Compared stat-forstat with its rivals, the Maserati Ghibli was always onto a loser. The Ferrari Daytona was faster, as was the Lamborghini Miura. The former was the tail-squatting, nose-in-the-air dragster of the late-1960s GT elite; its Sant’Agata foe was not far behind, and handled better. The Ghibli, according to its modern-day critics, might have had the looks to compete with those cars, but was all old-school technology, and badly lacking in sophistication.
Yet few cars cast such a hypnotic spell as the last of Maserati’s truly great Gran Turismos. While the Khamsin is wonderful for all its quirks, and the more recent Ferrari-influenced models have their fans, the Ghibli was the final car signed off by the Orsi clan that had controlled Maserati since 1937. What’s more, unlike the flamboyantly risky Miura, it actually worked. It outsold its Lamborghini and Ferrari challengers, too.
All of which makes you wonder why it’s widely considered to be playing catch-up, especially when it is – whisper it – the better car. Yes, really. Staring at this impeccably restored 1971 example, it’s all too hard not to be seduced; not to be lulled into a sepia-tinged fug of nostalgia; not to daydream about crossing continents in a single bound to keep a dinner engagement with a beautiful, preferably widowed, countess. Or something. Just looking at it infers that heaven is a mere step away. That it doesn’t scream ‘icon’ in the same way as its two main rivals only increases the attraction.
What’s more, it wasn’t considered the poor relation in period. Backpedal to the mid 1950s and Maserati was in dire straits. The Gruppo Orsi empire encompassed numerous businesses, which sustained the marque’s involvement in top flight motor sport.
However, a deal with Argentina’s Perón government for the supply of milling machines resulted in a major cash flow crisis after the regime was deposed in 1955. Adolfo Orsi was left with a gaping hole in his coffers, and Maserati almost went to the wall as a consequence, but there was light at the end of the tunnel: the marque’s first proper volume-build road car was about to come online.
The soberly attractive 3500GT broke cover at the ’57 Geneva motor show and soon found customers. The firm followed through with a raft of models, but Ferraris had twice the cylinders, as did products from that upstart operation Lamborghini. Bragging rights were at stake.
And so Maserati’s chief engineer Giulio Alfieri set to, raiding the parts bin for project ‘Tipo AM115’. Fortunately, the company had a proven V8 in its armoury, the Ghibli’s 4719cc quad-cam jewel being rooted in the unit that powered the monstrous 450S sports-racer of the previous decade. With a relatively mild 8.5:1 compression ratio, and a quartet of Gurgling Weber carbs nestling in the 90-degree banks, it produced a net power output of 310bhp at 5500rpm if the factory was to be believed. (It never released a torque figure.) The dry sump oiling system allowed for the engine to be low-slung in its multi-tubular structure, which in turn made for a low(ish) centre of gravity. A leaf-sprung Salisbury axle with a limited-slip diff set-up was employed at the rear, and there were unequal-length wishbones and coils up front.
But if the underpinnings weren’t exactly pushing technological boundaries, the Ghibli’s silhouette was among the finest of its era. C The use of a dry sump had the additional benefit of allowing stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro to create a dramatically low bonnet line. The 20-something shaped the car during his brief and not altogether happy spell at Ghia. It was a landmark design for a firm that, during its immediate post-war years at least, hadn’t always erred on the side of good taste.
The media was quick to heap praise on the Ghibli once it entered production in 1967, with US publications particularly smitten. Car & Driver claimed that ‘Despite the fairly archaic exotica under the hood, this one-time race engine has been refined to the point where stop-and-go driving is no cause for worry.’ Remarkably, Maserati envisaged shifting just 100 Ghiblis, having seriously underestimated demand. The most expensive car in the range – £9961 after taxes – was also the most popular.
The suits in Modena soon revised their estimates and targeted sales of 400 units. Nonetheless, this wasn’t the best time to be in the supercar business. Increasingly stringent safety and emissions legislation was on its way, while political ructions in Italy made conspicuous consumption a crime. The Orsis sold out to Citroën in 1968, the same year that the Ghibli spawned an open-top sibling.
The delicious Ghibli Spider – or Tipo AM115/S, to give the car its less romantic internal moniker – emerged at that year’s Turin motor show and, save for extra bracing to the sills and around the transmission tunnel, it was otherwise the same beneath the skin. The vast majority headed Stateside, with only four making it to the UK in right-hand-drive form. From 1969, there was also the option of the SS edition, with its larger capacity 4930cc V8 purportedly delivering 330bhp (although, just to confuse future historians, a few cars packing this displacement had been built a year earlier).
Production continued until 1973, by which time 1149 fixed-lid Ghiblis had been made. By comparison, Lamborghini built 765 Miuras, and Ferrari 1005 Daytonas. Scroll forward to the present and the car you see here is currently valued at around £250,000, which is still some way shy of current Daytona prices, let alone Miura money.
It shouldn’t be so, not least because the Ghibli is just as beautiful – perhaps even prettier – than its rivals. Its shape is uncluttered, yet far from empty. With its long, tapering nose, expansive glasshouse and bobbed tail, it is perfectly proportioned. You drink in the details. Giugiaro was only beginning to emerge as the styling colossus we would come to revere, and you could argue that for all their obvious allure, the master’s subsequent Maserati designs – the Bora and Merak – didn’t hit the mark quite as squarely. Few cars scream hedonistic glamour quite like a Ghibli, especially when it’s finished in oh-so-period Verde Gemma with tobacco leather, and riding on wide, bolt-on Campagnolos, as here.
Once inside, the cabin is muted but elegant, with the driver and passenger divided by the mother of all transmission tunnels. The windscreen is vast, the pillars spindly, while the dashboard is awash with white-on-black gauges and chunky rocker switches. The attractive, if low-set, wood-rim wheel isn’t adjustable for reach and partially obscures the speedo, while the revcounter is conservatively red-lined at 5500rpm (the handbook says 6300rpm…).With plentiful head and shoulder room, not to mention the generously spaced pedal layout, plus the wide luggage deck behind you, the Ghibli exudes an air of civility rarely found in exotica from the period.
Turn the ignition key a quarter to prime the twin electric fuel pumps, flex the floor-hinged throttle a few times to prime the twin-choke Webers; then, with a full turn, the Ghibli fires with fury. This particular example sounds especially exuberant, having been treated to an exhaustive six-figure rebuild by Andy Heywood and the team at McGrath Maserati.
Its owner likes to use it regularly, sometimes on trips to his summer residence in Lake Como (we would hate him, were it not for the fact that he’s a top chap), and that it gets driven often is self-evident: it’s free of the sort of histrionics that generally come with the territory. The hydraulic clutch is on the stiff side but with a nicely progressive biting point, while the five-speed ZF ’box (a three-speed Borg-Warner auto was available as an option) has a light action across the gate. It’s next to impossible to grandma a gearshift.
Dawdling really isn’t its thing, but nor does the Ghibli throw a wobbly in traffic. Only the low-geared steering lets the side down as you’re called upon to perform a fair degree of wheel twirling before there’s any meaningful change of direction. As for manoeuvring… well, it has a 43ft turning circle, so draw your own conclusions.
However, once onto open road the Ghibli’s true character emerges. Some 180in long and weighing in at almost 1600kg before you brim both 11-gallon tanks, it isn’t exactly dainty, but nor is it intimidating. It’s geared for 28mph per 1000rpm, and acceleration is seamless from as low as 500rpm in top. It’s all very relaxed unless you decide to make full use of the available revs. As you sweep past 3000rpm, there’s a hardening of both tone and urgency. North of 5000rpm the Ghibli sounds like a fullblown racing car. Suddenly you’re no longer blatting along the A505 between Letchworth and Royston, you’re veteran test driver Guerrino Bertocchi shaking down a prototype along the Modena-Bologna autostrada.
In period, Maserati talked up a top speed of 174mph. Given that Italian manufacturers were prone to ‘massaging’ performance figures, this was at best optimistic. Nonetheless, Paul Frère managed a one-way pass at 160mph while testing a Ghibli for Motor in 1968. What’s more, he also recorded a 0-60mph time of 6.6sec. It might not be quite as fast as some of its period rivals, but it’s a viscerally exciting car when you want it to be.
What’s more, it doesn’t fall over in the corners. While the relatively low-geared recirculating-ball steering feels inert at low speeds, the weighting is excellent at higher velocities: there are no vibrations through the wheel and you’re not constantly called upon to make corrections. The Ghibli is palpably nose heavy, but its road manners are polished considering its heft and vintage. Period reports talk of the tail being a bit lively when provoked, but you would have to be really brave (or stupid) to even think of tweaking its tail. While not the most nimble of cars, it does seem to shrink around you like any true driver’s car should. On typically calloused British back roads, the live rear axle is sometimes unsettled by bumps, but not to the point that it’s alarming, and the vented disc brake arrangement also works well.
Ultimately, though, the real joy of driving a Ghibli comes from its ability to waft. Maserati once had a knack of building high-performance cars that were non-threatening and longlegged.
(The Bora, for example, is the least unnerving supercar of the 1970s.) Even after several hours’ driving, you emerge from the Ghibli without a crick in your neck or plaited hamstrings. Despite its hellacious thirst, it’s a car you want to drive long distances.
That – and not lap times – used to be the raison d’être of a GT car, and if it’s the criterion by which we’re measuring the Ghibli, then it has its more famous, more expensive rivals well and truly licked.
THANKS TO car owner Stephen Dowling; Andy Heywood of McGrath Maserati (www.mcgrathmaserati.co.uk); Law Storage (www.lawstorage.co.uk) for the photo location; and Neil Godwin-Stubbert.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1971 MASERATI GHIBLI SS Tipo AM115
ENGINE 90° 4930cc quad-cam V8, four Weber 42DCNF carburettors
MAX POWER 330bhp @ 5500rpm / SAE gross
MAX TORQUE N/A
TRANSMISSION Five-speed ZF manual, limited-slip differential
STEERING Recirculating ball, ZF power-assistance optional
SUSPENSION Front: wishbones, coi l springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, semi -elliptic leaf springs, torque arm, anti-roll bar
BRAKES servo-assisted vented discs front and rear
PERFORMANCE Top speed 174mph (claimed)
‘UNLIKE THE FLAMBOYANTLY RISKY MIURA, THE GHIBLI ACTUALLY WORKED. IT OUTSOLD ITS RIVALS, TOO’