Maserati Magic—The Art of Coachbuilding, And Driving
Maserati’s current crop of sedans, SUVs and all their variants obfuscates the marque’s real roots. While today’s vehicles are setting sales records and broadening exposure to new audiences, the mid-engine Bora we looked at last week is much closer to the nameplate’s DNA—an attractively styled, high-performance coupe with a competition derived engine.
Dial the time machine back another two decades, and it becomes even more “pure.” Much like today’s growing demand for high-performance SUVs (words that sound weird on the first take), Maserati’s A6G 2000 was at the forefront of the world’s burgeoning, glamorous Gran Turismo scene. The model debuted at 1954’s Paris Auto Show and, thanks to its lusty, competition proven 2.0-liter six-cylinder engine and excellent agility, the jet set clamored to own one. Adding desirability was a perfect chassis for custom coachwork, and Italy’s leading carrozzerie were happy to oblige. Allemano made coupes, Frua and Zagato coupes and spyders.
A Racer’s Favorite
It is the last coachbuilder’s berlinettas that are the most coveted today, thanks in great part to company founder Ugo Zagato’s constant tinkering with aerodynamics and lightweight aluminum bodies. That made his firm’s creations a favorite among racers and performance-minded enthusiasts alike. By the mid-1950s his eldest son was managing the firm, but Elio was much more than a simple pencil pusher. He worked closely with his stylists, and frequently raced Zagatos. On the weekends his numerous victories brought in a number of orders, each car individually tailored to customer specifications.
Perhaps the most unique of the 20 A6G 2000 Zagato bernlinettas is chassis 2121. It’s detailing is exquisite, with a fabulously proportioned grille, accent ridge down the center of the nose, a single air intake, the famous double bubble roof, and more. Ordered in 1955, it was delivered to amateur racing driver Franco Ribaldi in March 1956. He competed frequently throughout the year, and typically placed in the top 5 in his class. In 1957 2121 returned to Maserati for a cosmetic and mechanical freshening, and then made its way to the U.S. later that year.
Headed to America
It ended up in California, where Sicilian ex-pat Sal Di Natale bought it in 1960. At the time Sal’s S&A Italia Sports Cars in Van Nuys outside of Los Angeles was a real hotbed for Italian exotics. John Ling, a personal friend of this author and fellow Pebble Beach judge who worked at S&A during college, remembers using 2121 to go pick up spare parts. At some point Sal thought about returning to Sicily, and sent the Maserati over in advance. To make sure no one would steal it before he arrived, he had a small retaining wall made in the building where he stored the car.
It was there that 2121 sat for decades waiting for Sal’s return that never happened—until
another personal friend purchased the car. David is a fervent Zagato collector who flew to Sicily, broke down the wall, and brought 2121 back to the U.S. It then underwent a three-year restoration, and several days after its completion he brought it to Pebble Beach in 2002, where it was in one of my classes. David was as nervous as an expectant father, fearful we wouldn’t understand the car—that is, until
John Ling told him about using 2121 for errands. The Maserati ended up winning the class.
Some time after that showing David offered me the keys so I could try it out. That roofline certainly seems low as you approach the wonderfully proportioned shape, and you open the feather-light aluminum door by pushing on a small chrome button that causes the handle to jut out. Give it a slight tug, the door swings open, and a large, separate bench seat greets you. It’s comfy and offers reasonable back and lower leg support, but a bucket seat would be more appropriate for hard cornering.
A Melodic Start
The car’s double bubble roofline provides just enough headroom for my 6’+ frame. The upright steering wheel is a proper distance from your chest, and all gauges are clearly legible between the spokes and thin rim. Turn the key and the gas pumps start ticking furiously. Wait a moment or two, push the key in and the engine comes to life. It sings a melodic tone with the requisite chains and valves whirring, the Weber carbs accenting the song with the occasional pop as they struggle for the proper fuel/air mixture.
The four-speed gearbox has the traditional H-pattern. Give it a good forward shove to slot it into first, release the clutch in one smooth motion and the Maser takes off. Be careful with the throttle though, for giving it some gas below 3000 rpm and the engine and carbs struggle, the Webers popping away. A light feathering of the accelerator has the car moving away smoothly, but even better is simply mashing it to the floor in an even motion. Get it right and the Maser leaps forward, the nose nudging up toward the sky as the engine’s symphony floods the driver’s compartment.
Second is a long throw back and the box is notchy, primitive in feel with a firm hand needed to slot it in as the gears grind away. The second-third throw is entirely different, a delight to feel and use. Have the same firmness in movement and aim towards 2 o’clock, and the gear lever slides in easily with a rewarding, crisp action. Blip the throttle on third-to-second downshifts and the lever thonks into place with only a bit more effort.
A Seriously Smooth Ride
The ride is surprisingly supple. At all speeds the Maserati glides over the tarmac, the car’s light weight helping the underpinnings deliver reasonable amounts of information through the seat cushion. The steering is a bit wooden with only moderate feel and no return action whatsoever. Through one continuous slow sweeper I take my hands off the wheel to see if there is any return, only to have the nose stay on the same trajectory.
At speed on tighter turns you grip the wheel securely to keep you from sliding on the flat seat, but that doesn’t mean the car isn’t fun. You can steer using the throttle, but be careful! With a track six inches wider in front than back, the rear feels as if it doens’t need much provocation to come around, something you don’t want happening on someone else’s rare, mid-seven figure machine.
The large drum brakes have an inch or two of travel before they bite, and don’t need much pedal effort once they’ve clamped down. This is a marked contrast to a Ferrari 342 America I drove, where advanced planning was needed for those drums to do their job.
I begin to get the hang of the Maserati after a few minutes of experimentation. The engine’s torque and the way it comes alive above 4000 rpm is addictive, giving you a firm shove in the seat. That second gear grind is now minimal, and while negotiating turns the steering wheel feels lovely slipping through my fingers. The ride continues to impress, though more rear visibility would help: a highway patrol officer (or the local police) would have no problem sneaking up on you.
As I walked away from this exquisite Maserati, I couldn’t help but note the beauty of its lines, and how it took a skilled touch to extract the most from it. Speed truly was a different world back then, for current high performance machines are forgiving, easy to drive, with no real idiosyncrasies. Yes, this Maserati is feisty, but when you master its foibles the reward you get, and the satisfaction gained from that, is something very few modern machines can match.
End note: Should you wish to learn more on these memorable machines, a great book is “Maserati A6G 2000” by Walter Baumer.