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In from the cold - Driven: Maserati four-cylinder racers

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After years in the wilderness, Maserati's four-cylinder racing cars now rival the famous competition from Maranello - both on track and on the market.

It is a tableau with more than a hint of Jungian synchronicity and the Daliesque, it occurs to me, as I wait, nerves completely shot, beside the quivering red machines grumbling through their warm-ups. An angry snap-and-snarl careens from the shotgun exhausts, bouncing off the garage walls, out into the caress of early-morning fog and then rips across the serene Christmas-card landscape, just awakening to yet another coating of fresh snow. Fresh. Wretched. Snow. Just what we need. If these were rally cars, we’d be aces.

The new ankle-deep accumulation can’t be increasing my chances of driving this pair of precious, rare, and (for the moment) completely immaculate Maserati sports racers we’ve come to Italy for. Cars with heroes-of-my-youth Shelby, Hall, Gurney and Fitch in their histories, amazing examples of an entire class of Maserati once almost forgotten but now among the most coveted racing cars of their era.

And when our mentor Dr Wolf Zweifler returns from his recce of the countryside, I’m almost giddy with relief as he points me into his Gurney/Fitch car. ‘Let’s go,’ he says, smiling and happy. ‘Everything’s fine as long as we don’t stray too far off the main roads.’ He seems slightly bemused at my concern. ‘Don’t worry, these cars work for a living; they’ve seen lots worse than this.’ So off we go, slushy rooster-tails rampant.

A fair point, that: the four-cylinder Maserati race cars never had an easy go of things, and these 200SI and 250S versions arguably carried the can more than the sibling 150S or the later Birdcage. They were made primarily as workhorse customer cars for well-fixed amateurs and, although quite capable in that capacity, seldom received from cash-strapped Maserati the sort of works backing that builds motor sport glamour. In the days since, like all the Trident products, they have been overshadowed in notoriety and in the market by the mighty Ferrari.

An interesting thing happened when Masers were declared eligible for the Ferrari Historic Challenge race series, though. It soon became obvious that Maserati fours were just as fast as the equivalent Ferrari, if not faster, and generally more enjoyable to drive, too. Suddenly, for once, the market disparity actually fell to Maserati’s advantage. As Wolfi likes to tell – and, in addition to having owned and/or raced a good percentage of all the Maser fours ever made, he happens to be the type’s foremost authority and historian: ‘A Mondial or a 750 Monza can make a good driver look bad, but a 200SI will make a bad driver look cool.’

Even so, it was Ferrari that started the whole war of the Italian 
four-bangers – and in reaction to a dominant racing six-cylinder Maserati. That Maser was the A6GCS/2000, which had ousted the 
V12-powered 166MM from control of the important 2.0-liter sports 
car category; inspired by Maserati’s grand prix world titles with the 2.0-liter Tipo 500 four-cylinder, Aurelio Lampredi somehow convinced V12-fixated Enzo that a light, simple four-cylinder engine would be 
clever in a sports car, as well. In late 1953, he launched the 500 Mondial with essentially a detuned Tipo 500 engine, seriously upping the ante in the mid-bore sweepstakes. In case the pattern isn’t evident by now, Maserati would sooner or later naturally reply in kind.

That reply came just as the improved, second-series Mondials started to re-seize the high ground. From before the Mondial’s introduction, engineer Vittorio Bellentani had been working on a new twin-cam 
four-cylinder Maserati engine, based (like the Ferrari’s) on a design originally developed for Formula 2, to be produced in 1.5- and 2.0-liter form for sports racing. By 1955 the prototypes were on the track: the smaller 150S, aimed at Porsche and OSCA, and the car that would carry the 2.0-liter class battle back to the Old Enemy: the 200S.

It was the first of a small family, only 32 units spread over the 200S, 200SI and 250S, and never really called a ‘family’ by the works. But allowing for the fact that evolution dictates no two race cars are ever exactly alike, the 200-series models were one family nonetheless. All the eight-valve, alloy, dual-spark, twin-Weber engines were mated with full-synchro gearboxes and set into healthy oval-tube chassis, and, except for three early live-axle cars, all suspension was independent front and de Dion rear, with huge alloy drum brakes. All versions wore simple, elegant, two-seat bodywork of similar proportions, mostly by Fantuzzi.

It was a hard-working and effective family, too. The 200S and SI, which differed mainly in the road equipment required by post-1956 FIA regulations (and so many Sports converted to Sport Internazionale to keep legal that Wolfi now calls them all SIs), would eventually develop a genuine, no sales-hype, usable 170bhp against a weight of less than 660kg. In the right circumstances they were as quick as the 300S.

The few factory outings featured drivers in the league of Moss, Taruffi and Behra. True to the marketing plan, however, the cars were far more often entered by amateurs, either self-driven or by coming men like Jo Bonnier. Most of the factory cars also had subsequent privateer careers; Maserati habitually sold off its works machinery after a few events. It must have been hell on development continuity and certainly didn’t produce many epic victory headlines, but Maser couldn’t afford not to. Still, the 200SI claimed respectable Mille Miglia and Giro di Sicilia class wins, and pretty much owned the Italian hillclimb championships.

More importantly for Maserati’s balance sheet, the cars were exceedingly well received in the USA. Over half the production went there and, again, moneyed amateurs were the model’s mainstay, but some rather more famous names also got quality seat time. Wolfi’s 200SI, chassis 2427, was bought in 1957 by the curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Vincent Andrus, for the use of John Fitch, one 
of America’s finest pioneering international drivers, and cut a wide 
swathe through SCCA class E Modified on the East Coast.

In 1960, then the property of gentleman driver JJ Packo and on loan to legendary Team Camoradi owner Lucky Casner, 2427 was driven in the sports car GP of Cuba by young rising star Dan Gurney. Other prominent American racers who campaigned 200SIs included Scarab founder Lance Reventlow, Chaparral co-founder Hap Sharp and, in further cosmic synchronicity, the first of the Rahals to try motor sport, Georgia entrepreneur and elder second cousin to Bobby and Graham, Ed Rahal.

Even more closely associated with the American racing scene, however, and by far the rarest of the 200-series, was the big-brother 250S. Introduced in 1957 as essentially a ‘kit’ 2.5-liter engine offering a zero weight-penalty power upgrade, the additional 30% or so of mid-range grunt gave Maserati a viable entry into SCCA D-Mod. Thereafter, some 200-series cars were reportedly sold with both 2.0- and 2.5-liter engines, some 2.5s also found their way into 150S chassis, and the total number of 2.5 cars of any origin by any count was less than ten units.
Of those, only two were actually built by the factory to 250S 
specification from scratch, chassis numbers 2431 and 2432. Both were sold to Carroll Shelby Sports Cars Inc on the last day of 1957 
(interestingly, ol’ Shel was also the dealer who traded 2427, 
secondhand, to JJ Packo) and this one, 2431, was raced once by Shelby himself. Subsequently Jim Hall, brother of Shelby’s business partner Dick Hall and the other co-founder of Chaparral, would do several 
events with it, winning at least his class each time. Kansas oil and 
petrol dealer Bobby Aylward, owner from mid-1958, raced the car on 
into the early ’60s, also with quite agreeable results.

But, as with most workaday race cars, the stories of 2427 and 2431 got a little blurrier as the new started to wear off. Of the two, 2427 had 
by far the more stable and well-documented history in its middle years (some other SIs don’t really have a middle history, just a big black hole between ‘then’ and ‘now’) and never suffered the parts-swapping and make-do of many ageing warhorses. After Packo sold out in 1960, it was raced until ’62, most notably by capable and well-known regional enthusiast/driver Archie Means, who bestowed the ‘Mighty Mouse’ nickname it still carries. Then it was more or less parked for about 16 years, followed by another 30 safely in the now-defunct Doune Motor Museum in Scotland.

In 2007, the 200SI came to noted British collector Anton Bilton and thence to a full restoration in its Archie Means livery by Tommaso Gelmini and GPS Classic in Soragna, where we are now. Dr Wolf 
Zweifler purchased 2427 in 2008 and, like Bilton before him, has raced it steadily, doing the Ferrari Historic Challenge as well as the Mille Miglia Storica and Le Mans Classic.

Car 2431 had a little harder go of things. Sometime during Aylward’s stewardship it was treated to the time-honoured hot rodder’s speed solution, a Chevy V8 transplant. Fortunately, and against the odds, the alterations stopped there – fewer than a third of the cars still wear 
their original bodywork – and another 2.5 was sourced for the chassis 
before 2431, too, went to a museum, the (also now closed) Rosso Bianco Collection near Frankfurt, in 1978. Somehow the original 2431 engine wound up in a 150S in Australia.

This time Wolfi was the white knight, rescuing the car and bringing 
it to GPS for restoration in 2007, selling it in the midst of the process to Bilton; neither of them, despite extended and serious efforts, had the slightest success in securing the original engine. In 2009, however, 
2431 was purchased by Dr Darius Ahrabian, friend of Wolfi and a fellow racer who also happens to be on Ferrari’s board of directors (‘and I really needed to do a lot of convincing,’ Wolfi says, ‘before he’d buy a Maserati…’) and who finally turned the trick only a few months ago.

Today is something of an occasion: it’s 2431’s first extended run with its original engine, it’s wearing a fresh coat of original-spec Racing 
Red instead of the previous dark blue, and it’s in the company of 2427, one of the very few others of their kind also blessed with its original engine, bodywork and running gear. That’s why I’m so edgy; in addition to the paint, body and mechanical work, GPS does all the race prep and maintenance on these cars, and they are each so spotless I apologise 
to Tommaso just for putting my wet shoes in them. As works of craftsmanship, they are almost heartbreaking; the engines alone 
would qualify for display in any honest sculpture gallery.

I needn’t have worried, as it happens. South of Soragna the roads are wet but perfectly passable. And even if they weren’t, my first couple of miles in the 200SI are a revelation; it’s so easy and fun to drive your confidence level immediately goes sky-high. The five-speed gearbox is magic and the lever and pedals are exactly where you’d want them; 
the engine pulls from as low as 2000rpm if you don’t crowd it overmuch and, once the revs rise, the power firms up and the exhaust growl, carb whoosh and cam-gear whirl combine into a pure spine-tingle.

It’s easy to understand that comment about a 200SI making a bad driver look cool (and I suspect I’m an eminently qualified example), especially compared with a crash-box Mondial. There is virtually no temperament here, none of that feeling of ‘race car on the street’, no 
hairshirt to counterbalance your guilty driving pleasure, and those qualities carry through to the track. Ironically, these cars were 
considered difficult in their day, touchy at the limit, but a modern chassis set-up and rubber have cured all that, and they’re now as user-friendly and comfortable as your favourite old fedora.

By contrast, the 250S isn’t quite as tractable at lower revs and, with monster 50mm Webers in place of the 45s on the 200SI, it sometimes likes a lovely, exhilarating throttle-blip to clear them – or that’s my excuse, anyway. Things get really exciting at about three-thou, however, and the 60-horsepower bonus of the added half-liter is very obvious indeed, yet still not at all overly ‘racy’. For all their thoroughbred credentials and sporting heritage, you get the feeling you could drive either of these cars for Sunday afternoon touring. In terms of period design and construction, of course, both cars are a tribute to the true artisans that made them, and a joy merely to witness.

It’s no wonder the shadow once cast by the Maranello scuderia 
doesn’t much concern these Maserati fours any more. Rather appropriately, the sun is breaking over northern Italy, as well; that 
deep blue Italian sky is peeking out and the cold doesn’t feel nearly 
as intimidating as it did this morning. It’s going to be a damn good afternoon for a nice, long, hard, soul-fulfilling drive.

Thanks to owners Wolf Zweifler and Darius Ahrabian, and to GPS Classic, 
Soragna, Italy. Tel: +39 0524 597924, www.gpsclassic.it.

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