Maserati A6GCS. Something interesting in Belgium. On the road with a 1950s icon. Maserati by Fantuzzi. On the open road with an A6GCS, the actual car driven by Fangio to impress USA clients in 1953. Story by Ken Divjak. Photography by Dirk de Jager.
Juan Manuel Fangio Déramo is one of the alltime greats. Maybe even the greatest, even though youngsters like Hamilton and Vettel have already amassed more F1-gold than El Chueco did throughout the whole of his career. Then again, the bowlegged Argentinian was racing during one of the deadliest decades in motor sports – the 1950s.
In 1955, Fangio was just two cars behind Pierre Levegh when the Frenchman lost control of his Mercedes on the start-finish straight at Le Mans, killing 83 people. Fangio walked away unscathed. There’s no official record of the number of motorsport related deaths in those days. But suffice it to say, there were many.
BELOW: Officially the Maserati A6GCS had 170bhp but modern restorative engineering methods have increased this to around 195.
In spite of those sobering statistics, the ’50s are still regarded as the golden age of motor racing. Europe was on a high after the devastations of WWII, staging everything from GP races to sportscar championships. Fangio didn’t enter the European scene until 1949, though he had been competing in Latin-America since 1934. When he finally took the plunge, he did so with the support of the Argentinian government, which landed him a job as works driver for the Officine Alfieri Maserati, for whom he won the world title in 1957. He also secured the first and the last ever GP victory for the Italian constructor, at Monza in 1953 and on the Nürburgring in 1957. In total Fangio scored seven GP victories for Maserati. Stirling Moss added a further two for a grand total of 11 wins.
As a friend of the Maserati family, Fangio was often called upon for promotional duties. In early December 1953, the works driver flew to Ohio where Tony Pompeo – the American Maserati-importer – was showing the A6GCS to prospective buyers. Ferrari driver Eugenio Castellotti and El Maestro were on hand to demonstrate the full potential of Maserati’s newest sportscar around the Thompson Raceway. After all, the A6GC Sport was nothing less than a Monoposto or single seater with bodywork, as used by Maserati in Formula 2. In short: a street-version of the car that Fangio drove to victory from 1952 to 1954 and one that wasn’t out of its depth on an F1 starting grid either.
Finding a modern equivalent of the A6GCS is virtually impossible. The T1 by Caparo springs to mind, but that one never functioned without catching fire. So unless Ferrari comes up with a spider version of LaFerrari, the A6GCS will forever be unique – and the featured example even more so. Because this, according to various Maserati historians, is the exact car that Fangio hustled around the Thompson Raceway 63 years ago. A racecar for the road that – after numerous rebuilds and more than one full-body restoration – is now residing in Belgium. It’s still recognisable as the Ohio car because of its specific windshield and the row of rivets beneath it. The black-and-white photos with Fangio at the wheel support this.
Imagine my surprise when the generous owner opens the wafer-thin door and asks if I’d like to try the car on for size. Halfway inside, I’m met by a combination of euphoria and utter disappointment. Euphoria because underneath my right buttock is the same seat that once supported the great Manuel Fangio, and disappointment because there’s no way all of my six foot five will fit into the small cockpit. No one over 5 foot 9 will, although less is even better if you want to drive this little number in anger. Come to think of it: maybe that’s how Fangio became bowlegged, from driving cramped racing cars all his life.
The simple bucket seats do offer a surprising amount of support, while the simplicity of the interior is endearing. Apart from the gorgeous three-rimmed steering wheel, the fascia sports no more than three clocks and as many switches to operate all of the car’s controls. A speedometer is absent in the best of racing traditions, while the big rev-counter goes all the way up to 8000rpm. But before we’re allowed to explore even half of that, the 2-litre in-line six has to warm itself through at a busy 2000 revs. The noise that generates has to be heard to be believed, especially if you’re standing on the left-hand side where the straight-cut double race exhaust sits. From behind the beautiful body by Fantuzzi there’s more bass to the sound, like a little prop aircraft about to take off.
Making a swift getaway in a classic car with Le Mans gearing is another matter altogether. Because of the tall final drive (1st gear is good for at least 50mph), you have to give it a bootful of throttle and slip the clutch profusely. But even then, the aluminium structure judders until the Colombo engine finds its stride somewhere around 3000rpm. The subsequent engine note is almost too complex to describe, but it’s captivating, to say the least. There’s really nothing contemporary like it, because it’s so rich and at the same time intoxicating. Think of Paolo Conte, overlayed with a Luciano Pavarotti solo and some Ennio Morricone strings thrown in for good measure and you’re about half way there.
From third gear on, the wind buffeting is so severe that breathing becomes problematic. Goggles are indispensable when driving or co-piloting, as is keeping your lips shut tight to make sure you don’t swallow any insects. How drivers like Fangio were able to race these cars for hours on end over the worst of roads is beyond imagination. It is real seat-of-the-pants stuff. After all, the cars had no safety features to speak of, not even seat belts. Which – incidentally – was a good thing, since the only way to survive a crash in one of these was to be thrown clear from the wreckage.
As is often the case with disguised racing cars, the specifications aren’t set in stone. What we do know however, is that the in-line six was producing some 170bhp back in the day. Now, after a full restoration with freshly-made parts, that number should be closer to 195. The torque figure isn’t mentioned at all in the official Maserati brochure. But based on the fact that full throttle from as little as 2000rpm pins you tightly to the seat, there should be plenty of it – especially since the car weighs quite a bit less than a ton. Add to that almost modern levels of grip (at least in the dry) and the aura of the A6GCS becomes even bigger. Granted, this example rolls on fresh retro-rubber by Michelin. But even so, the ease with which the 16-inch tyres on Borrani-wheels cut through corners is remarkable, at the very least. Being one of the easiest and friendliest cars to drive fast, the Maserati works drivers christened it ‘La Mamma’ – in no small part thanks to the cooled drum-brakes and hydraulic shockabsorbers by Houdaille.
Compared to classic Ferraris of the same vintage, Maseratis are relatively affordable – though that could and probably will change now the marque has passed its 100th birthday. Objectively, there is no reason why cars like the A6GCS should be worth less than the equivalent prancing horse, especially since the engineering is as ingenious as it is beautiful to behold.
Just look at those perforated door handles, or the simple mechanism to keep them shut. The parking brake to the left of the steering wheel is another eyecatcher, while the open gate of the manual 4-speed transmission is pure art. Double declutching is of course mandatory. But once you’ve mastered that, the metal gear stick clicks satisfyingly from one gear into the other. A simple locking mechanism prevents you from inadvertently engaging reverse.
And then there’s the colour combination: Italian red on the outside, unpainted aluminium on the inside and a turquoise backdrop for the clocks on the dash. You might wonder if it gets any cooler than this, until you detach the surprisingly light bonnet (also in aluminium, of course) and discover even more Maserati magic in the form of the in-line six with double overhead camshafts and triple Webers.
In the back, the neatly stowed spare flanks a racing fuel tank. I asked the owner why he rates this car so highly and that purity of form and function keeps popping up. Although, admittedly, he’s keen on everything from the wild 1950s: “Sportscars from back then were technological highlights. Milestones even, since Maserati was all about racing in those days, with no interest in series production. Furthermore, the heritage of the Trident is at least as impressive as that of Ferrari, without the rich image that surrounds Enzo’s cars. All in all: pure class.” Amen to that.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS MASERATI A6GCS
ENGINE: 6-cylinder DOHC
BORE X STROKE: 76.5mm x 72mm
COMP RATIO: 8.75:1
FUEL SYSTEM: 3 x Weber 40 DCOs
POWER: 170hp @ 7300rpm
TORQUE: 143lb ft @ 5600rpm
BRAKES: Hydraulic drums
SUSPENSION: Springs and Houdaille dampers, antiroll bar (f), live axle, springs Houdaille dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
TYRES: 6.00 x 15
KERB WEIGHT: 830kg
TOP SPEED: 146mph
PRICE: £200,000 (Est)
THE MASERATI A6 FAMILY
At first glance, the Maserati A6 model range is confusing at best. But with a bit of knowledge, there is a logic to be found in the ‘Italianess’. Let’s take the featured model – the A6GCS – as an example. The ‘A’ stands for Alfieri who was the eldest of five Maserati brothers, while the ‘6’ indicates the number of cylinders. ‘G’ is short for ‘ghisa’, or cast iron in Italian, which refers to the material used for the engine block. ‘CS’ or ‘Corsa Sport’ records the fact that this is a racing car for the road, as opposed to ‘CM’ which stands for ‘Corsa Monoposto’ or single-seater.
It all started with the A6 1500, a car that had been under development since 1941 but was not produced until after the war in 1947. Nevertheless, it was Maserati’s first road-car. It was designed by Pinin Farina with a 2+2 fastbackbody featuring pop-up headlights. As indicated by the model name, it had a 1500cc engine with 75hp and reached a top speed of almost 95mph. The majority of the 61 production-units were coupes, but Pinin Farina also built two convertibles and Zagato produced one stunning Panoramica.
The A6 2000 was an optimisation of the 1500 with a bored-out engine and mature looks. Power shot up from 75bhp to 100bhp thanks to the addition of 500cc and twin carburettors. The top speed remained the same, from just under 95mph it went up to more than 110. Only 16 examples were made between 1950 and 1951. Nine of those had a new 2+2 design by Pinin Farina, four convertibles and one coupe were clothed by Frua while Vignale made a two-door with bodywork by Giovanni Michelotti.
Truth be told, Maserati only started making road cars because they needed money for their racing-car programme. By the early 1950s, the brothers had earned enough lire to develop the A6GCM single-seater, or Corsa Monoposto, which was a racing-car eligible for competition in F2 as well as in F1. Despite the relative lack of cubic centimetres, engine-gurus like Alberto Massimino and Vittorio Bellentani were able to extract 195hp from its 2 litres, enough for Fangio to clinch the F2-championship in 1953.
From Corsa Monoposto to Corsa Sport, from F1 to the World Sportscar Championship, a completely new formula for 1953. Hence the name of the new model, the A6GCS/53, of which 52 were built with a detuned version of the A6GCM’s engine. All of them had roughly 170hp, but not all of them had the same design. Pinin Farina completed four Berlinetta’s and one Spider, while Vignale did a separate Spider version. The 1954 version of that car, aptly named the A6GCS/54, had bodywork by Pietro Frua (berlinetta, barchetta and spider) but also by Ghia and Carrozzeria Allemano. To complicate matters further, the 1954-cars were also known as A6G/2000s of which 60 were built.
The fifth and final product of the A6 family was the A6G/54, thus named to differentiate it from the earlier A6G 2000 Gran Turismos. Mechanically, it relied on an even further detuned version of the 2-litre engine from the A6GCM and A6GCS, developing 150hp with a top speed of 125mph. As ever, Maserati offered four body shapes: an elegant Allemano coupe (21 cars), a coupe and spider by Frua (respectively seven and 12 cars) and a ready-to-race 2-door by Zagato (20 cars). In total 60 A6G/54s were produced.