The Maserati racing story

The racing story. Long before the road cars appeared, the Maserati brothers grew the company’s reputation on a heady succession of racing-machinery. Words Doug Nye. Photography The GP Library and The Spitzley-Zagari Collection.

BUILDING THE LEGEND The racing story

Way back in the 1960s, my American-born Modena-resident friend Pete Coltrin defined for me the critical difference between Italy’s leading post-war marques Ferrari and Maserati. ‘While Ferrari is a one-man dictatorship, with Enzo playing tunes that his clients must dance to, Maserati is more like a family or a club. If they recognise you as a kindred spirit, you’re in…’ Like all generalisations, Pete’s mixed penetrating truth with simplistic prejudice. But for decades Maserati really did present the warm, engaging face of the Italian commercial racing car industry. Despite changing ownerships, the marque achieved a remarkable consistency in its personnel – many of whom grew up, lived, worked and, indeed, died as Maserati people to the core.

Building the Legend

Building the Legend

Perhaps this distinctive ‘family’ feel – which the Marque enjoyed and which the company demonstrated for at least its first four decades – was inevitable, given the family ethos of the brothers who created it. Their father, Rodolfo Maserati, had been a railway engine driver, living with wife Carolina (née Losi) in Piacenza. They had seven sons, Carlo (born 1881), Bindo (1883), Alfieri (born 1885 but quickly died, this son’s name then being given to the fourth, born in 1887), followed by Mario (1890), Ettore (1894) and Ernesto (1898).

With the exception of Mario – who became an accomplished painter – they all followed papa into the mechanics and engineering. The surviving Alfieri and kid brother Ernesto proved bright, shrewd and dynamic, the natural leaders, but the oldest boy, Carlo, had already shown them how. After producing a motorcycle engine while just 17, Carlo progressed via winning motorcycle races for Carcano, via FIAT, to Isotta-Fraschini, then Bianchi where, as general manager, he employed brothers Alfieri, Bindo and Ettore before his early death. On 14 December 1914, 27-year-old Alfieri founded the Societfi Anonima Officine Alfieri Maserati in tiny rented premises in Bologna’s Via dè Pepoli, specialising in maintaining and race-preparing Isottas.

The 20-year-old Ettore and 16-year-old Ernesto joined the firm, with its five mechanics, and Ernesto ran it while his elder brothers served in World War One.

Brother Bindo would work for Isotta for 20 years but Alfieri had founded a spark-plug business in Milan, which he then moved to Bologna as the family reunited, taking a larger workshop in the Ponte Vecchio district. The family firm developed and raced some very quick Isottas (1920-1922), and earned a consultancy with Diatto tuning new 2.0- and 3.0-litre cars, which both Alfieri and young Ernesto drove in competition. Diatto had Alfieri co-develop a supercharged straight-eight Grand Prix car designed by Ing Giuseppe Coda for 1925, but ran out of lire, and hope. Alfieri effectively adopted – and adapted – this GP Diatto design to produce his own first Maserati: the 1500cc supercharged straight-eight Tipo 26, for 1926. Artist brother Mario probably penned their chosen badge, the trident inspired by the statue of Neptune adorning Bologna’s Piazza Nettuno. Alfieri placed ninth overall and a class winner in the 1926 Targa Florio – and the marque Maserati was up and running. OK, not 100 years of four-wheeler manufacture, but why not celebrate 87? La Maserati still merits it.

Maserati brothers at their factory
Maserati brothers at their factory. 
Opposite and left Maserati brothers at their factory, Ponte Vecchio, Bologna, in 1934. Left to right are Bindo, Ettore, Ernesto and artist Mario Maserati. A younger generation looks on from that upstairs window… Alfieri Maserati (on le , next to the car) was the individual who both founded the Maserati marque and developed it through the 1920s. A sporting boutique, it supplied a growing band of enthusiastic racing clients. Colin Chapman-style. Alfieri led design, directed manufacture, had a ne development touch and was an ultra-competitive, aggressive racing driver. He was engaging and popular, revered by his small Bologna workforce – not just a local but a national celebrity. Above all he was both respected and trusted – his credit undoubted, which alone saw the firm survive crises. With journalist Corrado Filippini he had backed what was in effect a professional drivers’ union from1927, negotiating decent start and prize money deals and arranging proper insurance. But back in 1926 a crash at Messina had cost him a kidney. His health suffered subsequently. Under surgery on 3 March 1932, Alfieri died, aged only 44. And it was his equally dynamic kid brother Ernesto – here seated in the fearsome Sedici Cilindri (16-cylinder) Maserati V4 at Monza in 1930 – who then led the surviving brothers forward.

Right German driver Paul Pietsch summons assistance in his works 3.0-litre supercharged Maserati 8CTF during the 1939 German GP at the Nürburgring. Underfinanced and under-developed, lacking the broader client base of the 1500cc vetturetti cars, these big straight-eights proved very fast even among Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union opposition. But reliability was never a strong suit. This road-racing design was still, however, way ahead of contemporary American Indycar practice. Driver Wilbur Shaw prevailed upon Chicago union boss and fixer ‘Umbrella Mike’ Boyle to buy a sister 8CTF. Prepared by Cotton Henning, chassis ‘3032’ promptly carried Shaw to two consecutive victories in the Indianapolis 500, 1939-1940, and he was heading towards a hat-trick there in 1941 only for a wire-wheel failure and crash at three-quarters distance.

Above Maserati’s pre-war production was tiny by most motor industry standards, yet healthy for purebred racing machinery. There were 15 teeny 1100s here, 19 1500s there, 20 full 3.0-litre Grand Prix cars 1933-1935, five big 3.7-litre 6C-34s, four 4.5-litre V8RIs…and then there were the vetturetti – the GP2 cars of their era – which won the lion’s share of 1500cc single-seater races when ERA wasn’t thriving. Nearly 30 6CMs (1936-1939) typified paddock scenes such as this at Livorno in 1938, supercharged twin-cam-six-cylinder Maserati gems ready to race here for Pino Baruff o (6), Ettore Bianco (14), Carlo Minetti (18) and Aldo Marazza (20).

Above October 1941: a municipal park in wartime Modena sees three Maserati brothers patriotically saving fuel. In 1934 their little Bologna business had built and sold 16 cars, then 17 in 1935, but Italy’s Abyssinian war recession of 1936 saw buyers for only nine. Fearing the future, the brothers had begun discussion with Modena industrialist Adolfo Orsi. More attracted by their spark plug business and broad technological skills than the racing cars per se, Orsi bought the company in 1937. The brothers were given ten-year service contracts – thus running to 1947 – and, with Gruppo Orsi assuming all administrative duties, they became free to concentrate on design, development and manufacture. In October-November 1939 the firm was moved from Bologna into spacious new Orsi premises on Modena’s Viale Ciro Menotti. Here, as Ernesto leads Bindo and Ettore, their new works is busy with electric van, truck and military contracts. Cherished ambitions for post-war production of both high-performance road and racing cars were on hold…

Right Immediate post-war racing resumed with pre-war cars to the fore, broken out of long-term bolt holes. Most prominent and most popular were late-model Maserati 4CLs from 1939-1940 such as this duo, driven by the great Raymond Sommer (2) and the ill-fated Robert Mazaud (34), seen heading a grid full of French Delahayes in assorted stock and special-bodied format the start of the 1946 Marseilles Grand Prix. These were early post-war stirrings of a sporting revival which Maserati was poised, eager and able to supply.

Left Maserati’s great post-war racing breakthrough came in 1948 at the San Remo Grand Prix, when its exceptionally strong quasi-works driver team of Alberto Ascari and ‘Gigi’ Villoresi finished one-two in the brand-new 1.5-litre supercharged four-cylinder Maserati 4CLT. Known therafter as the ‘San Remo’ Maserati, the 4CLT became the backbone of Formula 1 race entries into the early 1950s. Here’s the Silverstone paddock scene prior to the 1950 British Grand Prix – Siamese Prince ‘B Bira’ painting a pit-recognition patch onto his private ‘San Remo’ with similarly self-funded team-mate Baron Emmanuel ‘Toulo’ de Graffenried’s sister Maserati (20) and Louis Chiron’s works car (19) beyond. Meanwhile, upon completion of their ten-year service contracts in 1947, Ernesto, Ettore and Bindo Maserati had le$ Gruppo Orsi in Modena to found their new OSCA marque back in Bologna.

Right Maserati had addressed production of a dedicated, non-supercharged yet high-performance sports car as early as 1945, with a 1500cc twin-cam-six-cylinder A6-1500. Some 61 units were built 1946-50, and from 1947 a racing 2.0-litre A6GCS took Maserati seriously into battle within the sports-racing car market. By the mid-1950s a variety of mouthwatering haute couture bodies by Pinin Farina, Zagato and Allemano were gracing Maserati A6 chassis for road use. Here during reconnaissance for the 1956 Mille Miglia, Denis Jenkinson snapped Stirling Moss with this gorgeous Allemano Coupé-bodied A6G/54-2000. It proved rather nicer to drive than their nose-heavy 350S Mille Miglia works entry (below), as the duo soon found.

Left and above All dressed up and ready to go! Moss and Jenks on the 1956 Mille Miglia starting ramp in Brescia, their works 350S – powered by the prototype 3.5-litre six-cylinder engine intended for the definitive 3500GT Gran Turismo production model. In fact the lengthy engine unbalanced the under-developed 350S – typically completed just barely in time for the world’s premier road race – and in pouring rain Stirling ultimately locked-up the car’s front brakes, understeered up a bank, off a bluff, and through a roadside concrete barrier. He and Jenks were only saved from somersaulting down a mountain side by first ramming the only tree nearby. Clambering back up to road level, they were spotted by Fangio – driving for Ferrari – who stopped to offer them a lift. Different times, indeed.

Right There’s no mistaking racing mechanics’ respect for a driver they rate. Here at Aintree in 1956, works driver Moss is ready for another ‘real old tear-up’ at the wheel of his winning Maserati 250F at the BARC 200. Second le stands Stirling’s famous personal mechanic, the Polish ‘Alf Francis’ – looking less impressed than his Italian team-mates…

Right Lady driver Maria Theresa de Filippis found her determined way through sports cars to drive this Scuderia Centro Sud-entered Maserati 250F in Formula 1 during 1958. Here she is at La Source hairpin during the Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps. She ran last and finished tenth, but at least she did it – and the wider Maserati ‘family’ were very supportive.

Below Practice for the 1957 British GP at Aintree: Jean Behra discusses prospects with Baron Fritz Huschke von Hanstein, visiting Porsche team director, as the Maserati factory mechanics tend his ‘Lightweight’ 250F. The spirit of an age.

Below Paddock colour with multiple Masers: the 1956 French GP at Reims-Gueux, and no namby-pamby two-carsper-team rules as the Maserati works 250Fs await action in the Champagne circuit’s sun-baked paddock. The 2½-litre twin-cam-six-cylinder cars provided the backbone of 1950s Formula 1 entries, emulating their predecessors – the 8CMs, 6CMs and 4CLs from the pre-war formulae and the 4CLTs from 1948- 51. Around 30 250Fs were built 1954- 1957; nine of them contested this race, including the uniquely bodied streamliner ‘8’.

Right The German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring on 4 August 1957: Juan Manuel Fangio in the Maserati factory team’s ‘Lightweight’ 250F, cornering at the Karussell during his imperious drive to destroy the factory Ferraris, slashing 24 seconds o the majestic circuit’s lap record, and winning the race after the delay of a bungled pit-stop. His outstanding drive that day marked the pinnacle of Il Maestro’s motor racing career, and it clinched for him the fifth of his then-record five Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship titles. Having first raced seriously in Europe in a Maserati 4CLT through 1949, Fangio regarded the Modena factory family as his natural home. After driving for Alfa Romeo in 1950-51, he had returned to Maserati for ’53-54 before being lured to Mercedes-Benz, then Ferrari by 1956. Maserati warmly welcomed him home for 1957 and he drove his last Grand Prix for them at Reims in mid-summer 1958.

Right While the big Maserati Tipo 151 Coupé as launched for the Cunningham team and Colonel Johnny Simone’s Ecurie Maserati France in 1962 was developed for the latter over the next three years, so its four-cam V8 grew from 4.0 litres to 5.0. The 151 became an annual heroine at Le Mans, until ‘Lucky’ Casner crashed the updated 151/3 during the 1965 Test Weekend. An open rear-engined Tipo 65 was rushed together in time for that year’s race, only to be crashed by Jo Siffert on the opening lap. Maserati concentrated thereafter upon 3.0-litre V12 engine supply to Cooper for Formula 1, and not until recent years would the marque return in earnest to premier-league international motor sport with the MC12. But the spirit had never truly died.

Left In 1959 Maserati’s chief engineer Giulio Alfieri wanted to build a monocoque-chassised front-engined sports-racing car, fi la Jaguar D-type. But while Italian industry was adept at welding tubing, few skills were available in aeronautical-style stressed-skin construction. So Alfieri instead sought to match the multiple load-path capacity of a monocoque structure by reducing frame tube diameter and gauge, but maximising (immensely) the number of individual tubes. Thus was born the original Tipo 60 Maserati ‘Birdcage’, launched in 1959, a disc-braked, twin-cam slant-four machine that was soon accepted as the ultimate front-engined sports-racer. Customers clamoured, mainly from America but also at home. Here at the Freiburg-Schauinsl and mountain climb in 1960, Italian charger Mennato Bo a leads the parade of sister ‘Birdcages’.

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