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Maserati Tipo 60/61 "Birdcage"

Maserati Tipo 60/61 "Birdcage"

By Jack Nerad

Maserati Tipo 60/61 It tells you something about Maserati that the company built what is, arguably, its best racing car -- the Tipo 60/61 -- after it pulled out of motor racing. It tells you more about Maserati when you learn that one of the seven sons of Rodolfo and Carolina Maserati was named Alfieri, but when he died just months after his birth in 1885 his name was passed on to the next-born son, who came into this world in 1887. (With seven sons to his credit, Rodolfo Maserati was obviously a devotee of the song "Carolina in the Morning.")

Five of those seven Maseratis became sort of the Marx brothers of motor racing, while Mario, who became a painter, kept his hand in the family business by designing the firm's legendary trident logo. Carlo, the oldest of the Maserati brothers born in 1881, caught the auto bug first. He designed engines for lightweight motorcycles while still in his teens and then took a job test-driving for Isotta Fraschini, one of the most honored marques of the era.

He succeeded so well there that soon he was able to persuade the company to hire his brother Alfieri (that's Alfieri number two for those of you keeping count) even though Al was but 16 years of age. Soon brothers Bindo and Ettore also were collecting paychecks from Isotta Fraschini. After nine years on the job Alfieri was given the post of manager of Isotta's Bologna garage where opportunity soon came knocking.

A man of independent spirit despite his shared name, Alfieri left the comfy confines of Isotta Fraschini in late 1914 to start his own business, Societá Anonima Officine Alfieri Maserati. But while he separated himself from Isotta, it wasn't too great a leap since the prime business of his garage in a rented space on Bologna's Via dé Pepoli was prepping and tuning road racing versions of Isotta Fraschini models for rakish Italian fops and the odd foreigner. It was a daunting time to start a business since it almost perfectly coincided with the outbreak of World War I, but Alfieri was a businessman who took opportunity when he saw it, and he quickly opened a sparkplug factory in Milan to capitalize on wartime demand for motor vehicles. Soon brothers Ettore and Ernesto signed on to work for their brother.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the hardships of the Great War, the Maserati brothers' business prospered. After preparing countless racecars for other drivers, Alfieri decided he should try his hand behind the wheel, and it turned out he was pretty good. Finally tiring of tweaking other motorcars, he decided to build one of his own, and the result was the 1926 Tipo 26, the first bona fide Maserati. It was quite a car with a tiny 1.5-liter eight-cylinder engine that produced 120 brake horsepower at a busy 5300 rpm. Perched atop its radiator was a badge depicting a trident that paid tribute to Bologna's famous statue of Neptune. Alfieri gave himself a tough act to follow when he took the new machine and won the fabled Targa Florio in its first attempt on April 25, 1926.

Things quickly got even better for the Maserati brothers. In 1929 Baconin Borzacchini, whose name reminds some of salad fixin's, set a new world speed record for 3.5-liter cars in a Maserati V4. The V-16 engine in this wild beast was built by grafting two Tipo 26 in-line eights at the crankshaft.

The powerful V4 was soon accompanied by the 26M, considered by many Alfieri's masterstroke, and the Maserati 8C 2800 was a big factor on the European racing circuit, winning on the high speed track at Monza among other venues. Alfieri's mechanical mind continued to crank out innovative cars, the last, sadly, being the four cylinder, 1088 cubic centimeter turbocharged 4CTR. Despite its string of successes the worldwide Depression of the early Thirties triggered by the 1929 stock market crash took its toll, and then Maserati was dealt a bigger blow on March 3, 1932, when Alfieri Maserati died at just 44. Bindo Maserati then joined Ettore and Ernesto in the business to try to pick up the pieces.

One savior proved to be Tazio Nuvolari, whom Ferdinand Porsche once called "the greatest driver of the past, present and future." In 1933, his immense talent and a well-prepared 8C racing car enabled the marque to win victories in the Belgian Grand Prix, the Coppa Ciano at Montenegro, and the Grand Prix of Nice.

But the pressure of competition was beginning to weigh heavily on the remaining Maserati brothers, so in 1937 they laid the groundwork for the sale of the company to the Argentine Orsi family. The brothers were given a contract as part of the deal and stayed with the company in various capacities until the late 1940's.

Under new ownership Maserati responded to a 1939 change in the Formula One engine requirements by developing the 8CTF, powered by a 3-liter supercharged eight-cylinder engine that churned out a reported 350 horsepower at 6300 rpm. While the car was a success in Europe, its most notable triumph came in the United States where Wilbur Shaw won back-to-back Indianapolis 500 victories in the car in 1939 and 1940.

World War II brought Maserati to a screeching halt, but the firm burst back into action in 1946 with victories in the Nice and Marseilles Grand Prixes. Maserati enjoyed its finest Formula One season in 1957 with Juan Manuel Fangio capturing the Drivers Championship at the wheel of a Maserati 250F. Maserati also had a fine World Sports Car Championship campaign that year, driven by the 450S that sported a 400-horsepower 4.5-liter V-8. But the company behind the racing success was in tatters, and there were no big-money sponsors in those days to pour in cash, so, on the heels of its best year in motorsports, Maserati announced it was leaving motor racing, which was something like Aunt Jemima announcing she was leaving pancakes.

Maserati said it would no longer race, because financially it couldn't, but it did say it would continue to build racecars, which is where the Tipo 60 "Birdcage" comes in. The car had been designed and developed as a factory racer. With its intricate tubular chassis, which gave it its "Birdcage" moniker, it was far too expensive to build for more than a few wealthy car-crazies. The model retailed for about 11,000 1960 dollars, but it was one hell of a car.

The spaceframe that supported engine, suspension and the car's luscious, over-the-top body was assembled of 200 -- yes, 200 -- lengths of tubing meticulously welded together to create a very light yet very rigid structure. Brakes within the Birdcage's giant wheels were stupendous 14-inch discs, giving the lightweight car incredible stopping power, and while the 2-liter, 200-horsepower four cylinder engine doesn't seem that impressive by today's standards, remember it powered a car that was about half the mass of the current Mazda Miata. Top speed is said to be about 145 miles per hour, but the car's handling and braking were even more awesome.

The first Tipo 60s were destined for the 1960 World Sports Car Championship, and in the car's first race, Stirling Moss piloted it to victory. But though the engineering credentials were obvious, low-dollar preparation prevented the Birdcages from running away with the season championship. A larger 2.9-liter four offering an extra 50 horsepower was fitted in later cars, which were designated Tipo 61s, but the results on the track were usually disappointing. It wasn't that the Birdcage didn't attract great drivers because Jim Hall, Briggs Cunningham, Masten Gregory, Carroll Shelby, Roger Penske (yes, that Roger Penske) and Dan Gurney all piloted them at one time or another. But the car had continual nagging problems that often prevented it from capturing big races. Still to anyone who has driven one -- heck, to anyone who has ever seen one -- the Maserati Tipo 60/61 Birdcage is certainly one of the greatest cars of all time.
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