Maserati Ghibli ‘SSS’ Factory hot rod: even more special than the SS. The sole Ghibli SSS – as Maserati’s SS with more power was dubbed – was built for a Parisian playboy. This is the car even the marque experts didn’t know existed. Words Marc Sonnery Photography Rémi Dargegen.
MASERATI GHIBLI SSS NO GHIBLI BLOWS HARDER Unique Maserati! Factory-modded Ghibli “SSS”
T[/dropcap]he opening of the Autostrada del Sole in 1964 began a new era for Italy’s makers of fast, prestigious cars. These new motorways, with little traffic and no speed limits, radically changed the way the well-heeled travelled across Europe. People wanted ever-faster GTs, and Maserati embraced this with its Ghibli at the 1966 Turin show, closely following Lamborghini’s landmark Miura, but preceding Ferrari’s 365 GTB/4 Daytona.
The statement the Ghibli made was as bold as its lines, a new aristocrat of the motorway by which the factory at Modena’s Viale Ciro Menotti could stamp its authority upon a new era. Dramatically low and taut compared with preceding Trident-badged offerings – thanks to its styling by the Ghia studio’s Giorgetto Giugiaro – it fulfilled the brief perfectly. Its 4.7-litre V8 offered plenty of torque, it sounded like Barolo on wheels and its 310bhp, channelled through a ZF five-speed manual or a three-speed automatic, could propel it at up to 155mph. The underpinnings, leaf-sprung live rear axle included, were conservative but efficient. Three years later, those who wanted yet more pace could buy a Ghibli SS, whose 4930cc version of the V8 gave 330bhp and the promise of 174mph. It was enough for most. Total Ghibli production was 1170 Berlinettas and 125 Spyders, which included, according to Maserati Classiche, 470 SS versions, of which 425 were Berlinettas and 45 were Spyders.
‘THE REGULAR GHIBLI SHOW-DOG HAS MORPHED HERE INTO AN EAGER BACK-ROAD ROTTWEILER’
But what if you wanted to play the one-upmanship game? What if you were, for example, a polo-playing heir to a family fortune, an avid tennis competitor and an amateur racer? Plus you had close connections to an importer, and you wanted the ultimate Ghibli. If an SS just wouldn’t do, you asked for a bespoke Ghibli SSS.
Philippe Cornet Epinat was a young Paris-based investor in Thepenier, France’s Maserati importer based in St Cloud just west of Paris. Jean Thepenier had lost his backer, the American Colonel John Simone, in a road accident in a Maserati Mistral in 1967, so this enthusiastic, well-to-do young man’s arrival was very welcome. Epinat often visited the Maserati factory, and so close was his rapport with Thepenier that if, in those pre-credit card days, he needed cash while in Modena, he would receive it from the factory at Thepenier’s request. Several years after the events of our tale he would finance the stillborn Bora Group 4 project.
This insider relationship made it possible for him to order the Ghibli Speciale you see here. The factory’s historian, Ermanno Cozza, believes that Epinat, who had briefly owned a 4.7 Ghibli, first spoke with Giulio Alfieri and Guerrino Bertocchi after testing an SS during the Paris motor show. As a voracious driver and amateur racer, he wanted the fastest special-order car possible, bar none, so he could set record travel times.
He initially asked Maserati, via Thepenier, for an engine with four valves per cylinder, knowing that at least one had been made and tested in an Italian client’s car to verify durability. ‘A four-valve engine was fitted to the car of Mr Paini of Verona for extended testing,’ Cozza confirms, ‘but it went no further than that and remained a one-off. Michelin also asked for a Ghibli with the longest differential ratio to test its tyres at 300km/h [186mph] and about five clients had asked for a faster-specification Ghibli SS.’
A letter from the factory to Thepenier dated 17 November 1969 quoted a price increase of two million lire to cover Epinat’s special requests, a hefty 40% above the standard SS list price. Epinat was denied the 32-valve engine, but he was promised a few more horsepower. He had initially requested an alloy bonnet and doors, too, but Thepenier convinced him that the weight loss would have been too small to justify the effort and expense.
There is no doubt that Epinat was important to Thepenier, who was struggling to make ends meet. In a letter dated 22 May 1970, along with various unrelated complaints Thepenier urged the factory to finish the job: ‘Monsieur Cornet Epinat is returning from the USA on 29 May and expects to have his car ready. In this instance, once again, we will have serious trouble because this car was ordered on 6 November last year. Despite this you ask for another three-week delay.
Expect to have him show up at the factory on 1 June.’ The pressure bore fruit. As the young man arrived in Emilia Romagna straight from the US on 29 May 1970, macchina 115-49-1726 was ready, doubtless after some all-nighters. Its eager owner took delivery of a car in ‘fly’ yellow (Giallo Salchi 20Y305) with a black leather interior (Pelle Nera Connolly PAC 1560), plus a L6,936,000 invoice from the factory to Thepenier.
The yellow road shark was quite a sight 48 years ago, and would soon cause alarm in myriad rear-view mirrors. Cozza confirms that different pistons and camshafts, and stronger head gaskets with brass rings, formed the heart of the modifications, along with more time-consuming assembly, higher compression and greater ignition advance. The Burman steering box got a more direct ratio, more on which later.
Weeks later, however, Epinat was not happy with his initial engine, even before his hard charging caused a piston to seize. Another engine was fitted by the factory in one of the Ghibli’s many return visits. For this one, as noted in a service department task list dated 15 June 1970, the work order stated: ‘20km/h top speed missing, fit 5000 speciale engine, free-up the exhaust, delete the rear silencer, fit trumpets with mesh atop the carburettors as well as Indy-type wheel lug nuts around the fake hub. Delete the power steering [the pump had malfunctioned]. The brakes fade, mount a non-return valve. The wipers lift at high speed [basic winglets were fashioned out of tin]. Fit an additional – mechanical – oil pressure gauge [though there is no tell-tale sign that this was ever done]. Fit long-distance headlights in the nose grille.’ The sound-insulation material normally glued to the underside of the bonnet was deleted as it interfered with the trumpets. The task list stated ‘All work under warranty’.
As was typical of most owners in that era, Epinat did not use the SSS much despite its bespoke nature. After a couple of years and a slight ‘off’, he lost interest and sold it in Eure-et-Loir, west of Paris.
The car soon ended up in a used sports-car dealership usefully located on a route nationale near the Montlhéry circuit, 18 miles south of Paris, a strip where many used sports and GT cars ended up in the late 1960s when the autodrome often hosted races. The Ghibli had some damage but a young French enthusiast, Maurice Schambacher, liked what he saw and bought it cheaply, intending to repair it… and a bit more besides.
‘The car was four or five years old and sat in that Montlhéry dealership, slightly damaged at the right front. I think it had been used up at the circuit. I wanted a big-engined GT so I took it. It had been owned after Epinat by a student, but only briefly until the mishap. It had 40,000 or 45,000km and was still in its original yellow with black interior. So then I modified it.’
Health warning: any concours zealots among you should now take a Prozac, before covering your eyes, ears and mouth, firmly. ‘I was young. I modified everything. I could not find Ghibli bodywork to repair the nose, so I fitted a nose from a Bitter CD [the design of which was heavily inspired by the Indy and Ghibli].
I fitted a hood bulge because I wanted to imitate the Pontiac Trans Am, as those were fashionable and I was young. I fitted wheel spacers and had bulged wheelarches made, as it was the “in” thing to do. The engine ran very strong, very well. I took it up to 250km/h once [that’s 155mph], but that was it.’ He also fitted SS chrome letters sourced from a muscle car. We need to remember at this point that it was a very different era, with different attitudes towards cars that were worth very little and considered throwaways.
Maurice hardly used it, covering fewer than 10,000km in 40 years. He never showed it at events; all the time in his ownership the Ghibli was tucked away in the French countryside minutes from the Swiss border and Geneva airport. That, and the fact that it was a private special-order car, caused some incredulity when its next owner mentioned it to other Maserati connoisseurs. It had simply never been discussed in the public domain.
Enter an enthusiast from the Aix-en-Provence area who has owned, enjoyed and restored many sports and GT cars mostly from the Modena area, whom we shall call Pascal D. Enter also his engineer friend, Marc G. Both are relentless perfectionists; cue countless vivid, commedia dell’arte discussions about minute restoration details, some of which your reporter has witnessed.
In 2013 Pascal saw an advertisement for the car, but Maurice told him that someone else in Provence had bought it right away. Pascal figured out who it was, to that buyer’s great surprise, and convinced him that he – Pascal – absolutely had to have the Ghibli in less time than it takes to whip out a chequebook.
Pascal is the living definition of the intensely passionate enthusiast. He’ll go on and on if you let him; if you don’t end that conversation you’ll still be right there in that car park at dawn. With this energy and experience the next stage was obvious: an all-out, totally bare chassis and body restoration. To describe the process as merely fastidious doesn’t remotely do it justice, given how every single part of the car was painstakingly restored – even those hidden away unless you take the car to pieces.
The chassis and mechanicals were in very good condition but the bodywork had to be completely refurbished with a proper Ghibli front end plus new, standard wheelarches, handmade by a battilastra (craftsman) to replace the enlarged ones. One surprise was that the differential casing, stamped as containing a longer (numerically lower) ratio, turned out to house a standard one when opened. Had it been replaced after a past failure?
Everything was completely and thoroughly restored to the highest standards, including all-new interior upholstery with rebuilt seat hinges. Bearings, joints and seals for the engine, gearbox, rear axle and body were all replaced; brake calipers were rebuilt; bushings, hoses, pipes and cables (apart from the spark-plug leads) were renewed.
The engine was entirely rebuilt, having apparently never been opened since leaving the factory. Something had been ingested by one of the cylinders, causing both damage and water ingress which then caused further damage. The flywheel is smaller and lighter than standard, while the exhaust with its three rear tips is thought by Pascal to be the original, bespoke fitment. Once ensconced behind the three-spoke steering wheel with its large centre boss and Epinat-ordered leather covering, you face the simple, horizontally themed dashboard that is standard Ghibli fare. The only modification by Pascal is the addition of a period-correct warning light.
Veritable ‘Rivas of the road’ with their plush interiors and comfortably reclined seating position, all Ghiblis give their drivers a mix of ego-boost and metaphorical red carpet. As soon as you start this one, though, it tells you that it means business. The sound is much more dramatic, with a metallic edge thanks to the open carburettor trumpets, the absence of under-bonnet insulation and the free-flowing exhaust.
Pascal reckoned the engine was not in perfect tune for our drive, the restoration having been completed mere weeks before and with barely more than 1200km of running-in since. A rolling road test the following day confirmed it needed further tuning. The extra ignition advance over a standard SS makes it fussier to tune, too. That said, having driven dozens of Ghiblis (and Khamsins that have Ghibli SS engines), I can report that it felt particularly healthy to me, its bellow markedly more aggressive even if not quite in full voice. The clutch is hefty to disengage, as is typical in a powerful Italian car of ageing design, but the fact that reverse is always easy to obtain suggests it isn’t dragging and making the very notchy gearchange any notchier. Shifting ratios becomes easy with practice.
The steering is the next big shock, because its much more direct ratio transforms the car. It’s quite heavy at slow speeds, making you feel – and look – very clumsy during car-park manoeuvres. But then it comes together and the SSS morphs from reluctant tractor to obliging point-and-squirt sprinter.
At speed the greater reactivity through that leather-clad steering wheel is very rewarding, the regular Ghibli show-dog morphed here into an eager backroad Rottweiler. This eagerness goes well with the sort of friendly handling balance that encourages you to play with the power on roundabouts, just for fun.
The suspension is standard but, contrary to its repute and much aided by the transformative steering, this Ghibli is never reluctant to turn-in when pressing on. You do need to give it advance warning, though, and an early turn-in is better. Do that and instantly it collaborates, with none of the reluctant, understeering attitude you might expect from a long, heavy chassis. It seems to revel in these third-and-fourth-gear kinks high up in the crests, flying past the Mediterranean pine trees above Étang de Berre, reminiscent of the scene with Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet with a Ghibli in La Piscine. It wants to play, surefooted and reassuring on its Michelin XWXs. We are here experiencing the zenith of leaf-sprung, live-axled handling, reminding us vividly that things were actually not so bad before fashionable but less practical mid-engined machinery arrived.
That said, after a first generation of such cars, which handled as if they had a contract on you, it was Maserati’s Bora that proved to be one of the first usable mid-engined GTs thanks its thoroughly civilised handling characteristics. Something of that ethos flowed into the SSS, helped by Epinat’s request for a more direct steering ratio. It makes this particular Ghibli the Daytona-beater that the model always should have been, combining handling and comfort and never feeling heavy on the road, contrary to some people’s perception of Maranello’s proposition. Its torque advantage is very useful on real roads, too.
So picture yourself in a timewarp back to 1970, in the lucky shoes of Philippe Cornet Epinat after a polo match in Deauville. If you had to drive across France down to Cannes, combining flowing routes nationales, autoroutes and some twisting roads up Côte d’Azur corniches to a majestic villa, there would have been no grande routière able to do the job in a more efficient and enjoyable way. The chrome-lettered SSS name may not be official, but the way this car delivers its performance makes it absolutely deserved.