Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Continous history: Maserati

As important for a classic make as a classic car. Provenance is as vital for selling a Vintage Maserati and it is for selling new Maseratis. It helps if it is shown to be uninterrupted. Cars lost in barns or broken up and rebuilt, perhaps not well, have gaps in their provenance. It is just the same with long-established Maserati. Being in and out of receivership, like Aston Martin was, doesn’t matter, so much as the effect changes in ownership had.

Maserati’s ambition, announced yesterday, to make 50,000 cars a year looks unlikely at best. It was doing quite well when production reached 6365 in 1984 and Chrysler bought a 5 per cent stake against a design contract. It is unrealistic to expect resuscitation of a make with a chequered history that last saw chequered flags half a century ago.
The Maserati brothers were into racing cars. Carlo (b1881), Bindo (b1883), Alfieri (b1887), Ernesto (b1898) and Ettore (b1894) were obsessional. There was a sixth brother, Mario, who went off to be an artist (he designed the trident badge, seen left) but the others created Officine Alfieri Maserati SpA in Bologna in 1926. Alfieri led the project to make good an existing Diatto project that had effectively failed. It was the 1930s before they saw real success, then in 1932 Alfieri died leaving Ernesto to take over design. He was so successful that Maseratis became the racing car of choice for private sportsmen, even replacing Bugattis.

The brothers were bought out in 1938 by Commendatore Adolfo Orsi. He wanted to use the racing heritage to sell road cars, and moved the factory from Bologna to Modena. There was not much chance of making much of things until 1947, when the 6-cyl 1488cc Tipo A6 appeared at Geneva with a Pinin Farina body. The brothers meanwhile, released from their obligations not to make racing cars left, setting up OSCA, the Officina Specializzata Costruzione Automobili Bologna, leaving Orsi to make road cars with a racing pedigree, like Ferrari.

The brothers left Orsi with the so-called San Remo 4CLT/48, their last design, which turned out to be one of the best racing cars of the time. The later 250F remains an all-time classic, but in 12 years ORSI only made 138 A6 road cars. Quality was a problem and Orsi never managed to get the mix quite right. In 1957 Maserati nearly won the world sports car championship and Fangio (above)took the drivers’ title in a 250F but the Commendatore was running out of money in Argentina. He got Giulio Alfiero to design a new road car to make good his losses and a 3500GT dohc 6-cyl had some 250F features and a ZF gearbox. Up to about 1964 it was selling as well as any Ferrari.

Maserati sports-racing cars were doing well and sales of the 3500GT improved. In all 2223 3500GTs were sold but in the later 1960s racing successes declined and road car derivatives Ghibli, Quattroporte, and Mexico were expensive. They could be quirky and sometimes not very well made. I remember road testing a noisy, overheated and unmanageable Mistrale. Quirkiness continued with the co-operative hydro-pneumatic Citroën SM V6, which achieved the distinction of featuring in polls for both The Best Cars of the 20th century and The Worst.

I road tested a Merak, one of the first mid-engined road-going coupes, photographing it at Thruxton. I wote: The Merak, based on Maserati’s first mid-engined road car has some fruits of Maserati’s relationship with Citroën. These include the V6 from the SM, developed from Maserati’s own V8, which means it has a theoretically unsatisfactory angle of 90 degrees between the cylinder banks; it is in effect the V8 with two cylinders chopped off.
So much for the background to a beautiful car. Inside, it is trimmed with leather, two large comfortable seats in the front, two rather small and barely practical Plus Twos in the rear, better thought of as luggage space, although there is a quite reasonable boot compartment at the front.

If you have never driven a mid-engined car, the Merak’s cornering is breathtaking. The balance and response is superb and the ride smoothes out the faster one goes. Likewise, the acceleration (0-60mph a fraction over 7.5sec) is outstanding, and the top speed is comfortably over twice the legally permitted maximum. Under the circumstances, fuel consumption in the region of 18-20 mpg is hardly surprising.
With so much elegance and Italian brio about it, the Maserati Merak is certainly one of the world’s great classic cars, and will be treasured in years to come amongst the all- time greats. But that is not to say it is perfect. It inherits Citroën brakes, which require needless delicacy in a car where they sometimes have to be pressed decisively. The decor is a mite old fashioned, and the gearchange rather slow. Compared with the Jaguar XJS it comes off badly in ride, quietness and general refinement; it is no more expensive and it has little real gains to offer in handling or speed. Against the slightly more expensive Porsche 928 it is definitely of the 1970s rather than the 1980s, but plenty of keen drivers with some £19,000 to spend may not think that is altogether a disadvantage.

Maserati made 1832 Meraks between 1972 and 1983 but Khamsins, Boras and more Quattroportes were disappointing and Citroën, now owner 38.2 per cent by Peugeot, nearly closed it down to cut its losses. Despite body designs by some of the best Italian design houses, Maserati atrophied. Alejandro de Tomaso came along and bought the firm for his industrial empire, with the aid of an Italian government grant. Engines became ever bigger, 4.1litre, 4.9litre and then Bi-turbo. It looked a bit desperate.

Maserati was never going to do well in production and in 1993 sold out to Fiat, which invested $170million and closed the factory for re-tooling. It sold half to Ferrari SpA, claiming Maserati would expand to be, “Italy’s Jaguar.” A new 3.2litre twin-turbo V8 came out in 1998. It had a body by Giugiaro, could do nearly 170mph and was a challenger to the Aston Martin DB7. Fiat’s new commitment is $1.6billion for three new models that will share Chrysler platforms and sell through 2300 Chrysler US dealers. The aim is to increase sales from last year’s 6159 to 50,000 in 2015.

It expects the Quattroporte, based on a Chrysler 300 with a Ferrari-made engine to lead the field, with 13,000 sales next year. It has a choice of 3litre V6 or 3.8 V8 and will cost around €150,000 ($193,000) against the €141,000 Porsche Panamera Turbo. It will be followed by other new Maseratis over the next four years, including a Levante SUV and a small saloon Ghibli, which will also share components with the Chrysler 300 and compete with Mercedes-Benz E-class and BMW 5-series.

Likely? Probably not. When banks had managers, you could see optimistic car companies trying to claim business was good. They would parade new cars at expensive launches in Nice or elsewhere to get good reports in the papers, which made the company creditworthy. Often you came away thinking, “They haven’t a hope.” Now car makers like Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne have to convince analysts, governments, official groups, monetarists, not to mention broken and dispirited bankers that the impossible is achievable.

Alas, it’s not. It is tempting for Fiat to increase premium-priced luxury-car sales but they will fall short. One Automotive News Europe forecast is for Maserati delivering 28,100 cars in 2015, 44 per cent short of its 50,000. “Maserati has the right reputation and consumers are out there for more premium cars, especially in the U.S. and China,” says Neil King, an analyst at Euromonitor International. “But their target is incredibly ambitious.” Repeat – incredible.

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