www.rmsothebys.com